Why Climate Change May Still Be Compatible with a Brighter Future

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Image credit: Todd Anderson, used under Creative Commons license.

We greens are often accused of being anti-progress, and it's certainly fair to say that disasterbation can be a problem in the environmental movement. But while peak oil, climate change, mass extinction and a looming food crisis may keep some of us up at night, it's important to remember that there are many reasons to be cheerful. In fact, says Adam Stein of Terrapass, the last decade was humanity's best yet, and there is reason to believe and/or hope that the future also has some good things in store.Climate Change and Future Prosperity May Not Be Incompatible
In a welcome return as a guest poster for Terrapass, Stein offers a provocative take on humanity's future entitled "The End is Nigh?" There is, he says good reason to believe that climate change will be a very real, very dangerous threat to future generations. But there is also good reason to believe that those future generations will be better off than we are. Poverty and disease are in decline; and global trends show war and instability are increasingly rare too. These two seemingly contradictory ideas, argues Stein, are not at all incompatible:

Are these views compatible? The short answer is, yeah, they probably are. It's possible for the planet to go through some fairly severe and unpleasant changes and still support a lot of comfortable humans, if not nearly so many other creatures.

Environmentalists sometimes resist this notion because it seems like an argument for complacency, when clearly both the structure of our political system and the current pace of carbon emissions highlight a need for greater urgency. This isn't just a theoretical concern; the more honest opponents of environmental regulation admit that climate change is real, but argue that we should kick the can down the road and let our rich descendents deal with it.

Crises Happen. But They Don't Have To
Citing Matthew Yglesias, Stein goes on to draw a comparison with 20th Century history, arguing that just because living standards were higher in 1955 than 1925 does not mean that we wouldn't have been better off had wars, genocide and the Great Depression never happened. Future generations may well be better off than us no matter what happens—but they will be even better off if we help halt climate change, peak oil and the other environmental catastrophes we face.

Climate Change Consequences Are Uncertain
Perhaps anticipating that his previous post was going to ignite fierce debate among environmentalists (although the comments section seems remarkably empty), Stein followed up with a piece called Hottest Decade Ever. Best Decade Ever. Here he repeats his belief that the future may be relatively bright, but underscores that there is no guarantee. In particular, he acknowledges some of the very major, very important uncertainties we face:

1. Most of the world's economic growth has come with the industrial revolution, which just so happens to be the period in which we started burning fossil fuels with real gusto. Maybe the past 200 years are just a giant bubble, foretelling a future of resource shocks and economic retrenchment.
2. The gains of industrialization have been unevenly distributed, and the pain from climate change will be even more so. America is rich, and will probably do OK. Africa and Bangladesh are poor, and may suffer enormously.
3. No one can precisely predict the long-term effects of climate change, nor rule out the possibility of true catastrophe. When that asteroid hit, the dinosaurs probably didn't spend too much time calculating the effect on GDP.
4. Speaking of GDP, climate change will also have large non-economic impacts that don't factor into economists' models. If, as some predict, 40% of the planet's species go extinct, humanity may very well go happily about its business, but I for one will be kind of sad about how things turned out.

Ultimately, argues Stein, these concerns are at least partially theoretical. No matter how severe the consequences of our coming environmental challenges prove to be, the case for getting off fossil fuels, restoring degraded ecosystems, and finding sustainable, fair ways to feed, clothe and house a growing global population is compelling enough as it is. There's good reason to believe that massive emissions cuts will lead to increased economic prosperity. As Stein says, "The future may be uncertain, but it's pretty clear what we ought to be doing now to get ready for it."
More on Climate Change and Economics
Are 30% Emission Cuts Key to Economic Recovery?
Eco-Modernism or Green Traditionalists: Must Greens Be Anti-Progress?
What Would a No Growth Economy Actually Look Like?

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