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The UK's Met Office has updated its official estimates of global temperatures. It now predicts that global temperatures in the late 2010s will be no higher than in 1998 – at least a 20 year temperature plateau. This constitutes official recognition of the multi-decade temperature plateau predictions that first started to appear amongst mainstream climate forecasters about five years ago.
Many scientifically-minded commentators take the view that there is nothing of interest here. Temperatures fluctuate from decade to decade and what really counts for the climate in the long-term is how temperatures evolve over centuries and millenia, not over a few years.
That attitude is wrong, both as a matter of realpolitik and as a matter of orthodox policy-making. In orthodox policy-making we consider, for any measure, how its impact will evolve over time and we discount the future – measures that have an impact only in many decades' time will typically be of little policy relevance compared with measures that will have their impact over the next one to five years. That means that, in orthodox policy-making terms, the further into the future any rise in global temperatures is going to occur, the less we should care about it today versus other policy priorities such as promoting economic growth, innovation, helping the poor in our own country, helping educate women in developing countries, and so on. When I say that, I am not expressing any particular political stance – that is simply how orthodox policy-making priorities are ordinarily determined.
To evade this standard set of priorities, one would have to argue that there was something exceptional about climate change as an issue that meant normal discounting of the future should not apply to it. One way to do that would be to claim that the future consequences of climate change would be so enormously bad that even if they are discounted more by being further into the future, that still leaves them so appalling as to render the issue of discounting the future irrelevant. I have argued before that there is no good reason to believe climate change is special in that way. We should place zero weight on alleged disaster scenarios of the absurd "The Day After Tomorrow" variety. There will always be people that proclaim that the gods are angry with us and unless we chuck a few virgins into the nearest volcano ecological disaster will strike. And the temptation for policy-makers is to chuck the virgins in and then, when no ecological disaster comes, proclaim: "Well, there were those that told us that disaster could not be avoided and we might as well eat drink and be merry, for no virgin-sacrifices would work. But this administration took the hard decisions; we sacrificed those virgins and I am proud to say that the gods have been placated and no disaster has come." We should not allow policy-makers to get away with that.
The earth is probably warming and may well warm materially more, and human action is probably a non-trivial contributor to that. But global warming will certainly not lead to the extinction of humanity or the end of civilisation as we know it or even to any material reduction in human living standards. No standard model predicts that – indeed, quite the reverse; in for example the well-known Stern report it was predicted that people will be nearly five times as rich at the end of the 21st century as they were at its start. That growth in wealth is, in fact, alleged to be a key driver of climate change as increased prosperity entails increased fossil fuel use.
Policy-making in respect of climate change should be based on the same sorts of principles as policy-making in other areas. That way we can decide our priorities in a disciplined and rational way, and work out whether we are best to spend our resources on trying to prevent climate change, trying to adapt to climate change, trying to bring fresh clean water to the developing world, trying to put a man on Mars, or whatever other options we might have. We cannot do everything. We need to make choices.
There may well be some specific policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions that are worthwhile, but the general strategy of trying to prevent climate change is a bad choice. That isn't a scientific claim. It's an economics claim. Prior to the Stern Review, economists working on the issue were broadly in agreement that adaptation strategies were overwhelmingly superior to attempts to avoid climate change. What was true then, when orthodox models suggested there might still be near-term warming, is even more true when orthodox models predict that warming is pushed ever-further into the future and its policy impact discounted even more.
Realpolitik confirms that, even if it were worth trying to prevent climate change, it isn't going to happen. The Kyoto Treaty has expired without any successor. The US and China are not going to make any material efforts to prevent climate change. With recession in the UK, no hope of climate change being prevented at a global level, further global warming being pushed ever further into the future, and tight budgets, why are we raising household bills with green measures instead of sorting out our economies so that, when the moment finally comes, we have resources and innovation available to adapt to what still could be the substantial, albeit incremental, ecological event of our age?