by Judith Curry
John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology talk with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about climate change.
The podcast and transcript can be found [here]. Excerpted below are the opening statements and their final statements, regarding policy impliactions.
John Christy’s opening statement: Thank you, and it’s a delight to welcome both of you here at the U. of Alabama in Huntsville. Ultimately the question before us is a moral question, not a scientific question. Is it good to enhance and [?] human life. Today and for the foreseeable future, the reliable energy that enhances human life and which is economically viable comes from burning carbon. That will continue no matter what our country decides to do. Does extra CO_2 cause climate problems? The observations tell us not much is happening to the climate that hasn’t happened before. Now, a fundamental aspect about the scientific method is that when we understand a system, we can predict its behavior. That has not happened for our climate system. It is true that we have an expensive climate modeling industry that shows scary changes. But they are unable to replicate the actual climate system today. In fact, 100% of the latest climate models overshoot the key target variable of climate change detection. And there is no model that has been rigorously validated for reliability. We are not bad people for burning carbon. Indeed, from my experience from living in Africa, I can say with conviction that we are good people, because of the immeasurable enhancement to human life that carbon now provides.
Kerry Emanuel’s opening statement: Well, thank you for inviting me here. It’s delightful to be with you all this evening. In the middle of the 19th century, the gifted Irish physicist, John Tyndall, made a remarkable discovery using a laboratory apparatus–it was [?]–that is that all of the absorption of infrared radiation that takes place in our atmosphere is done by a tiny amount of gas that makes up less than 1% of the atmosphere. That was quite a shocking revelation at the time. And not long after that, the Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, found out that the climate is heavily regulated by one of the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, whose mass represents four ten-thousands of our atmosphere–a tiny trace. And calculated that without that four ten-thousands part of our atmosphere that is carbon dioxide, the earth would be a snowball. We wouldn’t be here. We couldn’t survive. This is not in dispute, this finding of the scientific community. It was not made with supercomputers. It was made with pencil and paper, and it can be replicated today. If that tiny amount of greenhouse gas is what is making our planet habitable, then there would be no surprise that if we double or triple it, we are taking a risk with the climate system. And that’s how it has to be viewed. It’s a risk. So, going forward, we are taking a risk. Not with ourselves–not with me. I’m old enough that it doesn’t matter. But with future generations. And a rational people deal with a risk rationally. And my whole program is to try to de-tribalize this debate. You know, it’s not about this is going to be a climate catastrophe on the one side, or nothing on the other. And it’s also not about trying to do something about it–it will be an economic catastrophe on one side or won’t have any effect on the other. That’s not the way the world works. The world is more complex. We have a set of poorly quantified risks for action, and a set of, maybe, as poorly quantified risks in taking action. That’s the problem we have to deal with. And that’s what I’m here tonight to talk to you about it.
Russ Roberts: Let’s talk about policy implications of this conversation. What I understand, Kerry, is in your view there’s a small chance of a really horrific action, and therefore we should act. Again, Robert Pindyck in a recent EconTalk episode–he’s an economist, that’s his assessment of the risk that’s involved. This is not really a scientific–it’s partly a scientific question but at some point it becomes a philosophical question and–John Christy, you called it a moral question. But it’s a small chance of a horrific risk. We should try to do something about it. It sounds to me, John Christy, that your view is that, well, it would be great if there were something we could do about it that was likely to work; you don’t think the risk is very high and you think the risk of the solution is likely to be worse. So, John, I’ll let you go first. Does that summarize your view of the difference between the two of you?
Christy response: Somewhat. The risk of something bad happening by making energy expensive is real. People will suffer if energy prices go up. We already know that. There’s just no question about that. And as I said, living in Africa, I know what energy [?] does–it kills people. And so anything we can do to allow energy to expand into those areas that do not have it, it’s going to enhance human life and welfare. So, solutions to–if you are really concerned about the carbon dioxide then how can you create energy that is affordable–that’s the only kind that really works in the economy–what choices are out there? And the big one that can answer the question is actually nuclear power. We’re sitting right here between a couple of big power plants, actually. And it’s difficult. It’s a bet the company move[?] right now for the few that are trying to build nuclear power. And that’s probably going to change.
Emanuel response: Well, I actually agree with that. I think it’s a mistake to do anything that increases world poverty. The history of this is very clear. Economic gains particularly in developing countries are largely, very strongly tied to the consumption of energy. So, we have to be clever about how we attack this risk. And I’m not of the camp that says, we should just go cold turkey on fossil fuels. We can’t do that. Nobody in their right mind would suggest we do that. But we should try to approach this risk as intelligent people by exploring all kinds of alternatives. The experts I talk to are and I’m certainly not one say it’s a question of doing a lot of little things that amount to a big thing, like building more energy efficient buildings. Even in developing countries. It actually ends up saving people money because they are not consuming as much energy. Energy is still going to cost something. Migrating away where it’s practical from fossil fuels toward renewables. So there are some parts of the world, including Africa, where it actually makes sense to have a supplemental supply. Can’t do everything with solar power, or maybe wind. I’m a big proponent, I get into lots of trouble with my colleagues over this, but like John, I’m a big proponent of nuclear energy. I’m so tired of being told we can’t do it. France went from almost no nuclear to 80% nuclear in 15 years. Are you seriously telling me that the United States can’t do, cannot do, what France did? I don’t think so. There’s one other piece of technology which would allow us to burn at least natural gas as much as we want to, if we could only get there, which is to capture the carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it. And I think it makes a lot of sense to put some money, not to jeopardize the economy, but some research and development money, into trying to develop this technology to the point where it might some day make economic sense to do that. We are not that far from being able to do it even today. So these are sensible things. We don’t have to bet the farm. We just do sensible things.
In case you missed it the first time around, my EconTalk interview with Russ Roberts can be found [here] .
Russ Roberts did a very good job of moderating this discussion and probing the areas of disagreements.
Kudos to both Christy and Emanuel for participating in this.