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Hurricanes and Fires: Updated Interview on Climate Change with Jan Dash

Date: Tuesday, September 19, 2017 8:10 PM EDT

Ilene: In your book, you discuss “the negatively ethically-based discount rate for valuation of future climate impacts.” Could you explain a little about that?

Jan: There are two ways to look at climate action today regarding discounting, generally used to quantify today’s perspective. The first way uses the profit rate a firm requires. If that profit rate is used as the discount rate to discount future impacts on our descendants, there is hardly any present value to us for the suffering of our descendants, and this discourages climate action. I think this view is unethical. The second (and I believe better) way to look at climate action today is simply the reduction of suffering for our descendants, by climate action, independent of any present value and discounting. Actually, if we do not act sufficiently, ethically we should put something aside for our descendants to cope with climate change. This would translate into an ethically-based negative discount rate.

We can mitigate the destructive forces of climate change. We really can, and without too much cost, especially taking into account the costs of climate damage due to inaction. The solutions to climate risk will present opportunities, including more jobs, which will offset mitigation costs. We need leaders that will step up to provide incentives and long-range climate action plans.

Ilene: Speaking of leaders, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement last month seems like an enormous setback to the worldwide effort to ultimately cap atmospheric CO 2 levels. Will Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement move the day of reckoning substantially closer?

Jan: The analogy I like is that all countries are in a badly leaking boat. All countries need to help bail out the water to survive. If a country becomes a bad agent and decides not to help, either the others have to work harder or we all sink. The Paris Agreement was the first to achieve international unanimity with the bottom-up approach of each country “doing what it can” to mitigate climate change with the “Nationally Determined Contributions.” To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the world consumption of fossil fuel needs to level off in the next few years and drop to zero by mid-century.

Climate change will hit some countries harder than others — especially poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change and that did the least to cause the climate problem, a huge moral and ethical issue. Vulnerable peoples are affected the worst by climate change because they have the fewest resources to cope with climate impacts. But in the end, if we do not act robustly, all countries will eventually be badly hit — there will no place to hide.

Trump’s decision to pull the US out of Paris is not the last word, but it adds substantially to the risk of going well past the 450 ppm level and missing the goal of transitioning to renewable energies by mid-century, which is necessary to leaving a livable planet to our descendants.

Ilene: Do you believe that states, cities, and corporations will make up for the lack of participation by the federal government?

Jan: The world’s governments luckily seem to have pulled together since the announcement, with additional motivation to act on climate change, including China and India. Many US local and state governments are being proactive, including mid-western states that have increasing wind energy (because wind is increasingly lower in price and economical). Many corporations are also stepping up significantly. I don’t know if it will be enough. The US federal government is also worsening the climate problem in other ways, including federal opposition to the renewable energy development needed to replace burning fossil fuels. This opposition is economically shortsighted, since renewable energies have the promise to open a new distributed energy economy with significant opportunities.

Transition to renewable distributed energies can have huge positive economic significance similar to the change from centralized computing (mainframes) to distributed computing (iPhones, Internet) that led to a new, more productive economic paradigm. In transitioning, we need to be mindful of those people who are tied to the fossil fuel sector, as well as others vulnerable to climate change, who will require assistance to survive.

Flood damage by the river Donau (Danube) in Ulm, Germany, in 2013. Hans/Pixabay

Ilene: I’ve read that as CO 2 accumulates, future warming gets “locked in.” You appear to confirm that claim.

Jan: You are right about the persistence of CO 2. A substantial fraction of CO 2 emitted stays in the atmosphere on time scales of 100 years. The higher the cumulative CO 2 level gets, the worse the impacts will likely be.

Ilene: Positive feedback mechanisms worsen any increase in temperature, as increased CO 2 provokes other effects that lead to further warming. Are there significant negative feedback mechanisms as well?

Jan: Positive feedbacks are bad because they increase global warming, and substantial positive feedbacks are known to exist. Negative feedbacks would be good. Unfortunately for us, no convincing evidence exists for negative feedbacks substantial enough to stop global warming. The relevant metrics including all feedbacks are the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity and Transient Climate Response. The probabilities of various values of these metrics from many sources are documented in the IPCC 2013 AR5 Science report — see Ch. 12, Box 12.2, page 1110. The bottom line is that we should not be hypnotized by the remote chance that negative feedbacks will save us by producing low values for these metrics. Prudent risk management principles tell us that we should base our action using at least the average values for these metrics, even higher than average. Regardless, climate impacts will worsen sooner or later without substantial action. The message is unchanged. We are already in the “danger zone”; we must ramp up our efforts now.

Ilene: Do you have a solution to climate change in mind?

Jan: We will need a portfolio of actions. Instead of thinking about a single 100% solution that does not exist, think of twenty 5% solutions which do exist and which provide practical ways of solving the climate problem. This portfolio of risk-motivated solutions will need action from individuals, corporations, investors, NGOs, including faith groups, and governments at all levels to be successful. There are many things we can do. For a start, people can call their representatives to urge climate action. A good idea is to put an honest price on carbon in the US, as suggested by the conservative Climate Leadership Council and by the Citizens Climate Lobby. 

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