Centre Write
Thursday, 11 February 2016 18:13

Peter Kirby-Harris: Climate Shock - this confirms everything

This confirms everything – why ‘Climate Shock’ is able to explain how the risks involved with climate change can be solved with the tools we have at our disposal

Weitzman and Wagner’s collaborative effort, ‘Climate Shock – The economic consequences of a hotter planet’ is not your typical book on how to prevent climate change. Weitzman and Wagner offer a profound insight with their explanation of how the risks associated with a changing climate require new modes of economic thinking. For those who live in a market economy these tools already exist in some guise with the task now to scale up these new modes of risk assessment using new financial mechanisms and long-term strategies. By explaining the risks and opportunities using metaphors such as a ‘Bath Tub’ to explain how greenhouse gases enter and exit the atmosphere, ‘Fat Tails’ for the possibility of extreme climate scenarios and equating geo-engineering with an emergency bailout plan. ‘Climate Shock’ breaks down a huge variety of highly technical complex environmental and economic concerns into short manageable chunks.

The success of this book is in its accessibility, as not only is it a mere 150 pages in length but it is written in a language that can be understood by everyone. By avoiding the use of specialist language but still using a broad range of sources and ideas the book is able to tackle a highly complex set of problems in a way that other books on the topic can’t. Weitzman and Wagner are able to translate economic terms such as ‘externalities’ into the more understandable ‘problems’ makes the reader begin to think, maybe this problem isn’t quite so daunting after all. 

Their explanation of climate change in the historical context is spot on; especially when they talk about what we can learn from past climates and which natural impacts out there that we should be aware of, especially the effect that volcanic eruptions as far back as 1815 can have on the temperature record. 

Climate Shock shows that the risks of temperatures rising are quantifiable and understandable. With those two criteria being met the solutions get clearer. They remain resolute that pricing carbon is the best solution to stopping and ultimately reversing climate change. They regard the incremental steps taking place through emissions trading and a cultural shift in politics and economics as positives steps towards accurately pricing carbon. 

While it does jump from topic to topic at quite a pace it wasn’t too hard to see the links between some concepts. By the end of each chapter Wagner and Weitzman manage to relate all the information they have been writing about around a common theme. There is a key theme of responsibility throughout the book that I felt has been lacking in previous efforts on the subject. By stressing that we can use economic theories to explain why we should seek to avoid shocks to the economy and society it does manage to present an optimistic message amongst some otherwise grim predictions on the future of humanity. Perhaps the biggest achievement was describing how the success of the Montreal Protocol and efforts to prevent acid rain, show that cutting carbon emissions can be achieved in a cost effective way, without undermining social progress.

Reading the notes at the end is essential, as Climate Shock draws on a range of other thinkers. Greg Craven’s ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ is a key influence as is the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom.

The current economic model is built on the twin principles of abundance and scarcity. Recent years have seen innovative new ways to ensure abundance of resources but have also highlighted the scarcity of sinks capable of taking our greenhouse gas emissions. The ‘Free rider’ effect is clearly explained, as is the ‘free-driver’ effect. The former is better understood as ‘getting something for nothing’ with the later being focused on geo-engineering being a potentially cheaper way to mitigate the effects of climate change without solving the underlying problems. Forward thinking is a must and the key takeaway is to be prepared, be risk averse and understand that anything that happens to the Earth’s climate can be explained in plain English.

Peter Kirby-Harris runs Bright Blue's Energy and environment Think Forum

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