Matt Yglesias is worried about what climate change will do to poor farmers in the developing world:

Farmers have particular land and particular crops they’re accustomed to growing. When the climate shifts, they’ve got a problem. Initially it won’t be an insurmountable problem for farmers in rich countries who’ll be able to draw on a lot of technical resources to try to adapt. But for poor peasants in the developing world, their livelihoods will be ruined quite rapidly.

My understanding is that, sadly, this is true: climate change will have its most damaging effects on countries that are closer to the equator.  The vast majority of these countries are poor.  Yglesias goes on:

[I]t’s worth attending to the problems of the third world and the ethical issues it raises. I doubt many members of the Chamber of Commerce would, if faced with a starving Namibian family on their front doorstep, just refuse to give them any food and say “hey, I’m greedy, get over it.” But when the climate shifts, there will be crop failures and famines and people will die. And the people preventing action to stop that outcome are doing it because it would be financially inconvenient. So how different is that?

The starving family on the doorstep example greatly understates the complexity of the ethical challenge that climate change poses.  Any climate change mitigation policy that actually succeeds in slowing climate change by enough to have a noticeable effect on the well being of subsistence farmers in the developing world will significantly retard economic growth around the world (global collective action is required for any climate change policy to work).  Unfortunately, this is bad for residents of developing countries because it reduces the export demand for their products, making it more difficult for them to rise out of poverty.

So the ethics of the effect of climate change on farmers in poor countries ends up hinging on a comparison of the cost of climate change with the cost of slower economic growth.  Because of all the uncertainties in the science (granting that there’s scientific consensus about the existence of global warming, the exact amount of warming and the extent of the future damages caused by warming are not clear), this is a difficult calculation to make.

Yglesias’s example does help to illustrate that there are moral demands upon the world’s privileged to help the world’s poor, even if the poor are far away.  But the best way to meet this demand is to donate money to charity, or perhaps to lobby for increased legal immigration and an end to farm subsidies (which indirectly hurt poor farmers).  There are just too many uncertainties for climate change action to be a sensible way of fulfilling our moral obligation to help the poor.

This guy was on the IPCC and is a distinguished professor at M.I.T. Because of this, I’m going to assume he’s pretty credible. So why is he contradicting everything else I seem to hear? Maybe it’s like if a biology professor at Princeton told me evolution was a myth: I’d just think he was an exceptional kook and irrelevant compared to the other 99.99% of people in his field. Either way, something fishy is going on. My best bet is that global warming, while a problem that needs to be urgently solved, is not as catastrophic as movies like The Day After Tomorrow make it out to be.

In the sequel to Freakonomics, titled Superfreakonomics, the authors have a chapter on global warming. I haven’t read it yet so I can’t give a fully educated opinion. But one can pick up a few facts from the blogopshere.

Essentially, the authors of the book, Levitt and Dubner discussed some creative solutions to global warming as an alternative to massive carbon taxes or imposing a cap and trade system. One approach is this:

The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

So why did Levitt and Deubner get so much criticism in the blogosphere? They prefaced the chapter with a few pages that seemingly understated global warming’s potential cost and even referred to the often-overhyped instance of scientists warning of “global cooling” in the 1970s. In fact, not many scientists actually believed global cooling was coming and the reports of such are cited nowadays by global warming deniers as reason to doubt current climate science. Because of this, the authors understandably lose some credibility.

But people like Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, and others, I think, mistakenly dismiss everything Levitt and Dubner say about solutions to global warming. Innovative solutions like geo-engineering might possibly be a more effective way to control the world’s temperature rise and/or live with the consequences, as Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus concluded.

From what I can tell, Levitt and Dubner don’t deny global warming or the need to do something about it. They only give solutions that involve neither total government takeover of industry nor intrusion into the intricacies of people’s lives. For this, they are considered intellectually bankrupt. While they may have misrepresented the climate science out there, I still think that people need to consider alternative solutions to global warming a little more seriously.

Read Dubner’s response to many of the criticisms here.

The Copenhagen Consensus, headed by Bjorn Lomborg and featuring several nobel prize winners, has evaluated the effectiveness of various climate change-fighting measures in comparison to their costs. They ranked their findings in the following table:

copenhagenchart

I’m sure the report has gotten some valid criticisms, so I’m not taking their findings as indisputable facts or anything. But the low score for carbon taxes surprises me most. The “adaptation” idea also intrigues me.