The worst case is happening

A couple of years ago, I published an article on why “extremely unlikely” climate events matter. The central point was that climate outcomes with a probability of 5 per cent or less (“extremely unlikely” in IPCC terminology) were still much more likely than risks we take seriously in our daily life, like dying in a car crash). As an illustration, at the time the piece was written, it seemed less than 5 per cent probable that, within two years, many countries in the world (including Australia) would see catastrophic fires on the scale of those that have actually happened.

I made this point in an interview for an ABC story on economists’ views of the likely costs of 3 to 4 degrees of climate change. Most of those interviewed agreed with me that the costs were likely to be much higher than suggested by economics Nobelist William Nordhaus (with whom John Horowitz and I had a debate in the American Economic Review quite a while ago). We pointed out, among other problems, that a paper he had co-authored implied an optimal July temperature of -146 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nordhaus declined an interview, but his viewpoint was represented by Richard Tol. Longstanding readers will remember Tol as a commenter here who eventually wore out his welcome.

The other point I made in the interview was that the abstruse debate about discount rates central to much of the debate between Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern has turned out to be largely irrelevant. The premise of that debate was that the costs of unmitigated climate change would be felt decades into the future while the costs of mitigation would be immediate.

As it’s turned out, the costs of climate change have arrived much sooner than we expected. And the only mitigation options adopted so far have been low cost or even negative cost choices like energy efficiency and abandoning coal (more than justified by the health costs of particulate pollution).

That doesn’t mean discount rates are completely irrelevant. If we manage to decarbonize the global economy by 2050, benefits will keep accruing well after that. But even if we stopped the analysis at 2050, we would still have a substantial net benefit. The likely cost of near-complete decarbonization now looks to be less than a two per cent reduction in national income. Reducing the frequency and severity of disasters like the bushfires will more than offset that.

More news from the apocalypse (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I’m still writing furiously (in both senses of the word) about climate change, the fire disaster in Australia and the responsibility the entire political right bears for this catastrophe, along with those of the centre and left who have shirked the struggle. Australian writer Richard Flanagan, in the New York Times, has compared our leaders to famous traitors like Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling and Mir Jafar, and that’s a pretty good summary of how large numbers of Australians feel.

Over the fold, links to some of my latest commentary

An Open Letter on Australian Bushfires and Climate: Urgent Need for Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions from 80 current and former Australian Laureate Fellows (our most prestigious research award, across natural and social sciences and humanities).

Humans are good at thinking their way out of problems – but climate change is outfoxing us (The Conversation)

Invest with the best, Inside Story (the case for divestment)

Neoliberalism is declining, but the Right wing refuses to die

Libertarians Can’t Save the Planet

As promised, my article on climate change and the death of libertarianism/propertarianism, in Jacobin.


Global warming is the ultimate refutation of Lockean propertarianism. No one can pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while leaving “enough and as good” for everyone else. It has taken thirty years, but this undeniable fact has finally killed the propertarian movement in the United States.

The ash falls on the just and unjust alike

Looking at our elected leaders, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we, as Australians, deserve the cataclysms that have been visited upon us in the last few months. And reading the international press coverage of the disaster, this is a theme that constantly recurs.

Yet its less than a year since 49 per cent of us voted for a policy program far better than that of the government that scraped in or the shell-shocked opposition that proposes to wait until 2022 before doing anything.

If it hadn’t been for any of half a dozen largely random factors (Shorten’s personal unpopularity, Clive Palmer’s advertising blitz, Labor’s clunky “big end of town”rhetoric and so on, we might have had the opposite result just as the polls predicted

Of course, a Shorten government wouldn’t have been able to prevent the bushfires, or even mitigate their severity in any way. We would have been a bit better prepared, since Labor promised to spend more on firefighting capacity, but changes in emissions policy would not even have taken effect. And of course, this is a global problem: efforts we make will mostly reduce the damage in other countries and vice versa.

Still, with a tiny but of luck, we would have had a government committed to doing our share as part of a global effort to reduce the risk of future disasters. That might at least have garnered some useful international sympathy, rather than the “serves you right” subtext of so much coverage.

The ash falls on the just and unjust alike. We must struggle to save what we can of the biosphere we have collectively done so much to destroy. And we must accept that sometimes luck won’t go our way.

Economic estimates don’t account for tragic bushfire toll

That;s the headline for my latest piece for Independent Australia Obviously, costs like ecosystem destruction and the deaths of millions of native animals can’t easily be put into the framework of the National Accounts. But, even if we stick to the National Accounts, Gross Domestic Product is a terrible measure of economic welfare. As I always say, there are three reasons for that; it’s Gross, it’s Domestic and it’s a Product.

Australia is promising $2 billion for the fires. I estimate recovery will cost $100 billion

That’s the self-explanatory headline for a piece I wrote for CNN Business in the US. Major contributors to this number, beyond the direct loss of property include

  • damage to the tourist industry (I estimate up to $20 billion)
  • health effects, including 1000 or more premature deaths from smoke (up to $10 billion)
  • need for massive expenditure to deal with future disasters
  • ecosystem destruction and wildlife deaths (impossible to value, but catastrophic)

Slow Burn

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Inside Story, with the summary

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires

At the time of writing, at least fourteen people have been killed by this season’s bushfires. And with most of January and all of February still to come, the number is sure to rise. But these dramatic deaths are far outweighed by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths that will ultimately result from the toxic smoke blanketing Australian cities.

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Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better

One point that’s come up in discussion of the fire cataclysm is the fact that anti-vaxers are viewed with contempt, and subject to sanctions like “no jab, no play”, while climate deniers are still given respectful treatment, media platforms and so on. The explanation is simple enough: climate deniers are rich, powerful and numerous, including most of the rightwing commentariat and much of the government.

Although both groups are wrong, and present a huge danger to the community, it’s important to observe that most anti-vaxers (the exceptions are charlatans like Andrew Wakefield) are honestly concerned about the health of their children, and have simply latched on to misguided information. By contrast, as I said in this 2013 piece,

The difficulty is that the proportion of tobacco and climate “sceptics” who are honestly seeking the truth is far smaller, while the proportion of paid hacks and culture warriors is far higher. Members of the latter group will seize on any concession made to encourage genuine understanding, and will use it as evidence of weakness in the scientific position.

I’d update now to say that, almost without exception, climate deniers are paid hacks, culture warriors or both.

Slow burn

That’s the headline for my latest article in Inside Story. Summary graf

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires

At the time of writing, at least fourteen people have been killed by this season’s bushfires. And with most of January and all of February still to come, the number is sure to rise. But these dramatic deaths are far outweighed by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths that will ultimately result from the toxic smoke blanketing Australian cities.

The most dangerous component of bushfire smoke are tiny particulates, no more than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. Over the past twenty years, studies have shown that high levels of PM2.5 have contributed to millions of premature deaths in highly polluted cities like Beijing and Delhi. Sydney, Canberra and other Australian cities have recently joined this list. In 2016 alone, exposure to PM2.5 contributed to an estimated 4.1 million deaths worldwide from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease and respiratory infections.

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