Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cool It: A Book Review

First, I apologize for any grammar or spelling mistakes. My main computer is still broken so I have to type this up while using a projector on a white wall. Which mans proofreading basically consists of the auto-proofreader because it's near impossible to see text.

So I recently had – got – to read the book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming. The book is essentially this:

  1. Climate change is man-made (anthropogenic, not anthropomorphic. Literally every time from my first misuse of the phrase in an Environmental Ethics course I consistently confuse the 2).
  2. Climate change has mostly negative effects (but they aren't as bad as most people believe)
  3. The most effective solution is a slight carbon tax along with extremely heavy investment into R&D for new low-carbon sources of energy.
The book has a lot of great points and it is interesting. It's more or less what I read one reviewer said: if you're going to read one book about climate change, don't make it be this one; if you're going to read 10 books about climate change then you should include this one.

The book has a lot of good points although I don't completely agree with it. For example, because the average income of a person is projected to rise, the author concludes that the income in all countries will rise. I don't think that's a safe assumption but that assumption is what goes into some of his arguments.

For example, malaria infection rates increase when the temperature increases. Hence, global warming means more areas are susceptible to malaria infections. But the author concludes that because average income will go up that that people everywhere will get the ability to prevent and treat malaria infections.

It's a similar thing with the idea behind coping with rising sea levels. He argues that 1`) sea levels have risen a foot – the expected rise over the next century or so – and that there were no calamities as a result. Rising income means rising technological progress and capacity to build things like coastal defenses. So he argues that rising sea levels will be mitigated through increased income. But, again, the problem is that increased average income doesn't mean everyone experiences a rise in outcome.

He also tends to downplay the fact that these changes are permanent. That a rise in, for example, ocean levels means there will always be people having to deal with higher levels.

Another one of his arguments is that it's more effective to use social policy in a lot instances. So, in what I'm learning is apparently the go-to example for a lot of environment economists, he argues that we should stop subsidizing coastal flood insurance. He has a point of course: tax subsidies encourage people to do more of an activity, if the activity is living somewhere you'll get flooded then we would expect more people to do that.

But approaching that issue from the macro standpoint isn't enough. Because some people will be unable, financially, to leave their homes and move inland. So if we remove those subsidies then we get a good macro response but only at the expensive of the lives of the people who stay behind and can't afford flood insurance.

That seems to be what rubs me the wrong way about a lot of the book. Or to put another way: in the trade off between equity and fairness he falls more into the equity side while I fall farther in the fairness side. It's still an interesting book that's informative. But I tend to disagree a bit with the conclusions.

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