The Economist doesn’t understand climate change

From what I have seen of academia and government, The Economist is one of the most widely-read and influential news publications out there. Keeping on top of what they report upon and argue was a necessary task for a university-level debater. It also helps avoid surprises when dealing with academics and bureaucrats. If The Economist gives a national leader a nickname, you can be sure there will be much scurrying that results among both bureaucrats and political staff.

That reputation and influence makes it all the more regrettable that The Economist doesn’t understand climate change. They concur that the key science is settled, that climate change is happening, and that action should be taken in response. They support the creation of carbon taxes. At the same time, they don’t recognize the magnitude of the problem, and they haven’t adapted their general editorial stance to properly take it into account. For them, climate change is a potentially important sideshow – it is not the key phenomenon determining the future of humanity.

That is odd, given their general appreciation for science and the clarity of the messages scientists are sending. Right now, we are on track to warm the planet by more than 5°C by 2100 – as much of a difference in mean global temperature as there is between the present climate and the one that prevailed at the middle of the last ice age. And yet, The Economist seems to believe that following this business-as-usual path wouldn’t have a major effect on the ongoing process of economic growth, which they are unflinching supporters of. The fact that we are profoundly altering things like sea levels and precipitation patterns in ways that will endure for thousands of years is apparently less important than what the global GDP growth figure for the next couple of years will be.

For humanity to have a prosperous future, we need to stop the climate from changing so much that it undermines human welfare and prosperity. Given the inescapable link between burning fossil fuels and climate change, achieving that goal will require moving to other sources of energy and leaving most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels unburned. The Economist certainly has not recognized this – nor have they recognized the danger of catastrophic or runaway climate change if humanity keeps burning coal, oil, and gas heedlessly. Because of that, they still think that it will be possible to adapt to climate change even if no success is found in mitigating it. They commit the error of making fun of renewable sources of energy, just because they represent a small portion of humanity’s total energy use today. Ultimately, only renewable forms of energy can be relied upon to serve human needs indefinitely. The fact that they remain a niche energy source is cause for concern – not a reason to believe we can keep relying on fossil fuels forever.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for the worst effects of climate change to become visible, before The Economist will start taking the full range of risks seriously. By the time the droughts, storms, and flooded coastlines are fully visible, it will be far too late to prevent even more serious and widespread effects. For now, The Economist remains in denial. They have accepted the fact that human beings are warming the planet in threatening ways, but the implications of those facts have not yet flowed through all the channels of their thinking and marinated their ideology.

Indeed, I suspect that ideology is the main problem here. The fundamental worldview of The Economist is libertarian. They believe that consenting adults can make agreements between themselves that provide benefits without harming everyone else. Governments need to step in and regulate in circumstances where private agreements cause public harm. The problem with climate change is that – since so many different activities contribute to it – governments effectively need to regulate all significant private agreements, at least insofar as they involve the production of greenhouse gases. Because The Economist is unwilling to accept such a broad mandate for government, they cannot recognize the scope of the problem being faced.

Given where the world is right now, it is not enough to just call for a carbon tax and then get back to the business of encouraging growth. If the choice is between a world with both growth and unlimited climate change and another with neither growth nor climate change, the latter is preferable for humanity as a whole, despite how it would involve major sacrifices both from those who are already affluent and those who are trying to escape from extreme poverty. Maintaining a climate that is compatible with human welfare and prosperity has over-arching moral and economic importance. Given how massively the world’s governments and corporations are failing to achieve that aim, The Economist should be calling for non-violent resistance, the blocking of rail lines to coal plants, and the pulling of investment from fossil fuel companies.

Until they begin to propose a response to climate change that is proportionate to the risk it involves, they will be doing a disservice to all those who rely upon their analysis and advice.

47 thoughts on “The Economist doesn’t understand climate change

  1. Milan Post author

    In a recent editorial, they say: “Perhaps, after a period of respite and a few climatic disasters, it will get going again. It certainly should.”

    The big problem with this perspective is that there are long lags between the emission of greenhouse gases and their full effects being made manifest. By the time the first major disasters are being experienced, it will be too late to prevent significantly worse ones from taking place.

  2. Milan Post author

    To be fair, I think there is a lot of internal disagreement about climate change within The Economist.

    The editorials (‘leaders’ for Brits) have a pretty consistent, agreed line. But articles written by individuals show more variation. Some express a lot more concern about abrupt, catastrophic, and runaway climate change scenarios (those that could exceed the capacity of humanity to adapt). Others are much more dismissive of the threat posed by climate change, and see it as just the latest anti-progress worrying from environmentalists.

    Perhaps as the makeup of their staff changes with time, those with the more antiquated views will move on and the overall editorial line will shift. That said, it seems quite possible that the planet’s climate is changing more quickly than their perspective.

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  4. .

    Clean and green, for a price
    Britain can have clean energy or cheap energy, but not both

    DESPITE its reputation for wind and rain, Britain is not used to cold weather. Unseasonal snow over the past couple of weeks has blocked roads, shut airports, closed schools and brought the army out to help clear Edinburgh’s streets. Energy-watchers, meanwhile, have been fretting about the spike in energy consumption caused by the chill. On December 6th prices rose to a two-year high as Britain recorded one of its highest-ever levels of electricity demand.

    Such figures are in the news because Britain is facing an energy crunch. All but one of its nuclear stations, and about half of its coal power plants, will shut by 2023 and must be replaced. Left to its own devices, the market would replace them with natural gas, but the government has committed itself to eye-wateringly tough climate-change targets, aiming to reduce emissions of planet-heating gases by 2050 relative to their 1990 levels by 80%. To that end, ministers hope to encourage a mix of nuclear reactors and wind-, wave- and solar-powered electricity.

    Two developments, one last month and one to come next week, suggest how hard it is going to be to achieve that aim. On November 26th Ofgem, the energy regulator, announced an inquiry into competition in the energy sector after profits in the industry jumped by around 40%. Several big suppliers, including Scottish and Southern Energy and British Gas, have imposed price rises of up to 9%. Previous inquiries have found no evidence of collusion. But high energy bills remain politically poisonous: at a time of street protests over university fees and an embarrassing series of WikiLeaks, David Cameron, the prime minister, was asked about energy bills at his once-a-week question session in Parliament this week.

  5. Milan Post author

    Apparently, The Economist also opposed public sewer systems back in 1848:

    “Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions—they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.”

    Arguably, this is an example of how slowly libertarians incorporate new information about the world.

  6. Milan Post author

    All the references to James Hansen I can find in The Economist:

    A special report on water – Sources and acknowledgements

    The illusion of clean coal

    “FACTORIES of death” is how James Hansen, a crusading American scientist, describes power stations that burn coal.

    Alaska, ho!
    Is this month’s unbearable heat a coincidence?

    “Precipitation is harder to predict than temperature, and no one quite knows what will happen to the periodic El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. But scientists certainly expect more droughts and flooding in America. In sum, “Extremes of the hydrologic cycle will become more extreme,” according to Jim Hansen, a NASA scientist. That means more severe storms, as well as forest fires brought on by dry conditions.

    Hotting up in The Hague
    Amid much fanfare, a UN summit on global warming is being held in the Netherlands. Should anybody care?”

    “A study by a team led by James Hansen of America’s space agency, NASA, has looked in detail at the net effects of these factors. It distinguishes natural “forcings” from man-made ones, and works out the impact of each on temperature. Under normal circumstances, the earth releases heat at the same rate at which it absorbs energy from the sun. But the researchers conclude that man’s actions since 1850 have upset this balance (see chart 2). Man-made GHGs now cause a forcing of more than two watts per square metre, the equivalent of increasing the sun’s brightness by around 1%. This study says that “increasing GHGs are estimated to be the largest forcing, and to result in a net positive forcing, especially during the past few decades.” Dr Hansen stresses the big impact of GHGs other than CO2; any effort to reduce emissions would be cheaper if it included them too.”


    Is this the same James Hansen, I wonder?

    In May 2000, Bill Clinton issued an executive order to develop a system of marine protected areas in America. James Hansen, the new chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Resources, has written to President George Bush asking for his help in stopping or delaying the implementation of that order. It remains to be seen if the appeals of 160 researchers who released a statement at the AAAS meeting saying that marine parks are good for fish and fishermen alike will have any influence on the decision.

    The climatologist’s Wikipedia page doesn’t say anything about fish.

    This definitely isn’t the same Hansen:

    To some western Republicans, war has already been declared. Most public land is concentrated in the west—and, historically, natural resources have been the source of local prosperity. James Hansen, a Republican congressman from empty western Utah who will chair the House Resources Committee, has written to Mr Bush urging him to reverse the orders creating national monuments and protecting national forests. Mr Bush has taken his advice, suspending the creation of almost all Mr Clinton’s national monuments as one of his first acts on taking office.

    A bold way of applying to the Richard Casement internship in their Science and Technology section would be to write a review of Hansen that speculates on what it means for the overall pro-growth editorial line of The Economist.

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  8. Milan Post author

    This is one of the better things The Economist has written recently about climate:

    “But these new types of climate action do not replace the need to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon-dioxide levels are still rising; the shadow of uncertainty and risk they cast into the future is getting deeper and longer. Carbon emitted today will continue to warm the planet for millennia, unless active measures to remove it from the atmosphere are undertaken at some later date. Reducing other short-lived sources of climate change while continuing to emit carbon will delay rises in temperature, but it will not stop them. Broadening climate action can supplement existing efforts on carbon and provide new suppleness to climate politics—both good things. But this does not change the imperative of decarbonisation.”

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  10. .

    HAS Britain hit the jackpot in Blackpool? On September 21st Cuadrilla Resources, the first firm to drill for shale gas in the country, estimated that 200 trillion cubic feet of gas lie in an area near the seaside town in northwest England—nearly 40 times previous projections of all of Britain’s shale resources and, in theory, four times as much gas as is still recoverable from the North Sea, according to Oil & Gas UK, a lobby group. Cuadrilla hopes to drill 400 wells in Lancashire in the next decade.

  11. .

    GEOLOGICAL structures of vast antiquity are more often called on to bolster the arguments of atheists than enlisted as tokens of a deity’s existence—let alone his nationality. But the deep Cretaceous salts which trap oil in rocks off Brazil’s coast are “strong evidence”, in the words of President Dilma Rousseff, “that God is Brazilian.” It is not a new conceit, but it has rarely been a more apposite one. The pré-sal (“below the salt”) oilfields look set to generate wealth on a scale that could transform Brazil’s economy.

    Before the pré-sal finds, which started in 2007, the country’s total proven and probable reserves were 20 billion barrels. Conservative estimates for the total recoverable pré-sal oil now come in at 50 billion barrels: a little less than everything in the North Sea, all in the waters of one country. Optimists expect three times as much. “In the pré-sal area, our exploration has a success rate of 87%, compared with a world average of 20% to 25% for the industry,” says Sergio Gabrielli, the president of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company.

    Pedro Cordeiro of Bain & Company, a consultancy, says all this makes developing the pré-sal a national commitment comparable to that of the Apollo programme. In terms of cost it is actually a good bit larger. Apollo cost less than $200 billion in today’s dollars; the total bill was a few percent of America’s annual GDP at the time. Ten years’ aggressive development of the pré-sal could take a trillion dollars, around half of Brazil’s 2010 GDP.

  12. .

    The country certainly needs more generating capacity, especially of the low-carbon kind. But it is going the wrong way about encouraging it. Specifying how much power is to be generated from nuclear and from each form of renewable power means picking winners—something that governments generally do badly. Offshore wind and nuclear, the government’s favoured technologies, are among the most expensive ways to get carbon out of the energy system. And all political promises to guarantee energy prices are notoriously unreliable and unlikely to spark investor confidence. In 2011 Germany suddenly decided to shut its nuclear power stations.

    Rather than interfere with and second-guess the market, the government should strengthen it. For investors to view the electricity-generating business with enthusiasm, they must be able to find out what the real price of electricity is. At present that is impossible, because most electricity in Britain is “traded” between the generation and supply arms of the same firms. The government should have threatened to split them up (a gambit that worked wonders with British Telecom) and forced trading onto open exchanges, as happens in Germany.

    The best way to encourage green energy is to tax carbon. Australia took that brave step in 2011, admittedly with plenty of giveaways and exemptions for the early years. Under the European emissions-trading scheme carbon does have a price in Britain, but it is too low to be effective and is hard to increase. If Britain commits itself to unilateral action, the early price would still be low, but the government could promise to increase it over time. It is the price of carbon in 20 or 30 years, not now, that determines investment decisions. This move would encourage cleaner technologies but allow the market to choose which it favours and how much to pay. It is simple and more likely to endure than complex interventions.

    The energy business is changing fast. The price of solar power has fallen; the price of oil has soared. Shale gas is booming. Wave power, carbon-capture technologies and electricity storage could all prove revolutionary. All the more reason to let investors, not Mr Cameron, pick the winners.

  13. .

    THE Arctic is melting faster than almost anybody expected. It has just been reported that the area of sea ice has never been smaller. And having already surpassed previous annual low points in August, it will shrink further in September. Since 1951 the Arctic has warmed roughly twice as much as the global average. So the latest record is a frightening milestone in the advance of climate change. Yet for many in Asia, in the short term, greed trumps fear. The thawing of the north offers the prospect both of access to untold mineral wealth and drastically shorter shipping routes to the Atlantic.

    That is not to argue, of course, that the melting of the Arctic poses no risks to Singapore or indeed the rest of the earth. As global warming disrupts weather patterns, raises sea levels and forces mass migration, a faster route from Yokohama to Rotterdam may seem only small compensation; and the scramble to extract minerals from the unfrozen wastes, sheer folly.

  14. .

    Nonsense And Sensitivity: Top Climatologist Slams The Economist For Yet Another ‘Flawed And Misleading’ Piece

    Among other things, the author hopelessly confuses transient warming (the warming observed at any particularly time) with committed warming (the total warming that you’ve committed to, which includes warming in the pipeline due to historical carbon emissions). even in the best case scenario, business as usual fossil fuel burning will almost certainly commit us to more than 2C (3.6 F) warming, an amount of warming that scientists who study climate change impacts tell us will lead to truly dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. the article does a disservice to Economist readers by obscuring this critical fact. Sadly, it is hardly the first time in recent history that the Economist has published flawed and misleading stories about climate change.

    The Economist seems blissfully unaware that while the Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation (!) and add up to 1.5°F to warming in 2100 by itself, “Participating modeling teams have completed their climate projections in support of the [IPCC’s] Fifth Assessment Report, but these projections do not include the permafrost carbon feedback.”

    The Economist also seems blissfully unaware of the fact that we are currently close to the 1000 ppm emissions pathway. And The Economist also seems blissfully unaware that stabilizing anywhere near 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2 would require immediate and sustained action to replace the world’s fossil fuel system with one based on carbon-free energy — precisely the kind of aggressive action this piece seems designed to undercut.

  15. .

    China’s impact on the climate, though, is unique. Its economy is not only large but also resource-hungry.


    The country’s energy use is… gargantuan. This is in part because, under Mao, the use of energy was recklessly profligate. China’s consumption of energy per unit of GDP tripled in 1950-78—an unprecedented “achievement”. In the early 1990s, at the start of its period of greatest growth, China was still using 800 tonnes of coal equivalent (tce, a unit of energy) to produce $1m of output, far more than other developing countries. Energy efficiency has since improved; China used 390tce per $1m in 2009. But that was still more than the global average of 300tce and far more than Germany, which used only 173tce.

    Despite a huge hydroelectric programme, most of this energy comes from burning coal on a vast scale. China currently burns about half the world’s supplies. In 2006 it surpassed America in carbon-dioxide emissions from energy. By 2014 or 2015 it will emit twice America’s total. Between 1990 and 2050 its cumulative emissions from energy will amount to some 500 billion tonnes—roughly the same as those of the whole world from the beginning of the industrial revolution to 1970. And the total is what matters. The climate reacts to the stock of carbon, not to annual rises.

    These emissions are adding to a build-up of carbon already pushed to unprecedented heights by earlier industrialisations. When Britain began the process in the 18th century, the atmosphere’s carbon-dioxide level was 280 parts per million (ppm). When Japan was industrialising fastest in the late 1950s, it had risen a bit, to 315ppm. This year the level hit 400ppm. Avoiding dangerous climate change is widely taken to mean keeping below 450ppm, although there are significant uncertainties surrounding this figure. At current rates that threshold will be reached in 2037. China is likely to be the largest emitter between now and then.

    About a quarter of China’s carbon emissions is produced making goods for export. If the carbon embodied in those goods were marked against the ledgers of the importing countries China would look a little less damaging, the rich world a lot less virtuous. But even allowing for that, China is not playing catch-up any more. It is doing more damage to the stability of the global climate than any other country.

  16. .

    TO MEXICANS, state ownership of their oil is a bit like gun ownership in the United States—steeped in history. So President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposal, unveiled on August 12th, to change the constitution to allow private investment in Mexico’s oil industry for the first time since 1960, is a taboo-buster.

    In fact his intention is nakedly economic. It starts from the premise that Mexico is running out of easy-to-access oil in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Pemex, the national oil and gas monopoly, has neither the funds nor the expertise to take advantage of the shale and deepwater deposits that have proved so bounteous across the border in the United States. So it needs partners. The proposal leaves one big question unanswered, however: on precisely what terms will Mexico seek to attract private investment?

    Given Mexico’s sinking oil production, Mr Peña’s proposals are undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But the more open the discussion about them, the better.

  17. .

    THE New Zealand government, facing a general election next year, is confronting a referendum opposing asset sales and protests over drilling for oil. It is unlikely to be swayed by either. Government leaders say the sale of assets will contribute to returning the budget to surplus, and any oil discovery has the potential to transform the economy.

    The government could not stop the referendum but it knew it would have a fight over drilling for offshore oil. That is partly because of the grounding of a cargo ship, the Rena, off a North Island beach in 2011, and a subsequent oil spill. So in April it passed legislation outlawing protests that interfere with or damage oil-exploration vessels. Protest vessels are not allowed within 500 metres of a ship or drilling platform. That has not stopped some protest ships from setting sail. Other demonstrators have gathered to protest on beaches around the country.

  18. .

    No reform matters more than the liberalisation of Mexico’s hidebound energy sector. The state has controlled the hydrocarbons industry since it was nationalised in 1938. Pemex, the state oil firm, is a cash cow for the government—it contributes a third of revenues—but it is poorly managed and its production levels have been steadily declining. Industrial electricity prices are almost 80% higher than those in the United States. Mexico’s Congress this week approved secondary laws that will throw the country’s deepwater and shale fields open to foreign investment. The electricity industry will also be liberalised. Lower energy prices ought eventually to result.

    Shovels hitting soil would help confidence—provided the projects are not boondoggles. Obvious priorities include new natural-gas pipelines and a new airport for Mexico City.

  19. .

    This is profoundly disappointing. With more than 30 trillion cubic metres of recoverable shale gas, China has the largest reserves in the world, almost 70% more than in America, home of the shale-gas revolution. It is also a setback to the country’s efforts to reduce pollution. Dirty coal now makes up about 70% of energy consumption and, despite fast growth in renewable energy, gas is the only cleanish energy source that could displace enough coal to rein in carbon emissions quickly.

  20. .

    Expanding the Montreal protocol would not, by itself, keep the rise in global temperatures within safe bounds. That will require cutting carbon emissions by around 26 billion tonnes of CO{-2} equivalent a year by 2030 (or almost halving the current rate of emissions). A broad carbon treaty will still be necessary; so will stopping deforestation, slashing subsidies to fossil fuels and much else (see article). But expanding the Montreal protocol would get more than a tenth of the way towards what is needed.

  21. .

    Large firms no longer employ all that many people in America: the domestic employee base of the S&P 500 is only around a tenth of total American employment. New firms would invest more, employ more staff, and force incumbents to invest more in order to compete. If this sounds pie in the sky, consider the shale revolution over the past decade. Although the industry is now suffering from low oil prices, it is a rare example of entrepreneurial spirit taking on a stodgy industry to the benefit of all. A new commitment to competition could be the source of optimism that America is desperately searching for. After all, it is only a healthy dollop of greed and a belief in a better future that prompts people to start from scratch and try to cross the moat that has been dug around corporate America.

  22. .

    One possibility for cooling the pole is geoengineering, the deliberate modification of the climate to reduce warming. Pumping sulphate aerosols into the Arctic stratosphere from high-flying aircraft could be one way to blot out a bit of the sun. Such an approach would cool Arctic summers but have little effect in winter because there would be no sunlight to reflect. Injecting salt crystals into clouds over the Arctic ocean, to enhance their reflectivity, might also encourage some cooling, though the helpfulness of this type of intervention is highly speculative.

    Either way the gap between theory and practice is enormous and ethically fraught. Even if such ways to cool the planet could be managed on the vast scale necessary, other unwelcome outcomes cannot be discounted. When volcanoes release vast amounts of aerosols and sulphates into the air, they damage the ozone layer—might the same be true for geoengineering? If polar ice returned thanks to judicious management of solar radiation, water and weather cycles in the tropics might be altered if sulphates were released in just one hemisphere. And the ocean’s chemistry would continue to change as concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise. If they ever happen at all, negotiations over large-scale geoengineering would be long and arduous.

    Climate change has at least brought the Arctic fresh attention from world leaders. Xi Jinping, China’s president, stopped in nearby Anchorage on his recent return from America. Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit the Arctic. In May a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, at which America will hand over the chairmanship to Finland for its two-year stint, offers an opportunity for Rex Tillerson, America’s secretary of state, to set the new administration’s policy for the region. To ensure political and commercial stability in a defrosting Arctic, and to limit the harm caused by and to the warming pole, countries need to pay it far greater attention. The danger is that it is already too late.

  23. .

    There is still no room for complacency in matters climatic

    New estimates of permissible carbon dioxide emissions notwithstanding

    IN JUNE Christiana Figueres, the UN’s former climate chief who helped broker the Paris agreement in 2015, warned that the world has “three years to safeguard our climate”. It was a hyperbolic claim, even then. New research makes it seem even more of one today. An analysis published in Nature Geoscience on September 18th, by Richard Millar of Oxford University and his colleagues, suggests that climate researchers have been underestimating the carbon “budget” compatible with the ambitions expressed in Paris. It may be possible for the world to emit significantly more carbon dioxide in the next few decades than was previously thought, and still keep global warming “well below” a 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels, which is what the agreement requires.

    It is the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted, rather than the rate at which it is emitted, which determines how much greenhouse warming the world will undergo. This allows scientists to draw up budgets that quantify the total emissions associated with a given temperature rise. In the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the carbon budget for a good chance of keeping global warming to 1.5°C—the preferred target of the Paris agreement—was 2.25trn tonnes of carbon dioxide since 1870. Estimates of the amount in fact emitted by the time of the Paris agreement were a smidgen over 2trn tonnes, and annual emissions at the moment are almost 40bn tonnes. This suggested that the total carbon budget would be spent by about 2020. Hence Ms Figueres’ alarm.

    The calculations on which that IPCC budget was based—which were carried out in part by some of Dr Millar’s co-authors—depended on the use of a set of complex climate models called CMIP5 to replicate what had happened in the climate since 1870 and assess what might happen in the century to come. In the average of these models, which were run in the early 2010s, cumulative emissions took until a little after 2020 to top 2trn tonnes (ie, several years after they actually did so). Also, the temperature they predicted would prevail at that time was about 1.2°C above that of 1870 when, in actual fact, the temperature after 2trn tonnes had been emitted was only 0.9°C higher. In other words, the real world had seen slightly more carbon emitted, and less warming, than the models had suggested it should have.

    There are uncertainties, then, in both models and data, and no single study should be expected, of itself, to reset the world’s plans. Even if the Oxford paper’s new budgets were copper-bottomed truths, though, they would hardly provide the respite they might seem to. No one expected the constraints of the previous 1.5°C budget to be met, and meeting the new constraints would still be challenging.

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  26. .

    The temperature rises
    Why the IPCC’s report on global warming matters
    A new report produces an odd mixture of alarm and apathy

    The report’s message is also beyond doubt: the extra half a degree makes a big difference. Arctic summers could be ice-free once a decade in a two-degree world, but once a century in a one-and-a-half-degree one. Virtually all the ocean’s coral might be irreversibly wiped out in a two-degree world, rather than 70-90% if temperatures rise by less. Sea levels may rise an extra 10cm, washing away the livelihoods of millions more people. Permitting a rise of two degrees could also see an extra 420m people exposed to record heat. The 2°C target has been baked into climate policy for years—the number was first put forward by William Nordhaus, who shared the Nobel economics prize this week. It is too lax.

    Hitting either target would entail transforming economies at a breakneck pace. To achieve 1.5°C, the world would by 2050 need to eliminate all 42bn tonnes of carbon-dioxide in annual emissions. Renewables, including hydropower, would have at least to treble their share of electricity generation from today’s 25%. Internal-combustion engines, which power 499 out of 500 cars on the road today, would have to all but vanish. Progress is being made. The number of electric cars on the road is rising fast; green finance is gathering momentum; zero-carbon technologies are being developed. But the scale of the effort required is unprecedented.

    That is why reaction to the IPCC’s report matters. Some European Union environment ministers want to adopt 1.5°C as a guide to policy before a UN summit in Poland in December. Their Australian counterpart called it “irresponsible” to phase out coal by 2050. Donald Trump, who plans to withdraw America from the Paris deal, has not read it. A mix of alarm and apathy has both galvanised efforts to secure a 2°C future, and also bedevilled them. A target of 1.5°C is no more likely to be met, but may nonetheless encourage the world to try harder.

  27. .

    Negative emissions or solar geoengineering might ease the need to decarbonise economies quickly—but not eliminate it. As the charts show, even with negative emissions carbon-dioxide release still needs to fall by 45% or thereabouts by 2030. To have any hope of achieving this, two-thirds of coal use must be phased out in little more than a decade. By the middle of the century virtually all electricity must come from carbon-free sources (up from a quarter today), and all cars will need to run on electric motors (up from one in 500), as will trains and most ships.

    Were any of this actually to happen, it would transform economies beyond recognition. And it would cost money. How much, the IPCC has resisted predicting, blaming limited economic research in the area. But, for the same reason, it does not attempt to value the flip side—the damage caused by delay.

    Another paper that missed the deadline, by Simon Dietz of the London School of Economics and his colleagues (one of whom worked on the IPCC report), tries to fill the first of those gaps. It estimates that keeping temperature rises to 1.5°C would cost 150% more than keeping them to 2°C, though it gives no absolute figures. Like the IPCC, Dr Dietz stops short of comparing this to averted losses. But earlier work by others suggests that a rise of 1.5°C would shave 8% from global GDP per person by 2100, relative to a world with no more warming. A rise of 2°C, by contrast, would cause a discrepancy of 13%.

  28. .

    But the chief reason is that the world has no history of dealing with such a difficult problem, nor the institutions to do so. The harm done by climate change is not visited on the people, or the generations, that have the best chance of acting against it. Those who suffer most harm are and will be predominantly poor and in poor countries. The people called on to pay the costs of reducing that harm are and will be mostly much better off. The gilets jaunes angry at increases in French fuel taxes and the family which in 20 years will be forced from land in Mexico by drought know nothing of each other. But the protester does know that such taxes are not being raised in America or Russia.

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  30. .

    This matters for two reasons. First, because the world’s largest economy is a significant source of pollution. America, like every other country, needs to be on a path to eliminate all emissions by mid-century or shortly thereafter if it is to reduce the risks posed by climate change. Second, because the assumption that America is a laggard gives other countries an excuse to do nothing, undermining international climate diplomacy.

    States like California with ambitious laws on emissions can encourage the development of technologies that will then be used by others. And if America can stay on track through state actions, the nationwide politics of climate change might just change in the coming decades. Just over half of Americans aged 55 or over think climate change is man-made and worry about it, according to polling by Gallup. Among Americans aged 18-34, three-quarters do. America’s economy has been through transformations before. It can go through another.

  31. .

    Climate change is perhaps the most obvious example of companies doing more than they have to in a good cause. Twenty-five big American companies, including four tech giants, campaigned against America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement in 2017. Globally, 232 firms that are collectively worth over $6trn have committed to cut their carbon emissions in line with the accord’s goal of limiting global warming to less than 2ºC.

    Some 1,400 companies around the world either already use internal carbon prices or soon will. Many big firms now aim for carbon neutrality in their operations. Some have made big investments to that end. Apple has a renewable energy capacity equivalent to its total energy use.

    Laudable as some of this is, it is hardly a response commensurate to the climate crisis. Companies going carbon-neutral are mostly consumer-facing ones, rather than intensive emitters. Money for coal may now be scarce, at least in the rich world, but big institutional investors own a sizeable chunk of the world’s major oil companies—many of which apply a theoretical price of carbon to investment analysis but still keep pumping fossil fuel. And net-zero pledges may reinforce the misapprehension that the best way of fighting climate change is through the choices of individual companies and consumers, rather than a thoroughgoing economy-wide transition.

  32. .

    It is true that climate change is not just an environmental problem and cuts across all activities. Yet the recipe for economic growth from mainstream economists, including The Economist, disregards climate change. Yes, economics textbooks cover externalities or spillover effects, but these have not been integral to growth analysis. A search finds abundant climate studies, but less than 0.5% of the numerous growth articles over the past 50 years seem to factor climate effects.

    That allows politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, to argue that environmental protection is inimical to growth, even as the emerging reality is the opposite. American policy, too, sees any deregulation, including policy that mortgages the environment, as pro-growth. Yes, environmental destruction may boost short-term growth, but the climate outcomes hurt long-term growth and welfare.

    So, changing the conduct of growth economics is essential if we are to avert a climate catastrophe. Unless the economics profession stops ranking and rewarding countries based primarily on how much they deregulate and boost short-term gdp, the climate action that you rightly call for will continue to lag dangerously.

    Vinod Thomas
    A former senior vice-president at the World Bank
    Bethesda, Maryland

  33. .

    Jihadists threaten Mozambique’s new gasfields

    The huge reserves off the coast of Cabo Delgado have attracted pledges of investment worth tens of billions of dollars from multinational firms. Gas gives Mozambique the hope of a more prosperous future—but also a prize worth fighting over. Already insecurity, as well as covid-19 and low oil prices, are slowing exploration. If Mozambique wants to realise its dream of becoming “Africa’s Qatar”, it must pacify Cabo Delgado.

  34. .

    Until recently southern Africa had been relatively free from the jihadist attacks that have wrought havoc in the Horn of Africa, Nigeria and the Sahel. No longer. South Africa, in particular, is worried. The uprising also threatens what could be Africa’s largest-ever energy project: the development of gasfields in the Rovuma basin. Before this year analysts forecast that energy firms would spend more $100bn by 2030 to turn Mozambique into “Africa’s Qatar”.

  35. .

    Unable to export its natural gas, Uzbekistan tries using it itself

    But gas-to-liquids, at least, is a capital-intensive technology that is usually viable only when oil prices are high, notes David Ramberg, a former academic. Only four other countries use it: Malaysia, Nigeria, Qatar and South Africa. The government, however, insists that even with the oil price at the current $40 or so a barrel, it will save $1bn a year on fuel imports. Oltin Yo’l (Golden Road), the gas-to-liquids plant, will be profitable when it opens next year, promises Bekhzot Normatov, a deputy energy minister. Even sceptics concede that its output is more valuable than unsold gas, stranded untouched below the steppe.

  36. Pingback: The Economist on fossil fuel abolition

  37. .

    War and sanctions have caused commodities chaos

    The world must rise to the challenge

    That is one more reason for Western governments to counter the ill effects of the commodity crunch. The priority is to boost supply. American allies in opec, including Saudi Arabia, have declined to pump more oil, but more adept American diplomacy could yield results. Rich countries could speed up the release of the 1.5bn barrels of oil they hold in reserve. Having disparaged America’s shale-frackers, the Biden administration needs to prod them to drill more. The eu must promote or prolong its use of nuclear, renewable and coal-powered generation, so as to stock up on gas for the winter. It should also prepare for the worst case: gas rationing. Rich-country governments may have to protect the poor at home with handouts. Stimulus could mean higher interest rates or taxes, but that is a risk worth taking to protect the world against an aggressor.

  38. .

    If companies must endure the bad times but find chunks of their profits are seized when prices rise, their businesses lose viability.

    That may sound appealing to those climate activists who want to drive out of business firms like bp, whose boss recently said that high prices had turned the firm into a “cash machine”. But today’s energy crisis shows that the world needs a carefully managed phase-out of carbon emissions, not a sudden halt in fossil-fuel investment, especially if Europe is to wean itself off Russian gas. Renewable energy cannot immediately replace gas for some tasks, such as heating homes with gas boilers. Even if the infrastructure to run entire economies on electricity were in place, battery storage remains unable to plug gaps when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. Nuclear power plants provide a constant supply but take years to build.

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