Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt set off a media firestorm when he questioned climate orthodoxy, asking if future global warming might actually be beneficial to humanity.
Pruitt told a Nevada TV station “we know that humans have most flourished during times of, what, warming trends,” adding “there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.”
The response to Pruitt’s remarks was swift and fierce.
Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann accused Pruitt of going through the “stages of denial,” and the American Meteorology Society’s Paul Higgins said “rates of change are unlike anything people have dealt with before.”
It’s true that the United Nations, and probably most scientists, project global warming is likely to be a net negative for human civilization, and many studies on the economic impacts of future change focus on the worst-case scenarios.
But Pruitt’s question is not totally outlandish. Economists do forecast at least some benefits with future warming, but there’s disagreement at what level net benefits from warming turn to net costs.
Models, Models, Models
“It’s always problematic to try to add benefits and harms together since people are different, but in terms of standard economic modeling, Administrator Pruitt’s comments are not as unreasonable as some of his critics are claiming,” said Robert Murphy, an economist with the free market Institute for Energy Research.
“There are plenty of obvious benefits to certain regions from warmer temperatures, such as better harvests and fewer elderly deaths in the winter,” Murphy told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Murphy has done a considerable amount of research into climate-economic models, particularly in how they have been used by the Obama administration to calculate the “social cost of carbon” estimate.
Murphy pointed out that one of the computer models, the FUND model, selected by the Obama administration to establish a “social cost of carbon,” showed global warming was a net positive through about 3 degrees Celsius of warming — a full degree higher than what the U.N. considers “dangerous.”
The two other models the Obama administration relied for its carbon cost metric showed little to no negative impacts until about 1 degree Celsius of warming.
“Obviously the FUND model leaves a lot of things out — as do all computer models — but it’s interesting that this was selected by the Obama team for their project,” Murphy said. “It shows that the actual economic research on the human impacts of climate change are not as catastrophic as the alarmists would have you believe.”
Likewise, a recent study by prominent environmental economist Richard Tol projected the impacts of warming, at least in the near-term, would be a net benefit to society.
Tol’s paper examined projections from 27 models and found net benefits from “initial warming,” then net costs to society after that. Tol said net costs appear around 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — that could be 40 to 50 years away.
After 1.5 degrees, Tol found warming has “a limited impact on the economy and human welfare in the twenty-first century,” but the costs would be “substantially greater in poorer, hotter, and lower-lying countries.”
The Paris climate accord aims to keep global average temperature under 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with a stretch goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. The U.N. considers 2 degrees a “dangerous” amount of warming.
But again, Tol found future warming would have a “limited impact” on the global economy. Other studies have pegged the cost of meeting the Paris accord as high as $58 trillion over the next 25 years.
Economists have to balance those projected costs and benefits, but in the nearer-term models suggest warming will bring positive gains.
“There are of course positive aspects to climate change,” Tol told TheDCNF. “The eastern US has just been through a brutal winter. Climate change will bring lower heating costs in winter, and cut cold-related death and disease.”
“Plants grow faster and tolerate drought better if there is more carbon dioxide in the air,” Tol said.
Indeed, satellite data suggests the world has mostly “greened” in the past few decades, which scientists partly attribute to extra carbon dioxide emissions put into the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion.
One reason is that carbon dioxide is an essential plant food. Farmers and growers have for decades pumped carbon dioxide into greenhouses to enhance plant growth. That’s one argument some skeptics make in the face of global warming alarmism.
Scientists on the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit, publicly argue that higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations are more of a benefit than a burden. One of their members, scientist Craig Idso, has catalogued a slew of studies pointing to the benefits of more atmospheric CO2.
“And beyond this very real benefit to human health from increasing temperatures, the extra CO2 has helped to increase crop yields so as to improve food security,” Idso told TheDCNF.
Though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report found that “[b]ased on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts.”
Some studies suggest yields are going up, but not as much as they would have without manmade warming. And others predict future warming will decrease yields of major crops — corn, wheat, rice and soybeans.
Studies also suggest increased rainfall in some regions and drought in others will also have a negative impact on crop production, especially in poorer regions without modern agriculture technology.
But are these negative impacts bearing out in the data? Crop yield and production data all show positive, increasing trends. Those trends will increase as poor countries, like India, continue to improve crop yields and resistance to bad weather and pests.
The world produces so much food now the World Peace Foundation declared the “elimination of calamitous famines.” Population has grown, but the death toll from famines has shrunk considerably in the last 50 years.
So What’s Going To Happen?
No one knows what future warming might bring, but most experts would likely say that there will be net negatives by the end of the century.
Even so, researchers are increasingly ruling out the most alarming global warming scenarios. U.N. analyses showed an extreme amount of warming based on unrealistic projections of global energy production, according to a recent University of British Columbia study.
While there’s disagreement over the costs of future warming, the evidence is clear that 20th century warming has been a net positive for humanity. Standards of living, crop yields, health outcomes and pretty much every other societal indicator have improved in the last century.
“The climate change we have witnessed over the last half century has been a net positive for humans,” Tol said.
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