The Inconvenient Truth about Climate Change and the Economy

By Gregor Semieniuk, Lecturer in Economics, SOAS, University of London and Associate Research Faculty, Science Policy Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex; Lance Taylor, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development, New School for Social Research; and Armon Rezai, Assistant Professor, Environmental Economics, Vienna University of Economics and Business. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2018) rightly raises the alarm about the dangers of global warming of 1.5 °C beyond the “pre-industrial” temperature level circa 1850-1900. Unfortunately, the present situation is far worse than the Panel suggests. Its projections regarding reductions in energy use while maintaining historically observed productivity and income growth patterns into the future are inconsistent with historical experience. They understate the impact of continued economic growth on carbon dioxide emission and climate damage.

On the other hand, sufficient mitigation of emission could offset the damage. It would require new spending, large but lying within the range of macroeconomically feasible reallocations. Political consensus could be another story.

We begin with two sets of background observations, then describe the IPCC’s scenarios, and conclude by examining potential macroeconomic repercussions.

Background Observations

The first point is that increasing CO2 emissions from combustion of fossil fuels has gone hand in hand with industrialization and increases in the real output/employment ratio (or “labor productivity”) for more than 250 years. Compared to traditional sources (waterpower, wood, animal and human traction) coal and subsequently petroleum and natural gas are readily available, relatively easy to handle, and have high energy density.[1] Here is a capsule history:

  • 18th– 19th Centuries: coal-fired steam engines provided the motive power for the first wave of industrialization in Great Britain and subsequently around the world.
  • 19th – 20th Centuries: transport was reorganized around steam engines on railroads, and steel production relied on blast furnaces. Electricity came from steam turbines coupled with generators; internal combustion engines later revolutionized transportation by road. Central heating and air conditioning spread widely. Coal was the main original source of energy, later supplemented by petroleum and natural gas.20th – 21st Centuries: hydro and nuclear electricity generation emerged, followed by solar and wind power.

The bottom line is that fossil fuels have been built into the core of modern technology, required by essentially all prime movers with the partial exception of electricity. (One-third of supply comes from non-fossil sources including nuclear and hydro but it also uses coal, the dirtiest and most harmful of fossil fuels). Over 90% of primary energy supply comes from CO2–producing fossil and biofuels.[2]

Second, this technological bias means that world energy utilization per person has risen in direct proportion to output per capita: A one percent increase in income is associated with nearly a one percent increase in energy use.[3] With fossil energy sources built into the economy in such a fundamental manner, CO2 emissions go up in direct proportion to output, with Earth only absorbing a fraction in natural “sinks.” Remaining emissions add to greenhouse gas (or GHG) in the atmosphere. Since the 19th century it has been known that atmospheric GHG causes global warming. Through various channels (i.e., reduced health, increased diseases, and the more direct economic consequences of lower profits and the direct destruction of capital) warming causes reductions in the flow of world gross domestic product, not to mention the devastating impacts on ecosystems described by the IPCC.

Myriad details underlie this macro level causal loop: a positive effect of output on GHG accumulation, and a negative feedback of the rising atmospheric stock of GHG on output growth.  Complications notwithstanding, unless this loop is severed, it will inevitably lead to worldwide economic collapse. The recent IPCC report suggests that, as we learn more about the climate’s response to emissions, the crash can come sooner than was previously expected.

There are two ways to sever the loop. One is to mitigate atmospheric GHG accumulation created by burning fossil fuels to supply energy—either by avoiding carbon-emitting energy sources or by finding ways to sequester emissions once they occur. The other is to employ less energy to raise output. The two are complementary, and the IPCC relies heavily on both to keep to the 1.5°C target. While transforming the energy system to create no (or preferably negative) emissions is a daunting challenge already, the second is even harder given the historical record mentioned above.

IPCC scenarios

In very round numbers, current world population is 7.5 billion, and real output or GDP in 2010 at market exchange rates is $75 trillion per year. Hence GDP per capita is $10 thousand. It is convenient to measure the rate at which energy is consumed in terms of kilowatts per person.[4] Worldwide, energy is consumed at the rate of 18 terawatts (trillion watts) or roughly 2.5 kilowatts per capita.

These numbers explain the labels on the axes in Figure 1. The world currently operates at 2.5 kilowatts and $14.5 thousand at purchasing power parity[5] at the top right end of the historical trajectory (from 1960 to 2016), the solid black line. The dashed and dotted lines illustrate future prospects, if the average growth rates from 1970-2016, and from 2000 to 2016 were to continue until 2050. They are labeled ex 1970 and ex 2000 respectively. These trajectories show proportionality between energy and real income per capita.

Figure 1: Historical and scenario trajectories of output per capita and energy demand per capita.

Source: International Energy Agency 2017, Huppmann et al. 2018. 

The IPCC enters with a “reference” or “business as usual” (BAU) scenario in red which is supposed to mirror past dynamics, even though it is evident that it falls below the extrapolation from the 2000s and grows much faster than the extrapolation from the 1970s. It implies that a given level of output per capita (horizontal axis) can be supported by lower-than-historically- observed energy per capita (vertical axis). A dot shows where the scenario is in 2050, with output in the upper range of extrapolations at a substantially lower power level. All these trajectories would spell continued global warming, several degrees above the envisaged 1.5°C target.

The two blue curves represent IPCC scenarios in which global warming is held below 2.0 and 1.5 degrees, respectively, by the year 2100 (with a possibility of some overshoot in the interim).[6] The trajectories show a very substantial reduction in energy demand relative to a high level of GDP per capita. The implied output growth rate is about 3.0% per year until 2050—similar to or faster than historical rates.

If, as in Figure 1, the energy/labor ratio falls while labor productivity rises, then the growth rate of energy productivity must exceed that of labor productivity. For sustained growth rates, such a situation is historically unprecedented.

In the scenarios, renewable substitutes for fossil fuels only come online gradually, playing a smaller role in the next two decades which are decisive for climate change. Table 1 quantifies the contribution in the reduction of fossil fuel use from BAU to the 1.5 scenario. Until 2040, around three quarters of reduced energy demand comes from fossil fuel reductions relative to baseline. Renewable energy starts to become more important only at mid-century, when the critical window to reduce emissions has all but passed.

Table 1: Reductions in Fossil Fuels in 1.5 degree scenario relative to baseline, decomposed into absolute and percent contributions from renewable energy and reduced energy demand.

Year: 2020 2030 2040 2050
Reduction in fossil fuels 7.7 202.9 355.2 494.8
Contribution from reduced energy demand 5.8








Contribution from additional non-fossil Energy supply 1.9








An Alternative Mitigation Scenario

In a macroeconomic model of economic growth designed to analyze the implications of reducing global warming with greater reliance on shifting the fuel mix rather than reducing energy demand (Rezai et. al., 2018), we used an initial mitigation cost of $160 per metric ton of carbon, or $44 per ton of CO2, in the mid-range of current estimates. Net carbon emissions are now on the order of 10 gigatons (billion tons) per year.

The model is built around the feedback loop described above. Output is broadly proportional to capital, so that the “state” variables, which evolve over time, are stocks of capital and atmospheric CO2. Labor productivity grows with the level of capital, and also increases in response to higher employment. In line with the historical pattern in Figure 1, growth of the ratio of energy use to employment is proportional to the growth of productivity—i.e. to make people more productive, they need more energy per person.

There is doctrinal dispute among economists about whether output in the medium run is set by forces of supply (typically assumed to involve full employment of labor and determination of investment in new capital by available saving) or whether it responds to effective demand (full employment not assumed and saving follows investment). Our model incorporates the latter assumptions. Outlays on mitigation add to demand, and so generate more output and employment.[7]

Figure 2 summarizes results from three runs of the model: BAU with no mitigation, mitigation set to hold the global temperature increase to 2°C, and full mitigation from the start to maintain the increase at the level of 1.3°C to which we are committed today (i.e., the level of warming that will materialize due to the emissions in the atmosphere already).

Figure 2: Simulations of the impact of different mitigation scenarios on the economy.

Source: Rezai et al. (2018)

Unsurprisingly, BAU runs the economy into a climate crisis. Net emissions go up for nearly a century and then trail off in the wake of an output collapse (upper left diagram). In the upper right-hand panel, the global mean temperature increase rises steadily by almost 5°C over a century. The underlying cause for this rise in emissions is a growing capital stock and income per capita, which start to fall precipitously as the climate worsens (middle panels), holding the output/capital ratio relatively stable (bottom left). The share of employment in population collapses as well.

The two scenarios with mitigation avoid the crisis. Cumulative net emissions stay close to current levels so that the temperature increase is held down.  Capital stock and income per capita increase exponentially and the employment/population ratio is stable.

Is Mitigation Feasible?

Figure 3 illustrates the timing of mitigation outlays. Full mitigation holds the temperature increase to 1.3°C. An initial mitigation “big push” is built into the timing, with outlays starting out at six percent of GDP and tailing off to about two percent. The simulation amounts to a more extreme version of the IPCC 1.5°C package, also because we are less optimistic regarding the deployment of negative emissions technology (i.e., the ability to reduce atmospheric carbon levels directly) within this century. The initial push in the model’s 2°C run is not as big as with full mitigation, but still peaks at three percent of GDP.

Figure 3: Mitigation shares and expenditures for the mitigation scenarios.

Source: Rezai et al. (2018)

In absolute terms, these outlays are large but comparable to other forms of spending. Three percent of current world GDP at market prices is $2.25 trillion. This magnitude compares to the world total of $1.74 trillion spent on the military. In several large countries the military’s share of GDP is in the range of two to four percent. Fossil fuel subsidies worldwide are estimated to be in the range of $5 trillion.

These numbers suggest that a big mitigation push, perhaps financed by carbon taxes and/or reductions in subsidies, is possible macroeconomically even if the link between energy use and output is not severed. This, however, would require considerable modifications of countries’ macroeconomic arrangements. Needless to say, military establishments and recipients of energy subsidies wield political clout. Fossil fuel producers have at least as much. Whether national preferences will permit big shifts in the use of economic resources is the key question. The IPCC report may help lead to a rational answer.


[1] Burning a kilogram of coal yields twice the energy as comes from the same amount of wood. Gasoline yields three times as much.

[2] For detail on energy see a new MIT textbook by Jaffe and Taylor (2018), largely accessible to the “intelligent layperson.”

[3] See Semieniuk (2018) for a review of the evidence. Recent investigation suggests that the correlation between the component of energy delivering useful work (in the physics sense of applying a force over a distance) and GDP is even higher (Serrenho et al. 2016).

[4] Power as measured in kilowatts is the flow of energy per unit time (a traditional 100-watt lightbulb uses 0.1 kilowatts or 100 joule per second). A standard metric for energy itself is kilowatt-hours (kilowatts times hours). Power absorbed by a typical US household is 1.2 kilowatts, or 11 thousand kilowatt-hours of energy per year.

[5] GDP at “purchasing power parity” or PPP is based on the idea that relatively inexpensive goods and services produced by cheap labor allow higher levels of real consumption (think of the comparative costs of haircuts in Mumbai and Manhattan). Estimated income in India, China, and all other poor countries is thereby adjusted upward, increasing the world total. The IPCC presents results in terms of PPP.

[6] All three IPCC curves are based on the marker implementation of the “middle of the road” scenario of future growth, energy demand, and technical change which is to continue past trends (Fricko et al. 2017), and are supposed to be comparable to historical data. The second of the five ‘shared socioeconomic pathways’ or SSPs (O’Neill et al. 2017)  underpins the integrated assessment models used in the new IPCC report.

[7] See Mercure et al. (2018) for an integrated assessment model where output is demand-determined.

See original post for references

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  1. Quill

    World energy consumption in 2012 was estimated to be 567 exajoules. (It is probably slightly higher now.)
    This proposes as mitigation a 28% reduction in energy demand in the next 11 years.

    There is no conceivable scenario in which that (or anything close to it) happens.

    It also seems to be ignoring the possibility of massive investment in nuclear energy, but the odds of that happening in the relevant time frame are also roughly zero.

    So while we need to still work to reduce climate change, we also need to acknowledge that we are heading for a +2.5 to +3 degree warmer world. At least.

    1. John Wright

      And the paper never entertains any thoughts about possible human population control.

      Maybe assuming this is quite realistic, given the economic belief additional humans can always be accommodated when some technological breakthrough arrives.

      Other species reproduce and consume resources until they hit a limit.

      But they may not have awareness until nature forces control of their population.

      We humans have awareness other animals may not, but, I suspect, humans will not find a soft landing as climate change manifests.

      Interesting times, indeed.

      1. Christopher Dale Rogers

        Now, now John, how dare you mention that elephant in the room, namely population, which seems a ‘no go zone’, each time I engage on population and ill effects of exponential population growth on a given area one gets howls of being some kind of authoritarian, if not accusations of being a fascist. The fact remains, in South East Asia at least, that massive increases in population size have had a highly detrimental impact on the ecology – on my first trip to Luzon Island in the late 90’s I was stunned by two ecological disasters, namely the impact of a very large volcanic eruption and degree vegetation had been stripped away from vast tracts of what were once jungles, you could see this result with huge soil erosion and increased flooding – the vegetation being stripped to fuel cooking. Allegedly, what I saw with my own eyes was an illusion. And to think the ecological movement once used to discuss such issues!

        1. Lee

          Touchy subject, this. As one UC Berkeley presenter quipped at campus environmental conference: “There aren’t too many people, there are too many white people.” The audience gasped as one. “Just kidding,” she added—insincerely I do believe.

          I’m with you. As with all things environmental and in other spheres as well, we as a species need to learn how to moderate certain of our appetites and certainly our numbers.

          1. Wukchumni

            Check out this huge pile of buffalo skulls, to be rendered into fertilizer and other uses in 1870…

            …we didn’t exactly moderate our appetites back in the day

            Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century and were reduced to a few hundred by the mid-1880s. They were hunted for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground. Hides were prepared and shipped to the east and Europe (mainly Germany) for processing into leather. Homesteaders collected bones from carcasses left by hunters. Bison bones were used in refining sugar, and in making fertilizer and fine bone china. Bison bones price was from $2.50 to $15.00 a ton.


          2. drumlin woodchuckles

            Was that presenter a “white person”?

            Or was that presenter a “person of color”?

        2. JohnnyGL

          That’s because even if we take your suggestions to the extreme (not what you’ve suggested, to be clear), commit genocide, and knock the population down to 1bn people, living a US/European level of energy consumption, we still get a deep-fried planet.

          7bn living a lifestyle like that in many sub-saharan african countries probably does NOT fry the planet…..or at least doesn’t fry it anything like as quickly as 1bn people burning fossil fuels at current developed world rates.

          We need to figure out how to give people a decent standard of living without destroying the planet. That is the challenge. We should focus on that.

          1. Wukchumni

            The challenge I see, is when the oil runs out, we’ll attempt to continue living in such a manner as we’ve become accustomed to, and will rapidly cut down all of the trees, as our last source of energy.

          2. Christopher Dale Rogers


            I make no suggestions whatsoever, I’ve commented that discussions about a rather large elephant in the room are ignored.

            However, with regards the numbers game, a well known Green in Germany, actually one of its first leaders, suggested that humans have great issues when the population exceeds 500 million, be it resource wars, pandemics, environmental degradation and so on – we are moving to a population of 10 billion, which will then decline slowly – but each single human impacts the environment, and that’s before we consider Western Lifestyles.

            For the record, economics dictated I could only ever have a small family, hence I have one child only, and even now its tough – luckily, I don’t use a car and moan like hell at my wife and daughter for their wasteful habits, for all my efforts, its usually offset by flying to the Uk three or four times per year – mind you, I’d be living in the place I was born if it were not for the UK Tory Government and racist immigration environment constructed by one Ms May.

          3. John Wright

            Assuming that “We need to figure out how to give people a decent standard of living without destroying the planet.” may be assuming the impossible.

            Not all problems are solvable.

            Perhaps “decent standard of living” may be defined to a minimalist more harmonious lifestyle without all the energy intensive conveniences?

            Technological breakthroughs will happen, and a very obvious breakthrough was the junction transistor in 1948. This was a game-changer versus the existing electron tubes as transistors used far less power. Ever more functionality has been incorporated into electronics, as junction and field effect transistors have been developed extensively and used in integrated circuits.

            But these changes did not lead to a drop in energy usage.

            For climate change and continued population growth, there may not be a big enough rabbit to pull out of the hat.

      2. Susan the other

        Yes. Agree completely. I was almost stunned by the sanitized balance sheet analysis put forward here. It is damned near pointless. It might attract some attention from investors who somehow think they can still put up some capital and make things happen, because this clearly shows a drastic crash if we can’t actually perform up to fantasy. But it is not sobering enough. Somebody needs to hit the captains of capitalism with a shoe, mess up their hair and give them a bloody nose. The omission that I found unforgivable was the silence of the oceans. They are the thing we have taken for granted and they aren’t working anymore. So the CO2 in the atmosphere is going to increase exponentially, not in some ridiculous ratio to “productivity from energy expended.” My god.

        1. Susan the other

          And also too. We can’t think through our morning, let alone our afternoon. Half of the Arctic is thawed and the cloud cover for the northern hemisphere is at least doubled and unpredictable. And GW is literally run-away in the Arctic. So more to come, which means that we might never see the sun again. So very Ray Bradbury. And everybody is busy installing solar panels. Etc.

          1. Wukchumni

            I think the key to survival around these parts will be altitude, in that during the growing season, for every thousand feet of altitude gain, the temp is lowered by almost 4 degrees naturally. The same doesn’t hold true in the winter, but you’re aren’t growing anything then.

          2. Jeremy Grimm

            I have little faith in the explanatory powers of the current economic arts. They proved their value time and again through the Reagan years of trickle down theories and most dramatically in the financial meltdown. Where is the new economic thinking in this post? What kind of ‘mitigation’ does this post contemplate? Before counting up the GDP contributions of this item based on “an initial mitigation cost of $160 per metric ton of carbon, or $44 per ton of CO2, in the mid-range of current estimates” — what mitigation technology? The section titled “Is mitigation feasible” — completely sidesteps explaining what this mysterious mitigation technology is. As I recall the IPCC reports have been criticized for assuming various mitigation and carbon sequestration technologies that largely remain TBD.

            Assume a mitigation technology and assume spending figures for mitigation and the post concludes based on its state model: “These numbers suggest that a big mitigation push, perhaps financed by carbon taxes and/or reductions in subsidies, is possible macroeconomically even if the link between energy use and output is not severed.” The production of glass or steel requires a certain amount of power as an input. I am not aware of any magical process that significantly reduced the amount of power required. Similar calculations lie at the heart of the relation between the GDP number and the use of power. If the GDP number is bloated with spending for ‘mitigation’, if we count ‘mitigation’ spending as an output — which is the sleight of hand I see in these calculations — and of course we can ‘grow’ without producing more stuff and nothing need change in the amount of power required to make glass or any other stuff. We can have our cake and eat it too! The circle has been squared. For me, this post demonstrates that dealing with Climate Chaos “macroeconomically” is fanciful and wishful thinking.

      3. Ignacio

        I have the sense that Chinese and Indians are worried about per capita demand while you americans are worried just about number of persons. Different views of what is or isn’t realistic but another way to throw responsibilities away, isn’t it?

        1. JE

          Both are important. Pick a per capita demand number and there is a capita number that fries the planet. Pick a capita number and there is a per capita demand number that fries the planet. The fact is that a lifestyle that we would determine as acceptable in the temperate USA with today’s technology requires a level of per capita demand that is not compatible with halting climate change at the current population. In fact studies have shown that homeless people in the USA have a carbon footprint that isn’t compatible with halting climate change at the current population. !!!! Sobering stuff.

          1. Ignacio

            For me the question is that we like to, instead of confronting the problem, we like to play the blaming game with results that confort us if we just go on with business as usual. It is population! so, you think that you don’t have to do nothing because whatever you do means nothing. Very similar to the republican “it is China”. Another common excuse to do nothing is “we are already doomed”.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              Exactly so – blaming ‘population’ is just another way of passing on the blame (conveniently, on all those brown people who breed so much). The population we have is a given – barring genocide or a calamitous epidemic, we can’t change demographics over the timescale we have (just decades, not centuries). Even the Chinese single child policy did little more than take a bite out of China’s population.

              The problem is resource use and misuse. At a simplistic minimum, if the most resource wasteful rich people* (north Americans, Australians, Middle Easterns) emitted carbon at the rate of the most efficient** rich people (Swedes, French and Swiss – about one third as much per capita as the former), you’d reduce emissions far more than by eliminating a billion or so of the poorest people from the planet. And its a far more achievable aim.

              *around 15+ tonne per person per annum
              ** around 5-6 tonnes per person per annum

              1. Norb

                Here in America, addressing the resource use and misuse problem requires people to think about the benefits of socialism. This is a tall order because socialism is constantly under attack in the US. The main political emphasis is that capitalist production has the ability to solve all social problems. Some criticism of capitalism is needed in order to see a possible workable future.

                Changing consumption patterns will require a new mode of production. Modern living patterns have developed in order to support capital accumulation. If a conscious effort is not undertaken to reverse the priorities of consumption to sustainable levels, only social collapse will offer a means for widespread change.

                Regions that are able to develop a highly socialist society will be able to better weather the tumultuous future racing down on all of humanity.

                When times really get tough, I can’t see how the “greed is good” mentality can survive.

                Until that crash comes, it seems ones time is best spent exploring ways to implement the proper level of technology in society to support a “comfortable” life for citizens.

                This seems possible. I’m sure the elite think along the same lines.

                Socialism for themselves, exploitation for the rest.

                Working out socialism for all seems the only survivable way. All the rest is wishful, magical, thinking. I agree with Jared Diamond, who pointed out that elites that resist needed social change only gain for themselves the benefit of dying last.

                1. Ignacio

                  This sounds like another kind of excuse: “sorry, here in the US oil consumption is cultural” you cannot go against culture.

              2. JE

                Like I said, no matter how efficiently you allocate resources, there is a population that will fry the planet. Certainly our current problem is to focus on the efficient use of resources with the population we have. We (in the west especially) are wasteful in the extreme. I’ve already been implementing the changes I can in my family’s life (food, travel, consumption, solar, etc) That is just a start though and we have to come back to a change in how we manage ourselves, our population. Brown, white, black, blue, we need to work together on it, and history isn’t replete with examples that give me confidence. There are a number of critical water wars (both too much and too little) that could explode any year now and a lot of the conflict we see burbling around the world are resource wars at their heart. These will only intensify, being local issue and proxy conflicts at the moment, and may burst into full global conflagration without much stretch of the imagination. Interesting times indeed.

          2. bayoustjohndavid

            I think that’s at least a somewhat dubious statistic about the carbon footprint of homeless people. From the link you provided:

            While it may seem surprising that even people whose lifestyles don’t appear extravagant–the homeless, monks, children–are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, one major factor is the array of government services that are available to everyone in the United States. These basic services–including police, roads, libraries, the court system and the military–were allocated equally to everyone in the country in this study. Other services that are more specific, such as education or Medicare, were allocated only to those who actually make use of them.

            Assigning homeless people responsibility for the carbon use of the police who harass and occasionally arrest them seems risible. Even the equal allocation of resource use for the nation’s resource use is questionable. Those of us who use public transit, or bike, or walk to work still consume products that are delivered by trucks, but the road system required for commerce wouldn’t be nearly as extensive as it is for a nation of suburban and exurbanites commuting one person per car.
            I’ve thought about my own energy use and realized that even though I don’t own a car and rarely eat meat, I’m not as virtuous as I thought, but that 8.5 ton floor (for carbon dioxide usage) that nobody in the U.S. can fall below seems dubious.

            1. JE

              I certainly don’t agree with their methodology completely, but the point that a sustainable level of carbon emissions at anything close to what we consider normal in the USA is highly difficult is well illustrated. Home and business heating and cooling? Knock everything down and start over with zero house rules. Food? Forget meat for everyone every day. Travel? Forget flying and driving a single passenger private car. Our house is well insulated (not zero house), solar panels, telecommute as much as practical, minimal air travel, low meat and our per capita family usage is still in the 10 ton range. We’re in big trouble because the people won’t stand for the changes needed under the current polarizing political climate. The divide and distract so the plundering can continue plan is in full effect and will be until it can’t be. Meaning catastrophe.

    2. Conrad

      Global thermonuclear war will achieve that target and then some. And personally I rate the probability of that scenario coming to pass a lot more likely than I used to.

  2. Doctorcnc

    This article reminds me of the saying “Statistics don’t lie, but liars use Statistics.” I think the big lie here is assuming all 7.5 billion humans use fossil fuels in their daily economy in equal proportion. The reality is North America is responsible for 20% of existing CO2 emissions and I would wager under 10 countries are responsible for 1/2 of all CO2 emissions.

    It hardly matters what CO2 mitigation happens in Chile or Tanzania. What matters is how soon the G10 countries reduce their fossil fuel consumption by 100% AND start sucking the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and putting it back in bedrock, where they found it in the first place. I suspect the reality is: how soon will the wealthiest 10% of the world’s humans stop using fossil fuels, leading the way.

  3. eugene

    I started on climate change 4 decades ago. During that time, I have found very few who displayed any interest at all to discussing the issue. My own transition has been from attempting talk about it to ranting a bit to “to hell with it”. My opinion is this is a dead issue to the masses.

    1. divadab

      My consolation is the certain knowledge that whatever damage we inflict on the living planet, she will survive it. We, however, may well not, at least in any numbers.

      1. Quill

        That is the key question. A world that warms 2.5 to 3 degrees Celsius will likely cause the deaths of millions. But, it is a world in which most humans and human civilization survives. There may be a degree of warming that could occur for which that is not true.

        My view that the warming will be limited to the 2.5 to 3 degree range may be more wishful thinking than supported by evidence.

      2. ChiGal in Carolina

        She may survive it, but we will destroy much of the amazing flora and fauna of this world along with ourselves.

        Small consolation.

        1. Lee

          Oh, cheer up! Evolution can start over again from scratch and perhaps get it right next time. Too bad we nor any other currently living species more complex than a microbe will be around to see it.

          Maybe the Neanderthals were the best of us: low birth rate, small populations, minimally migratory homebodies not avid of territorial expansion and apparently, given their long tenure, living sustainably within their means.

          1. Lee

            Damn! I just depressed myself. I think a cup of tea is in order, a little Vivaldi, a toke, pet the dog and an episode of the new Dr. Who. I’ll feel better then. ; )

          2. RandyM

            Maybe evolution can continue, but humans will have left hundreds of time bombs in the form of nuclear power plants, civilian and military, lying around. If they can’t be shut down and decommissioned in time, not sure what the planet will do with that much radioactivity.

          3. Robert McGregor

            “Maybe the Neanderthals were the best of us: low birth rate, small populations,” . . .

            How about the American Indians? . .

            1. Lee

              Given their development of agriculture and high population densities, such as in Mexico and Peru, the New World, if left to its own devices, might well have developed along lines similar to that of the Old World. All speculation on my part but a case could be made.

              In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond posits that geographic barriers in the New World that prevented easy cross fertilization between cultures, as well as some other environmental limitations, slowed the development of larger scale civilizations. Thus the rate but not the direction of human social and technical development was affected.

              Native Americans as well as other neolithic peoples are credited with causing extinctions of animals they preyed upon. And there is Easter Island to consider. The glaring difference between them and us is that they probably couldn’t have known better and we do.

              1. crittermom

                “Native Americans as well as other neolithic peoples are credited with causing extinctions of animals they preyed upon.”

                I’m not aware of any species the Native Americans hunted to extinction. That’s the first time I’ve heard that, & I’ve always believed they took only what they needed.
                Do you have any links to support that claim?

                1. pretzelattack

                  some of the mammals that went extinct about 10000 years ago are possible candidates. not just native americans, happened in other areas too iirc. before horses were reintroduced to the new world, they used to stampede buffalo (or bison) off cliffs. granted, that may have been the only way, without horses, to get what they needed, and they certainly weren’t responsible for their near extinction.

                2. Lee

                  See Overkill Hypothesis, a variation of the Hunting Hypothesis,

                  The science is not settled, but I do believe that anatomically modern human hunting with projectile weapons of naive prey* was, along with other factors, a major contribution to species extinction.

                  The naive prey phenomenon was evident when wolves were introduced to Yellowstone after a 70 year absence. The elk would just stare at the oncoming wolves without fear, mistaking them for coyotes, which are not a threat to healthy adult elk. Oops!

                  The ease with which wolves caught their prey was described by one wildlife wag as cruising through the park, dropping their lower jaws, and filter feeding on elk.

                  Fortunately for both species, the elk are so abundant that their learning curve climbed faster than their numbers fell.

                  1. Wukchumni

                    While not here in North America, the Maori in NZ killed off the large flightless Moa in no time flat in the scheme of things, soon after being the first humans in eden, eating em up.

                    Moas had been around for 6 to 60 million years, heretofore.

          4. Phacops

            Lee: I keep going back to those extinct failures, the dinosaurs, for perspective. They successfully supressed mammalian evolution for 200 million years while genus Homo has existed for approximately 3.5 million years. We have 196.5 million years to go before we can confirm that human “intelligence” is a positive evolutionary feature (I happen to think it was an emergent feature of a modular mind).

            I don’t think we will be as successful as dinosaurs.

            1. polecat

              I often gaze at the feathered dinos in the chicken yard .. and think that, in the end, they, and their more wild brethren .. will pass us by.

              I think I need to obtain a CRISPR device .. I see a future in human adaptation towards webbed feet, gills, and fins .. or maybe even cetacean physiology. Of course, on a long enough time-line ……….

            1. Lee

              Thanks for the link. Looks interesting but my thinking brain is tired. Will definitely read in full tomorrow.

            2. Darius

              One thing he left out was the toxic and radioactive timebombs modern civilization is leaving behind.

    2. In the Land of Farmers

      Those of us who are clairvoyant regarding Climate Change need to forget about the people who will not listen. You did your job. We need to focus on preparing; moving to a possible sustainable location, building an Ark. etc.

      1. knowbuddhau

        That’s my family you’re talking about. Loving them is not a job. And we already have an Ark, it’s called Society.

        The only Ark I’m interested in, is one with the capacity to take us all to the Yonder Shore. All in. No one out.

        And you know, I’m no dharma scholar, but I’ve never heard of a “Save yourself, fuq the doomed” sutra. Sounds to me like hinayana Buddhism. A Pali put down meaning, “lesser vehicle.” Not to be confused with Theravada.

        By all means, prepare, of course. Claiming climate change clairvoyance and turning our backs? No thanks.

  4. world guy

    There is a mistake under IPCC scenarios:
    Energy is mentioned with watts.
    Energy is watts x time or kWh.
    Power is watts
    So not sure which way it’s supposed to be represented in the article.

    Simple mistake but anytime there is a simple mistake in regards to discussions about energy/power I get worried about the other data.

    1. Ignacio

      Don’t worry. You should read all.

      [4] Power as measured in kilowatts is the flow of energy per unit time (a traditional 100-watt lightbulb uses 0.1 kilowatts or 100 joule per second). A standard metric for energy itself is kilowatt-hours (kilowatts times hours). Power absorbed by a typical US household is 1.2 kilowatts, or 11 thousand kilowatt-hours of energy per year.

      Like you I dislike the use of power per person it is yearly average power. You can use the power number and multiply by 24h and 365 days to obtain yearly average energy consumed in kwh/person.

  5. Synoia

    The only way off this industrial civilization mad ride is to crash. There is no plan, one can conceive of no solution, and the Governance necessary to execute any plan does not exist. Anyone believing otherwise needs to consider the actions of the “Yellow Vests” in France.

    Some politician will step into the gap, and promise everything to trump the top position’s election, and deliver nothing.

    Species come and species go. Ecological niches become filled.

    A return to the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries is wishful thinking. Poor, nasty, brutish and short describes the lives of most in the past.

    Anyone considering nuclear must first clean up SONGS (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station), Sellafield in the UK, or all the Atomic Power stations in France.

    If this appears too grim, and it is grim, please show me the plan, any plan, and the common will to execute the plan.

    1. jrs

      i suspect the yellow vests in France is in many ways influenced by right wing ideologies (the tell is that it appears to have little ideology, left wing movements don’t hide their ideology), but because of it’s willingness to use property damage on a mass scale (and it’s odd ability to get away with it, pipeline saboteurs don’t get near so much traction, but maybe it’s a french thing), punches beyond it’s weight compared to many other trends.

      1. BCD

        I read a well written article yesterday that made a good argument for the Yellow Vests resulting from Facebook switching its news algorithm to focus on local issues. Will the media stop jumping to conclusions pushing the Yellow Vests story as a real grass roots movement when it was really more of a Facebook in Myanmar type situation or will we have to wait for months/years to get the real story like in Myanmar?

        Who will stop Facebook and will it be before or after a world war has started? At this point I’m more concerned about authoritarian take over than climate change and I’m no denier.

        1. SimonGirty

          Well written, indeed! K Street seldom employs PR interns, without ivy league donor references. What a number of us feared about Secretary Clinton’s accession, was showing up at anti: fracking, industrial agriculture, Pharmaceutical… FIRE sector protests, face-to-face with our Tea-Party equivalents, armed to their few remaining teeth. Blaming US for the very same nightmares we’d been protesting our entire lives, but high on meth and cousins in body armor, staring down at us through taxpayer FLIR sniper scopes? France is used to this.

  6. In the Land of Farmers

    It is 10 degrees right now in Missoula, MT, population 80,000. My apartment is heated by free gas heat (which I have turned off and use an electric heater for health and environmental reasons. 60% of electric here comes from renewable sources). But this community is supported by the world far distant from here. There is no industry here and so almost everything in my apartment was not made locally, including the food I eat.

    Without massive use of technology there is no way to support my local population.

    We cannot solve the problem of Climate Change with the same things that caused the problem, which IS technology. Technology allows for a greater population by leveraging the environment for the present at a higher future cost. What ever “green energy” we create it will only lead to a higher population that needs to be fed, needs waste removed, etc.

    There is only one end to all of this and it is depopulation to a steady state that does not rely on technology. And farming is the technology that stated this mess we are in now.

    1. jefemt

      I’d put the blame more on portable, energy-rich oil, and its attendant petrochemicals. Add in some greed, multinational corporations, and 7 generations to double populations several times well beyond to where pre-oil population levels would project.

      Many of the more pernicious attributes of modern ag and modern farming can be laid squarely at the feet of oil. And, as The Prize, many of the worlds wars and conflagrations. The devils brew, literally from the bowels of the earth.

      Go Cats!

    2. FluffytheObeseCat

      [Yet another argument for] “depopulation to a steady state that does not rely on technology”

      I realize this is a very popular idea among educated westerners of my age, political bent, and socioeconomic class. But, it’s rot. Today’s aging, white, middle class westerners are not going to rule the world in the coming century. Your societal preferences are not going to come to pass. And that is a good thing.

      We will have neither a wild collapse, nor an idyllic, guided decent into some low population, collectivist pseudo-paradise. We will not all become Mad Max savages. We will not all become vegan, neo-Puritan hippies who grow all their food with compost and gray water. We will not die for your fond imaginings, and we will not stop having children to keep you calm.

      Over the next 100 years the global mean annual temperature at AMSL will rise beyond what is ‘safe’, and we may face severe global-scale social upheaval and loss of life. We will slowly stop producing greenhouse gas pollution, and the end result will be a world still populated by large numbers of humans. Very few of whom will ever study the historical archives to review the febrile nonsense that people spew now about how it’s gonna be by then.

      The past was never idyllic; but the future has never been terrifically worse (nor commonly much better) than the past. Just different. I expect this trend to continue after I’m gone, throughout my child’s lifetime. It may not, but the far greater likelihood is that it will. The only thing I can guarantee is that no one is going to torpedo their own, personal future to meet your doctrinal specifications.

      1. Fiery Hunt

        While I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments, I can’t help playing devil’s advocate:
        Is not Climate Change an unprecedented short circuit of the lineal track of human history?

        I tend to think of CC as akin to global thermonuclear war. But worse.

        Honestly, I don’t worry too much about human continuance because I’ve got so little invested beyond the next couple ( or at most 4) decades; me, having no lineage. But I still hold on to a hope that mankind will fulfil its greatest potentials and CC is the second biggest obstacle to achieving that.
        (Our own avarice being the gravest threat, IMNSHO).

        I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s no guarantee past is prologue. If that is true, what should human society do, if anything, to avoid it’s own extinction?

  7. Alex V

    This post perfectly illustrates the problem with GDP and measurement of “productivity”. Both are strictly value based metrics dependent moral judgement to determine the “value” of something. They do not capture actual human welfare in any meaningful way. Relating economic throughput to energy consumption makes as much sense as relating how many Hail Marys you say to your odds of going to hell. The argument is built on belief in both cases.

  8. Ashburn

    I agree, Alex. This piece by Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy should interest NC readers. It begins with a critique of the work by William Nordhaus on climate change, for which he will receive the Nobel (pretend) Prize for Economics. Many believe he was especially influential in the failure of governments to pursue aggressive climate action by valuing and urging growth now rather than mitigation. Hickel’s most interesting point is questioning continued economic growth and whether it is truly necessary for human happiness.

    1. John Wright

      William Nordhaus needs to talk with his nephew Ted Nordhaus who asserts the earth’s carrying capacity for human life is not fixed.

      “But threats of societal collapse, claims that carrying capacity is fixed, and demands for sweeping restrictions on human aspiration are neither scientific nor just. We are not fruit flies, programmed to reproduce until our population collapses. Nor are we cattle, whose numbers must be managed. To understand the human experience on the planet is to understand that we have remade the planet again and again to serve our needs and our dreams. Today, the aspirations of billions depend upon continuing to do just that. May it be so.”

      Probably a number of other species would prefer that humans had not “remade the planet again and again to serve our needs and our dreams.”

      Here is a rebuttal to William Nordhaus’s nephew Ted’s article from Richard Heinberg

      1. John Rose

        I cannot dismiss Ted Nordhaus until serious discussion and experiments begin happening to disprove the possibilities of “geoengineering,” i.e.deliberate actions to sequester CO2 or otherwise reverse global warming.
        Specifically, southern ocean seeding with high iron content dust, already proven to promote carbon-fixing phytoplankton by the effect of dust blown off the Sahara desert onto the Atlantic. One claim is half a shipload would create the next ice age.
        For global cooling, dispersal of sulfer dioxide aerosols at higher altitiudes mimicking the effect of volcanic eruptions that have created winter in June across the world. A half billion dollars would do it, I have read.
        Of course, the claims are excessive, but why no serious engagement of the possibilities?
        Maybe Ted Nordhaus has something.

  9. Temporarily Sane

    Look at us humans. As the climate heats up and all indicators suggest immense hardship, perhaps of apocalyptic proportions, immediately ahead if we don’t get a grip and face up to this reality…what do we do? Produce graphs, charts and endless arguments and rants about all kinds of stuff, relevant and otherwise, but we’re not actually doing anything other than endlessly rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s almost comical, if a touch macabre. Look at the intelligent bipeds, look how they flail!

    The real fun will begin when the overwhelming percentage of the population that currently doesn’t think about this climate stuff at all, or laughs it off as a hoax, realizes that there is definitely something very weird, and very scary, going on.

    If no tangible plan is in place when this happens, all the irrationality and savage brutality of massive numbers of panicking humans afraid of cataclysmic upheaval will be unleashed to rampage through our societies.

    Bezos, Thiel and the 0.10% family blogging off to bespoke bunkers in New Zealand is not a plan.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Especially not if several million climachanged New Zealanders kill all the bunkered-up in their bunkers.

      Or especially not if a hundred million Chinese climate refugees take New Zealand and requisition the bunkers.

  10. knowbuddhau

    Contrary to others, I don’t think this article is a waste of time. It says, even in the desanguinated language of economics, we could do this is we wanted to. There’s plenty of money for war and Wall Street, after all. Wasn’t long ago that only hippies and Injuns cared about the environment. More recently, AGW itself was in question. Now it can be shown that we could go big and it wouldn’t break the bank.

    I do think it gets most everything else about the real world wrong. As someone said, GDP:Productivity :: # of Hail Mary’s:Salvation from Hell. The problem is in the belief system.

    And again, the problem is our socioeconomic order and its inertia? Where does social order come from? The way things presently are shaped and going makes it nigh unto impossible to get there from here, granted. How do things come into being?

    Mightn’t we address our efforts, in a walk & chew gum fashion, also to the level from which order arises, and not just butt our heads against walls we already know aren’t going to move, even if there’s money enough?

    The problem AISI, is that we’ve come to this in the first place. The SEO&II to which the author looks is the source of the problem it’s meant to solve.

    The problem is, and has been for 28 centuries and counting, our way of not being in synch with nature. Not accounting for “externalities” has always been sophistry. Before it was burned, all the fossil fuels ever sold once belonged to someone, and it got to the point where it could be burned because profit because ignorance of return effects in a closed system. Ignoring those costs was profitable, but it didn’t magically make them go away.

    Ours is the society built, in the main, for profit via “competition” in a context of “the Conquest of Nature.” Not for the betterment of mankind, not progress, not even our vaunted way of life. Pretty sure bacteria could do better.

    Cooperation needs to displace competition, as our fundamental way of being human in the world (basing our being in a misunderstanding of Darwinian competition has been a choice, and a heavily propagandized one at that, misbegotten of a particular world view, not a natural necessity), even as we get on with the decarbonizing already.

  11. John

    Fossil fuels are the crack cocaine of our industrial world.
    We are never going to voluntarily quit them.

    No, we will continue to use until it’s lights out for mankind.

  12. Daniel A Lynch

    This article is a perfect example of why economists should not be allowed to discuss climate change.

    Climate change is not an economic problem. You can’t print clean air. You can’t print wilderness. You can’t print endangered species.

    Many of the “green new deal” proposals would actually boost emissions, because they would boost activity.

    Nearly everything humans do has an environmental impact, so we need fewer people doing fewer activities.

    Another thing: warming another 1.5C is *not* OK. There is already a mass extinction underway. The polar ice caps are already melting. Mega-fires are already happening. The glaciers in Glacier National Park are already melting, etc., etc..

    When people say we’ll be OK if we warm another 1.5C, what they really mean is that people in cities may be OK if we warm another 1.5C, it’s just too bad about the polar bears and the glaciers and the forests.

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    Neutron Jack — CEO of the World — scanned the report and snickered at the clever way investment costs were folded into the return from the investment, but that was a trick older than Enron. He ran the numbers one more time. The best case returns on investment based on the lowest estimates of the costs for investment just didn’t make the 15% cutoff. In fact, the best any combination of the numbers would support was an unknown reduction in expected losses. It was past time to selloff, and liquidate operations. Sadly, the ROI on saving the Earth was just too low.

  14. Roger

    Relax all you AGW alarmists. The Earth is not going to heat up by 0.5, 1.5 or 4.5 degC, rather it is going to cool by about 4 deg C over the next 50 years.
    Your dreams of population control will be achieved because 1/3rd to 1/2half of the Worlds population is going to die of starvation, thirst and pestilence over that period.
    If we are to be serious about this future we need to abandon about 300 miles of the northern US agricultural belt and build a couple of million acres of greenhouses, where we can grow our vegetables in an atmosphere of about 1200 ppm of CO2, warmed by nuclear power.

    1. McGardner

      You’re right on the mark Roger. Plan accordingly and bet contrarian. Most lopsided trade in history.

  15. Knute Rife

    If the purpose of economics is to allocate finite demands among infinite demands, this is an epic fail.

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