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Harvey Should Alter Republicans’ Stance On Climate Change

It is past time for a market-based response to global warming

Satellite photo of Hurricane Harvey over the Gulf before making landfall

The United States’ position on climate change is an embarrassment. We’re one of three countries to reject the Paris Climate Accords (Syria and Nicaragua are the others) and the only one to formally reject climate science. Republicans should be especially embarrassed, since they’re responsible for America’s denialist stance.

I wish this were a fringe position — something easily dismissed as Democrats cherry-picking a few media kooks, or self-interested lobbyists, and pretending their position is the party’s. But it’s in the party platform. James Inhofe, who Republicans chose as the last chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, brought a snowball to the floor of the United States Senate to claim, with a straight face, that winter disproves decades of climate data. And Republicans elected a president who calls climate change a hoax, and put a denialist in charge of the EPA.

That’s problematic for three reasons.

  1. It leads to policy choices that increase the probability of disasters like Hurricane Harvey.
  2. It cedes the issue to Democrats, which will lead to a more government-directed than market-friendly response.
  3. It contributes to an anti-science, anti-education sentiment on the American right, which, as Ryan Huber put it, is bad for all of us.

When someone brings this up, many Republicans get defensive, and denounce the most hyperbolic global warming alarmists, as if that position is the only alternative. Anyone claiming we’re all going to die unless everyone immediately stops driving or eating meat is also anti-science. But that’s a fringe position. And there are many sensible positions between the extremes.

Part of the problem is political tribalism. Because taking climate change seriously is more associated with liberals, many people who call themselves conservatives have decided to pretend the whole thing’s a non-issue.

But tribalistic head-in-the-sandism is nothing to be proud of. It also means left-wing activists, such as Naomi Klein, don’t get enough pushback when arguing we cannot adequately respond to climate change without first dismantling capitalism.

However, as the world’s greatest engine for wealth generation and efficient allocation of resources, markets — if properly structured — are the best way to address climate change.

Republicans should respond to Harvey by switching their position to what it should have been all along: acknowledge the science, take the issue seriously, and advocate a market-based response based on a cost-benefit analysis that accounts for economic growth and individual freedom.

The Right Way to Politicize a Tragedy

This is usually when someone accuses me of exploiting a tragedy to make a point. But being directly confronted with the consequences is a great time to get everyone to reevaluate an issue, before we slide back into complacency.

If, hypothetically, Democrats send out emails with tragic photographs saying “Republicans destroyed thousands of lives in Texas! Now give us money!!!” then yes, that would be uncouth. But that’s different from responding to a tragedy by working to make similar tragedies less likely in the future.

There’s no way to know if climate change caused Harvey. There were hurricanes in the Gulf before human activity warmed the planet, and there’s considerable randomness in weather.

The biggest reason Harvey dumped so much water on Houston is a surprisingly calm upper atmosphere. Instead of pushing the storm further inland, where it would weaken, or back out to sea, weak upper atmospheric winds let Harvey linger for days. With part of the storm over water, and part on land, it’s acted like a gigantic hose, transferring water from the Gulf to eastern Texas. That’s random weather, not human-influenced climate.

However, global warming likely made Harvey larger and wetter. Warmer water evaporates more easily, and warmer air can hold more moisture. This winter broke heat records throughout the Gulf region, including in Houston and Galveston. For the first time on record, average sea surface temperature in the Gulf never dropped below 73 degrees.

Some of that comes from random fluctuation, but some is due to climate change. And as warming continues, extreme weather events like Harvey will become more frequent.

Around the country, heavy precipitation events have increased in recent decades:

(National Climate Assessment)

And Atlantic storm systems have gotten stronger:

(Environmental Protection Agency)

The correlation between rising sea surface temperature and increasing storm strength is obvious. There are year-to-year fluctuations — which is to be expected given the randomness of weather — but the overall trend shows warming accompanied by more extreme weather, consistent with the theory.

If seeing the devastation of Harvey gets more people to take these trends seriously, then now is the right time to highlight them.

Let’s Talk About the Weather

This is the challenge for scientifically-minded people advocating a robust response to climate change: an honest discussion of the science focuses on climate rather than weather, trends rather than specific events, long-term horizons, and a range of possible outcomes with varying probabilities.

But that’s not visceral, immediate, or personal; and many ignore it. So there’s an incentive to use individual events to grab the public’s attention, even though no individual weather event can be definitively linked to climate change.

However, when climate advocates do that, it gives an opening to denialists — many of whom just happen to be funded by businesses that profit from dirty energy — to make accusations of exaggeration and inaccuracy.

Interestingly, no one rejected the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s science when it predicted Harvey’s path. But, for some reason, many who accepted those predictions balk when the same NOAA makes predictions about the climate. Why anyone does that, and why more Americans and more Republicans do that than anyone else, is a fascinating question. I don’t have a good answer, but I know we’d all benefit if more Americans come to accept the predictions of climate science.

After all, no individual case of lung cancer can be definitively linked to smoking. But, though the public resisted the science — not least because industry groups spent millions to spread doubt about its conclusions—the American public now accepts that smoking causes lung cancer. And the country’s better for it.

A Texas National Guardsman helps a woman leave her flooded home in Houston

Cost-Benefit Analysis

No one thinks 40"+ of rain will be the new normal. At least not anyone who knows what they’re talking about.

What they actually think is that the probability and severity of extreme weather events increases as the climate warms, and taking some steps to mitigate those risks is in America’s (and humanity’s) interest.

But what steps should we take?

Responding to climate change should be sort of like buying health insurance. Both require economic decisions based on estimated probability, rather than certainty. And in both cases, we want to protect ourselves from a range of outcomes, but don’t want to buy more than we need.

There’s a small possibility you never get sick. But the chances of serious disease or injury are high enough, and the downsides large enough, that it’s smart to spend some money now because of what might happen in the future.

Similarly, with the climate, it’s smart to spend some money reducing carbon emissions, thereby reducing the likelihood of worst case scenarios. Spending too much would be a mistake, but given the risks, doing nothing would be a big mistake too. A rational cost-benefit analysis is needed.

Harvey highlights the costs. Immense human suffering — mitigated by some amazing heroism, but immense nonetheless — plus considerable economic damage. Here’s a rough estimate of the latter (running total in parentheses):

  • The GDP of the Houston metropolitan area is slightly over $500 billion. Perhaps 10% of that economic activity will be lost ($50B).
  • Houston is a major economic hub, and that disruption will ripple out, doubling the total ($100B).
  • There are about 6 million people in the Houston metro area, and 11 million total affected by Harvey. Add another $20B for lost non-Houston economic activity. ($120B).
  • The Gulf holds half of U.S. oil and natural gas refining capacity, 17% of oil production and 5% of gas production. Harvey disrupted at least a quarter of that, and many facilities will require repairs. Add $30 billion. ($150B).
  • Some of the lost economic activity will be delayed purchases, but a lot is just lost. For example, refineries already run 24/7. Let’s say 10% of previously estimated lost activity is delayed, but still happens. ($135B).
  • Add $10B for medical costs and additional disability claims. ($145B).
  • Hurricane Sandy caused $75 billion in property damage. Katrina caused $108B. With the unprecedented floods from Harvey, in an area more developed than New Orleans, recovery could cost more than twice that. Let’s say $216B, double Katrina’s total (though insurance claims won’t be that high, since flood insurance is separate from home insurance, and many in Houston don’t have it). ($361B).

Reconstruction will give new contracts to businesses, but it doesn’t offset the losses. As Bastiat’s broken windows fallacy points out, breaking and repairing a window doesn’t create economic growth, because the repair funds were diverted from something else. Under depression conditions, reconstruction could act as a Keynesian stimulus, but the Houston area has high demand and low unemployment.

I’m sure some of these numbers will be off, but something in the range of $350 billion is a reasonable guess. And, while I could be guessing high, I could also be guessing low.

If Harvey was, say, 20% worse due to climate change, that’s $70 billion in economic damage. Because of carbon already in the atmosphere, some warming is locked in. But if we can reduce that additional future risk by just 30%, that’s $21 billion saved.

And that’s just the economic costs of a single storm. As of August 31, the death toll from Harvey is up to 38. Thankfully that’s a lot lower than Katrina’s 1,833 dead, but it’s still significant. In addition to the 38 dead, thousands of survivors will endure lasting suffering. The value of reduced risk to potential future hurricane victims is hard to quantify, but it adds to the benefit side of the ledger.

Reducing carbon emissions in the present reduces the risk of climate change-enhanced damage from all future storms, not just one. Harvey’s a rare event, but intense storms have become less rare, and will become increasingly common the more the planet warms. Houston alone has had three “500-year” floods in the last three years.

Spending an immense amount now would trade too much short-term pain for some reduction in long-term risk. But accepting all that long-term risk without doing anything to reduce it would be a mistake.

A house destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, TX

It’s also not clear that reducing carbon emissions will harm the economy as a whole. Energy costs could rise in the short-term, but that could prompt greater efficiency, lowering overall costs in the long-term. Dirty industries would be hurt, but clean industries would be helped. It makes sense to help individual Americans harmed by the ongoing transition to cleaner energy, but from a macroeconomic perspective, the effect could be neutral. Or even positive.

Consider employment. According to a January 2017 report from the Department of Energy, oil has the most jobs, with 515,518. But solar is second, with 373,807. That’s more than twice as much as the dirtiest energy, coal, which employs 160,119.

(U.S. Department of Energy)

Looking just at electricity generation, employment in solar dwarfs other energy sources, and has the most growth by far. Wind is third in electricity generation employment, and second in job growth.

(U.S. Department of Energy)

Only 12,840 oil employees work in electricity generation, because most oil is used for transportation and manufacturing. But if the auto industry’s electric car predictions prove correct, electricity generation will become increasingly important relative to fuel production. And maintenance jobs in wind and solar are skilled, solid-paying employment that won’t be automated or outsourced.

On the benefit side of the ledger is reducing the long-term risk of extreme weather events. On the cost side is relatively small harm to short-term economic growth. The cost-benefit case for doing something now to reduce carbon emissions is strong. The important question is how.

Republicans’ New Position

Democrats’ answer to how we should address climate change involves more regulation than Republicans would like. It also includes some environmental hairshirtism — we’ve sinned against nature and must harm ourselves to repent — that would hinder economic growth. That’s not the party’s official position, but by abdicating the climate debate, Republicans have let it go unanswered for too long.

One thing we can safely say about American politics is control of government swings back and forth. Even popular presidents activate more opposition than support—the president’s party lost Congressional seats in 18 of the last 20 midterms; no party has held the White House for more than 12 years since FDR—and Trump isn’t popular. Though Republicans are in power now, it won’t be long until Democrats regain control.

It’s therefore smarter for Republicans to join the climate debate now, rather than continuing to pretend it’s not a problem. Provide a rational, non-panicky assessment of potential costs. Advocate adaptation where it’s cost efficient. And argue for solutions that rely more on markets than government regulation.

One idea to strongly consider: a revenue neutral carbon tax. That would make the price of carbon — which currently does not factor in pollution — more closely resemble the actual cost. It avoids government-centric schemes by allowing the market to adjust and allocate resources. And using the revenue for tax credits would both counter the burden of higher energy costs — especially on working and middle class Americans who drive to work — and avoid giving the government a windfall that would inevitably lead to more spending.

Democrats would be so pleased that Republicans are finally taking climate change seriously that many would work with Republicans who say “okay, we’ll tackle the problem, but we have to do it our way.”

A carbon tax is only one idea Republicans should consider. But one thing is clear: the time for willful ignorance is over.

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Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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