In previous IER columns I’ve pointed out that Nobel laureate Paul Krugman puts aside his economic training when he cheerleads for the environment. His recent NYT article on the upcoming presidential election drives home my point. According to Krugman, the fate of the planet itself depends on Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump for the White House.
Of course this is a nonsense claim, whether you are worried about climate change or not. Later in the post, I will quote from the IPCC to show their quantification of the “costs of delay”—they are nothing like the cliffhanger result that Krugman paints. Indeed, it is notable that Krugman doesn’t even bother trying to justify his claim: He thinks it is self-evident that saying “climate change is a serious problem” is the same thing as saying “If Trump wins, we are doomed.” It’s understandable that someone bereft of economic theory might make such a mistake, but when Paul Krugman does it, you suspect that his partisanship is at play.
Krugman on the Planet and Election
To reassure the reader that I’m not putting words in his mouth, here is Krugman explaining just how crucial it is that people vote for his preferred candidate:
[T]he political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council…made its first presidential endorsement ever, giving the nod to Hillary Clinton…
And it’s not hard to see why: At this point Donald Trump’s personality endangers the whole planet.
We’re at a peculiar moment when it comes to the environment — a moment of both fear and hope. The outlook for climate change if current policies continue has never looked worse, but the prospects for turning away from the path of destruction have never looked better. Everything depends on who ends up sitting in the White House for the next few years.
Krugman then tells us that if no new political action is taken, then the planet is doomed (Click here for a post debunking Krugman‘s claim about incentives for wind and solar power). However, on the bright side, he also assures us that “[s]olar and wind power are getting cheaper each year, and growing quickly even without much in the way of incentives to switch away from fossil fuels,” meaning that with just modest support from the government, “an energy revolution would be just around the corner.”
As is so typical in these emotion-laden arguments, however, Krugman doesn’t seek to quantify his knife-edge result. Apparently the above two trends—namely, the impending destruction of humanity from greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand, versus the exploding efficiency of wind and solar on the other—are just so counterbalanced that the fate of the world hangs on American voters in November.
This is quite an extraordinary claim, so let me make sure the reader sees why. Regarding the problem of climate change: Krugman needs things to be really really awful, so that a Trump victory in November means Earth is done for. But, they can’t be so awful that there is no hope; it has to be the case that Hillary Clinton in the White House means we are all saved.
At the same time, Krugman doesn’t want his readers to think that “saving the planet” will be really expensive. So that’s why he told them back in 2014 that solving the climate change crisis would be really cheap, and possibly even free (really, he wrote that). Yet here too Krugman needs to be careful: If he makes the alleged revolution in renewable energy too powerful, then those technological innovations would “save the planet” all on their own, without any subsidies, taxes, or mandates from the government.
Thus we see that it is an extraordinary coincidence that these two independent trends are counterbalanced juuuuust right so that Hillary Clinton winning the election means we have a strong economy and moderate climate, whereas Donald Trump winning means humanity is doomed. To repeat, Krugman doesn’t even hint that such a balancing act is required, let alone does he try to accomplish the feat with even rudimentary calculations.
The “Consensus Science” Says Krugman Is Bluffing
Is there any way to resolve this impasse? Fortunately, for years progressives like Krugman have been lecturing us that we should turn to the consensus on climate change research as codified in the periodic reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Very relevant to our topic at hand, in the most recent IPCC report, they provide a quantitative estimate of the “cost of delayed action” on climate change. In other words, if we stipulate the standard computer models that peer-reviewed economists and natural scientists use in the field of climate change, we can assess how much costlier it will be to achieve a given objective if governments delay the implementation of recommended policies.
Specifically (and as I explain fully in this earlier IER post), the IPCC reported that even in a high-emission baseline scenario, if governments “do nothing” further about climate change until the year 2030, then its best guess of the cost of achieving a desired concentration of atmospheric CO2 rises by 44% in the years 2030-2050 and 37% in the years 2050-2100.
Let me repeat that: The IPCC in its latest report definitely wanted policymakers to take action sooner rather than later. So, it reported that delaying mitigation policies until the year 2030 would make it more expensive (in terms of forfeited economic output) to contain global warming to a desired threshold. But the IPCC did not say that the cost would become “infinite”—meaning that humanity was doomed. No, the IPCC reported that the economic cost of containing the problem would likely be 37 – 44 percent higher, depending on which time frame we analyze, compared to the cost of implementing “solutions” immediately.
Krugman vs. IPCC
To repeat, the IPCC reported that delaying action on climate change until the year 2030 would increase the expense of dealing with climate change, but it would not be an enormous increase. In contrast, in his recent NYT column Krugman argued that delaying action merely until the year 2020 (i.e. the next presidential election, in the event Trump wins) would be catastrophic to the planet.
It should be clear that Krugman was bluffing. The reason he didn’t bother trying to actually justify his claim is that it is unjustifiable.
IER founder Rob Bradley had a great observation when he compared alarmist climate change rhetoric to a high-pressure sales tactic. The manipulative salesperson doesn’t want the mark to have time to think logically about the purchase, but instead wants to create a sense of urgency and thus relies on emotional appeals.
We see such high-pressure sales techniques in Krugman’s NYT column. He clearly is “selling” Hillary Clinton for president, and will grab any emotional ploy he can to seal the deal. He has no problem telling readers that if they don’t vote for Clinton, they are helping to destroy the planet itself. The fact that such a claim is not remotely defensible using the IPCC’s own reports, just shows how little concern Krugman actually has for the integrity of the climate change debate. If Krugman doesn’t let the IPCC reports influence his writings on climate change, why should anyone on the Right take him seriously when he lectures them on “denying” the consensus?