Happiness Is a Warm Planet

Friday, January 30, 1998

In the recent debates over global warming in Washington and other world capitals, a critical point has been lost: Global warming, if it were to occur, would probably benefit most Americans. If humankind had to choose between a warmer or a cooler climate, we would certainly choose the former. Humans, nearly all other animals, and most plants would be better off with higher temperatures. The climate models suggest, and so far the record confirms, that, under global warming, nighttime winter temperatures would rise the most and daytime summer temperatures, the least. Most Americans prefer a warmer climate to a colder one--and that preference is justified. More people die of the cold than of the heat. More die in the winter than the summer. Statistical evidence suggests that the climate predicted for the end of the next century might reduce U.S. deaths by about forty thousand annually.

In addition, less snow and ice would reduce transportation delays and accidents. A warmer winter would cut heating costs, more than offsetting any increase in air-conditioning expenses in the summer. Manufacturing, mining, and most services would be unaffected. Longer growing seasons, more rainfall, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide would benefit plant growth. Already there is evidence that trees and other plants are growing more vigorously. Although some locales may become too dry, too wet, or too warm, on the whole humankind should benefit from an upward tick in the thermometer.

What about the economic effects? In the pessimistic view of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the costs of global warming might be as high as 1.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product by the end of the next century. The cost of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, however, would be much higher. William Cline of the Institute for International Economics has calculated that the cost of cutting emissions by one-third of current levels by the year 2040 would be 3.5 percent of worldwide gross domestic product. The IPCC also reviewed various estimates of losses from stabilizing emissions at 1990 levels, a more modest objective, and concluded that the cost to the U.S. economy would be at least 1.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2050, with the burden continuing to increase thereafter.

The optimal way to deal with potential climate change is not to embark on a futile attempt to prevent it but to promote growth and prosperity so that people will have the resources to deal with it.

The forecast cost of warming is for the end of the next century, not the middle. Adjusting for the time difference, the cost to the United States from a warmer climate at midcentury, according to the IPCC, would be at most 0.75 percent of gross domestic product, meaning that the costs of holding carbon dioxide to 1990 levels would be twice the gain from preventing any climate change. But the benefit-cost calculus is even worse. And if Third World nations, such as China, India, and Brazil, are exempted from the requirements of the treaty, Americans would pay a huge price for virtually no benefit.

And even if the developing countries agreed to return emissions to 1990 levels, greenhouse gas concentrations would not be stabilized. The buildup would only slow because for many decades more carbon dioxide would be added to the atmosphere than removed through natural processes; consequently temperatures would continue to go up. Instead of saving the full 0.75 percent of gross domestic product by keeping emissions at 1990 levels, we would be saving much less.

Global change is inevitable. Warmer is better. Richer is healthier.

Whatever dangers global warming may pose, they will be most pronounced in the developing world. It is much easier for rich countries to adapt to any long-term shift in weather than it is for poor countries, which tend to be much more dependent on agriculture. Poor countries lack the resources to aid their flora and fauna in adapting, and many of their farmers earn too little to survive a shift to new conditions. But the best insurance for these poor countries is an increase in their wealth, which would diminish their dependence on agriculture and make it easier for them to adjust to changes in weather, including increases in precipitation and possible flooding or higher sea levels. Subjecting Americans to high taxes and onerous regulations will help neither poor countries--we could buy less from them--nor us.

The optimal way to deal with potential climate change is not to embark on a futile attempt to prevent it but to promote growth and prosperity so that people will have the resources to deal with the normal set of natural disasters. On the basis of the evidence, including historical records, global warming is likely to be good for most of humankind. The additional carbon, rain, and warmth should promote the plant growth necessary to sustain an expanding world population. Global change is inevitable. Warmer is better. Richer is healthier.