Even without growth, climate change is a problem


in Economics, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Over at Forbes, Tim Worstall has written something rather silly about climate change:

“This might look like very bad news, that economic growth has pretty much come to an end as an important phenomenon. On the other hand we could regard it as pretty good news as well: for it means that we no longer have to worry about climate change.”

When we talk about economic growth, we are talking about gross domestic product: the sum of all the transactions that happen in an economy in a year.

Climate change isn’t caused by GDP directly, but rather through the burning of fossil fuels. What matters is how much fossil fuel gets burned, not what the size of the economy is. Even with a shrinking economy, climate change is a huge problem if we continue to get the bulk of our energy from oil, gas, and coal. Conversely, a strongly-growing economy built on nuclear or renewable sources of energy could see rising GDP with falling greenhouse gas pollution.

In The Bridge At the Edge of the World James Gustave Speth summarizes our predicament:

“How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world for our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy.”

Our challenge is to find a way to leave most of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuels underground. Reducing our emphasis on economic growth may help with that, but it is not sufficient. It may not even be necessary, if we are successful at building prosperous economies based on zero-carbon sources of energy.

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