Experts in the science of global climate change often criticise their opponents by disparaging their expertise in climate science. But experts in climate science are not experts in economics. So when they campaign for particular measures to combat warming there is perhaps some ground for asking whether they are advocating the most cost-effective solution.

This is a big issue not made easier by the fact that questioning the suggested actions is seen as the same as questioning the existence of warming leaving many who accept the reality of warming labelled as "skeptics" or "deniers". An example of this would be Bjorn Lomberg, whose book, Cool It, led to him being likened to a Nazi by Rajendra Pachauri (see footnote 1046 in page 202 in the english edition).

Lomberg's book doesn't challenge the reality of warming (though he questions how evidence has been used to persuade the public). More relevant to this question, he argues that the solutions proposed by many campaigners are poor ways to avoid the expected downsides of warming. For example, if we think malaria will spread in a warmer world (see related question Will a warming world directly damage human health? for more) spending money to avoid warming will be an incredibly wasteful way to hold back malaria (in fact we could probably eliminate it entirely for a tiny fraction of the cost of lowering carbon dioxide emissions).

Several other authors have made a similar argument (though many are regarded as skeptics on the reality of warming). Nevertheless both Nigel Lawson in An appeal to Reason, and Christian Gerondeau in Climate: the Great Delusion, accept the forecasts of the IPCC and base their arguments on the economics of proposed solutions arguing that preventing climate change is both unrealistic and exceedingly expensive and that policy should focus on adapting to change or developing new technologies to sequester carbon dioxide rather than avoid emitting it.

So are their economic arguments credible? Is attempting to freeze greenhouse emissions ridiculously unrealistic? Might the world be better off is we devoted our energy to adapting to warming rather than attempting unrealistic and excessively expensive ways to avoid future greenhouse emissions? Might geoengineering CO₂ capture be better than avoiding emissions?

NB This question is about the economics of warming not the debate about the science or the history. So please stay on topic.

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    This question doesn't seem to be answerable, without an agreement on our values. How much is it worth to not have to migrate? How much is it worth not to lose [endangered species of your choice]? How much is it worth to not have to turn off the air-conditioner? This doesn't seem to be a question that can be answered with scientific skepticism.
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 26, 2012 at 1:29
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    @oddthinking I disagree. The debate has clearly been framed by many campaigners as a moral issue in an attempt to drive action. But this framing has befuddled people's ability to think straight about the choices we have. If the goals are to prevent species loss, forced migration, starvation and disease, there might be far better ways to do it than those proposed by climate activists. The question isn't about which goal to pursue or the value of different goals, it is about the cost effective pursuit of the same goals. Hence perfect skeptics fodder.
    – matt_black
    Nov 26, 2012 at 8:41
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    @tacroy The question as framed does not require moral judgement. The issue is which means is the most cost effective way to achieve goals we probably all agree on. So we don't have to trade-off different value judgements just apply some clear thinking about the most cost-effective way to achieve those goals. On the other hand, wasting human effort and money on ineffective ways to achieve those goals is not a morally responsible approach.
    – matt_black
    Nov 26, 2012 at 8:50
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    @matt, I don't yet see that yet. I'm still hung up on not being able to put an agreed value of the goals. But suppose we move on. What sort of evidence would it take to convince you that the (yet to be identified) activists are right and/or wrong in their goals to avoid further climate change?
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 26, 2012 at 8:53
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    @Oddthinking I think the issue here is to think in terms of ultimate goals. We don't want to stop climate warming just because we like the current climate but because warming is supposed to bring death, starvation, migration and disease. Our real concern is those. Lowering greenhouse emissions may be a rotten way to prevent those problems.
    – matt_black
    Nov 26, 2012 at 8:59

1 Answer 1


This question includes two separate questions:

  1. Is it more cost effective to adapt to warming rather than avoiding greenhouse emissions?
  2. Might carbon capture and storage be better than avoiding emissions?

The most comprehensive work on the economics of global warming is the Stern review, which found that it is substantially cheaper to avoid global warming than it is to adapt. This hasn't exactly achieved consensus (as is predictable in both climate change discussions and in economics), but anyone arguing the reverse conclusion should really identify why they disagree with Stern. All of the problems with the report I have seen have been convincingly dealt with, but you may want to check them for yourself.

Carbon capture and storage just gives us another way of generating power without greenhouse gas emissions, much like solar or wind power. It may become cost effective in the future, but today the technology is too immature to realistically estimate the likely cost. For that reason, it is far less promising than more widespread green energy options, for which working plants are already operating.

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    good question, adding an inline quote from your reference will improve it. Dec 15, 2013 at 13:34
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    Economists have stated what they think is wrong with the economics of the Stern Review (distinct from the climate science issues), a combination of misuse of discount factors (Stern seems to think it better for people to lose a share of their income now than for their richer descendants to lose a smaller share of income in the future), plus using estimates both of the cost of the impact of climate well above the consensus view and the cost of mitigation much less than the consensus. It was explicitly not peer reviewed.
    – Henry
    Dec 15, 2013 at 15:33
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    The exploitation of fossil fuels appears to be the driving force behind economic growth since the start of the industrial revolution, so it is not a given that our descendants will be richer than we are. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, we should use them wisely, rather than being wasteful. It is rather ironic that there is so much concentration on the uncertainty in the science (which is generally overstated) and yet there is such certainty about the economics, where there isn't even agreement about discount rates.
    – user18604
    Dec 16, 2013 at 11:45

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