Schelling interview, Part I: How much will climate change affect the U.S.?

Conor Clarke at the Atlantic conducted a rich interview with Thomas Schelling, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory, on the topic of climate change (part 1, part 2). It is worth reading in full and I hope to blog on various specific parts at some point.

As Conor says in his intro:
CC: Climate change presents the world with an incredibly complicated bargaining arrangement. The big costs will be born by future generations, and born more heavily by countries other than the United States. The responsiblity for those costs is also distributed unevenly around the world, and there is no enforcement mechanism for a global agreement. And underscoring all of this is a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen 50, 100, or 500 years in the future.

I was hoping Schelling could help me make sense of this.
Schelling completely agrees with the challenge of selling climate change in the U.S.:
TS: I do think that one of the difficulties is that most of the beneficiaries [of minimizing climate change] aren't yet born. More than that: Most of the beneficiaries will be born in what we now call the developing world. By 2080 or 2100 five-sixths of the population, at least, will be in places like China, India, Indonesia, Africa and so forth. And what I don't know is whether Americans are really willing to understand that and do anything for the benefit of the unborn Chinese.
And later he is more explicit that he believes the chances of a catastrophic effect on the U.S. are low, and American prosperity will allow the U.S. to largely adapt to any changes:
TS: If I were to come clean to the American public I would say that, except for a very low probability of a very bad result -- which is the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would put Washington DC under water -- we are probably going to outgrow any vulnerability we have to climate change. And in case we'll be able to afford to buy food or import it is necessary. You know, very little of the US economy is susceptible to climate. All of agriculture is less than 3% of our gross product. Forestry may be endangered. Fisheries may be endangered. But recreation might actually benefit!

So if we can double our GDP in the next 70 or 80 years, even if we lose some of our GDP from climate change -- even if we lose 10% of our GDP from climate change -- we're still ahead so much that the effect of climate change wouldn't be noticed. But it would be pretty disastrous in a lot of the less developed parts of the world.
This is the sort of argument that environmental purists and pragmatic climate bill advocates alike despise (although Freeman Dyson might applaud Schelling's hard-headedness). And Schelling himself acknowledges they will make it much harder to sell climate policy domestically:
TS: It's a tough sell. And probably you have to find ways to exaggerate the threat.

CC: And when you say, "exaggerate the costs" do you mean, American politicians should exaggerate the costs to the American public, to get American support for a bill that will overwhelmingly benefit the developing world?

TS: [Laughs] It's very hard to get honest people.
As Conor says, "weighing the costs and benefits of climate change is both morally fraught and empirically uncertain," and he lists seven reasons why "climate change change questions aren't just math puzzles." I'll add another question we need a moral framework for, which has bothered me for a while - to what extent is it permissible to "exaggerate" the immediacy of climate change to convince American voters to support climate change legislation that, due to behavioral discounting of the distant future, isn't in their "pseudo-rational" best interest? Schelling himself is clearly ambivalent:
TS: But I tend to be rather pessimistic. I sometimes wish that we could have, over the next five or ten years, a lot of horrid things happening -- you know, like tornadoes in the Midwest and so forth -- that would get people very concerned about climate change. But I don't think that's going to happen.
Should we be rooting for another Katrina now, to save the earth for the children of our human brethren in the developing world?

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