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Wall Street Journal op-ed on economic consequences of climate change found naive by scientists

Posted on:  2017-08-02

Reviewed content

Headline: "Climate Change Isn’t the End of the World"

Published in The Wall Street Journal, by David Henderson, John Cochrane, on 2017-07-30.

-1.5 scientific credibility
"-1.5" verdict chart image

Scientists’ Feedback


This Wall Street Journal commentary by David Henderson and John Cochrane argues that the world would be better off adapting to climate change than eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions that cause warming. Scientists who reviewed this article found that it does so by ignoring most climate impacts apart from estimates of Gross Domestic Product change, by using only the most optimistic estimates of this economic loss, and by focusing on adaptation possibilities in high-income nations like the United States.

Climate change could have a much larger economic impact, along with impacts on the spread of human disease, food security, extreme weather, and marine ecosystems, for example.

See all the scientists’ annotations in context



These comments are the overall opinion of scientists on the article, they are substantiated by their knowledge in the field and by the content of the analysis in the annotations on the article.

Aaron Bernstein member picture

Aaron Bernstein

Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard

Although many claims in this op-ed don’t mesh with reality, the most concerning delusion presented is that the health costs of climate change are both known and manageable. Legitimate economic analyses have put the costs of climate change at 2100 to GDP at several percent to more than 20%[1], with the variability largely due to different discount rates. Simply put, the more you care about children, the more expensive climate change becomes. Even these higher damage estimates may fail to capture the full costs of extreme events over time, as Martin Weitzman’s work has shown. But there’s another, and more difficult, rub. What if we don’t understand the full consequences of greenhouse gas emissions? Consider ocean acidification, which is a direct consequence of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. The higher acid content in the world’s oceans has already begun to interfere with marine life, including fish reproduction. Research has just begun to explore the reverberations of ocean acidification to human nutrition (and consequently risk of migration and conflict). Economists do not include these massive externalities in their estimates because they have yet to be quantified. If we underestimate climate damages, we won’t simply have a costly externality kicked down the road for our children to deal with. We might not have a viable planet, and without a second planet in the wings, betting the viability of the world on a few uncertain economic analyses seems like an act of utter folly. We must, of course, make trade-offs in where we put our money but doing so based on the face value of current economic evaluations—especially those based on GDP which is generally regarded as a poor measure of economic health—gives catastrophic error too great a chance. A better approach would be to focus on implementing carbon prices that will limit greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will prevent levels of warming that the scientific community and most nations on earth have deemed potentially disastrous for human civilization.

David Easterling member picture

David Easterling

Chief of the Scientific Services Division, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center

This is a very simplistic, almost naive op-ed on climate change impacts. Some assertions such as the one about CO2 being good for plants demonstrates that the authors do not know or understand how increasing CO2 is good or bad for plants, they are just repeating something they heard. The idea that Miami is going to build a dike like Rotterdam is almost laughable. Of course climate change is not the only risk to society, but it is the biggest environmental risk. And most large buildings (e.g. Empire State Building) are not rebuilt every 50 years, only smaller, more expendable ones are.

The article plays down impacts of climate change that most studies consider to be highly important: e.g. the death toll of heat waves, hazards to coastlines, costs and friction of migration and other adaptation. While it is true that climate change is not the only risk our society faces, economic studies suggest that the risks of climate change are important, especially in certain economic segments (e.g. agriculture, health) and for low income countries with low capacity for adaptation. The article fails to mention that hazards and distributive issues of climate change increase all the other risks that the authors itemize, “nuclear explosions, a world war, global pandemics, crop failures and civil chaos”, even if it is not yet clear to what extent.

The authors seem unaware of many consequences of climate change, particularly related to the ocean. The increase in ocean acidity and temperature, due to uptake of atmospheric CO2, will have tremendous consequences for many marine organisms and thus ultimately humans via sea level rise, impacts on weather and climate, food security, etc.

Wolfgang Cramer member picture

Wolfgang Cramer

Professor, Directeur de Recherche, Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE)

This article argues that policies concerning climate change need to differentiate between different objectives and instruments and also says that, in some sectors such as built infrastructure, adaptation may be less costly than what is conventionally assumed. While this may be true as a general statement (and nothing is new about it), the article creates confusion rather than clarification by focusing only on the few sectors where, in a “North American world” unaware of any poor countries, adaptation can be achieved at manageable cost. The article does not ask the question how other sectors besides the construction sector might fare under significant warming, nor how low-income people (inside or outside North America) would be affected. It also avoids speaking about the major economic and socio-political disruptions of the world being caused by warming and sea-level rise in developing countries.

[1] See the rating guidelines used for article evaluations.
[2] Each evaluation is independent. Scientists’ comments are all published at the same time.

Featured Annotations

The statements quoted below are from the article; comments and replies are from the reviewers.

“Carbon dioxide hurts nobody’s health. It’s good for plants. Climate change need not endanger anyone”

Aaron Bernstein member picture

Aaron Bernstein

Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard

By this logic, the authors would gladly drink water endlessly, in the belief that as a harmless—even potentially beneficial—substance, doing so could never hurt them. Unfortunately for them they’d die from having so wrecked their bodies’ chemistry. Carbon dioxide, like water, isn’t acutely toxic to people (though it does appear to slow our brains down). But the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already 50% higher than at any point in modern human existence. The harms that result from this change to the planets chemistry are many and well described in, among other places, the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

“Healthy societies do not fall apart over slow, widely predicted, relatively small economic adjustments of the sort painted by climate analysis. Societies do fall apart from war, disease or chaos. Climate policy must compete with other long-term threats for always-scarce resources.”

Aaron Bernstein member picture

Aaron Bernstein

Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard

To suggest that climate change does not bear (or has little bearing) upon war, disease, and chaos represents either an exceedingly narrow and optimistic view of available peer reviewed research on the influence of climate change on these outcomes or ignorance. The extraordinary threat that climate change already poses to national security was outlined by the U.S. Defense Department in 2015. Research on climate change and infectious disease risks suggests that it either directly (through changes in mosquito population distributions) or indirectly (through forcing mass migrations) will augment risks of pandemics.

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