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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The stench of climate change denial

A photo illustration showing a man smelling disgusting surroundings, in New York on March 7, 2021. (Caroline Tompkins/The New York Times)

By Paul Krugman

This may sound a bit weird, but when I think about my adolescent years, I sometimes associate them with the faint smell of sewage.

You see, when I was in high school, my family lived on the South Shore of Long Island, where few homes had sewer connections. Most had septic tanks, and there always seemed to be an overflowing tank somewhere upwind.

Most of Nassau County eventually got sewered. But many American homes, especially in the Southeast, aren’t connected to sewer lines, and more and more septic tanks are overflowing, on a scale vastly greater than what I remember from my vaguely smelly hometown — which is both disgusting and a threat to public health.

The cause? Climate change. Along the Gulf and south Atlantic coasts, The Washington Post reported last week, “sea levels have risen at least 6 inches since 2010.” This may not sound like much, but it leads to rising groundwater and elevated risks of overflowing tanks.

The emerging sewage crisis is only one of many disasters we can expect as the planet continues to warm, and nowhere near the top of the list. But it seems to me to offer an especially graphic illustration of two points. First, the damage from climate change is likely to be more severe than even pessimists have tended to believe. Second, mitigation and adjustment — which are going to be necessary, because we’d still be headed for major effects of climate change even if we took immediate action to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions — will probably be far more difficult, as a political matter, than it should be.

On the first point: Estimating the costs of climate change and, relatedly, the costs polluters impose every time they emit another ton of carbon dioxide requires fusing results from two disciplines. On one side, we need physical scientists to figure out how much greenhouse gas emissions will warm the planet, how this will change weather patterns and so on. On the other, we need economists to estimate how these physical changes will affect productivity, health care costs and more.

Actually, there’s a third dimension: social and geopolitical risk. How, for example, will we deal with millions or tens of millions of climate refugees? But I don’t think anyone knows how to quantify those risks.

Anyway, the physical side of this endeavor looks very solid. There has, of course, been a decades-long campaign aiming to discredit climate research and, in some instances, defame individual climate scientists. But if you step back from the smears, you realize that climatology has been one of history’s great analytical triumphs. Climate scientists correctly predicted, decades in advance, an unprecedented rise in global temperatures. They even appear to have gotten the magnitude more or less right.

The economic side of the effort looks flakier. That’s not because economists haven’t tried. Indeed, in 2018, William Nordhaus received a Nobel largely for his work on “integrated assessment models” that try to put the climate science and the economic analysis together.

Yet with all due respect — Nordhaus happens to have been my first mentor in economics! — I’ve long been worried that these models understate the economic costs of climate change, because so many things you weren’t thinking of can go wrong. The prospect of part of America awash in sewage certainly wasn’t on my list.

There has been a trend in recent studies to mark up estimates of the damage from climate change. The uncertainty remains huge, but it’s a good guess that things will be even worse than you thought.

So what are we going to do about it? Even if we were to take drastic steps to reduce emissions right now, many of the consequences of past emissions, including much bigger increases in sea level than we’ve seen so far, are already, as it were, baked in. So we’re going to have to take a wide range of steps to mitigate the damage — including expanding sewer systems to limit the rising tide of, um, sludge.

But will we take those steps? Climate denial was originally all about fossil fuel interests, and to some extent it still is. But it has also become a front in the culture war, with politicians like Ron DeSantis of Florida — who happens to be the governor of one of the states at greatest immediate risk — apparently deciding that even mentioning climate change is woke.

Now imagine the collision between that kind of politics and the urgent need for substantial public spending, on everything from sea walls to sewer systems, to limit climate damage. Spending on that scale will almost surely require new tax revenue. How quickly do you think right-wing culture warriors will agree to that?

So I’m very worried about the climate future. We probably won’t do enough to limit emissions; President Joe Biden has done far more than any of his predecessors, but it’s still not enough, and Donald Trump has promised oil executives that if he wins, he will reverse much of what Biden has done. Beyond that, we’re unlikely to do enough to limit the damage.

In short, it’s not hard to see some terrible outcomes in the not-too-distant future, even before full global catastrophe arrives. Bad stuff is coming, and we’re already starting to smell it.

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