OpinionOpinion L.A.

What will climate change cost? Let's be honest about our ignorance.

WeatherEcosystemsConservationEnvironmental PoliticsBarack Obama
If we pretend to know what we simply can't know right now, we feed climate doubt

Because President Obama’s plan for fighting climate change — a moderate one, by the way — will involve some hits to the fossil fuel industry, conservatives and climate skeptics have jumped all over it, saying that it will destroy the economy. In response, the administration released a report this week by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers saying that climate change could end up costing the United States $150 billion a year. In addition, it predicted that every decade of delay would increase the cost of fighting global warming by 40%.

There is no doubt, in any well-informed circles, that climate change is going to cost us dearly, in weather catastrophes, rising sea levels, changed growing seasons and a host of other ills. Looking at these unprecedented upheavals, the global cost of climate change will almost certainly outstrip the global price of reducing its effects.

But the president’s effort to put persuasive and fairly specific dollar amounts on the relative costs — especially when he uses national numbers to describe a global situation — might have the opposite effect. It gives skeptics more room to doubt anything and everything about climate change. Using the vague words “could cost” doesn’t absolve the report of seeming to know a future that we can’t know just yet.

Even many staunch climate believers have some concerns about this new report. As the Washington Post reported:

“Robert N. Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, noted that the damages associated with climate change would be disproportionately borne by developing countries vulnerable to rising sea levels, drought and other impacts, so that the damage to the U.S. economy would be less than $150 billion.”

Even if those numbers were correct, he noted, it would not be accurate to attribute the entire impact to a slowdown in U.S. policy, “because a delay in U.S. action is not going to have an impact that is anywhere close to what would make the difference between the 2 degrees and 3 degrees Celsius global temperature rise.”

We are learning ever-scarier things about climate change, and already feeling its effects in the predictions of extreme weather patterns that have come true in recent years. But what we still don’t know is a lot. I recently spent a week and a half at a remote field station in Arctic Alaska, working with scientists who were involved in various studies about how warming will affect the inland tundra environment. Permafrost, that rock-hard layer of frozen soil, is already thawing in some areas of the Arctic. This is of global concern because, as one scientist is fond of putting it, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. As permafrost  thaws, the soil is expected to release carbon that has been locked within its icy matrix, thus contributing to global warming.

But how pervasive will the thaw be and how deep will it go? The permafrost in the central tundra is still frozen, though its temperature has warmed slightly. Thaw would also allow plants to put down deeper roots, growing bigger and thus recapturing more carbon than before. But would that be all of the extra carbon released, most of the carbon or very little? Studies in that region that look at how migrating birds might be affected, and the growth of certain plants, haven’t found any alarming results so far, but the researchers are trying to create conditions that they think will affect this section of the Arctic, because those conditions haven’t occurred so far.

This is one small corner of all that we are trying to piece together, in a world full of unknowns.

There’s already a tendency among climate deniers and skeptics to believe that this is all a conspiracy. Utmost honesty is required, and facts should not be used selectively to achieve a certain conclusion. Climate change is going to cost us and the rest of the world plenty. We need to do what we can to reduce future warming and adapt to the changes that inevitable change is going to bring. But we cannot pretend to know what we do not know.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
WeatherEcosystemsConservationEnvironmental PoliticsBarack Obama
  • U.S. can be a global winner by going lean on energy consumption
    U.S. can be a global winner by going lean on energy consumption

    There are endless metrics to gauge whether the United States is ahead or behind other countries. Finland does education better and cheaper. Russians and central Europeans beat Americans in alcohol consumption. But it takes only five minutes for the average American to earn enough money to buy...

  • Jerry Brown for governor
    Jerry Brown for governor

    Forty years have passed since Californians first elected as their governor a very young and quirkily charismatic Jerry Brown. Back then, voters made a conscious break from the past, choosing a 36-year-old Democrat with floppy collars and a philosophical bent to succeed two-term Republican...

  • The good news about offshore oil rigs
    The good news about offshore oil rigs

    Never let it be said that Mother Nature doesn't appreciate irony. A new study led by researchers at Occidental College and UC Santa Barbara has found that the oil platforms dotting the California coast are fantastic for sea life.

  • There's a better way to do immigration reform
    There's a better way to do immigration reform

    Immigration is the definitive wedge issue in American politics, but it doesn't have to be. When the Senate's Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act failed to pass the House this year, it was the third such failure of comprehensive reform in a decade....

  • British war brides faced own battles during 1940s
    British war brides faced own battles during 1940s

    America's attitudes toward immigration have always been complicated. Influenced by world events, the U.S. embraces some immigrants and demonizes others, and it can be difficult to understand the logic. Take the story of 70,000 would-be immigrants from Britain during the 1940s who all...

  • Calm down, America, Ebola isn't about to kill us all
    Calm down, America, Ebola isn't about to kill us all

    A Texas university refuses to accept students from Nigeria, where there were a couple dozen Ebola cases before the disease was quickly stopped. Louisiana refuses to allow incinerated trash from the treatment of Texas' first Ebola victim, Thomas Eric Duncan, into its landfills, as though...

  • Can the U.S. healthcare system do as well against Ebola as Nigeria's just did?
    Can the U.S. healthcare system do as well against Ebola as Nigeria's just did?

    Two. That’s the total number of known Ebola cases in the United States today — the two infected nurses from Dallas’ Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Nina Pham and Amber Vincent.

  • Catholics, Africans, gays and the race card
    Catholics, Africans, gays and the race card

    The Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops that ended over the weekend was a remarkable exercise in transparency, with liberal and conservative prelates openly sparring over whether the church should adopt a more welcoming approach to gays and to Catholics who divorced and remarried.