Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Pope Francis attend the meeting, “Faith and Science: Towards COP26,” with other religious leaders in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Oct. 4, 2021. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Peter Stockland: Money talks in climate debate

By 
  • November 6, 2021

Granted, there is something beyond the borderline of zany in a journalist urging theologians to look to economics for reform of human behaviour.

Most journalists, after all, are called to their vocations by a love of language that’s directly proportional to their hatred of mathematics.

As for theologians, well, yes, there is the Book of Numbers in Scripture. But even a journalist listening to a social justice homily or reading a bishops’ statement on capitalism can tell that’s about the closest most theological thinking gets to “the queen of social sciences” as economics is called.

Thinking about it, though, there’s no reason this should be so. After all, Our Lord formulated the most powerfully lucid cost-benefit analysis ever when he asked: “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?”

The great mystico-theological warbler Leonard Cohen sang, “there is a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.” Much more pragmatically, there is a cost to everything; it’s how the light bulb comes on. We change when reform extracts a lower cost than existing habit.

In that light, Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, might have been better putting pragmatics ahead of poetry in their recent historic joint statement on climate change ahead of the COP26 conference being held in Glasgow until Nov. 12. “Listen to the cry of the Earth,” the trinity of Christian leaders said.

The “cry of the Earth” does deserve good marks for metaphor. Alas, it misses the mark badly in terms of specific action to, uh, stem the rising tide of global temperatures. Recent work in economics, by contrast, shows that workable action on climate will occur when the quantifiable cost of doing nothing exceeds the input price of doing something.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, there’s vigorous debate among climate economists, and so cause for real hope, that the “social cost of carbon” will provoke genuine behavioural reforms because it profits us to make them. The debate has been sparked by calculations showing that the combined cost of global damage from climate change can actually produce future savings if we avoid it in the first place.

Under the long-standing existing model developed by Nobel laureate William Nordhaus, a pioneer of climate economics in 1975, “future damage from global warming would come to 1.3 per cent of future gross domestic product and put the social cost of carbon at under $5 a ton. That could only justify reducing emissions by nine per cent” — nowhere close to the Holy Grail of net zero.

On winning a share of the Nobel Prize in economics for 2018, Nordhaus described climate change as a “menace (that) looms over our future” but also warned the Paris Climate Accord’s 1.5- to two-degree warming target was economically unfeasible. As the Journal reports, it would “cost 3.5 per cent of (global) GDP whereas the damage from temperatures rising three degrees was just two per cent of GDP.” What does it profit a man to give up his SUV and do nothing to solve the climate problem?

Emerging models combining climate change, GDP projections and population distribution, however, reconfigure the costs by a minimum 33 per cent. It begins to make it “profitable” to take rising temperatures into serious account but regarding avoiding them as money in the bank. A model developed by economist Michael Greenstone, for example, factors into climate change the costs of premature death and decreased labour productivity, both missing from earlier calculations.

The Wall Street Journal article emphasizes such re-evaluations are up for debate. But it’s a debate about facts and, most importantly, figures, which might be why math-averse journalists and even the Pope tend to cry out with theo-poetry rather than calculate cost-benefit.

Let us pray the light bulb comes on soon.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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