Paul Krugman Has Some Truly Shocking News About Climate Change

Paul Krugman is seldom cheery, and you almost never hear good news about climate change. Which is why Krugman's Friday column is a pleasant surprise.


"This just in: Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free," the Nobel-prize winning economist announces right off the bat.

Krugman has the research to back up his assertions—as usual—namely, two major new reports on the economics of climate change: There's a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund.

In other words, this is some serious analyses of the issue, and it comes up positive. Nevertheless, Krugman knows the news will be met with the usual denialism and despair, the view that economic growth can only be fueled, so to speak, by "ever-rising emissions of greenhouse gases." It is high-time to debunk that myth. And Krugman is the man to do it: 

Where is the new optimism about climate change and growth coming from? It has long been clear that a well-thought-out strategy of emissions control, in particular one that puts a price on carbon via either an emissions tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, would cost much less than the usual suspects want you to think. But the economics of climate protection look even better now than they did a few years ago.

On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the I.M.F. paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

And thanks to these co-benefits, the paper argues, one argument often made against carbon pricing — that it’s not worth doing unless we can get a global agreement — is wrong. Even without an international agreement, there are ample reasons to take action against the climate threat.

Krugman's biggest beef is with the prophets of "climate despair," whom he says exist on both the right on the left. The Koch-fueled right is more pernicious in its virulent insistence that economic growth and emissions slashing are absolutely at odds. But there are those on the left and even scientists who agree.

This, Krugman says is because of a fundamental and fairly crude misunderstanding of what economic growth actually is, and a failure to understand that "reduced emissions would produce large benefits in the short-to-medium run. So saving the planet would be cheap and maybe even come free."

Not to put too fine a point on it, Krugman concludes: "Climate despair is all wrong. The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic, but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines."

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