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Global Warming Precedents
Oct 7 2013 11:28AM Posted by David Ludwig, Ph.D.
 

Anthropogenic climate warming is posited by many to have massive negative impacts on humanity and the biosphere. This may prove to be true. However, I believe there are good reasons to think that warming the global ecosystem will have net positive outcomes for people and the environment.

Applying a holistic systems framework to the problem from the human perspective, cataloging the negative impacts is insufficient analysis. Substantive economic, public health, and energy consumption benefits will accrue in a warmer world. I have yet to see such an evaluation, one which rationally compares benefits as well as costs to yield a forecast of net outcomes. A flawed but interesting and easy to read analysis of economic implications can be found in a book titled “Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future”, by Matthew E. Kahn (Basic Books of the Perseus Books Group, New York, 2010). Mr. Kahn suggests, via review of economics literature, that opportunities to gain from, mitigate, and prevent negative impacts, that society as a whole will adapt sufficiently to neutralize the impacts of a warmer biosphere. He sees this primarily as a defensive response—that science and engineering together will operate (in free market economic systems) on an offset basis to retain a status quo level of human quality-of-life. Kahn does not account for positive benefits such as increased food production, enhanced public health, reduced deterioration of infrastructure, and lower energy consumption. 

I do not agree with Mr. Kahn’s contention that free markets will be key to human response. I think nonmarket goods and services will accrue, and that standard economic analysis is unable to properly account for same. In any case, the book is worth reading. I commend it to you, and hope you will let me know your thoughts after you read it. 

From the ecological perspective, Tim Flannery explores a prehistoric period of biosphere warming in his excellent book “The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples” (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2001). For more than 14 million years during the Eocene, the climate warmed, and for about 1 million years, ocean temperatures (and by extension the biosphere) reached unprecedented highs.

This period of warming is associated with massive changes in biodiversity and biotic standing stock. Evolutionary processes operated at dizzying (well, as dizzying as geologic-scale events can be) rates, pumping large numbers of new taxa into the biosphere. In addition, biota found it easy to spread from evolutionary centers to remote parts of the globe. The bottom line is that this time of warming climate was a time of great biodiversity. And to the degree that fossil evidence allows, it seems that biomass and/or production were also high. 
Taken together, it is possible that global warming during the twenty-first century will enhance human quality-of-life and massively increase diversity and biomass in the biosphere. 

This optimistic scenario will only be true on a large scale or “average” basis. There will without a doubt be places and times where human economy and natural ecology are subject to intense negative impacts relative to their present state. But, from a whole-system perspective, it seems to me that global warming may well bulk up the benefits side of the ledger, while shrinking the biologic and economic costs. 

What are your thoughts about the “big picture”, whole system consequences of global warming? Comment here or email me at david.ludwig@aehsfoundation.org . I’m looking forward to exchanging views! 
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