I guess Wolfram Schlenker and I have become the modern day Malthusians and doomsayers when it comes to potential impacts of climate change on agriculture. I often try to emphasize that we are not in fact doomsayers; we are simply laying out the range of possibilities, and show strong evidence that the downside is indeed bad. But we also maintain that there is room for adaptation in ways we cannot yet model or cannot yet anticipate. We're a long ways from Malthusians--he had a different kind of doom in mind and was much more certain about it that we are. Uncertainty is large. But, as Brad Delong often points out (and with whom I agree on this point), uncertainty is not our friend when it comes to climate change.
Matthew Kahn, esteemed professor at UCLA, leading specialist in environmental economics, and author of the new book Climatopolis, recently wrote about our work and offers a more optimistic view. He argues that our work provides a clear incentive for innovation. It shows us that we need more heat tolerant crops and that those who invent such crops will profit from inventing them. Thus, pointing out such potential problems lets us "escape" from the impending catastrophe.
Maybe Kahn is right. I believe similar credible arguments have been made about past doomsayers: they showed the then-current paths to be unsustainable and thereby allowed our society to avoid the doom they had once prognosticated. Maybe Rachel Carson made our water cleaner. Maybe worries about resource shortages in the 50s and 60s pushed Norman Borlaug to foment the Green Revolution.
But what if it's not possible. What if growing enough grain at low enough cost to feed a world with as much income inequality as we will surely have is not physically possible. What if it's as difficult to grow crops in 33+ C temperatures as it is to currently grow crops in Siberia?
Human innovation and technological change has been stupendous. But also quite varied. In some ways productivity grows at seemingly interminable exponential rates, as Ray Kurzweil likes to emphasize. But somethimes innovation looks like innovation in battery technology--stubbornly slow and halting. Erk.
It is also important to note that some of the human response to social problems like pollution comes from policy. Libertarians often point out how much cleaner our air and water in the US are today compared to 30 or 40 years ago, which is true. But at least some of that improvement surely came about from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
So. Maybe Kahn is right and we shouldn't worry about climate change. The problems will take care of themselves.
The question you may want to ask yourself is: Do you feel lucky?