Matthew Kahn has a more optimisitic view

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?



Comments

  1. Michael,

    Thought provoking—thanks. My take: yep…you can develop heat and drought tolerant plants, etc. And many people, institutions, and private sector companies have been working on these.

    However, I would note a couple of less than optimistic trends. Public agricultural research funding, at least in the U.S. and most other developed countries, has been reduced repeatedly in the past 20-30 years. Also, the latest HR1 bill in the House is seeking a 20% reduction in agriculture research funding. Such cuts certainly don’t enhance the environment for innovation. Most plant breeding is concentrated in the private sector.

    But the biggest wild card of all, in my opinion, is that climate change is increasing the number of extreme weather events. “Pushing the mean to one end” In terms of crop production, this means that one flood, one hard rain, one extended drought, can destroy a whole season’s crop. Such events are far out of range of most of our food and feed plant genetics. We really are stacking the deck, and for some perverse reason, we seem to be stacking the deck against ourselves.

    Regards,

    ReplyDelete
  2. Michael,

    Thought provoking—thanks. My take: yep…you can develop heat and drought tolerant plants, etc. And many people, institutions, and private sector companies have been working on these. Beyond plant breeding, it is important to also look at agronomic practices. Crop management techniques, precision farming, and improved irrigation techniques are examples.

    However, I would note a couple of less than optimistic trends. Public agricultural research funding, at least in the U.S. and most other developed countries, has been reduced repeatedly in the past 20-30 years. Also, the latest HR1 bill in the House is seeking additional reductions in agriculture research funding. Such cuts certainly don’t enhance the environment for innovation. Most plant breeding is concentrated in the private sector. I would say the roles of public and private research are distinct. In the context of crop adaptation, industry translates trait science into cultivars ready to plant by growers, while public research, via land grant university system, develops human resources, growers, crop scientists, agronomists, and plant breeders.

    But the biggest wild card of all, in my opinion, is that climate change is increasing the number of extreme weather events. “Pushing the mean to one end” In terms of crop production, this means that one flood, one hard rain, one extended drought, can destroy a whole season’s crop. Such events are far “out of range” of most of our food and feed plant genetics. They are also “out of range” of currently available agronomic practice. We really are stacking the deck, and for some perverse reason, we seem to be stacking the deck against ourselves.

    Regards,

    ReplyDelete
  3. James:

    Sorry, I just noticed that your comment was flagged as "spam". I don't know how that happened--usually the real spam still gets through!

    Bests,
    michael

    ReplyDelete
  4. Good post, Michael. I think that your pessimistic view is appropriate, given your evidence. While I am something of a technological optimist (isn't every economist?), I'm not sure how easy it is to develop varieties that are less vulnerable to weather extremes, etc.

    Regarding the issue of freer trade -- I think this would be an important way to smooth out problems with higher yield variability in the future.

    However, one downside is a potential loss of genetic diversity, as small scale maize producers, in places like Mexico, find it harder to compete with U.S. producers, who tend to grow a rather narrow range of varieties.

    Traditional maize farmers in Mexico may raise up to 40 different varieties of maize within a season -- each suited to a different location. If greater trade liberalization makes it hard for these small scale producers to survive and propagate their unique varieties, then that could be a major loss, for one of these varieties might have the trait that is key for future varieties. Storage of such varieties in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, for example, may not be good enough.

    In short, while the benefit of freer trade may be greater geographic diversity of supplies, it seems that we are giving up some biological diversity as a result.

    ReplyDelete

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