23 Jan 2013

Adapting to Climate Change

Climate Change, David R. Henderson 67 Comments

David R. Henderson recently wondered what’s so special about current global temperatures, such that moderate warming will allegedly prove so damaging? After all, there have been larger swings in global temperatures in the past.

In the comments, the popular answer was that humans have adapted to the current climate. Thus, if the global average temperature that will in fact be achieved in the year 2100, had been the norm for thousands of years, then that would be one thing, but since people have settled in particular areas and adopted particular agricultural techniques etc., an increase to this (projected) temperature could be very harmful.

The major problem with this type of argument is that it ignores how much time people will have to adapt. I saw a funny stand-up bit where the comic said something like, “You know what the people on the coast should do when the sea level starts rising?” And then he took a big step backwards, on the stage.

Less flippantly, consider a new NBER paper that I discussed in this blog post. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Adaptation is the only strategy that is guaranteed to be part of the world’s climate strategy. Using the most comprehensive set of data files ever compiled on mortality and its determinants over the course of the 20th century, this paper makes two primary discoveries. First, we find that the mortality effect of an extremely hot day declined by about 80% between 1900-1959 and 1960-2004. As a consequence, days with temperatures exceeding 90°F were responsible for about 600 premature fatalities annually in the 1960-2004 period, compared to the approximately 3,600 premature fatalities that would have occurred if the temperature-mortality relationship from before 1960 still prevailed. Second, the adoption of residential air conditioning (AC) explains essentially the entire decline in the temperature-mortality relationship. In contrast, increased access to electricity and health care seem not to affect mortality on extremely hot days. Residential AC appears to be both the most promising technology to help poor countries mitigate the temperature related mortality impacts of climate change and, because fossil fuels are the least expensive source of energy, a technology whose proliferation will speed up the rate of climate change. [Bold added.]

67 Responses to “Adapting to Climate Change”

  1. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Ya the direct effect of the temperature is not what concerns me. And as we all ought to know by now, that’s going to have a differential effect anyway in different places (that’s why we say “climate change” rather than “global warming”). My bigger concern is food supply and the frictions caused by any displacement which, as you say, is potentially going to run into these time constraints.

    I am increasingly becoming a pessimist on whether we can do anything about this.

    • Jayson Virissimo says:

      What do you make of the claim that the area of land suitable for farming will increase if the IPCC temperature projections are correct?

      • Daniel Kuehn says:

        I’m not equipped to evaluate it, but it sounds plausible.

        It’s not just area of course – it’s yield, variability of weather that causes crop failures, and simply adjustments to new growing (you won’t necessarily be planting the same stuff). How quick will that adjustment be? I don’t personally know – but that’s what’s worth worrying about.

        There’s also just the whole food distribution system if a lot of population displacement is going to take place.

        Certainly in the very long run we’ll adjust. This is not going to be some kind of species-killer. But I’m not sure it will be a fun adjustment.

      • Tel says:

        Once Siberia turns into farmland, Russia will be the wealthiest nation on Earth.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      And as we all ought to know by now, that’s going to have a differential effect anyway in different places (that’s why we say “climate change” rather than “global warming”).

      Do you practice at coming off so haughty on the Internet?

      • Daniel Kuehn says:

        How is that haughty?

        Isn’t this in every discussion of climate change? I’m not being haughty I’m saying this is the common denominator we all realize that’s behind the whole discursive shift from global warming to climate change.

        If “haughty” is explicitly laying out a common understanding, then I guess I’m haughty but that seems like a weird definition.

      • Ken B says:

        ! This from the guy whom posts praise from his old professors and grade school teachers!

    • Bob Murphy says:

      As far as food supply, that’s actually one of the major examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about. In my critique of Nordhaus’ DICE model, I showed how Mendohlson (I’m spelling that wrong I think) achieved much lower damage estimates than some others, because he assumed farmers would be smart enough to change the crops they planted as it got warmer.

      • Daniel Kuehn says:

        Yep – I agree that’s what it all hinges on. I think it’s probably more than just switching crops though, right? If there is a lot of displacement you could have real disruptions in the food supply completely independent of growing.

        I’m not expert on climate change, but the consensus is that different regions will change (so some might see bad droughts, etc.), but that the Earth as a whole will be able to grow more, right? That’s my understanding. But making that transition might be painful for some people, especially if there are abrupt changes.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        “because he assumed farmers would be smart enough to change the crops they planted as it got warmer.”

        Egads, you mean he assumed the subject matter he is studying LEARNS?

        HERESY!!! Mathematical modelers the world over just had a collective rage.

        • Daniel Kuehn says:

          re: “Mathematical modelers the world over just had a collective rage.”

          OK, you clearly have no idea how modeling works in economics if you think learning is somehow beyond the pale.

          I am reminded of this takedown of David S. by Bob: http://consultingbyrpm.com/blog/2011/10/paul-samuelson-correspondence-regarding-my-papers-on-capital-interest-theory.html#comment-26098

          To borrow his formulation: MF, we always knew that you didn’t know the importance of Keynesian and New Keynesian economics. Now you reveal that you don’t understand what mathematical modeling in economics is about either.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            And DK just revealed yet more of his ignorance, this time in mathematics. And with his usual dose of haughtiness founded upon the same ignorance.

            Not only does DK not understand that I know more than he does in all things Keynesian, old or older, but I also know that DK has obviously never integrated Godel’s theorem into his already bottom of the barrel repertoire.

            Hints for DK that will probably go over his head anyway: All mathematical models, once produced, are instantly “crystalized” into a rigid relation of concepts, that leaves no room for self-validation of consistency and completeness.

            The ultimate reason for this is that mathematical models don’t learn themselves. They are sterile tools that learners such as humans utilize over time, for better or for worse.

            No mathematical model in economics, especially in Keynesian “economics”, presumes that the subject matter learns. None. Zero. Zilch. For they are all built on the assumption of constancy in relations. You take any mathematical model in economics, and you will find that this constancy assumption is mandatory, because the model is itself unchanging due to the fact that it is a rigid creation of the learning subject.

            DK is obviously conflating his own desire that economic models “should” presume learning subjects, with whether or not such models actually do presume learning subjects.

            • Ken B says:

              “All mathematical models, once produced, are instantly “crystalized” into a rigid relation of concepts, that leaves no room for self-validation of consistency and completeness.”

              I am almost cruel enough to post that over at Landsburg’s blog just to see the reaction.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                “I am almost cruel enough to post that over at Landsburg’s blog just to see the reaction.”

                Please do. If Landsburg doesn’t accept it, I would say he almost deserves whatever discomfort he experiences.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            DK, there’s believing one’s worldview does not consist of false doctrines, out of a sense of jealous protection.

            Then there is believing such jealous protection is some sort of revelation signal that those who criticize it are factually wrong.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      that’s why we say “climate change” rather than “global warming”

      Actually, “we” don’t say “global warming” anymore because there hasn’t been warming in recent years as predicted, so the rhetoric was changed to fit the data.

      • Bob Roddis says:

        The rhetoric was changed so that the narrative can fit any data. All bad weather can now be blamed on “climate change” which is caused by people who object to “progressive” solutions to everything.

      • guest says:

        Actually, “we” don’t say “global warming” anymore because there hasn’t been warming in recent years as predicted …

        Exactly right. Remember that it was Mann’s Hockey Stick graph that was considered to be “settled science”.

        They are in fact trying to pull a fast one on us here, and we should never let them get away with it:

        Real Time with Bill Maher – On global warming

        The so-called global environmental issues (first cooling, now warming) have always been about control:

        Maurice Strong Interview (BBC, 1972)

        With all the evidence that we’ve ammassed in our preparations for the Stockholm Conference, including the views of many of the world’s leading scientists, I am convinced that the “prophets of doom” have got to be taken seriously. In other words, Doomsday is a possibility. I am equally convinced that Doomsday is not inevitable.

        This question is not a matter of one man, or one group of people’s, predictions; It’s a matter of the fact that an increasing number of very serious minded scientists have produced evidence … that the natural world, in which Man lives and on which we depend, is indeed deteriorating – is being destroyed in many instances – at a rate that is accelerating, and that can only continue to accelerate unless we begin to control the activities that are having this destructive impact.

        Now, whether we are pessimistic or optimistic depends really on what we think about the nature of man; Whether we really believe that man, in light of this evidence, is going to be wise enough and enlightened enough to subject himself to this discipline and control.

        He goes on to talk about how population control, such as licencing for having babies, might be necessary, as he had before suggested for Canada.

        Maurice Strong – Air date: 05-07-01

        … but, you know, the UN is often criticized – and of course, as one who has worked in the UN for many years, I am totally mindful of its many weaknesses and deficiencies – but they derive primarily from the fact that the UN was created by governments to [unintelligible] kept weak by governments. It was given a broad mandate to become a vehicle through which governments, and now others to an increasing degree, can cooperate in dealing with major world issues which none of them can deal with, or deal as well, alone.

        It’s often confused that the UN is a government; It is not a government. It is an instrument of the governments. It’s the national governments that actually own it, that finance it, that give it its mandate, that tell it what to do and give it the means to do that. The trouble is that governments tell the UN to do things which they do not provide the resources that make it possible for them to do it, effectively.

        Maurice Strong’s Unprecedented Rise to Power

    • Matt Tanous says:

      Yes, but we are already working on technology – specifically GMOs, but also other technological advances like hydroponic “vert farms” inside skyscrapers – that would create crops that could grow under more extreme conditions, anyway, just because “hey, more food is good”. Unless you think that this will still not be a significant factor by 2100, or that these swings are going to be incredibly wild – more wild then can be attributed to “slightly higher proportions of CO2 in the atmosphere” – the problem just doesn’t exist.

  2. Daniel Kuehn says:

    The Henderson link doesn’t work, btw

  3. Blackadder says:

    I saw a funny stand-up bit where the comic said something like, “You know what the people on the coast should do when the sea level starts rising?” And then he took a big step backwards, on the stage.

    Unfortunately buildings can’t easily avoid rising sea levels by taking a step backwards.

    • Ken B says:

      Indoor swimming pools. Adapt!

    • Major_Freedom says:

      They can just build a wall using Ellen DeGeneres, KD Lang, Portia de Rossi, Melissa Etheridge, Jane Lynch, and Rachel Maddow. Or just Rosie O’Donnell.

      • Ken B says:

        Or print out and wad up a few M_F comments. Two or three would suffice for Chesapeake Bay.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          Or people can watch Kristen Wiig play her character “Penelope”, and then realize it is based on a real life person.

        • Daniel Kuehn says:

          Hey now! I don’t need any more MF comments cluttering up my general vicinity than I’ve already got!

          • Ken B says:

            Yeah but after his cheesty lesbian joke I wanted to get ‘wad’ in somehow.

            • Major_Freedom says:

              cheesty almost looks like chesty.


            • guest says:

              Yeah but after his cheesty lesbian joke …

              I get it, now.

      • Daniel Kuehn says:

        I get it!

        MF is making a LESBIAN joke!

        You can tell he’s not a child because he’s making a pun about LESBIANS using a synonym for LESBIANS!

        Clearly this is the contribution of a well adjusted adult human.


        • Major_Freedom says:

          Did anyone else giggle at the irony of this comment?

          • Ken B says:

            It depends on what the meaning of ‘this’ is.

            • Major_Freedom says:

              Not if one realizes “This sentence is false” is not a paradox, but an incoherent sentence.

              • guest says:

                Good catch.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          What’s funny is that now if should someone Google [L-word], they might find DK.

          Somehow it’s almost fitting.

        • Ken B says:

          I thought he was listing haughties.

        • Matt Tanous says:

          As long as he doesn’t tell his wife he’s in lesbians with her.

          Oh, Scott Pilgrim joke!

          • Matt Tanous says:

            *wife or girlfriend

    • Dan (DD5) says:

      So they get abandoned and eventually demolished. Or we impose very costly and crazy things on everybody so that [just maybe] they don’t.

      • Blackadder says:

        So they get abandoned and eventually demolished.

        Right, and my point is that this could end up being rather costly.

        Of course, the fact that adapting to climate change will be costly doesn’t mean preventing climate change wouldn’t be even more costly. As Bob likes to point out, DICE suggests are that climate controls would have to be implemented near-flawlessly in order for their benefits to outweigh their costs, and that’s not going to happen.

        • skylien says:

          If it is even possible to prevent anything. I mean they say warming started already well before 1900.

          That means even if you take the causal relationship of AGW for granted then not even going back to the levels of CO2 emissions of the year 1900 would be enough.

          Think about that.

          • skylien says:

            I mean of course the amount of CO2 emitted by humans, not the absolute level…

        • Ken B says:

          Well this goes to David Henderson’s point though doesn’t it? Because it surely matters how fast the sea level rises (assuming it does). Buildings usually become obsolete over time, and are replaced. But they need not be replaced on the same site..

          • Blackadder says:


            Take a concrete example: New York City. If sea levels rise by several meters, then potentially much of it could end up under water. Granted, this would happen over the course of decades, but I’m not sure how that helps much. Saying “we’ll just wait for the individual buildings to wear out and then relocate them to Cleveland” is not a workable solution.

            • Ken B says:

              1. as Bob has pointed out, the projections don’t involve this much of a rise.
              2. My point still remains valid. The COST of a gradual migration to inland cities is LESS than the COST of sudden flooding.

              This happens all the time. Most of the great ports of the ancient world are no longer used — Ostia for example. Rivers silt up, land erodes, etc.

      • Richie says:

        Hey, so what if the buildings get destroyed. In the same way hurricanes and tornadoes can “help” the economy by having to rebuild, so goes the same with “global warming” ERRRRRRRR “climate change.”

        • Blackadder says:

          Hey, so what if the buildings get destroyed. In the same way hurricanes and tornadoes can “help” the economy by having to rebuild, so goes the same with “global warming”

          You don’t really believe that, do you?

          • Richie says:

            Why should I not? The spending on rebuilding would boost GDP. Right?

            • Blackadder says:

              The spending on rebuilding would boost GDP. Right?

              Nope. Read your Bastiat.

              • Major_Freedom says:


            • Ken B says:

              I keep my Bastiat in a little box with a pane of glass on it, labelled “Break in emergency”.

              • noiselull says:


            • Richie says:

              You don’t seem to understand. Lord Keynes (the blogger) is my hero. Therefore, all that matters is GDP. Don’t you see?

  4. Bob Roddis says:

    Since sprawl is caused by government roads, government schools and Keynesian funny money dilution, let’s abolish those three (plus government flood insurance) and see if that fixes things.

  5. Blackadder says:

    On other point. Given the costs that rising sea levels could have on population centers near the oceans, perhaps we should reconsider some of our current policies that subsidize people living near the ocean (e.g. subsidized flood insurance).

    Just a thought.

    • Matt M says:

      That would certainly be a nice start, but good luck…

      I seem to recall a video of Peter Schiff testifying before some Congressional panel and he brought this up, pointing out that it increases moral hazard and all that. The panel was not AT ALL interested in discussing the issue with him. And not just in a “well that’s a decent point but we disagree” way, but in a “No. It is absolutely our duty to help people who are hurt by natural disasters. Period. Shut up.” sort of way. Across the board, all the Congressmen on the panel, Democrat and Republican alike.

      • kay says:

        please don’t say that you are honestly surprised? because that means life is going to be extra disappointing and harsh when you realize the people’s interests are no longer represented by government representatives.

  6. Cody S says:


    Let’s say the rate of sea level rise triples this century. So, by 2113 it’s around 6mm/yr. A hundred years at around 4mm per is 0.4 meters.

    What if it goes up by an order of magnitude? 2cm per annum? Average about 1.1 cm/yr? Rise of 1.1 meters?

    Let’s say the rise levels at ten times the current rate. That means 2213 gets us to 3.1 meters.

    Can we manage to prepare NYC for the coming apocalypse? Ten whole feet in two hundred years?

    As an aside, how many of the people and companies residing in NYC buildings have been there since 1813? Since 1913, even?

    It is costly for a building to become useless tomorrow; a building becoming useless over a hundred years is normal.

    Take the Capitol.

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