With the potential for a major climate provision to be removed from House Democrats’ reconciliation bill, there is resurgent rhetoric surrounding the need for immediate and bold climate action. Climate hawks fear that if this chance for a major climate policy package is lost, then it will be years before another chance for meaningful climate action presents itself. But this all-or-nothing approach to climate policy is not rooted in our scientific understanding of the problem, nor in any sort of economic wisdom about maximizing benefits. For years we have been scoring climate victories, but they are almost never celebrated. In fact, there seems to be widespread misunderstanding regarding the risks we face and what we are trying to avoid.

A recent survey of young adults found that 59 percent of respondents were either extremely or very worried about climate change. Famously, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in 2019 that millennials feared the “world would end in 12 years” without serious climate action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report was described as “code red” for climate, and politicians renewed calls for immediate global action. Everywhere people turn the message is the same: climate change is a serious problem, even an “existential threat” according to some politicians, and no cost is too high to address it.

While climate-related disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes receive ample attention, they do not even approach the level of “existential threat” touted by certain politicians. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that climate change will reduce U.S. GDP by about 1 percent by 2050, driven mostly by extreme weather. These impacts are serious, but manageable, and do not create a compelling case for a by-any-means-necessary climate policy.

The most pressing threat from climate change is its potential exacerbation of “tail effects,” the low-probability high-impact scenarios that have devastating ecological and civilizational impacts. Such impacts can include things like a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC); climate feedback loops; or simply combinations of extreme weather events that overwhelm governments, as potentially caused the civilizational collapse of the Bronze Age. Properly understood, climate policy should be about avoiding these worst-case scenarios—and that is much more achievable than total and rapid decarbonization.

Arguably we’ve had more success on climate change than politicians like to give us credit for. Emissions in the United States and the developed world are falling—often faster than anticipated. People bemoaned President Donald J. Trump ejecting President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), but almost nobody mentions that we beat the CPP’s targets over a decade early. The latest Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook shows that, compared to projections from the same report in 2011, developed nations’ and global CO2 emissions are 1.7 gigatons and 0.9 gigatons below expectations, respectively. This isn’t because these projections were wrong, but because nations have been incrementally adopting small climate policies––a “climate incrementalism” approach.

And though the IPCC confirmed that climate change is intensifying due to human activity, it also provided the good news that the worst-case scenarios—like the AMOC collapse—are  “very unlikely” within this century. We certainly haven’t solved climate change, but the outlook is improving.

Featured Publications