The false choice between economic growth and combatting climate change

arctic melt, climate change, NASA

CAROLYN KORMANN / THE NEW YORKER – In 1974, the economist William Nordhaus described the transition from a “cowboy economy” to a “spaceship economy.” In the former, he wrote, “we could afford to use our resources profligately,” and “the environment could be used as a sink without becoming fouled.” But, in the spaceship economy, “great attention must be paid to the sources of life and to the dumps where our refuse is piled.” He added, “Things which have traditionally been treated as free goods—air, water, quiet, natural beauty—must now be treated with the same care as other scarce goods.” Toward the end of his landmark paper, “Resources as a Constraint on Growth,” Nordhaus discussed the possible adverse effects of energy consumption, most notably the “greenhouse effect.” From a “rough calculation,” he found that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would increase by more than forty per cent in the next sixty years. “Although this is below the fateful doubling of CO2 concentration,” he wrote—scientists had already predicted that such a doubling could cause the polar ice caps to melt catastrophically—“it may well be too close for comfort.” He was prescient. We are now dangerously on track to hit his estimate, four hundred and eighty-seven parts per million, by 2030 …

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