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Faculty Viewpoints

Big Issues: It’s Past Time to Decarbonize the Economy

In Yale SOM’s Global Leadership: Big Issues course, Yale experts lead discussions of some of the most significant challenges facing the planet. Professor Douglas Kysar of Yale Law School joined the class to discuss what it will mean to begin grappling with climate change in earnest.

  • Doug Kysar
    Deputy Dean, Yale Law School; Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law

Climate change is such an intersectional, multidimensional issue that no one could wrap their head around all of the various disciplines and sources of knowledge that you need to understand in order to really grasp how severe, and how challenging this issue is. You have to understand atmospheric science and ocean science and engineering and agriculture and forestry and economics and sociology and international trade. Just everything. You name it.

I love to talk about this issue over here at SOM. When I talk about it at the law school, I have to focus on risk, I have to focus on harm and danger and liability and anger and blame and attribution. When I come over here, we get to talk about opportunity because climate change, whatever else it will do, it will disrupt every aspect of modern life, and that means transformation is needed—and that means there is money to be made, there are norms to be changed. There are opportunities that I’d love for us to talk about during this session.

The Antarctic and the Greenland ice sheets are already contributing to sea level rise, but in fairly small amounts. The observations are at the top of the projections and the projections now are probably at least a meter of sea level rise by the end of this century and these projections do not include feedback effects because scientists don’t have enough confidence in modeling feedback effects to add that in. So these are highly conservative; even the extreme ends of the range are conservative.

We have already committed to probably at least a meter of sea level rise, even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases tomorrow, which of course is not going to happen. That’s already build into the inertia of the climate system.

The effects will not be equitably distributed. In particular, heavily populated, low-lying cities in Asia will be dramatically affected. Here is the number of people impacted by three degrees Celsius of global warming—not immediately, in a sort of long-term scale, decades, maybe centuries—but here’s Shanghai with three degrees Celsius of warming.

This is what flooding in Pakistan looked like a couple of years ago. Seventeen million people displaced. Bangladesh, 40% of its land is low-lying coastal land. More important, probably, to look at the population amounts. Look at Bangladesh. Look at Vietnam. Half the country lives in a threatened area. In Vietnam, we’re already seeing internal migration at massive amounts. People are fleeing the Mekong because the Mekong is becoming salinated and suffering droughts and becoming unusable. This is one of the great rice baskets of the world and people are fleeing. Eventually, it will happen, not just internally, but across borders as well.

“The longer we wait to make a concerted effort to decarbonize, the more stark and biting that tradeoff between economic wellbeing and planetary security will feel.”

Here’s the challenge facing us in one slide. The blue is the IPCC’s two degrees Celsius of warming target. This is the hopeful path. It’s still a scary path, but this is the one that we think we can chart without major fundamental disruption to the sustaining support systems of the planet. The red is sort of the high emissions, business-as-usual scenario. If we go with the high emission’s scenario, then we will have no sea ice in the Arctic by 2050, maybe even sooner. The ocean will become so acidic that the marine ecosystems that we depend on, that much of the world depends on for protein, will fundamentally break down. If we want to avoid that, we have to figure out how to get on this blue path.

What does that mean, realistically? It means we have to be thinking about developing fully decarbonized economies, and some places are doing this. California committed to a decarbonized economy about two weeks ago through an executive order. Iceland is committed to it. Costa Rica has committed to it. Palau. We have to figure out how to decarbonize the economy.

What’s that going to mean in practice? Well, you can think about, well, how soon are we going to peak our emissions? The sooner we do it, the less severe our glide path can be, the longer time we can take to try to achieve that. What does this mean? What does this actually mean, this glide path down to a net zero emissions economy? That means changing everything. It means changing our energy sector, our transportation sector, agriculture and forestry, transportation, shipping, aviation, everything. Everything, and that means opportunity, right? That means destructive growth.

The longer we wait to make a concerted effort to decarbonize, the more stark and biting that tradeoff between economic wellbeing and planetary security will feel. Had we, back in 1992 when all the nations of the world agreed this was a catastrophic problem, had we then seriously started decarbonizing, the tradeoffs wouldn’t feel that bad at all.

What we want is light in this room. We don’t care whether coal got burned to light this room or not, right? There are some companies who care about that very much, and so the carbon majors, the fossil fuel companies and coal companies who are invested in the status quo technology, have invested heavily in distorting the science, manipulating our politicians, keeping in place this structure which gives them extraordinary rents. I mean, the rents from fossil fuel exploitation are unbelievable, and they’ve done it at a time when they’ve known, internally they’ve known—back in the ’80s some of the fossil fuel companies were raising their offshore platforms to account for sea level rise. At the same time they were lying to us about whether the seas would rise.

The sooner we start, the better, because we can decouple. You can decouple growth, services, wellbeing, the things we want, from the dirty technology that produces those things. The foaming at the mouth, tree-hugging radical answer is growth. I mean, so every individual understands the idea of declining marginal utility, right? Like New Haven pizza is awesome, and while you’re here, I want you to eat a lot of New Haven pizza, but you’re going to reach a point where you’re like, “I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough pizza. Hey, I have a sufficient amount of New Haven pizza at this point, I don’t need to grow anymore.” Why do we assume at the macro level that there’s just always, all growth is good and that there’s no countervailing trend, right? I don’t know. I think we should have that conversation.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints