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How to Worry About Climate Change

Oren Cass ’05 argues that we — both the US Government and Williams College — worry too much about climate change.

A more dispassionate placement of climate change alongside a range of worrying problems does not mean there is nothing to worry about. But it points away from sui generis mitigation at all costs and toward an existing model for addressing problems through research, preparation, and adaptation. It suggests that analytical exercises that would never be applied to other worrying problems, like assigning a “social cost” to each marginal unit of carbon-dioxide emissions, are as inappropriate as estimating a “social cost of computing power” as it brings humanity closer to a possible singularity, or a “social cost of international travel” as it elevates the risk of a global pandemic. Taxes on any of them are closer to political statements than efficient corrections of genuine externalities, and each would be more likely to stall meaningful economic and technological progress than to achieve a meaningful reduction of risk.

Lessons might run in the other direction as well: We are not focusing as much on other challenges as we should. And perhaps, if climate change were consigned to its rightful place in the crowd, some additional attention might be available to concentrate elsewhere. If the level of research support, policy focus, and international coordination targeted toward climate change over the past eight years had gone instead toward preventing and managing pandemics, imagine the progress that could have been made. For a fraction of the cost of de-carbonizing an industrial economy, it could be hardened against cyber attacks; with a fraction of the attention corporations pay to their own purported climate vulnerability, they could make real strides in their own technological security.

A little bit of worry provides healthy motivation. Too much is a recipe for paralysis, distraction, and overreaction.

Read the whole thing. Cass’s perspective — like the perspectives of others skeptical that climate change is a major problem that requires special attention from the federal government (or the College) — is not welcome at Williams. As we discussed last summer, Williams believes that only one side of the debate should be heard on campus. Is anyone else concerned that Williams is morphing from a college into a madrassa?

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#1 Comment By Williams Alum On January 18, 2017 @ 8:36 am

I’m not.


#2 Comment By JAS On January 18, 2017 @ 10:17 am

I could point out that the final sentence is missing a couple of letters, but I think it is actually missing an entire word. “Is anyone else concern *trolling* …?”

#3 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 18, 2017 @ 10:24 am

Typo fixed. Thanks!

I don’t think this is concern trolling, i.e., “the action or practice of disingenuously expressing concern about an issue in order to undermine or derail genuine discussion.”

I am honestly concerned that Williams restricts the set of opinions that are expressed on campus. Not only did it ban Derbyshire, but it refuses to invite anyone skeptical of climate change to participate in this year-long collection of events.

#4 Comment By atty On January 18, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

#5 Comment By KSM On January 19, 2017 @ 3:46 pm