Gambling with Civilization

1.

Forty years ago a brilliant young Yale economist named William Nordhaus published a landmark paper, “The Allocation of Energy Resources,” that opened new frontiers in economic analysis.1 Nordhaus argued that to think clearly about the economics of exhaustible resources like oil and coal, it was necessary to look far into the future, to assess their value as they become more scarce—and that this look into the future necessarily involved considering not just available resources and expected future economic growth, but likely future technologies as well. Moreover, he developed a method for incorporating all of this information—resource estimates, long-run economic forecasts, and engineers’ best guesses about the costs of future technologies—into a quantitative model of energy prices over the long term.

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Stanley Greene/NOOR/Redux
Greenland, photographed from a boat navigating the melt where dog sleds used to travel across the ice, October 2009

The resource and engineering data for Nordhaus’s paper were for the most part compiled by his research assistant, a twenty-year-old undergraduate, who spent long hours immured in Yale’s Geology Library, poring over Bureau of Mines circulars and the like. It was an invaluable apprenticeship. My reasons for bringing up this bit of intellectual history, however, go beyond personal disclosure—although readers of this review should know that Bill Nordhaus was my first professional mentor. For if one looks back at “The Allocation of Energy Resources,” one learns two crucial lessons. First, predictions are hard, especially about the distant future. Second, sometimes such predictions must be made nonetheless.

Looking back at “Allocation” after four decades, what’s striking is how wrong the technical experts were about future technologies. For many years all their errors seemed to have been on the side of overoptimism, especially on oil production and nuclear power. More recently, the surprises have come on the other side, with fracking having the biggest immediate impact on markets, but with the growing competitiveness of wind and solar power—neither of which figured in “Allocation” at all—perhaps the more fundamental news. For what it’s worth, current oil prices, adjusted for overall inflation, are about twice Nordhaus’s prediction, while coal and especially natural gas prices are well below his baseline.

So the future is uncertain, a reality acknowledged in the title of Nordhaus’s new book, The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Yet decisions must be made taking the future—and sometimes the very long-term future—into account. This is true when it comes to exhaustible resources, where every barrel of oil we burn today is a barrel that won’t be available for future generations. It is all the more true for global warming, where every ton of carbon dioxide we emit today will remain in the atmosphere, changing the world’s climate, for generations to come. And as Nordhaus emphasizes, although perhaps not as strongly as some would like, when it comes to climate change uncertainty strengthens, not weakens,…


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