A new article in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is headlined “The Multimillennial Sea-Level Commitment of Global Warming,” and it reports that because of carbon emissions that are virtually certain, on the basis of the lack of policy-response to global warming thus far, sea levels are now set to rise anywhere from around 8 inches to 7 feet within 100 years, and around 5 yards to 10 yards within 2,000 years. The projections are clearer (within a narrower range) for the longer time-frame than for the shorter one. That’s because even if the short-term consequences of heat-rise turn out to be relatively slight, the longer-term consequences are clearer, and will be considerably larger, as delayed impacts kick in.
An interview with the article’s lead author, Anders Levermann, was aired on the PBS radio program “Living On Earth,” during the week starting July 19th. Levermann noted that, as the lead author of the coming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he can reveal that it will be “focusing on the next 100 years,” and that because of uncertainties that are yet to be resolved in such short-term predictions, “the sea level projections that we obtain for different climate scenarios range from 20 centimeters and [to] two meters.” However, beyond that, “two thousand years is what we looked at,” and, “We expect sea level rise of two meters of each degree of global warming that we cause.” The interviewer asked, “That’s on the order … of about 7.5 feet,” and Dr. Levermann answered, “Yes.” That’s 7.5 feet for each and every degree Centigrade of temperature-rise.
So, the question is: How many degrees will the atmosphere heat up? Recently (on 26 May 2013), the journal Nature Climate Change headlined “Uncertainty in Temperature Projections Reduced,” and reported, “increased probability of exceeding a 2 ºC global-mean temperature increase by 2100 while reducing the probability of surpassing a 6 ºC threshold.” Therefore, by merely the end of the present century, there will be at least a 2-degree Centigrade, or around a 4-degree Fahrenheit, temperature-rise. This makes almost inevitable at least a fifteen-foot sea-level rise within no more than 2,000 years.
The “Living On Earth” report also included a map showing “Areas at risk of sea level rise,” and the map indicated that the submersion will be the most devastating along the East Coast, from the middle of Delaware down to the tip of Florida; and also along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. All coastal cities there, plus the coasts around NYC and Boston, will be submerged enough, within 2,000 years, so that, not only will they be deeply flooded, but even minor coastal storms will make them uninhabitable for anyone who might otherwise still be living there.
Economists discount the welfare of future generations, and therefore the welfares of our descendants 2,000 years into the future, and even just 100 years from now, are treated as virtually worthless, in today’s economic cost-benefit analyses.
Economist Richard S.J. Tol noted in his May 2010 “The Economic Impact of Climate Change,” in Perspectiven der Wirtschaftspkolitik, that, “The discount rate is the most important source of variation in the estimates of the social costs of carbon. This is not surprising as the bulk of the avoidable impact of climate change is the distant future.” He went on to say, “Implicitly, the policy problem is phrased as ‘how much are we willing to pay to buy a better climate for our children?’ Alternatively, the policy problem could be phrased as ‘how much compensation should we pay our children for deteriorating their climate?’”
Lawrence Summers and Richard J. Zeckhauser titled their September 2008 NBER working paper “Policymaking for Posterity,” and objected there to the way that the profession was valuing future generations. They noted the extreme impact that current discounting has upon these calculations: “At even a relatively modest 3 percent discount rate, a dollar of benefits a century from now is worth less than 6 cents today. … At the discount rate of 7 percent mandated for use in certain US government contexts by the OMB, the distant future becomes nearly irrelevant, as $100 a century from now is valued less than 10 cents today.” But their “distant future” was actually just a finger-snap in the context of human history. So, in an important sense, we are already near the end of history as the human species has known it.
The reason why future generations are being discounted like that, is that, in current microeconomic theory, people are treated like property, because microeconomic theory started in the 1700s, when the slave trade was very big, and the aristocracy wouldn’t have financed or otherwise advanced the careers, or the publications, of any economists whose works made a theoretical distinction between people and property. Furthermore, financial economics requires future values of investments to be discounted by the expected future inflation rate. Consequently, since people are indistinguishable from property, our descendants are treated like property, and they are discounted for inflation, just as if they were property instead of people. The standpoint of today’s investors is the standpoint of economic theory, and future people are being treated only as investments.
Coal and oil companies, and many other industries, favor existing economic theory as it stands, and do not want it to change. Though the slave traders are almost entirely gone now, the aristocracy still wants to discount future generations, because this permits those investors to make profits today off of people who haven’t yet been born — and who aren’t even around to complain about being abused. But they will be around ultimately; and a few ecologically minded economists, who are a small minority among professional economists (a profession that’s very dependent upon international corporations for their career-success), are trying to change the way these cost-benefit calculations are done. However, this situation simply can’t change unless microeconomic theory itself is fundamentally changed, and few economists have any interest at all in doing that, because international corporations don’t want it.
So, somewhere in time between, say, the years 2100 and 4200, such cities as Boston, NYC, etc., will be uninhabitable. They will be past history. It’s an interesting thought, perhaps - but just a curiosity that’s heavily discounted, so it’s not actually being given much thought. Perhaps it’s not given even as much thought as the beef that a person consumes, which had been a cow a few days before. After all, that beef has a taste, which is enjoyed now. The future is “just the future” — and it’s discounted at compounded annual rates.
Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity. This post originally appeared here.