Scientists are quick to point out that there is much unknown about climate change. But ecological economist Herman Daly, of the University of Maryland, believes that focusing on the uncertainties of climate change may cloud the need for immediate action.
Herman Daly: We’re spending a lot of time with very complex climate models trying to measure and model effects of climate exactly, and what’s going to happen when and so forth.
He’s referring to the uncertainty about the rates of polar melting, or sea level rise, for example, or unknown ecological damage – all possible effects of climate change. There are questions about how much fighting climate change will cost.
Herman Daly: This is seen as, we can’t do anything until we have all these precise measurements. No, I don’t think so. I think we know very well the basic principles – we can’t just continue to put more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At some point that will provoke unacceptable climate changes.
Daly believes policymakers shouldn’t require conclusive models in order to start cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. He believes the reality is that climate change will have negative consequences on humans and ecosystems.
Herman Daly: Exactly when and exactly in what sequence it seems to me, are secondary questions.
Daly is responsible for popularizing the term “steady state economy” over 30 years ago.
Herman Daly: A steady state economy is idea that goes back to classical economists. Not new. It means constant population, and constant stock of physical goods. So it’s an economy in which the path of progress is not bigger – more and more stuff – it’s an economy in which path of progress is to get better – to design better things. The reason we do that is because we’re part of a larger system which doesn’t grow. If we keep on growing, we crowd out everything else in the system, and we depend on all those other things, including the climate.
He said that the concept of an economy that limits growth, rather than pursuing it, is a model for limiting the greenhouse gases driving climate change.
Herman Daly: I hope to see the idea come out that in order to limit carbon dioxide, we’re going to need more than just improved efficiency. The current philosophy is to be more efficient, and then we’ll keep growing economically, and have more population and more consumption growth. I think that’s a losing battle. We’re going have to face up to the idea that we’re not going to grow the way we did in the past, if we are going to keep down carbon emissions. We’re going to have to limit further growth in the economy, and approximate something like a steady state economy.
He believes that if we don’t act on the climate now, it will lead to suffering.
Herman Daly: When things get worse, probably we’re going to have to suffer a little bit more – some more Katrinas and some more environmentally climate induced disasters. If things get worse and worse, then finally people will say, ‘Hey, we really do need to do something.’
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.