Hank Paulson has more direct experience of failure in financial risk management than any other person on the planet. As the chief executive of Goldman Sachs from 1999-2006, he was at the heart of the action as the mortgage bubble inflated. As US Treasury secretary from 2006-09, he led the Bush administration’s efforts to stave off catastrophe after it burst.
So when he talks about “the climate bubble” – the even greater threat posed by global warming – his words carry hard-earned credibility.
There is no better way to understand climate change than as a gigantic problem of risk management in the face of uncertainty.
The Risky Business project, for which Mr Paulson is one of the co-chairmen, is an ambitious attempt to quantify the threats that it poses to the US, with the aim of moving past the reflexive partisanship that too often defines the debate in America.
The results of its work, published on Tuesday, are impressive; particularly the carefully measured analysis that underpins it.
Unlike some assessments of the costs and benefits of tackling climate change, it does not pretend to certainty where there is none, and sensibly steers clear of confident predictions of impending doom. Even so, its catalogue of threats to property, agriculture, energy and public health is sufficient to make clear that uncertainty should not be taken for reassurance.
As Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who is another of the project’s co-chairmen, puts it: even if you were profoundly sceptical about the weight of scientific evidence and opinion, why would you choose to ignore the risks of climate change, given the seriousness of the consequences if you were wrong?
It is the detailed support for that argument, estimating the potential costs of those consequences, that is Risky Business’s most significant contribution. But for all its strengths, choosing to focus only on the impacts of climate change on the US means that it misses out some vital issues.
One is a sense of the costs of tackling climate change, whether by cutting greenhouse gas emissions or building defences. While it makes sense to spend money to limit risk, it is in everyone’s interest to do so as cheaply as possible.
Another critical issue is the future of US climate policy. Facing an intractable Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Barack Obama has abandoned any hope of passing climate legislation, and is instead using regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Legally that approach has been repeatedly backed by the Supreme Court, most recently in a ruling on Monday that rejected most of an attempt to overturn controls on greenhouse gas emissions. Politically this is problematic, because it lacks bipartisan support. Republicans seem certain to reverse all of the Obama administration’s climate policy if they gain control of the presidency and Congress.
Finally, there is the international dimension. While Risky Business is focused on the US, the effects of climate change are global; so should be the solutions.
Mr Bloomberg argues, rightly, that the US should take the lead. It has no hope of persuading other countries to curb emissions unless it can show that it is prepared to take action itself. But that again relies on the president enjoying a broad base of political support.
In today’s bitterly polarised American politics, Risky Business may find the audience it seeks among non-partisan business leaders, but is unlikely to gain many converts among members of the public or politicians.
Setting out the risks as this report does is just the first step. If Mr Paulson and his colleagues want to make real progress in changing America’s mind about climate change, they will have to make it a sustained effort.
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