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The Planet Is Screwed, Says Bank That Screwed the Planet

A report from two economists at JP Morgan Chase pushes back against traditional economic wisdom on climate change.

JP Morgan Chase executive Jamie Dimon (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

JP Morgan Chase is the world’s leading financer of fossil fuel projects. And according to a report from within the company, recently leaked to the press, the world is seriously underestimating the adverse effects of climate change.

The 22-page report, entitled “Risky Business: the climate and the macroeconomy” and dated January 14, 2020, has been reported by multiple outlets since Friday as containing a gloomy assessment of the risk presented by climate change in the near future. But it also offers a withering takedown of how economists in particular have tended to think about the climate crisis, criticizing findings from several of the field’s experts by name, including a recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics. “We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened,” the report concludes. It’s a stunning bit of cognitive dissonance from a bank that is doing so much to fuel the crisis. It also shows a growing push for a more grounded assessment of the crisis than mainstream economics has offered in recent decades.

The report was originally obtained by Rupert Read, a University of East Anglia philosopher involved with the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, after it was sent out to the bank’s clients. A spokesperson for JP Morgan Chase told the BBC that it was produced “wholly independent from the company as a whole.”

Essentially an informational document, the report—written by U.K.-based JP Morgan economists David Mackie and Jessica Murray—reviews a battery of academic literature on climate change. It examines several predictions of climate change’s impact on gross domestic product, including economist Richard Tol’s 2018 survey of 26 different climate models—one of the more comprehensive recent works. While Tol has links to organizations that have cast doubt on the scientific consensus around the climate crisis, as his own research has, the findings listed are not especially controversial. But the JP Morgan Chase report authors push back on those and other prominent predictions. “Most likely,” the authors conclude, “these estimates of the income and wealth effects of unmitigated climate change are far too small.”

The models Tol compiled suggest that warming of up to 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit; well beyond the guardrail laid out in the Paris Agreement) could even have a positive effect on GDP. With six degrees of warming—a worst-case scenario science writer Mark Lynas likened to “a meteorite striking the planet”—GDP would only be projected to suffer by 7 percent relative to that of an unwarmed world, according to one model. Other studies JP Morgan Chase examines found higher impacts—up to a 23 percent hit to GDP by 2100, though it notes that even this is likely too optimistic.

Tol’s survey includes several models from William Nordhaus, the godfather of environmental economics, who won what is colloquially referred to as the Nobel Prize in economics in 2018, along with Paul Romer. Nordhaus, who is cited throughout the leaked report, pioneered the use of so-called climate economy models, which assess the impact of climate change and climate change mitigation policies on GDP. Such models traditionally imagine climate impacts as playing out along a linear trajectory—a consistent rate of change with no sudden jumps.

Like others in the field, Nordhaus has tended to use high discount rates in his models, essentially arguing that investments toward climate mitigation in the short-term will be more expensive than if those investments are made down the road, since continued GDP growth will make the same amount of money less meaningful to our future, richer selves. The JP Morgan Chase authors reject these approaches, in part because they fail to account for abrupt effects like more rapid ice-sheet disintegration. “Nordhaus argues that because the dynamic of disintegration is slow moving, a moderate discount rate puts the damages at close to zero in net present value terms,” the report’s authors write. “However, uncertainty about the non-linear interactions between the Greenland ice sheet and other dimensions of the climate system creates doubt about how precise Nordhaus can be.”

Mackie and Murray add that econometric models “are based on historical data of variations in temperature and precipitation seen over recent decades. But, we have not seen enough variability in the data to make these models reliable,” going on to list several potential climate effects that economists have “struggled to quantify.”

Nordhaus’s work has been broadly criticized both within and outside his discipline—including by Martin Weitzman—for taking a go-slow approach to the crisis, his high discount rate essentially shunting the burden of dealing with climate change onto future generations. He’s said recently that 3.5 degrees of warming, which could trigger chaotic tipping points and represent an existential threat to several small island nations, is “optimal.”

JP Morgan Chase recently came out in support of a carbon-tax plan based on the kinds of Nordhaus-school models its own report criticizes, from the ExxonMobil-backed Climate Leadership Council. The group’s proposed $40 per ton price on carbon dioxide—which enjoys significant and well-publicized support from academic economists—would rise gradually over time and be enacted in exchange for regulatory rollbacks.

New York University climate economist Gernot Wagner, speaking to me by phone, praised Nordhaus for being forthcoming with his Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy, or DICE, model and for updating it regularly, which isn’t common. He also pointed out the gulf between how different strands of economists have tended to approach the same problem. “What climate economists have been using for a quarter-century is something that financial economists wouldn’t recognize as being a proper way of looking at the price of a particular asset, in this case carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s two different ways of looking at the world.” Wagner and others have argued, including in his recent Bloomberg column, that $40 per ton is “woefully inadequate for the task at hand.” He pointed out that ExxonMobil’s own analysts, via a Canadian subsidiary, recommended that $75 per ton of carbon dioxide would have been necessary to stabilize that country’s emissions all the way back in 1991.

In recent years, a number of economists have started to argue that more aggressive carbon pricing—a stand-in within models that can translate into any number of policies in the real world—would be both necessary and appropriate to fight global warming. Using an approach closer to the one used by financial economists, Wagner, Columbia Business School professor Kent Daniel, and former Goldman Sachs risk-management expert Robert Litterman worked out their own model in an article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal last fall. While they didn’t settle on an exact, ideal price per ton of carbon dioxide, Wagner said they couldn’t “in good conscience get the price lower than $125.”

The most important thing, he emphasized, is that there is no magic number. “It could be $200 per ton or $400 per ton,” he said. “There are so many uncertainties that presenting one number is just insane. It’s uncomfortable for an economist to say, but the grand conclusion is a bit of humility. We can’t tell you the grand solution. Everything we know about how to price a ton of carbon dioxide tells us that it seems to be much, much worse than the standard climate economy models tell us.” Given that many economists argue for implementing a carbon price at the exclusion of other measures of fighting emissions, the effect of underestimating this price can be tremendous.

In 2019, a report from the Rainforest Action Network and several other groups found that JP Morgan Chase was by far the world’s most generous bank backer of fossil fuels, having financed $196 billion worth of coal, oil, and gas projects between 2016 and 2018. That’s $44 billion more than its closest competitor, Wells Fargo. And it’s a figure that makes the new climate report’s findings particularly striking.

The JP Morgan report doesn’t include clear recommendations for what the company’s own risk analysts should do with the information presented. “Most likely,” it states, “business as usual will be the path that policymakers follow in the years ahead”—something its authors say “opens the earth to a greater likelihood of a catastrophic outcome” than previously estimated. The report does not discuss the bank’s support for polluting industries, which have spent handsomely to block climate action at virtually every level of government.

“It is depressing that JP Morgan are trying to evade responsibility for this thorough and useful report that restates what climate scientists, Greta Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion alike have been saying for some time now: that our very future as a species is at stake,” Rupert Read, who originally obtained the report, wrote in an email. “It would be so much better if they owned up fully to what is in this report. But then, that would of course require them to completely transform their business model.”

All that dissonance may be starting to wear thin. Ahead of its annual investor day Tuesday and under persistent pressure from Gwich’in Steering Committee and green groups, JP Morgan Chase said it would stop any new financing of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expand restrictions on financing coal projects.