The first is an excellent primer on climate change by Kenneth Arrow: Global Climate Change: A Challenge to Policy. I'd really recommend reading it as a backgrounder to the issue:
Two factors deserve emphasis, factors that differentiate global climate change from other environmental problems. First, emissions of CO2 and other trace gases are almost irreversible; more precisely, their residence time in the atmosphere is measured in centuries. Most environmental insults are mitigated promptly or in fairly short order when the source is cleaned up, as with water pollution, acid rain, or sulfur dioxide emissions. Here, reducing emissions today is very valuable to humanity in the distant future.
Second, the scale of the externality is truly global; greenhouse gases travel around the world in a few days. This means that the nation-state and its subsidiaries, the
typical loci for internalization of externalities, are limited in their remedial ability.
The detail in the article is on the issue of discounting future costs, which is central to the findings in the Stern Report on The Economics of Climate Change that susbstantial immediate action on climate change is likely to be much cheaper over the long-term than inaction. Discounting is something I need to cover in a future Oikos 101 column, but for now I'll just observe that Stern has been criticised for using a zero rate of pure social time preference - which is consistent with the idea of inter-generational equity but inconsistent with observations by economists of how people actually behave.
Arrow conducts a sensitivity analysis, plugging different social time preference rates into Stern's figures, and finds that using a higher social time preference rate doesn't change the fundamental finding of the Stern Report, that action will cost less than inaction.
Thomas Schelling discusses what uncertainty surrounding climate change implies for policy responses and makes some sensible observations in Climate Change: The Uncertainties, the Certainties, and What They Imply About Action:
In some public discourse, and in sentiments emanating from the Bush Administration, it appears to be accepted that uncertainty regarding global warming is a legitimate basis for postponement of any action until more is known. The action to be postponed is usually identified as “costly.” (Little attention is paid to actions that have been identified as of little or no serious cost.) It is interesting that this idea that costly actions are unwarranted if the dangers are uncertain is almost unique to climate. In other areas of policy, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, inflation, or vaccination, some “insurance” principle seems to prevail: if there is a sufficient likelihood of sufficient damage we take some measured anticipatory action.
At the opposite extreme is the notion, often called the “precautionary principle” now popular in the European Union, that until something is guaranteed safe it must be indefinitely postponed despite substantial expected benefits. Genetically modified foods and feedstuffs are current targets. (One critic has expressed it as, “never do anything for the first time.”) In this country the principle says that until a drug has proven absolutely safe it must be deferred indefinitely.
Neither of the two extreme principles—do nothing until we are absolutely sure it’s safe; do nothing until we are absolutely sure the alternative is dangerous—makes
economic sense, or any other kind. Weigh the costs, the benefits, and the probabilities as best all three are known, and don’t be obsessed with either extreme tail of the distribution.