Yohe and Lomborg “shake hands”, sort of

Posted September 4th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in The Lomborg

In my posts (here and here) about the Yohe/Lomborg dust-up, I deliberately avoided larger questions about the role economics has played over the past few decades in framing  the debate and in justifying a delayed policy response – that larger topic could easily be a book and I actually have other things to do at the moment. The point was, that even if one fully accepts the tenets of neo-classical economics and cost-benefit analysis, and all of the shaky assumptions that come with it, Lomborg’s arguments are crap, and dangerously misleading because he misrepresents the trade-offs and ignores the qualifications. Even though Gary Yohe and Bjorn Lomborg “shook hands” this week, the points they agree on seem rather thin, and Lomborg seems to have conceded a key point, in agreeing “that adaptation, CO2-cuts and R&D in some combination are all necessary to tackle global warming”, though he has elsewhere supported a modest carbon tax. Roger Pielke’s defense of Lomborg makes no sense but he gets kudos for getting all of the above to chime in on his comment  threads, where this was all hashed out in greater detail.

Yohe also makes it clear that Lomborg was able to reach the conclusion that the “constrained ‘mitigation alone’ option failed the cost-benefit test” because of artificial constraints on the design of the study, and by ignoring numerous inconvenient qualifications that are far from buried in the report by Yohe, Tol, Richels and Blanford. Given that they recognized the implications of these constraints, getting a stupid answer should not have come as any more of a surprise than Katrina, so it isn’t clear why they even bothered, A take home message for both economists and climate scientists, is that in science for policy, there are no disinterested bystanders – one needs to be aware of how findings will be used in the policy arena. It also makes the case for me that “framing” – a topic on which there has been a lot of ink in the science blogs, needs to be considered in the design stage of the research, and not merely in how the results are presented.

That said, it is also important to consider the appropriateness of CBA itself as a basis for climate policies, given that it only compares the values of gradual incremental changes to a business-as-usual scenario. It should be clear to anyone who has studied a watershed, or disasters, or history, that most changes, not only those associated with climate impacts, occur in conjunction with extreme and often catastrophic even if predictable events. And unless they listen to scientists, this is also when people have an opportunity to learn and reconsider what their values even are. In other words, if Katrina surprised anyone, it was probably only because it didn’t fit the analytical framework normally used to justify public policy decisions. Stephen Colbert put this into plain English when he asked Lomborg “How can you say [a 4.7 C rise in temperature] won’t be a problem if it has never happened? (He didn’t answer that but he is invited to do so here on the comment thread.)

Lomborg’s pattern of ignoring inconvenient qualifications is far from unusual. Even though those we will call the conventional economists generally acknowledge the limitations of CBA and throw in all of the qualifications, and do now make the case for at least some policy intervention, the line of reasoning inherent in CBA has generally been relied on to justify delay in adopting policies that address climate change, just as it is relied on by Lomborg as a mantle of authority. What is unusual is the amount of media attention Lomborg has received, as the “voice of the reasonable middle”, even from people who should know better.

In all of this, science has been little more than a backdrop. I’ve been planning to blog a set of papers that Eli Rabbett linked to a few months ago regarding the historical context, and will have much more to say eventually. In the meantime, Eli pulled out a relevant quote in a comment he left on my last post on this topic, which makes that case that, instead of refuting scientific evidence that global warming was an immediate concern, the economic framework simply made it practically irrelevant for policy. The paper is From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge by Oreskes, Conway and Matthew Shindell, where they discuss the preparation of an NAS report published in 1983, that never should have made it through peer review:

Chapter 1, written by Nordhaus, Ausubel, and Gary Yohe, an economics professor at Wesleyan University brought in mid-stream as a consultant, focused on future energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. The long and detailed chapter was perhaps the first serious study of the problem that looked at many variables, and did not assume linear extrapolations. It began by acknowledging the “widespread agreement that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have been rising steadily, primarily driven by the combustion of fossil fuels.” The emphasis here, however, was not so much on what was known, but on what was not known: the “enormous uncertainty” beyond 2000, and the “even greater uncertainty” about the “social and economic impacts of possible future trajectories of carbon dioxide.” This uncertainty provided the basis for an argument that no meaningful action could be taken now. They used the uncertainty to hide the pea, acknowledging the possibility of rapid and damaging changes, but then only considering far off and lesser threats from climate change. Moving the danger far enough in the future meant that it did not have to be confronted, which is what Nierenberg wanted as a conclusion Nor did Nierenberg attempt to deny the legitimacy of the existing science. Rather, he accepted the scientific facts while adopting a conceptual framework in which those facts were irrelevant. The essence of the report is the reframing of climate change as something that policymakers and politicians should ignore, which in the United States at least, for the next two decades, they largely did The actions of William Nierenberg belie that assumption. Nierenberg did not engage his scientific colleagues over the technical basis of their scientific views. He did not produce new or competing claims about how the Earth would respond to increased CO2. In short, he did not try to construct knowledge about the Earth. Rather, while accepting his colleagues’ technical conclusions, he dismissed the interferences that they (and others) had drawn from those conclusions, substituting an alternative framework that insisted that those inferences were wrong. Rather than constructing knowledge, William Nierenberg de-constructed it.

More economists weigh in on The Lomborg

Posted August 25th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in The Lomborg

In follow-up to the last post –  now both Gary Yohe, and Richard Tol, both co-authors of an economics paper that Lomborg cited, incorrectly, in an article in the Guardian, and that is also the foundation for his “Copenhagen Consensus”, conclude that he is misrepresenting their work and deliberately confusing things. For details, see the comment thread on Pielke’s post. So Lomborg has no legs to stand on. In theory, that means he is history. But I expect he will continue to repeat what he has been saying, as long as there is anyone listening.

A challenge to economists

Posted August 25th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in The Lomborg

Last fall, in a series of posts about what I dubbed The Lomborg I made the case that Lomborg was misusing Cost-Benefit Analysis to say that cuts in CO2 emissions will cost more than they are worth. I also added that “I hope we will hear from some environmental economists on this” – and also get statements from those experts listed as signing off on the ” Copenhagen Consensus” – an expert group convened by Lomborg to rank priorities for addressing the major challenges of our time, based on their costs and benefits.

Not that I had anything to do with it but, shortly after that, Nature published a book review by Sir Partha Dasgupta – a well-known and respected economist, that reinforced my point. Which is that, even if you fully accept the tenets of neo-classical economics, Lomborg’s arguments are basically crap. And that’s without even going into the flaws in his argument about expected sea level rise (which has been repeatedly debunked but, without responding to any of his critics, Lomborg keeps repeating the same thing. This post is not a response to him but to all publications that have given him a platform.)

Now we also have some critical words from Gary Yohe – an economist who was a member of the IPCC, and also participated in Lomborg’s “Copenhagen Consensus” project, for which he wrote the principal climate paper, on which Lomborg’s conclusions are based. Responding to a Lomborg article in the Guardian, Yohe says:

But there’s just one problem: as one of the authors of the Copenhagen Consensus Project’s principal climate paper, I can say with certainty that Lomborg is misrepresenting our findings thanks to a highly selective memory.

Lomborg claims that our “bottom line is that benefits from global warming right now outweigh the costs” and that “[g]lobal warming will continue to be a net benefit until about 2070.” This is a deliberate distortion of our conclusions.

We did find that climate change will result in some benefits for developed countries, but only for modest climate change (up to global temperature increases of 2C – not the 4 degrees that Lomborg is discussing in his piece). But developed countries are relatively prepared to handle climate change’s effects – they tend to be in colder areas, and they have the infrastructure to mitigate severe depletion of resources like fresh water and arable land.

That is precisely why our analysis concluded – and Lomborg ignores – that climate change will cause immediate losses for developing countries and the planet’s most vulnerable, millions of whom are already facing challenges that climate change will exacerbate.

Downplaying the threat of climate change allows Lomborg to focus on his claim that “unlike even moderate CO2 cuts, which cost more than they do good, we should focus on investing in finding cheaper low-carbon energy.” He attributes this finding to our analysis as well, but again he overlooks a key element of our work.

Of course the world needs to make significant investments in cheaper, low-carbon energy. But making those investments without also implementing a constraint on emissions would fail to address the problem. …

To make things even more confusing, Roger Pielke in turn cherry picks Yohe’s remarks to say that he doesn’t see where Yohe’s conclusions differ from how they are represented by Lomborg, citing the Yohe et al analysis which concludes “[g]lobal warming will continue to be a net benefit until about 2070.” But he ignores Yohe’s qualification that that only applies to developed countries, and assumes temperature changes within two degrees by that time, rather than the four degree plausible scenario that Lomborg is reacting to, commented on in another Guardian article by Oliver Tickell. Since the expected temperature change by the end of the century under a business as usual scenario is 3.5 degrees, Roger can’t figure out the discrepancy, but if you click the links, you will find that Oliver Tickell was responding to a recommendation made by Bob Watson, the former chair of the IPCC and now Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that the UK should plan for a 4 degree C change in temperature, which has a 20% chance of occurring by the end of the century.

As Lomborg notes, the IPCC projection is between 1.8 and 6, Celsius. The sea level rise projection is 18-59 centimeters. But he fails to note that the IPCC projections explicitly exclude consideration of “rapid dynamical changes in ice flow”, or melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. Lomborg’s basic pattern is to simply pick conservative or mid-range estimates, without any justification, and to ignore the qualifications. But there are many good arguments as to why the IPCC analysis, and science in general, tend to err on the side of being conservative to begin with. And there is a good argument why even the economic damage estimates such as those presented by Yohe et al are likely to be a serious underestimate, as was explained by Paul Baer, in his discussion of The worth of an ice sheet. All worthy of further comment.

For now, I would simply like to challenge all economists is to get on the bandwagon, and make as big of a fuss about Lomborg as they did about an infamous paper that added up the “values” of ecosystem services to $33 trillion…

Between a hoax and a catastrophe

Posted October 9th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin, The Lomborg

The Lomborg, now brought to you by the Washington Post, still claims to be in the mythical middle ground, somewhere in between claims of climate change as catastrophe and hoax where he is looking to have “a sensible conversation” with honesty “about the shortcomings and costs of climate policies, as well as benefits.” He could start by making honest and sensible arguments himself and perhaps by acknowledging and responding to his critics, but then he might not get space on the front page of the Outlook section in the Sunday Post – or on the Colbert Report. But at least Stephen nailed him (video link) – as much as could be done in the few minutes in which he appeared on the show. Meanwhile the Post continues to demonstrate why we should all be more skeptical about what we read in the papers.
I just took another look at details about expected sea level rise in the IPCC report, which Lomborg clearly misrepresents, but see this post by Joseph Romm, who has already taken the time to sort it out – in that and in 3 earlier posts he links to. It would be nice if Lomborg included references for statements that seem like they are pulled either out of context or out of thin air itself, i.e., on what basis does he make the claim that the dramatic increase in Greenland’s melting seems transitory? And who exactly is “scoffing” that the IPCC severely underestimated the rate at which glaciers are melting? But even suppose Lomborg were right in selecting an average value for expected mean sea level rise from what is clearly a conservative estimate for reasons that have to do with the scientific process – such as a reluctance to quantify processes not yet sufficiently understood, like the speed of ice flow at outlet glaciers and ice streams that have changed more rapidly than expected. What is of concern from a policy perspective are the impacts of Sea Level Rise for which average values aren’t very helpful because they are driven by extreme but normally occurring events. As stated in the IPCC Technical Summary:

The greatest climate- and weather-related impacts of sea level are due to extremes on time scales of days and hours, associated with tropical cyclones and mid-latitude storms. Low atmospheric pressure and high winds produce large local sea level excursions called ‘storm surges,’ which are especially serious when they occur with high tide. Changes in the frequency of occurrence of these extreme sea levels  are affected both by changes in mean sea level and in the meteorological phenomena causing the extremes.

For more on scientific reticence, see this paper (pdf) by James Hansen and stay tuned for my review of Chris Mooney’s book, Stormworld.
What I find particularly annoying are Lomborg’s repeated accusations and mischaracterizations of the views of unnamed environmental groups or just plain “people.” Environmental organizations and individual advocates, and scientists who also “want to put out the fire” are quite a diverse bunch who, unlike Lomborg – or Luntz, or even Nordhaus and Shellenburger, can disagree with each other in a number of ways without setting themselves apart from and attacking all “environmental groups” and who have been trying to have an honest and sensible conversation about how best to address the climate crisis in time to avoid a catastrophe. This conversation is hardly limited to the costs and benefits of the Kyoto Protocol. Addressed in a smart way, investments in reducing carbon emissions could have numerous other benefits – e.g., see: Barack Obama’s energy plan, or Al Gore’s call for a Global Marshall Plan (UN webcast – Al Gore’s remarks don’t start until approximately minute 35) which calls for addressing the climate crisis in ways that also fight poverty. Regarding costs and benefits, see also this post here on PNT by Paul Baer on The worth of an Ice Sheet – which makes the case that to determine what an ice-sheet is worth, we have to first determine what will be required to actually save it and what the trade-offs would actually be. Thanks to the Lomborgs and the Luntzs of the world, that conversation has barely begun. Given that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is beyond anyone’s practical experience, any insistence that the costs are large relative to the benefits is pure hubris.
Update: Joe Romm dug up another paper and provides more details on the increase in ice discharge from Greenland outlet glaciers and changes in ice flow speed that have been observed. It also appears to be the paper Lomborg relied on to claim that “the Kangerlussuaq glacier is inconveniently growing.” But that is hardly what the paper says. But go read Joe Romm’s post. The Washington Post needs to publish some corrections.
2nd update: The Washington Post has not published corrections but they did publish an excellent rebuttal by Judith Curry, which should have been on the front page of the Sunday Outlook section, but at least it’s in print. Hat tip again to Joe Romm.