Economists (and others) weigh in on The Lomborg

Posted September 26th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Ignorance of Ignorance, The Lomborg

In a previous post about The Lomborg, in followup to a previous one, I had a bit of a disagreement with Michael Tobis, over whether Lomborg is just adhering to the principles and presumptions of conventional economics, and whether what he believes, or at least says he believes, is wrong – coherently or stupidly. While I fully agree with Tobis that values are embedded in scientific methods, and that there are limitations on cost-benefit analysis (CBA), my point was that Lomborg is misusing CBA. To which also I added: “I hope we will hear from some environmental economists on this” – and also get statements from those experts listed as signing off on his “Copenhagen Consensus.” So far, no word that I know of from the latter, but Sir Partha Dasgupta – a well-known and respected environmental economist, backs up my point in a a book review published in Nature – the key quote:

Economics helps us to realize what we are able to say about matters that will reveal themselves only in the distant future. Simultaneously, it helps us to realize the limits of what we are able to say. That, too, is worth knowing, for limits on what we are able to say are not a reason for inaction. Lomborg’s seemingly persuasive economic calculations are a case of muddled concreteness.

I don’t have access to the full article but here is a link round up to blogs on which it has been extensively excerpted and commented on:

ResilienceScience/Garry Peterson, Partha Dasgupta on Lomborg’s muddled concreteness

Economists View/Mark Thoma, “If The Uncertainties Are Not Small, Standard Cost–Benefit Analysis As Applied To The Economics Of Climate Change Becomes Incoherent”

Also linked to and commented on by Brad de Long, and by Felix Salmon at the Porfolio magazine blog, who rearticulates the argument in plain english, Megan McArdle/The Atlantic, and James Hrynyshyn/Island of Doubt. Unrelated to Dasgupta’s review is one by Tyler Cowen/Marginal Revolution, and this one by a law professor Jonathan Adler in the National Review who, though generally favorable to the book, seems to agree with critics on a crucial point: that Lomborg “understates the degree of uncertainty inherent in climate-change policy”  and that this “counsel[s] against pretending cost-benefit analyses can be conducted with any degree of precision.”  

Other noteworthy posts, not necessarily focusing on flawed application of economics, Climate Progress, Richard Littlemore/DeSmog, and Chris Mooney @DeSmog. Then there is this review by ecologist Tim Flannery in the Washington Post who, given Lomborg’s assertion that the Stern report was not peer reviewed, wonders whether Lomborg’s book was. It is being done now….

It is important to keep hammering away at this not so much to beat up on a dead horse as to take advantage of the opportunity to clarify what is a common misunderstanding and misleading misuse of economics in the policy arena, on both sides, regardless of whether those doing so have good intentions. Even more productive for policy purposes would be to focus on finding agreement on what the trade-offs actually are, and the range of possible outcomes that Lomborg conveniently ignores by using point estimates in the Mythical Middle.

Lastly, now that I am back, I watched the Colbert clip again and as always, he manages to articulate complex issues more concisely than anyone. After Lomborg dodges the question of how often  the expected 4.7 rise in temperature happens (if you accept the middle figure from a wider range of possible outcomes), Colbert asks a follow-up: “How can we say it won’t be a problem if it has never happened?”

The Lomborg – nailed

Posted September 12th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin, The Lomborg

I had access to a high speed connection today so, in follow-up to the last post, here is the video clip of Stephen Colbert nailing The Lomborg:

The Lomborg continued etc

Posted September 11th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin, Civics 101, The Lomborg

I’m blogging from a location where I can’t get Comedy Central, and only have a dial-up connection, so I haven’t been able to watch Stephen Colbert put The Lomborg in his place yet – but see David Roberts post, or go straight to Comedy Central. I may have more comments after I see it, in follow-up to this previous post. In related news that I can read, Michael Tobis has comments on a New York Times article that ponders whether Lomborg should be taken seriously. No. While it is news to me that he advocates a carbon tax, limiting coastal development and expanding wetlands, those aren’t the reasons he has been given a megaphone. Even supposing he were intellectually serious and honest, and has a few of his lines right, if he doesn’t understand the complexity, why is he getting the attention? For the moment, I’m not going to go there.

In unrelated news, in Italy (where I came to attend a family wedding etc….), Saturday was “V-day”, short for “Vaffanculo Day,” when, in response to a call from the comedian Beppe Grillo, using only his blog since he doesn’t get on television much anymore, 300,000 people came to selected town squares to sign a petition for a law that would prohibit convicted criminals from being elected to public office, set term limits, and allow people to vote for the actual members of parliament instead of just for the party. Apparently there are about 25 former convicts now in office, cronies of the former prime minister, who also appeared on TV  that evening, saying it is imperative that this government fail so there can be another election in the spring… He still has not accepted defeat. From Pisa, this is Sylvia “Not Poggioli” reporting….

The Lomborg

Posted August 29th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin, The Lomborg

Call me a skeptic – of anyone trying to claim the Middle Ground, right or left, journalist or politician. The extreme and illustrative case is what I now call The Lomborg which is essentially a variation of The Luntz, the end result of which is to drive book sales – or other forms of fame and fortune – though, as explained here, I’m not convinced that it will still work for winning elections – sometimes the rules of the game can be changed.

I have not read Lomborg’s new book, Cool It (or the last one) – in this case, the narrative or “frame” speaks for itself. According to a review in Salon by Eban Goodstein, without offering any justification, and ignoring the potential range of variability and uncertainty, Lomborg prefers the “moderate” IPCC scenario, and, in an interview by Kevin Berger, says he is just trying to claim the Middle Ground. Paraphrasing: “Left wingers say yada yada, right wingers say yada yada, science [cherry-picked and taken out of context] says whatever supports my argument…” As director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center Lomborg is in the business of manufacturing consensus.

Not that I deny the fact that policy often requires some sort of a consensus and compromise but first you have to be clear about the trade-offs, about which Lomborg is clearly clueless even though tradeoffs form the core of his argument (see Goodstein). Otherwise, “consensus” is just a cover up for unresolved conflicts, and a way to position oneself above the fray, or in that narrow space in which cherry-picked conflicting views overlap – supposedly. Note also, The Luntz and The Lomborg reinforce each other – Luntz also now preaches consensus and labels those who advocate a change as hysterical. Lomborg uses the label doomsayers, and says their argument is one that says, “Hey, I’m much more important than everything else.” It must be lucrative.

To Lomborg’s credit, he does advocate public investments in clean energy technologies. Maybe that will make it harder for Inhofe to continue calling global warming a great hoax, or maybe Inhofe will just make Lomborg look reasonable. Meanwhile, Lomborg congratulates Gore for “getting the issue on the agenda and taking it away from the people who say it’s a hoax” in the same breath in which he says Gore is exaggerating and is an alarmist. But Lomborg steers clear of supporting a cap or any other form of financial incentive that would create a demand for clean technologies, by raising the price of carbon emissions.There is indeed a trade-off here – his book sales come at the expense of the ability to respond to this dire threat, by undermining integrity in public discourse, as well as public trust in the hard-earned consensus found the hard way, in real scientific assessments.

As for trade-offs, PZ notes:

He also has a bad argument about relative spending: he suggests that spending on climate change would reduce spending on other pressing issues, like the fight against malaria. It’s a bad choice. Malaria research is already underfunded — it’s a third-world disease, don’t you know, one that mainly affects those tropical countries, so the wealthy western nations typically don’t prioritize it very highly. We don’t take our big pots of money and allocate it into aliquots appropriate to the world’s needs already, so for an economist to sit there and pretend that climate research is a drain on tropical disease research is comical. Especially since he seems unaware of how one feeds into the other. Hey, if the world warms up, tropical diseases will creep northward into Europe and North America, and then we’ll be fighting the economic effects of both direct effects of climate change and new diseases.

But Lomborg is not an economist. His credentials for preaching the gospel of Cost-Benefit Analysis? Statistics and political science. I’m not an economist either but have been told that geography is a hunting license, and have learned enough economics to know that CBA is too easily and often misused – it only works when there is agreement about the policy objective, i.e., in the absence of value conflicts. I have nothing against the method per se, but roll my eyes when it is suggested that CBA, or The Market, should determine policy objectives (which is what Lomborg advocates – even though he denies this and says he is just offering a price list so the public can decide). When there are conflicting values and interests, to say, for example, that Kyoto is too costly, you have to be more specific, i.e., to who? Lomborg doesn’t say – again, he just picks a middle figure from “main academic” macro-economic models, without questioning their assumptions. Perhaps those decreasing numbers of people who stand to gain from the status quo, value cheap labor, and believe this will somehow automatically create greater future prosperity?

Depending on what policies are adopted to reduce emissions and how it is done, the economy could, perhaps, be transformed into one that actually works by actually meeting human needs, which would make everyone better off. I may be delusional and am admittedly speculating a bit about the possibility of achieving that. But Goodstein cites a review by Robert Repetto, which concluded that energy efficiency could spur economic growth. To get beyond the cherry picking, we need to get more specific and start comparing actual scenarios that provide a more honest accounting for trade-offs between policy options, to find pathways from here to where we want to go, but will need some sort of consensus on where that is. That should also knock out the floor boards that sustain the wobbly frame on which Lomborg and Luntz are perched.

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