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?”

3 Responses to “Economists (and others) weigh in on The Lomborg”

  1. Dano says:

    1. Thanks for the link to Resilience Alliance. I thought they quit.
    2. I think your the opportunity to clarify what is a common misunderstanding and misleading misuse of economics in the policy arena, on both sides, should be expanded in a post on scenario analysis. The IPCC relies on it but doesn’t explain it for the layperson, hence the ability for denialists to spread FUD.
    [Dano – my apologies for missing this comments. Not clear why it wound up in the junk folder and I was away much of September. But coincidentally… see the next post!]

  2. You say “While I fully agree with Tobis that values are embedded in scientific methods”, but it is very unclear that I, Tobis, actually agree with that in more than a very limited sense.
    Anyway, while I think many of the critiques to which you point are more or less cogent, I don’t think Lomborg’s errors or even his exaggerations are where the focus of the discussion should lie. I think it’s very rare for people to completely eschew selectiveness of evidence in putting together an argument. That Lomborg succumbs to the temptation doesn’t seem to me sufficient to invalidate his arguments.
    I agree with Dano and you. I think “the opportunity to clarify what is a common misunderstanding and misleading misuse of economics in the policy arena, on both sides” is the crux of the whole business. The mythical middle fallacy is real enough, but its foolishness is nothing compared to that of the idea that a price can be set on the entire world.

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