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.