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.

15 Responses to “Yohe and Lomborg “shake hands”, sort of”

  1. Kaare Fog says:

    I have this comment:
    You write that “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.”
    I want to draw your attention to some critical remarks that I put in the end of the thread to Pielke´s blog site from 24th August. I write that in The Copenhagen Consensus conference the climate projects had not been discounted at the same rates as the other projects. These unequal discount rates disqualify the conclusions of the conference. The ranking results are obtained by a flawed procedure, and to communicate the results widely is to mislead the public.
    So the arguments are not just “crap”, i.e. messy or nonsense or poorly substantiated. They are “flawed”, i.e. one-sided and misleading.

  2. Eli Rabett says:

    Hi,
    It’s quieter over here. WRT the comment about the NAS in Stoat, it seems to me that reports are often negotiated between the NAS and the government as to terms of reference, etc. It would be interesting if there was any correspondence in the NAS files on this. Are they subject to FOIA requests???

  3. Sylvia Tognetti says:

    Eli,
    Sorry for the captcha – if I could figure out how to keep spam out without it I would gladly remove it. To answer your question, at the time I was there, the NAS was not subject to FOIA requests. However,this was always a bone of contention. I heard that this changed but can’t confirm it. But the NAS has always faced the challenge of convincing people they are “not the government.” As to negotiation over terms of reference, this was typically regarding the scope of a study. Sponsoring agencies – and others – are always consulted for recommendations as to committee membership. But the NAS/NRC is not bound by those.

  4. Nicolas Nierenberg says:

    There has been extensive posting on this topic on Stoat.
    http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2008/09/nierenberg.php
    I have posted a scan of the executive summary on NicolasNierenberg.com. I believe as this story evolves you will see that the Oreskes et al version of the 1983 report is not accurate.
    [Thanks for your comment. In light of the flurry of posts and comments on this topic, I'm aiming to write another post over the weekend. But Woodwell confirms Oreskes view. Others will see it differently. But keep in mind that, at the time, ecologists were poorly equipped to respond to the arguments of economists. The lead economist on the report was Thomas Schelling. I heard him speak at the University of MD in the late '90s - he still insisted that global warming could be adapted to with air conditioning, and that it wouldn't be a problem for economies that don't depend on agriculture. Sorry, but that is completely ignoring science. I hope to see the full report soon.]

  5. Nicolas Nierenberg says:

    It is true that Dr. Woodwell now says that he felt the report was overall “very weak.” Oreskes et al 2008 did not include anything from Dr. Woodwell, so our response doesn’t cover this. Others have a different view including John Perry who Dr. Oreskes only partially quoted in her paper.
    I would like to note that at the time Dr. Woodwell allowed his name to go on the report, and that the introduction to the report states that the synthesis was something with which all members of the panel could wholeheartedly agree. That was his choice at the time.
    There is also no record of dissent from him at the time in the minutes of the committee or in any correspondence.
    I want to be clear that my father was at least as responsible, or perhaps more responsible for the report’s conclusions than anyone. But the report was largely scientific in nature, and only briefly discusses policy. Perhaps those policy statements were too “conservative.” But they were very similar to other scientific papers of the time. As an example is the Hansen et al 1981 paper that Atmoz posted on his site.
    But to completely understand our objections you would need to read our critique. And I encourage everyone who is truly interested in this topic to try to get a copy of the original 1983 CDAC Report. It is remarkable how much of it has stood the test of time.

  6. Nicolas Nierenberg says:

    Sorry to keep posting. But I want to make it clear that I am not here to defend Dr. Schelling. He will have to do that himself if he cares to. But since Dr. Oreskes laid all the blame for his work at my Dr. Nierenberg’s feet he may not even have noticed all this.
    I don’t think that Dr. Schelling’s views were particularly prominent in the executive summary or the synthesis, although of course they were covered.
    (It is worth noting that so far Dr. Oreskes only seems to go after people who have passed away.)
    The charge to the committee from congress essentially mandated that economists be included. There is no record of how the particular economists were selected. Oreskes et al 2008 are silent on the topic. They do incorrectly assign responsibility for the presence of economists to Dr. Nierenberg.

  7. Eli Rabett says:

    From what Eli can see, Oreskes pretty well takes after Yohe, Nordhaus, Schelling, and S. Fred Singer who if nothing else are breathing, and if you want to be technical about it, she wrote not very nice things about Seitz and Jastrow when they were not yet pushing up the daisies. So, unless you think she drove the last two to the grave, Eli will ask Nicolas, why he insists on the nasty little not quite trueisms that one finds in all his posts. If you are going to insist that people be accurate about dear old dad, please be the same about others.

  8. Nicolas Nierenberg says:

    From what I can see Mr. Rabeett you are unnecessarily rude.
    I am primarily referring to her published papers, and other references that I can find. If you have counter examples feel free to make them.
    In the Times on line story the only person mentioned with regard to the 1983 report (other than Reagan) is Dr. Nierenberg.
    In her congressional testimony regarding the 1983 report the only person she mentioned was Dr. Nierenberg.
    In Oreskes et al 2008 by far the predominate argument is that Dr. Nierenberg was the cause of the result and that he “wrote” the offending chapters.
    It goes so far as to say that he “used” the economists to make his point.

  9. Eli rabett says:

    Dear Mr. Nierenberg,
    Eli has learned that when someone starts out by playing you are being rude to me, he or she is simply trying to grab the high ground. It is a ploy, little else, somewhat like a pioneer in the software industry apologizing for how amateur looking his blog is. Whatever.
    However, you might take a look at Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War” by Oreskes and Conway, which is much more concerned with the role played by Jastrow, Seitz and Singer than William Nierenberg although he too is mentioned. This second paper is very much a companion to the Panglossian one and should be read together with it.
    It is a bit amusing to be called out as rude by someone who inserts in his comments: “It is worth noting that so far Dr. Oreskes only seems to go after people who have passed away.” since the above referenced paper show this is NOT true. You appear now to be reduced to saying that Oreskes was meaner to William Nierenberg rather than the others, de gustibus non est disputandem and go read her other stuff.

  10. Steve Bloom says:

    Historians make judgements about dead people? I am shocked, shocked I tell you…

  11. Mr. Rabett,
    I haven’t read that paper yet, but my remark about going after deceased people was probably intemperate. I will admit that it was not correct. It still seems less rude to me than sarcastically calling someone’s deceased father “dear old dad”, but that is just my opinion.
    I certainly hope that the “Cold War” paper is more accurate than the “Chicken Little” paper whose numerous errors are detailed in our paper here
    I also hope it is more accurate than the Times On Line article authored by Dr. Oreskes, which even contradicts her own paper.
    I’m sorry that my web site is not up to your standards. I really thought that the content was more important than the form, but perhaps that is incorrect. But I do appreciate being identified as a pioneer in the computer industry.

  12. Kaare Fog says:

    I am not able to judge the discussion about the paper by Naomi Oreskes et al., and the role of William Nierenberg. But I agree that it is important to discuss it. Why is it important ? Because from studying what happened in the past (25 years ago), we may be better able to understand what happens now.
    We see that the 1983 NAS report on CO2 was used by the USA government in the following years to downplay the seriousness of the global warming issue, i.e. it was used to justify passivity. And we see that the report allowed this not by any clearly evident manipulation of data, but through subtle reframing and changes of focus.
    The cited paragraph has inter alia this sentence: “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.” This illustrates the flaw of the paper of Oreskes et al. You probably cannot know what the motives and intents of W. Nierenberg were, and therefore you are not justified to write like this. His son, Nicolas Nierenberg, is quite right in pointing this out.
    The crucial quality of the paper of Oreskes et al. is to point out that slight shifts in the focus of the synthesis of the NAS report may have had far-reaching consequences for the subsequent US policy and hence for how the world climate has evolved. To understand what has happened, it is therefore important to look carefully at the details. How did the shift in focus come about, why did the other authors accept it, and are there any tiny details supporting the view that the shift in focus was made deliberately in order to please the politicians ? It may be difficult to make the general public understand these seemingly trivial details. Therefore, to make the public understand the situation, it is much easier to make a “character assassination”. If you can make people understand that W. Nierenberg was a man with bad intents, then people will understand what went wrong in 1983. That puts W. Nierenberg in the role of the accused, and the case should be treated like a case in the court, with accuser and defender. Therefore, it is perfectly right that his son has taken upon him the role of defender. And any decision should be made on the basis of the absence or presence of evidence or proof.
    Now, we all know that in criminal novels, the detective hero has superior abilities to notice tiny, but revealing details. The details are crucial. One little detail may reveal if there was a deliberate reframing or even manipulation, or if this was just a sad case of well-intended persons unwittingly supporting a dirty agenda.
    The lesson for what happens today is that the key is in the very tiny details which hardly anybody bothers to notice.
    This is why I posted the comment which is the first in this thread: What maybe, maybe not, happened when the NAS report was made, is what actually happens now. A revealing detail, which has been noticed by very few up to now, is this: In Bjørn Lomborg´s “Copenhagen Consensus” in 2008, the endeavor to do something about global warming is discounted with a rate of 4 % annually, whereas all competing endeavors are disocunted with 3 % annually. As is evident from the last posts in this link:
    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/yohe-vs-lomborg-4526#comment-10859
    there is no justification for these differing discount rates. But they have the effect that the climate issue drops out of the list of prioritized endeavors. The same thing happened in Copenhagen Consensus 2004. This is, to me, a tiny detail which reveals the INTENT. It is a kind of cheating. And on my web site, http://www.Lomborg-errors.dk, I have posted hundreds of such tiny details which seem to reveal an INTENT to mislead. That is why it is important to understand that what Lomborg says is not just “crap”. If it were simply crap, the world would seen forget about him. Instead the man is repeatedly proclaimed as “one of the most influentual intellectuals in the world”, such as e.g. in an issue of Esquire recently. It would be VERY interesting to know who are the persons constantly pushing this person forward? The details show that he misleads deliberately, and it seems obvious that SOMEBODY has an interest in this. Therefore, he will continue to pop up with new versions of his message, which everytime has the conclusion: “We should not do anything to cut the combustion of fossil fuels, at least not now”. One may wonder who has a vested interest in the fact that somebody – who appears to be not affiliated with them – says this. Just as one may wonder who had in 1983 a vested interest in somebody – who appeared to be not affiliated with them – saying “We should not do anything to cut the combustion of fossil fuels, at least not now”. In a way, it does not matter if those who said or say this had any bad intents. What matters is the effects of it being said.

  13. Kaare Fog says:

    In the comments that I just posted, I used the expression “a vested interest”. That was a mistake. I just meant “an interest”.

  14. Mr. Fog,
    I agree with most of your points on the 1983 report. Conversely I have no opinion on Lomborg as I haven’t looked at the issue.
    There is one point I would contend with however. You state that the 1983 report was used to justify inaction by the US government. I am not aware of any evidence that this is true. I would have to say that a justification for action or inaction in any time period based on the report would be a matter of politics since the report itself was very accurate on the science.
    I haven’t commented on this point yet on this thread. But I don’t agree with the criticism of chapter one (Nordhaus and Yohe). Its major purpose was as part of a forecast of future CO2 levels. After twenty-five years it is proving to be very accurate, which I think is a reasonable defense of the quality of the chapter. It is not a reasonable criticism that it discussed the uncertainty inherent in any forecast of that type.
    Again if anyone is truly interested they should read the document itself, not the reporting of it in Oreskes et al 2008. William Connolley has posted a copy of the synthesis of the report here.

  15. Now I have to correct myself. The original post on this site, taken directly from Oreskes et al 2008, refers to the Nordhaus and Yohe chapter as chapter one. It was in fact chapter two. I also might point out that it lists Jesse Ausubel as a co-author, but only Nordhaus and Yohe were authors of the chaper. (You can see this at the last page of synthesis captures mentioned in my previous post.)
    This is an example of one of the more benign errors in Oreskes et al 2008, there are much more serious errors. Although the inclusion of Ausubel as an author of the chapter was probably not innocent. Again I would point to my site http://nicolasnierenberg.com for a more detailed criticism.

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