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Debating Climate Change on Stossel: Economics to the Fore

Last week, I appeared on the premier of John Stossel’s new show on Fox Business – a show titled (appropriately enough) Stossel.  The topic was global warming and, happily, I had an hour (well, actually only about 43 minutes once you subtract out the commercials) to discuss the issue with John and members of the studio audience.  If you missed the show, you can catch it here.

My arguments on Stossel tracked those offered here at MasterResource last month.  In short, I had no interest in engaging in a debate about the physical science of natural versus anthropogenic climate change.

I was entirely interested in the implications for public policy if we accept the most recent IPCC report at face value.  I think it’s quite interesting that even if one accepts the common definition of what constitutes “mainstream science” on this issue that one is still hard pressed to put forward a defensible mitigation scheme.

Alas, my inbox suggests that a number of people who watched the show thought I was too willing to accept the contention that there has been warming and that man likely has a lot to do with it.  Instead, a number of Fox viewers wanted me to launch World War III over the climate record. 

I didn’t for two reasons.  First, I am not a scientist and am more comfortable leaving that debate to those engaged fully in that field.  I know that this doesn’t stop a lot of people from holding forth regardless, but it stops me.  Second, one can be correct about the climate history being short of what Al Gore or Michael Mann make it out to be without being correct about the contention that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions has little to do with the warming at present.  For some reason, that’s an impossible point for many people to grasp.While preparing for the show, I was struck by how central the debate between Yale’s William Nordhaus and Harvard’s Martin Weitzman really is to the question of public policy and climate change (Round 1 – Nordhaus and Weitzman vs. Stern; Round 2 - Nordhaus vs. Weitzman).  Reporters and politicians almost always reach out to scientists when they want to know what the best and the brightest think we ought to do about climate change.

But it seems to me that, rather than reaching out to the scientists, these reporters and politicians should be reaching out to the economists.  They are the ones best equipped to translate prospective changes in climate (as reported to them by the IPCC) into real impact on human wellbeing … and to consider whether the costs of doing something about those impacts exceed the benefits.

Physical scientists can, of course, inform that discussion. But their work is but one source for the raw material that economists use to undertake this cost-benefit analysis.

All you really need to read to be on the knife’s edge of the “smart” debate about warming can be found in the back-and-forth between Nordaus and Weitzman.  There are other essays, of course, that are worthwhile, including Robert Murphy’s Independent Review essay, “Rolling the DICE: William Nordhaus’s Dubious Case for a Carbon Tax.” But for the most part, they are but footnotes to the conversation between those two as it now stands.

12 comments

1 Al Fin { 12.19.09 at 11:59 am }

I agree that your approach to climate change is critically important at this time. Global leaders want to commit their countries to economic sepuku in a grand cause that can only fail.

Your point about the climate record not disproving human-caused warming is valid. However, the climate record does disprove the alarmists’ claims of “unprecedented” warming — which is the bedrock of the entire movement to overhaul global economies and energy industries.

It is an important entry point to the critical analysis of the practises of the controlling scientists of the IPCC reports and most of published climate science. If they are wrong — or dishonest — about the climate record, perhaps we need to look more closely to see what else they are wrong or dishonest about.

You are also correct that too many skeptics want to destroy the alarmist political-industrial-scientific-media-academic complex in one fell swoop. It won’t happen. Too save advanced nations from themselves will require patient, step by step analysis and argument. Hope it isn’t too late.

2 Andrew { 12.19.09 at 3:19 pm }

The way I see it, the decisions that politicians are interested in should be based on whether the cost of the “action” isn’t greater than the avoided “damages”-it is on the latter part of the equation that the science becomes relevant. See, we need to know how big an effect we have t0 calculate the “damages” we are avoiding.

That being said, it is significant that even assuming “mainstream” impact estimates, most policies flunk as badly as imaginable on the simple cost/benefit test.

3 Halfwise { 12.19.09 at 4:46 pm }

Assume for a moment that the warming is real, unprecedented and man-made.

The possible policy-related responses are actually very few, and depend more on what happens with the hydrologic cycle and sea levels than the actual temperature. Do nothing, prevent, adapt, move, perish.

The pure scientists don’t have much to contribute to the policy discussions. But many pressure groups are quick to rush in, take the extreme scenarios from the scientists and push something that advances their agendas.

Science needs to step up and inform the debate about the depth of CO2 cuts (one quadrillion tons per F degree!) necessary to support the prevention case. The rest of the debate is political, economic and social, and should in all cases be conditioned by the reality that AGW is still merely a theory, one whose scientific basis appears (at least to me) to be crumbling month by month.

4 Ed Reid { 12.19.09 at 7:02 pm }

Andrew,

Copenhagen demonstrated that the developing countries have already calculated the potential future damages; and, they demand to be compensated in advance. :-)

5 kgreen { 12.19.09 at 7:13 pm }

Jerry -

I’ll stand with you as we withstand the slings and arrows of refusing to submit to orthodoxy.

Ken

6 Noblesse Oblige { 12.19.09 at 11:16 pm }

Al Fin: “Hope it isn’t too late.”
It is too late. The reason is that the climate fiasco is only one aspect of a shift in the West away from the application of reason and the aspiration to objectivity that has characterized the last three hundred years. Couple this with the decline of religion, and we have an irreversible downward spiral.

As another example, consider the complete abandonment of the Constitutional principles we were given by a group of men who were objective realists about human nature. Instead we have substituted post modern subjectivity, just as we have in the climate business.

The irony is that neither science nor religion triumphed in their vaunted struggle. They both lost.

it is

7 Charles Barton { 12.20.09 at 7:20 am }

You are quite correct that we should not be debating the science issues. The AGW deniers do not live is a a universe where future facts have to be considered in terms of their probability. Even if there were only a 10% probability that the AGW hypothesis is correct, prudence would be on the side of taking action. The probability is more like 90%. We must take action. The issues then are both technological and economic. The question becomes, what is the lowest cost technology, which can be used to mitigate AGW, and what is the lowest cost means of deploying that technology in a timely fashion. Once that is settled, the question then becomes. how do we sell the rest of society including our political leaders on our solution.

8 Jerry Taylor { 12.20.09 at 10:41 am }

Al – Agreed.

Halfwise – What is this “prevention case” that you refer to? If the IPCC is correct, anthropogenic warming is already under way. Moreover, given the many decades that anthropogenic CO2 remains in the atmosphere, additional warming is already “baked into the cake” so to speak. Hence, there is no real point in talking about preventing warming … that is, if you buy the IPCC report.

The import questions (if you accept the IPCC reports as a point of departure, of course) are (1) will warming prove to be a net negative for mankind? (2) if “yes,” then how much?, and (3) if a lot, then will mitigation cost less than the damages from the above? Economists are better positioned than scientists to answer all three questions (once informed by the scientific community regarding the changes in weather that we’re likely to see).

Ken – Once again, we find ourselves in agreement.

Noblesse Oblige – While you are undoubtedly correct that many environmental alarmists have left reason at the station, there are reasonable and intelligent people who favor mitigation. That’s because their risk tolerances and willingness to pay to reduce risk differ from my own. Now, I think a calm, rationale debate will produce more informed support for my position (adaptation) to their’s (mitigation), but it’s a bit unfair to put all of those on the other side in the “religious zealot” category.

Charles – I couldn’t disagree more. We don’t know what the chance is for runaway warming. The IPCC says there is a 3% chance of 6C+ warming by 2100, James Hansen says more, Richard Lindzen says less. The economics literature suggests that absent a runaway warming scenario, mitigation will likely cost more than letting the warming happen and adapting accordingly. Now, what should we do about the possibility of an extreme outcome? That depends on the cost of hedging. And the main point I tried to make in my Stossel appearance was that the cost of reducing anthropogenic CO2e to the extent that James Hansen and Al Gore would like is fairly steep.

9 Alan F { 12.20.09 at 11:19 am }

I saw nothing wrong with what was said nor how you said it. The acolytes of the Church of Climatology would never have even entertained the slightest notion that their faith itself could be challenged but you managed to do just that by getting a few of them to concede that poverty is a much greater concern than what they have pitched as “the” absolute dire concern above all others. The first step is always getting them to nod at your points and you managed this so kudos! After they have agreed but once, they are exponentially more open to what you have been saying all along and what you will say in the future. Anyone with a sliver of experience in public speaking knows this shining fact and I was very much looking for it in your appearance.

Getting the uber left to even listen is pushing a glass carriage. A light touch means success where putting your shoulder into it absolute failure.

Well done sir.

10 stan { 12.20.09 at 7:43 pm }

Jerry,

My background is in economics and law. I agree with you that the science, even assuming it was settled, is only the first step in a long process. Some of that process can be informed by economics. Science also continues to have a role, too.

I’m surprised at your willingness to defer to the IPCC, though. Regardless of one’s ability to delve deep into the science, most of us can do quite a bit when it comes to evaluating the credibility of experts. Juries do it all the time. When supposed experts decline to employ the scientific method, suppress dissent, manipulate results, stonewall disclosure, etc., it is appropriate to reject their advice. When other scientists endorse such behavior, they lose their credibility, too.

We know that climate scientists have repeatedly demonstrated mind-numbing incompetence. They failed to calibrate their instruments, sited their instruments so that 90% fail basic scientific standards, created amateurish, nightmare code and regularly butchered their statistics. They have operated in science for far too long and bristle at the thought of being accountable. They don’t make their data and code available and no one ever bothers to replicate or even audit anyone else’s studies. Add the evidence of extensive corruption and dishonesty by a number of the “leading” experts and there is no reason for any jury to believe them.

Given that the alarmists should bear the burden of proof, they lose. You don’t have to understand much science to understand incompetence, abandonment of the scientific method and corruption. And if they lose step one, we don’t have to reach the question of damages or injunctive relief.

11 stan { 12.20.09 at 7:45 pm }

That should have read operated in secret for far too long.

12 Jerry Taylor { 12.20.09 at 7:51 pm }

Stan, one ought to lead with one’s strongest argument. Not being a scientist, MY strongest argument is that even if you accept the scientific narrative offered by the IPCC, the case for adaptation is still stronger than the case for mitigation.

Asking someone alarmed about global warming to buy that argument is a little easier than asking them to buy that argument AND the argument – from a non-scientist – that the IPCC reports are seriously flawed.

There are good arguments to offer against the some of the narratives offered by the more prominent lead authors of recent IPCC reports. But those arguments are best offered by scientists with credentials and professional expertise. Hence, I leave that job to my colleague Pat Michaels who has both.

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