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.