Environmentalists and economists engage in slap fight while world burns

Written by adam


Eric Pooley, a former Editor at Time Magazine, has been studying the media treatment of climate change, and comes to the fairly unsurprising conclusion that the press has done a terrible job of informing the public about the issue. Recently, he offered the more surprising conclusion that, just as scientists are in basic agreement about climate change, there exists a parallel consensus among economists regarding the desirability of phasing out fossil fuels.

The consensus consists of two broad areas of agreement. The first is that the cost to mitigate climate change is far lower than the cost of inaction. Reducing carbon emissions won’t be free, but it will be a lot cheaper than cooking the planet. The second is that the cost of action is fairly low: roughly 1% of GDP or less. This figure crops up in a surprisingly broad range of studies.

Pooley accuses the press of botching the economic story just as it botched the scientific story, but he also lays some of the blame on economists for communicating “a greater degree of discord and uncertainty than actually exists.” Unfortunately, Pooley lets a third group off the hook entirely: environmentalists.

This past few weeks has seen a resurgence of a form of self-defeating economist-bashing that the green blogosphere likes to occasionally indulge. (To be more precise, greens tend to be bipolar in their treatment of economists. They love them when economic theory is congenial to environmental goals, and loathe them at all other times. Greens also tend to oddly personalize the topic, dividing economists into “the good ones” and, I suppose, the hell-bound.)

For instance, Joe Romm enthusiastically links to Pooley’s post — in fact, he reproduces it in full — and uses it as a club to bash the “major media.” Which is a touch ironic, given the following quotes from various Romm posts over the past few months (pulled at random from a much longer list of possible candidates):

* “One of my New Year’s resolutions is to blog more about the general lameness of the economics profession when it comes to energy and climate…”
* “I know it is hopeless ask the media and policymakers to stop listening to economists, but if anyone can tell me of any intelligent thing a major economist has recently said on energy or climate…”
* “yet another value-subtracting contribution by the economics profession to climate policy…”
* “Economists just can’t seem to get their head around the fact…”

So which is it? The media is to blame for underreporting the awesome job economists are doing building a case for action on climate change? Or economists are a planet-destroying scourge? It can’t really be both.

I’m picking on Romm here, but this sort of commentary is fairly endemic to the green blogosphere. And it’s unfortunate for at least two reasons. The first is that there is in fact a lot of prominent and dubious economic research on climate change that deserves proper critique, rather than unhinged broadsides against an entire academic discipline. Unhinged broadsides play well to the base, but don’t resonate any further.

The second is that, as Pooley notes, economists would be useful allies on climate change if advocates can manage to stop garbling the message. It’s fine to blame the “major media” for messing this story up, but who is trying to help them get the story right? The next big climate debate is going to be over costs — who pays, and how much. Greens can either engage in that debate with economists by their side, or they can throw stones.

P.S. Environmentalists and economists may have more in common than just a desire to reduce carbon emissions. I was amused by this line in Pooley’s post:

> Journalists have missed the economic consensus partly because economists are such a querulous bunch — they argue bitterly among themselves *even when they agree.*

Huh, who does that remind you of?

P.P.S. A million years ago, I wrote about the culture wars and said that the climate change “debate” has produced enough fodder for several books. It looks like Eric Pooley might be writing one of them. It’s called Climate Wars, and I look forward to reading it.

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