Economics, voodoo, and climate policy

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John Gibbons is having a go at Bjorn Lomborg. Mr Gibbons argues that Lomborg has a PhD in spin, while in fact he has a PhD in political science. Gibbons oddly suggests that Lomborg is behind “climategate”, and refers to economic models as “voodoo”. Most seriously, Gibbons suggests that statisticians and economists have no relevant expertise on climate science and policy.

Climate is defined as the 30 year average weather. Statistics is therefore at the core of climate science.

Greenhouse gas emissions are caused by economic activity. Emission reduction already costs a heap of money, will cost a lot more in the future, and would cost a whole lot more if economists do not help design abatement policies. Economics is therefore at the core of climate policy.

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59 Responses to “Economics, voodoo, and climate policy”

  1. Karl Whelan Says:

    One of things I find entertaining about public discourse about economists is that one regularly hears two completely different complaints. On the one hand, one hears that we squabble and disagree about everything. On the other hand, we are this ideological united axis of evil.

    People who repeatedly rant in public about the evils of ideological economists might benefit from meeting a small representative cross-section. Certainly some economists are very ideological but these ideologies are often quite different. And most of us are open to pursuasion on the basis of empirical evidence — my sense is that very few economists are climate change deniers.

    However, we do tend to talk about efficiency and tradeoffs and this kind of stuff tends to annoy true believers of certain other ideologies. My sense of Mr. Gibbons from his (increasingly agitated) columns is he conforms to the observation that those who are quickest to shout “ideology” at others are usually extremely ideologically motivated themselves.

  2. MarcusOC Says:

    Prof Tol,

    You’d best leave this issue to the people with the real expertise – op-ed journalists…. wait, that can’t be right?

    I’ve noticed Gibbons has a tendency to attack the credentials of anyone who doesn’t share his views (or even those who don’t share enough of his views), in spite of having no credentials of his own. It’s sad that lunatics on the polar-sides of climate-change debate seem to get so much press, while moderates are subjected to abuse from either side.

  3. Enda H Says:

    Given that Gibbons complains about uninformed economists weighing-in on climate change, I must presume he spent many years studying the frontier of economic modelling before labelling it ‘voodoo’.

  4. John Gibbons Says:

    @Richard
    your own modest role in propping up Lomborg’s house of cards sadly was beyond the scope of today’s very brief article. Still, he who works for the ‘Copenhagen Consensus’, ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation/Farce’ etc. How about breaking the habits of a lifetime and addressing the substantive issue that, as Friel lays out clearly, Lomborg’s methodology is not just unscientific, it’s downright corrupt, and scandalously, deliberately misleading.

    @MarcusOC and Enda H, it couldn’t hurt to actually be informed before posting here, right? Start with Friel’s book. MarcusOC, it’s just as well I don’t think you’re referring to me in the phrase “lunatics”. Right?

  5. Geckko Says:

    Crikey, Gibbons has completely lost it. How on earth did the Times sub eds. allow that to print?

    One certainly gets the impression that Gibbons hasn’t in fact read the Skeptical Environmentalist.

  6. yoganmahew Says:

    @Karl Whelan
    “And most of us are open to pursuasion on the basis of empirical evidence — my sense is that very few economists are climate change deniers.”
    Hey, and you have such a wild and crazy sense of humour too :D

    Anyway, everyone knows the claimate, sorry, climate is best left to teachers and Bicycle Repair Man (he’s my hero).

    *exits humming “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…”

  7. Dave Says:

    I’ve noticed a strong rise in these sort of “attack” articles in the Times since the recession and the banking crisis began. I guess there’s a place for it like anything else, but this kind of vague, righteous rhetoric has been poisoning the debate on a lot of issues recently. NAMA is the obvious one.

  8. Stephen Kinsella Says:

    Gibbons is rather ill-informed on economics, given how often he returns to bashing the subject. I recall a while ago going through him for a short cut on radio for this piece, http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2008/1204/1228311872676.html

    (the IT piece is pay-gated, sadly)

    There’s also the rather misguided notion Comrade Whelan points out, that people’s economics are skewed by their political leanings. I’m not sure how true that is at all.

  9. Stephen Kinsella Says:

    That being said, I’ve to thank Mr Gibbons. As a huge fan of the Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, I’ve just had a look at a review of the Lomborg Fisking Gibbons refers to here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/233942, it looks good enough to buy, and here’s Lomborg’s response to Friel’s book: http://www.lomborg.com/dyn/files/basic_items/118-file/BL%20reply%20to%20Howard%20Friel.pdf

  10. John Gibbons Says:

    @Stephen

    I do remember your tuppence worth of tub thumping on Matt Cooper alright! “If he was one of my first year students, I’d have failed him….” etc. etc. This kind of gross overconfidence and arrogance among economists, even those still wet behind the ears, is reason why your, er, profession gets a bit of a kicking when it repeatedly ventures into areas far beyond its competence. Back to school, sir! There are still waaaay too many economists masquerading as expert commentators in this fair land. And what’s worse, they’re still getting lots and lots of air time.

  11. David O'Donnell Says:

    @Stephen Kinsella

    “There’s also the rather misguided notion Comrade Whelan points out, that people’s economics are skewed by their political leanings. I’m not sure how true that is at all.”

    The surer would be in the majority here. Recent events would also suggest a period of critical reflexivity by economists who were seriously skewed by their political ideologies, who are hence, if in part, responsible for screwing the rest of us. Hayek, to take but one example, refused to partake in the two-hand reel with a gorgeous colleen during a sojurn in Ennis during Fleadh Nua because it might have disturbed his individualist ideology.

  12. Stephen Kinsella Says:

    “Hayek, to take but one example, refused to partake in the two-hand reel with a gorgeous colleen during a sojurn in Ennis during Fleadh Nua because it might have disturbed his individualist ideology.”

    Sure Hayek wasn’t just shy?

  13. kevin denny Says:

    Gibbon’s first sentence must set some sort of record for stupidity and/or blind prejudice. Some environmentalists have a funny attitude to economics, they are happy to embrace Pigouvian taxes but will balk at other economic ideas when it suits.

    There is certainly dodgy science on both sides as “The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science (A W Montford)” makes clear.

  14. Holbrook Fields Says:

    Prof Tol’s post is most concerned with John Gibbons’ criticism of economists and statisticians. Gibbons’ makes a sweeping statement that is insulting to economists and statisticians who write about climate change. Of course statistics and economics have a critical role in climate change policy. What I would like to know is if The Skeptical Environmentalist, a book that I haven’t read, is a load of rubbish or not? Any thoughts?

  15. Al Says:

    Wow
    His muse wasnt in attendance for him
    That is one of lowest quality articles I have seen in the Times in a long time.
    Was a sub editor out sick?

  16. Oliver Vandt Says:

    “However, we do tend to talk about efficiency and tradeoffs and this kind of stuff tends to annoy true believers of certain other ideologies.”
    +1. Like many lobby groups some members of the Green one see mention of cost as implying reservations about the goals. To be fair, it often does. But disparaging economics will prove self-defeating for the Green movement. They need to listen to their economist critics even more closely than they do to their own true believers, even their economist ones.
    In a world of finite resources only mastery of the dark arts of economics will allow the Greens to achieve their goals.

    In the case of the Irish Greens it is always necessary for both them and their critics to remember that this is their first time to hold any kind of power in Ireland, given the emasculation of local government. They have demonstrated that they are as pragmatic (if not more) as any other Irish party in political terms. Now they have to be similarly pragmatic on the policies and the pace with which they achieve their goals.

  17. Stephen Kinsella Says:

    @John Gibbons, that’s right-I’d forgotten.

    I think I said I’d fail anyone in my 1st year classes that used terminology they didn’t understand, quotes they’d taken off wikipedia without checking their sources (Solow’s tongue in cheek crack on natural resources reported as a straight quote in your IT article, wasn’t it?) to critique a version of the standard model that was dated in the 1960′s.

    No profession should be above criticism. I think the economics profession has by and large taken a dim view of itself since the crisis. Criticism is right, and it is good. But it must be measured, and when you critique something, you must understand it.

    Completely agree with you on ill informed tub thumpers getting air time in Irish policy discourse.

    Pot. Kettle.

  18. ben Says:

    It’s Karl Whelan’s reductionism that really sums up the problem. Economists come in and say “well, this is just a simple statistical problem, let’s look at temperatures at Dublin Airport over the last 30 years. Done!” They don’t make any attempt to understand the science, and they have no respect for those who have.

  19. jc Says:

    @ Richard

    I would also be interested in your response to the criticism that Lomborg is essentially that which he accuses others of: an ideologue. Given your research has been funded by his think tank, your insights would be of value.

    @ all

    Economists certainly have a roll to play climate change. Scientists tell us what is necessary to avoid dangerous climate change; economists tell us how best we achieve this objective. It’s when the economists start to tell us what is or is not dangerous, when they question the consensus scientific opinion, that they have in my view overstepped the mark.

    I find that much of the economic research in the area is characterized by a tendency to embed value judgments and assumptions deep in the analysis, and to ignore or underplay the enormous uncertainty which is particularly relevant in this field. Findings are then recklessly presented as facts with no user warning whatsoever. Some are more guilty of this inexcusable and dangerous hubris than others. And then they wonder why nobody in the policy making world takes them seriously. It’s not that the research is not read or understood, it’s often just not – I’m my experience – taken seriously.

  20. Ciaran Daly Says:

    Gibbons apparent disdain for economists is extremely revealing. I suspect it is similar to the value system of many environmentalists where humans and their ability to eek out a living count for nothing, absolutely nothing, well with the extremists anyway. Sort of like the animal rights activists.

    If Gibbons “refers to economic models as “voodoo”” what does he refer to climate models as? voodoo propaganda?

    “Most seriously, Gibbons suggests that statisticians and economists have no relevant expertise on climate science and policy.”

    yikes!

    does evidence count for anything?

    “Greenhouse gas emissions are caused by economic activity”.

    Fair enough, and do greenhouse gases drive climate change or just affect it at the margin?

    Remember in former times a lot of the current so-called environmentalists would’ve been socialists supporting the USSR. Eco nuttery is the new statist fashion.

  21. Brian J Goggin Says:

    @Al:
    “Was a sub editor out sick?”

    Given the poor quality of some of the prose the IT has published in recent years, I suspect there may not be any subeditors left. There seems to be little copy-editing or proof-reading ….. O tempora o mores — which Flanders and Swann rendered as “Oh Times, Oh Daily Mirror”.

    bjg

  22. David Rolfe Says:

    What amazes me is that the IT printed an article which is pretty much libelous. By opening with the attention grabbing headline “Climate change doubter with PhD only in spin” and then not only failing to mention that Mr. Lomburg does actually have a PHD in the recognized field of Political Science but also using the phrase “for someone without even an undergraduate degree in a physical science” Gibbons created a clear albeit temporary impression in my mind that Mr. Lomburg was *telling lies* about his qualifications.

  23. Alan Says:

    I agree with John Gibbons – Lomborg is a fool – anyone who believes a word written by those crooks at the IPCC needs their head examined.
    I see the crooked scientist-in-chief, Michael Mann, is now being investigated by the Virginian District Attorney for misuse of public finds. With a bit of luck, the whole rotten AGW edifice will come crashing down. And John Gibbons can go back to doing what he does best. Whatever that is.

  24. bg Says:

    The IT really published this piece? It reads more like an pseudo-scientific anti-intellectual rant from 1930s Germany, than something from a genteel Irish broadsheet.

    When do they start rounding up statisticians?

  25. Brian J Goggin Says:

    @ben:
    “let’s look at temperatures at Dublin Airport over the last 30 years”

    Is that a magic spell to summon up Brendan Walsh?

    bjg

  26. Holbrook Fields Says:

    @Stephen – thanks for the links.

    I had a look at the Newsweek article on Friel’s book and it seems convincing that Lomborg’s book if full of inaccuracies. At the moment I don’t have the stamina to read through the response from Lomborg. Is John Gibbons using bombast to do battle with a bombastic outlook, is that possible? The main thread of his article Is Gibbons right? Is Lomborg talking rubbish and giving unwarranted credence to climate change policy skeptics?

  27. Seamus Coffey Says:

    Back in December 2008 John Gibbons wanted to know just what planet are economists on(gated) but available here.

    To support is ‘argument’ he quotes Robert Solow as saying “The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources” to highlight economists supposed absolute indifference to the environment.

    Bob Solow did indeed use the nine words in the sequence above but Gibbons completely ignored the context. The quote comes from a lecture Solow gave that was published in The American Economic Review in 1974. Here’s a fuller quote from the article called The Economics of Resources or the Resources of Economics.

    ————
    As you would expect, the degree of substitutability is also a key factor. If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is in principle no “problem.” The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe. Nordhaus’s notion of a “backstop technology” is just a dramatic way of putting this case; at some finite cost, production can be freed of dependence on exhaustible resources altogether.

    If, on the other hand, real output per unit of resources is effectively bounded- cannot exceed some upper limit of productivity which is in turn not too far from where we are now-then catastrophe is unavoidable. In-between there is a wide range of cases in which the problem is real, interesting, and not foreclosed. Fortunately, what little evidence there is suggests that there is quite a lot of substitutability between exhaustible resources and renewable or reproducible resources, though this is an empirical question that could absorb a lot more work than it has had so far.
    ———————

    Gibbons found the quote on some of the websites he frequents, which delight in posting such statements. He never bothered to check the original source. Would this quote from the Solow article not better support Gibbons worldview?

    “If real output per unit of resources is effectively bounded, which is in turn not too far from where we are now, then catastrophe is unavoidable.”

    But that would be from an economist and what would they know about the planet?

  28. Stephen Kinsella Says:

    @Holbrook, I’m reading Lomborg’s reply to Friel now, it’s a very interesting debate, reminiscent of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mismeasure_of_Man.

  29. Desmond Brennan Says:

    Failed zealots such as John Gibbons, of mediocre intellect, and lesser honesty, do not help the debate on climate change one bit.

    His claim:
    “LOOKING TO a statistician or economist for expert guidance on complex scientific matters makes about as much sense as consulting a neurosurgeon or a hairdresser for advice on investing in derivatives.”

    was ludicrous in the extreme and you deserve to be hauled up on it. Clearly any mitigation of the impacts of climate change must involve economics, and as much of climate change relies on statistical studies of records… well it’s a no brainer that statisticians get involved.

    Dishonest, shrieky, shrill people like Gibbons, who seek to “win” their arguments by ruling out of bound vast swathes of human expertise, should be ignored.

    It is time to openly debate these important issues, and failed dinosaurs such as Gibbons need to be confined to the trash can of human history, in order to allow it to happen.

  30. Holbrook Fields Says:

    @Desmond

    apart from Gibbons’ style, shriekiness and shrillness, is he right to castigate Lomborg?

  31. Brian J Goggin Says:

    @Desmond Brennan:
    “Dishonest, shrieky, shrill people ….”

    Toujours la politesse ….

    bjg

  32. Desmond Brennan Says:

    @HF

    Bjorn Lomborg was only one of JG’s targets, the targets included _any_ economist or statistician. I don’t dispute that there exists valid criticism of Lomborg, but John Gibbon’s attempts to shut down debate are not at all helpful. In his current form, John Gibbons criticism should not be entertained.

    Also specifically his attempt to rule Lomborg offside is pretty nuts as for example in 2008 Lomborg was named “one of the 50 people who could save the planet” by the Guardian. Needless to say the failure John Gibbons didn’t even get a look in : http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jan/05/activists.ethicalliving

    As said, it is ridiculous that people such as Gibbons, of mediocre talent, and lesser honesty, are being allowed to dominate debate on this important public issue. The Irish Times really needs to think about its standards in giving a platform to people liek Gibbons, there are many, many more out there more able than him – and they do the specific issue (climate change) and wider public policy debate , a serious disservice by appointing him as climate change champion.

  33. Karl Whelan Says:

    @ Ben

    “It’s Karl Whelan’s reductionism that really sums up the problem. Economists come in and say “well, this is just a simple statistical problem, let’s look at temperatures at Dublin Airport over the last 30 years. Done!”

    Perhaps you’re confusing me with some other UCD economist!

  34. Al Says:

    There is little point using the same paint that Mr Gibbons used in this article.
    If someone was to claim right of reply in the Times and came back with something similar then doesnt it cloud the waters with much faeces?
    The Times needs to look at themselves here!
    If Mr Gibbons is going through a barren patch then they should be looking at other talents to bridge the gap.
    There are plenty of talented people out there,,,,

  35. Holbrook Fields Says:

    @desmond

    thanks for the info and insight.

  36. Pope Epopt Says:

    A pretty efficient circling of the wagons, gentlemen. I think my gender assumptions are accurate.

    Mr. Gibbons (and by the well-worn principle of generalisation environmentalists who criticize conventional economics) is variously compared to are variously compared to Stalinists missing the Soviet Union and and a populist in 1930s Germany. I note you neatly avoided the N. word, with all that implies.

    Moving on to Mr. Tol’s criticism of Mr. Gibbon’s article:

    Nowhere in his article does Mr. Gibbons claim that “that statisticians and economists have no relevant expertise on climate science and policy”. Notice the trick here. Mr. Tol conveniently elides the qualification of the economist to comment on climate change policy, which any person in their right mind would grant, with Mr. Gibbons actual criticism of their right to comment on climate change science, which some, including many commentators on this thread, seem to support. Economists emphatically do not have the background to critique the mix of physics, atmospheric chemistry, mathematical and computer modeling which constitutes the impressive state of contemporary climate science.

    Nor does Mr. Gibbons refer “to economic models as “voodoo””. He claims that Lomborg uses ‘classic voodoo economics models’. Again the convenient generalisation by Mr. Tol as an invitation for the me-too crowd can turn into generalised attacks on environmentalists.

    The other issue of substance in Mr. Gibbons article is that Lomborg played a key role in an campaign to undermine public belief overwhelming consensus in climate science on the reality and likely effects of AGW. He paved the way for blowing up some methodological issues at the University of East Anglia CRU and some bad fact-checking in a peripheral IPPC report into an attack on climate science and in some cases science in general. This was an ideological exercise par excellence.

    I find myself in the invidious position of agreeing with Mr. Tol, however, in his assertion that climate change mitigation is absolutely a question of economics, given that economic activity drives anthropogenic global warming. Equally changes in economic activity and organisation along with technological change are the only way to mitigate its quite possibly disastrous effects on our ability to support the current global population.

  37. Pope Epopt Says:

    s/belief overwhelming/belief in the overwhelming/

    This site could do with a preview button.

    Webmaster: Google “WordPress comment preview plugins” and take your pick.

  38. Holbrook Fields Says:

    @ Pope Epopt
    Thanks for the closer dissection of the mud slinging. There’s fault on all sides but given that Lomborg has been lauded so much and proven to be so popular – who has done the greatest disservice to the climate debate? Lomborg or Gibbons? If what is being said of Lomborg is true – that his book is full of inaccuracies, then shouldn’t we all be painting Lomborg as the villain and not Gibbons? Can we believe Howard Friel’s new book?

  39. Pope Epopt Says:

    @Holbrook Fields.

    Here’s how to decide: You get a copy of Lomborg’s book and then chomp through Friel’s book checking out Friel’s criticisms of Lomborg’s misquoting of scientific papers. You can take a, dare I say it, statistical approach to this and randomly select a statistically significant number of the allegations, rather than trawl through the whole thing. If Friel’s right in most cases I suggest you have the right to consider Lomborg as tendentious junk.

    If you want a picture of where climate science is at then do yourself a favour and hop over to http://www.realclimate.org/. Warning – it’s not always easy reading, especially if you drill down into the original papers referenced, and even worse if you try to understand the models used in detail, for which you can also find most of the source code and raw data.

    I didn’t make that sound very inviting, did I? Let me rephrase that. The content is clear enough for any averagely literate and numerate person to get something from.

    I’m wondering if this Gibbons/Tol thing isn’t some kind of turf war over space in the Irish Times. Naïve of me not the think of this before.

  40. Holbrook Fields Says:

    @Pope Epopt

    Thanks very much for the info. I had a quick look at Lomborg’s response to Friel, and that too sounds very convincing…! My guess is that there are serious differences over how viewpoints are framed, e.g. what is the most effective way of spending €50 billion vs. what is the potential fallout from AGW? or how can we best preserve polar bear habitats that are subject to climate change vs how can we protect polar bears best (Lomborg’s point about stopping polar bear hunting seems very reasonable). Anyhow, as with much else it is hard to know who to trust, but as someone who is trying to grapple with these questions it’s great to hear the airing of arguments on this blog and in the comments.

  41. Seamus Grimes Says:

    Great to see a little bit of critique going on here.

    It is beyond me how John Gibbons has received so little critique in the letters page for so long.

    Re The Sceptical Environmentalist, has anybody ever come across the publication of a book which was met with such vehement critique? If my memory serves my correctly, Scientific American felt it was so threatening that it published three major critiques (all very negative) very soon after publication. Not to mention the farce about the Danish Committee in ethics in research which also treated the author very badly.

  42. Richard Tol Says:

    @jc
    “Dangerous” is a value judgement, not a scientific fact. “Scientists” (with whom I guess you mean “natural scientists” since you contrast them with “economists” who are “social scientists”) are not wiser than other people and therefore no better judge of what is right or wrong. Besides, in our democracy, votes are not weighted by such things as IQ or formal qualifications.

  43. Richard Tol Says:

    @ben
    You refer to Brendan Walsh’ previous posts in which he asked the question “what happened to the temperature at Dublin Airport?” and competently showed that there is no trend up or down. That’s all he did.

    It is symptomatic of the debate on climate policy that a person cannot ask and answer a simple question without being attacked — and indeed the attack is not limited to the person but is on the entire discipline.

  44. Richard Tol Says:

    @Holbrook
    Bjorn Lomborg is a not a scholar. Scholars publish their research in peer-reviewed journals. Lomborg has one such paper.

    Lomborg writes books with popular science. In popular science, there is a trade-off between accuracy and sales. Lomborg sells well. In fact, his first book did so well that he can now afford to be more accurate.

    Lomborg successfully punches holes in climate hysteria. As panic is a bad adviser, Lomborg plays a useful role in the debate on climate policy. Lomborg provides counterbalance. He is therefore not balanced.

  45. Richard Tol Says:

    @pope epopt
    Apologies for not expressing myself more clearly.

    Lomborg hardly writes about climate change. Economists overwhelmingly focus on the economics of climate change. I made a jump of faith and assumed that John Gibbons’ attack was on the actual contributions of Lomborg and of economists. I admit than John Gibbons might just as well have attacked their imaginary contribution.

    I further assumed that John Gibbons used the adjective “voodoo” not as a means to limit his assertion to a specific class of economic models but rather as a way to dismiss economic models in general. I admit that the sentence is grammatically ambiguous and that I chose to interpret it in one particular way.

    Lomborg does not publicly question the reality of anthropogenic global warming and is therefore unlikely to have influenced the public on that topic. He has hardly featured in the furore over CRU and IPCC. John Gibbons’ allegation is truly bizarre. Since you seem to believe it, perhaps you want to elaborate on this particular hypothesis?

  46. Michael Hennigan - Finfacts Says:

    One of my favourite quotes is from André Gide: Believe those who search for truth. Doubt those who claim to have found it.

    Last Dec. Prof. William Reville wrote in the Irish Times: “At the heart of science is the objective search for truth. However, the scientific investigation of climate change may not merit high marks in this respect. The majority and the minority scientific explanations of current climate change are contradictory and both sides loudly accuse each other of dishonesty.

    For example, John Gibbons, climate change lobbyist, opened his debate with Prof Ian Plimer, Australian geologist and climate sceptic, on Pat Kenny’s radio show on December 2nd, by calling Plimer “a grade-A charlatan”. Let us hope the discussions in Copenhagen will be more measured.

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/sciencetoday/2009/1210/1224260412971.html

    Gibbons writes: “Lomborg’s actual genius lies not in science, but in theatre. He realised that if he could look and sound science-y, almost no one would know the difference, since few in the media or politics have any idea how science actually works.”

    The same point could be made about Al Gore who has become immensely wealthy from his advocacy on climate change.

    However, hurling personal abuse about does not engage the disengaged

    Tony Kinsella wrote on Gibbons’ own blog: “Our arguments need to be solid and challenging while not being alarmist.

    If our message becomes one of “we are all doomed” we should not be surprised if we fail to motivate our fellow citizens because if doom is unavoidable, then why should people try to avoid it?

    More rational analysis and less proselytising.

    The participation of Bjorn Lomborg in the debate should be welcome. He does after all advocate the development of clean energies.

    In recent years there has been a stampede to embrace renewables, including of course vested interests. However, sometimes the apparent cure can make the disease worse.

    Economist Prof. John Kay wrote last month in the FT: “Scientists have learnt that exaggerated claims are a route to a media profile and research funding. There is little downside in predicting disaster: if it does not materialise they can claim to have been instrumental in staving it off. Scares that thrive, such as the millennium bug and swine flu, have commercial interests that benefit from their propagation. Naysayers in the credit boom, by contrast, were trampled in the rush to share the riches available to those who denied or disregarded the dangers.

    While the irrational belief in a god is still common in the world, it will take time for rational arguments on climate change to gain wide acceptance.

  47. toby Says:

    Gibbons made a mistake in attacking Lomborg, who is very much a busted flush. The denialist media abhor him because he is “too alarmist”, while he had long ago lost any influence in the AGW camp.

    This has very much an air of kicking someone who is already down, and that does not sit easily with me.

    To Richard’s point about statistics and economics, I agree wtih him completely. While physics is physics, policy and policymakers must be guided by economics, with the constraint that physics may have imposed boundary conditions on the timeframe given to take action.

    Regarding the quote from John Kay above, predicting doom won’t get you onto Fox News, or headlines in the Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, or the Australian, but a juicy lie about climate scientists will get you all the coverage you want. So he is only half-right. With the news that some state attorneys from “red” states like Virginia and Texas are going to pursue climate scientists in the courts over the spending of grant funds, one can see that the intrusion of politics into science is leading to most unpleasant consequenes for science in general.

    The Economist published some excellent, balanced articles on climate science recently. These were most refreshing after some of the blatant misinformation that had flown around over “Climategate” etc.

    http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15720419

    http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15719298

  48. Veronica Says:

    It must have seemed like a good idea at the time – the 2007 IPCC Report whipping up a fervour of public opinion for political action on climate change, the Greens power-sharing in our own government; an issue with appeal to the readership demographic the Times needs to attract; the appointment of a ‘Climate Change Columnist’ copperfastening the Times’ claim to be in the vanguard of Irish journalism. His appointment as an IT columnist has arguably turned into a disaster for the newspaper. John Gibbons might have been better left to blog away harmlessly on his internet site preaching to the already converted. Instead his emotive outpourings of 90,000 words plus over the past two years have dismayed many people who wish to see an intelligent and informed public debate on the issues.

    By his own admission, John Gibbons experienced an ‘epiphany’ on climate change a few years ago. Unfortunately, this appears to have turned him into a latter-day Savoranola of sorts, spreading the gospel of climate change catastrophism and dedicated to the destruction of any who might challenge his convictions. It’s fairly obvious that he would like to drag so-called ‘denier’, Richard Tol, to a stake and light a fire under him, though, as far as I know, Tol has devoted most of his working life to the economics of climate change and is internationally respected for his expertise in this area.

    In the era of prosperity, climate change ranked high among public concerns. In an era of austerity it has slipped down the public agenda more rapidly than it might otherwise have done. Politically, the boat has gone out for proselytisers like Gibbons. Taxpayers will question public expenditure on climate change policy initiatives much more than they would have done when money appeared to be no object. The problem is not what statisticians or environmental economists say about the options we should take as a society and a community to address climate change; it’s that they have been cut out of the debate for far too long.

  49. Dave Says:

    Yes you’re right, economics is at the centre of how we tackle climate change.

    Still, Bjor Lomborg is a scam artist.

  50. toby Says:

    @Veronica,

    “The problem is not what statisticians or environmental economists say about the options we should take as a society and a community to address climate change; it’s that they have been cut out of the debate for far too long.”

    Kindly show how this can be the case. Economists have been all over global warming from Day One, and the solutions are well known.

    It is political will that has been lacking.

  51. Richard Tol Says:

    @Toby, Veronica

    Economists have played a central role in climate policy under Bush Sr and again under Obama. Economists have been peripheral in Europe’s climate policy, witnessing the emissions targets and the policy design. Some argue that the European Trading System is a sign of the influence of economists, but no economist would have designed the ETS as it is.

  52. Veronica Says:

    @Toby, Richard,

    My point is that in the politics of climate change, a small group of climate scientists and the environmental movement have been in the front row of determining what that policy should be, as well as shaping public opinion in support of the options selected, assisted by the mainstream media’s penchant for simplistic analysis and catastrophic scenarios. Economists and statisticians, as well as political scientists and historians, and the valuable critique which they might have supplied on those options, have been scattered further back, with those most inclined to question the prevaling consensus firmly relegated to the back row.

    A number of factors, not least the international credit crunch, are causing a shift in public opinion away from prioritising climate change as an issue as well as less stoical public acceptance of solutions that may prove costly to society or may not, when all the evidence is taken into account, be justifiable.

    As the politics change, the influence of the high minded morality-based approach of environmentalists will also wane and the opinons of statisticians and economists will loom larger in the political frame. It’s understandable that this waning influence may make people like John Gibbons uncomfortable. But lashing out at every policy critique, and labelling and name-calling anyone who questions a particular interpretation, is hardly wise.

    If economists, as you say Richard, have been peripheral in Europe’s climate policy, they have been practically non-existent in the Irish public debate on climate change up to recent times. But we should know enough from our recent history (e.g. nuclear policy) to recognise that an all-embracing public and policy consensus on any environmental issue is not always in our best interests.

  53. fergaloh Says:

    Wierd thread – on 7 April there was link to Krugman’s piece from the NYT, acknowledging Global Warming and the need for a green economy, it attracted a whopping 14 replies

    But any criticism of Lomborg generates 56 posts (generally defending the loolah and decrying any criticism of him…)

  54. toby Says:

    @Veronica, Richard,

    As a (non-academic) statistician, I have tried to glean what I could from the writings on global warming. While the Royal Statistical Society criticised the methods of the CRU after “Climategate”, the recommended methods do not lead to different results. The case for global warming rests on computer models of the physical mechanisms and, so far, their predictions within limts of error have been borne out. The trends in temperature, Arctic sea ice, carbon dioxide levels and sea level rise all support the theory. At the moment, fitting an explanatory model to temperature based on carbon dioxide levels would not prove anything because simple correlation (like between my age and oil prices) would account for the result.

    Since the science is sound (and even if the predictions were off, it would be mad to ignore them), we would naturally expect that governments would make decisions that are rigorously science-based and act according to the best advice. That is where economists come in. As far I know (and is based mostly on reading Krugman), carbon-taxes to make alternative technologies competitive are the accepted market mechanism.

    The fact that governments are being wary of this issue arises from a well-funded rearguard action by the coal and oil industries, using the tactics pioneered by the tobacco companies in holding up the banning of tobacco for may years after the evidence was crystal clear. Indeed, in at least one case, an “Institute” set up by the nicotine industry just switched its main theme to climate change.

    The fact that public support for action on climate change has dropped has a simpler explanation than Veronica’s: the cold winters in the US and Europe made it hard for anyone to accept global warming at the moment. No matter how often they are told otherwise, people interpret the climate by the daily weather.

    However, I have been mainly following this debate in the US. Comes from been more interested in US politics than the boring old EU. However, may Richard could go into more detail about how the ETS departs from the correct economic model for handling coal, oil and the new technologies we need to bring to market to replace them.

  55. Richard Tol Says:

    @toby
    Please don’t oversimplify the public discourse on climate change. Recall that Al Gore’s formative years were in tobacco and he is as guilty of manipulating the evidence on climate change as anyone.

    Note also that the choice is not between “climate policy” and “no climate policy”. The question is how fast emissions should be reduced, and economists have said many things about that all of which has been ignored (since Bush Sr left office).

    The problems with the ETS are well-rehearsed. The main problems are overallocation of permits because the authority to allocate permits was given to the Member States rather than the Commission; and the grandparenting of permits which is essentially a big subsidy to industry. The bureaucracy is needlessly cumbersome. The carousel fraud that is now being investigated was entirely predictable. Seller-beware liability will lead to further fraud.

  56. fergaloh Says:

    Here’s a Lomborg piece from the FT, post Copenhagen, where he applauds the failure to agree on carbon taxes however he acknowledges there is a problem all the same… but there is good news, he has a pat solution, huge investment in energy R&D…

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/46455cb4-ef39-11de-86c4-00144feab49a.html

  57. Richard Tol Says:

    @fergaloh
    Lomborg is wrong in that piece. Government subsidies are not very effective in steering and accelerating applied R&D. Technology would progress faster if the government were to tax carbon dioxide emissions and let companies sort out what R&D is needed and how much.

  58. dealga Says:

    Gibbons: “LOOKING TO a statistician or economist for expert guidance on complex scientific matters… when it comes to climate science… a small band of people operating entirely beyond their training or competence… emerged as international experts.”

    Prof Tol: “Gibbons suggests that statisticians and economists have no relevant expertise on climate science and policy”

    Gibbons: “Without Lomborg’s meticulous preparatory work, the “Climategate” red herring – since debunked – might have not been so eagerly swallowed.”

    Prof Tol: “Gibbons oddly suggests that Lomborg is behind “climategate””

    I think that’s clear enough.

    As is Prof Tol’s assertion that “Lomborg can now afford to be more accurate”, which is very reassuring.

  59. toby Says:

    @Richard,

    I know you said “please”, but I will call the public debate on climate as I see it, thank you. I know how you and your compadres in the Global Warming Whatsit would like to spin it. Pity you just made yourselves part of the problem. Your website reads like an inferior version of Anthony Watts’. For all his faults, give me Al Gore any day of the week.

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