Moron Economists and Global Warming

There are many different takes on global warming, many of them moronic. At the high end of the moronitude scale come the straightforward denialists. Never mind that all warming predictions so far have come true, or that glaciers and ice caps are visibly receding, or that extreme weather conditions have increased (as predicted) or that computer models based on different methods all predict warming; the true denialist doesn’t need facts, because there’s always an oil-funded pundit to reassure him that it’s still OK to drive a Hummer.But denialists still have a problem: despite large amounts of funding for their cause, there’s a distinct shortage of experts they can call on. Climate scientists themselves have reached a near-unanimous consensus on the issue, as have scientific bodies around the world. Favourite spokespeople of the denial movement such as Christopher Monckton have been caught lying so many times that they have no remaining credibility beyond their hardcore base of believers.

Enter the Economists. Now don’t get me wrong – I think Economics is a wonderful field with some of the world’s brightest people finding elegant explanations and proposed solutions for a plethora of issues. On the other hand, while blue-sky thinking is valuable, it tends to create far more dead-ends than real answers. Then bring in the denialists, and the combined result is a recipe for inaction: “No need to cut carbon usage because Doctor Fred Smith of Hastings University says we’ll find a solution”.

Today’s example of nicely-argued economical moronitude comes from David Friedman, and is provocatively-titled What is Wrong With Global Warming Anyway? In a nutshell, he argues that while warming has obvious downsides, it also has obvious upsides (primarily the ability to grow crops and live further away from the equator). He then states (erroneously) that it’s not possible to estimate the costs or the benefits, and so decides (erroneously again) that we can’t say whether the net effect of global warming is good or bad for humans. He is therefore led to the conclusion that there’s no point investing in CO2 reduction, as we can’t provide a cost/benefit analysis to justify the spending.

You may have already spotted that this argument is moronic, pretty much from start to end. His base assumption (that we can’t try to cost the pros and cons) is clearly wrong, and would have many of his fellow economists up in arms – after all, costing such things is how they earn their living – and we’re approaching the fifth anniversary of the review by the economist Nicholas Stern which did exactly this.

Friedman points out that warming will lead to more habitable areas in places such as Siberia and Canada, which could lead to economic gains – as could the opening of new sea routes previously blocked by ice. This is of course true. Let’s assume for a moment that as much new fertile and habitable land appears as vanishes elsewhere (this assumption is highly unlikely to be true anyway, but bear with me). So we end up with large parts of Africa, Asia, the Southern US and other places less fertile and habitable, while equivalent areas of northern Canada, Greenland and Siberia open up to human habitation.

That’s great, problem solved! The only minor problem is how to relocate several billion people several thousand miles from the world’s poorest regions, replace cities, electricity and water infrastructure, road and rail, deal with the huge social upheavals and wars that would inevitably result, and hey presto! A brand new, stable and happy (not to mention warmer) world.

Now, given that our societies have taken around 13,000 years to reach their current states, forgive me for being a little cynical that this may all be achievable in a few decades. Oh, and let’s not forget that warming can only help the spread of disease, with associated costs – there’s no loss/gain trade-off when it comes to more malaria. And let’s also remember that with rising sea levels, there is a net loss of land; and low-lying coastal land just happens to accommodate a large part of the global population, along with the greatest cities.

Friedman’s “don’t worry, we’ll find a solution” attitude is hilarious when contrasted with recent events. If you consider the pain caused by sub-prime mortgage disaster, does anyone believe a global evacuation and resettlement could be achieved? Friedman’s solution only works if a genocidal approach is taken (assumed but unmentioned by Friedman) – allow people in the Horn of Africa (for example) to die from famine, while allowing the Europeans and North Americans to expand and relocate northwards.

I have little doubt homo sapiens will survive this century of warming, and the centuries of disruption that will follow. But can we survive in our current numbers, and maintain the complex societies we live in today? That seems unlikely. We’re inevitably entering the greatest period of instability our civilisation has been through in its 13,000-year history. The next few decades (or more likely centuries) will be tough – and the last thing we need is more complacency brought on by moronic arguments like Friedman’s.

10 thoughts on “Moron Economists and Global Warming”

  1. "I think Economics is a wonderful field with some of the world's brightest people finding elegant explanations and proposed solutions for a plethora of issues."

    Is there something about the events of the last three years that has evaded your attention? Wow. I just lost all respect for you.

  2. Did you read the wikipedia article you linked regarding the Stern Review and notice that ~80% of the article is about some of the criticisms most economists have with it? If you did, what makes Friedman's position (that you can't *reliably* cost them) "moronic"? Obviously one could *try* to come up with numbers for pro and con, but to try is not the same thing as to succeed. Look into the issue of "discount rates" in particular.

  3. @punkscience – to blame the "last three years" on economists would be moronic. Economics is just a discipline. It attracts people from all parts of the political spectrum and from smart to moronic. As in most fields, the majority are mediocre and follow the crowd – a smart minority actually understand what's going on.

  4. "We're inevitably entering the greatest period of instability our civilisation has been through in its 13,000-year history. The next few decades (or more likely centuries) will be tough – and the last thing we need is more complacency brought on by moronic arguments like Friedman's."

    I have heard those same sentiments echoed again and again through modern history, and the pessimist seems to always be wrong in hindsight.

    But they didn't know what they were talking about then; we know now because we are much, much smarter and more intelligent than they were!

  5. I wonder if Moron Watcher spends most of his time in front of a mirror. This sounds like it was written by a high schooler.

  6. I’m gonna defend Friedman here for the sake of argument by addressing some of the points you’ve made with arguments I’ve heard him make elsewhere.

    1) You make the “relocation of billions of people” sound like it has to happen overnight. It would happen over 100+ years. Billions of people relocate on their own every decade or so through immigration, moving for jobs, etc. How is this any different? Houses and jobs building those houses in areas of improving climate could slowly bid people away from areas that are becoming less inhabitable for instance. The housing stock of a region almost completely turns over every 50-100 years or so anyway.

    2) The losses caused by malaria could be easily prevented with simple pesticides as they have done EVERYWHERE in the developed world. Malaria used to be very common in the southern U.S. and Europe. The point about malaria is, dare I say, “moronic” (I swore I wouldn’t stoop to that level. Sorry.).

    3) To add to point one, there would be no reason to abandon large cities near the ocean. It would be much, much more effective and economical to invest in levees and dykes and other methods of fighting rising sea levels. This is not that difficult or expensive given sea levels rising around 0.2 inches per year.

    Given how quickly we are improving in the fields of technology and food production, I think it is quite likely that we will be able to survive the next century with a much larger population. I’d bet almost any sum of money that the Earth will have a larger population in 25, 50, 100, or 200 years. The obstacles posed by global warming require very small investments to handle relative to our economy. The real catastrophe would be to shut down and cripple our ability to make things and transport food in the name of stopping a fairly wimpy threat.

  7. Your vitriol is offputting and casts into doubt your ability to reason objectively. You’re not only directly insulting Friedman but without realizing it you’re indirectly insulting anyone who thinks he made good points who would otherwise be persuaded by hearing your counter-points. You’re an asshole.

  8. a few problems with your criticism
    1. the ability to create a pro con list with sufficient reliability to base our decisions on is different from the ability to create one at all with the available data; half the point of Friedman’s essays on this issue are about how reliable information can show a net benefit based on how warming is generally a positive thing in cold places and a negative thing in warm places and because water vapor in warm regions and seasons makes co2 a less significant source of the green house effect and therefore shifts in co2 has less impact on temperature in warm places. It is uncontroversial climatologically to say that there will be more warming in cold places than in warm places; his statement refers more to how the net cost will be very different depending on if you live inland or on the coast or in the south vs the north so a general positive/negative assessment isn’t feasible as it will differ from person to person
    2. “relocation” of billions is an inaccurate description because this is a change that is not going to occur over the course of a year or even a decade but over the course of a century, over the course of the century there will be shifts in the location of populations on the scale of billions of people, not to mention increases of the population on that scale, regardless of whether there is any change in average temperature or not, all global warming would change is where the migrations are directed, i.e. more movement on average from south to north and from coats to inland than otherwise.
    3. The same goes for capital and constructs located disproportionately near the coast, as you put it; these would need to be completely replaced over the course of a century in any event all that will change is where the replacements are located; also there is no inevitability to ceding the land where cities are (which would be a disruptive cost as cities are rarely recycled or abandoned on a century time scale) as it is perfectly within our capacities to push back the shore line by much more than they are projected to retreat to as a result of even the most pessimistic end of the professional models of climate change (keep in mind the dutch were able to adjust their shore line by more than we would need to as a result of climate change induced sea level rise, and the dutch were using the technology of four hundred years ago when they did this). You can even estimate the cost of doing such a thing, for the US at least, and a system of dykes and levies that completely cancels out the rising sea levels would be on the scale of hundreds of billions of dollars spread out over the course of a century compared to the cost of tens of trillions of dollars involved in leaving fossil fuels untouched to avoid any sea level rise at all.
    4. The point about increasing disease is accurate and fair, climate change will in net increase the range of habitable areas for all organisms and that includes disease spreading ones, what countervails this however is that the ability to fight disease with pesticides and transportation of medicine and clean water is largely dependent on the availability and cost of energy which would be negatively impacted by curtailing fossil fuels, it is within our technological ability to protect vulnerable populations against disease as it is what impedes this is primarily the cost of energy. The cost of energy is also the main impediment to facilitating transportation so humans can relocate themselves to where they would be the most prosperous,safe, and healthy.
    5. The availability of water as well can be looked at on a pro con basis as in warm places there will be more water evaporation than precipitation as a result of climate change and therefore many water reservoirs will disappear but in cold places many new ones will start to appear as snow pack will melt at a faster rate than it will refreeze. In net because there will be more warming in cold places than warm places it is reasonable to project more water will be made available in the north than will be made inaccessible in the south. Also as summer storms will increase in frequency and intensity winter storms will decrease, winter storms do more damage to human lives and property than summer storms as any meteorological source will confirm for you.
    6. The point about 13,000 years to develop society as opposed to the “decades” over which we will need to adapt to global warming is objectionable on many levels. Most of the adaption we have done as a society has occurred over the last century and the century before that the same was true, if you look at our population, its distribution, our technological capabilities, and the like and how much it has shifted from 1900-2000 and again from 1800-1900 it will be clear that the adaptations involved in climate change which will occur from 2000-2100 will pale in comparison. Also the shifts in climate over the course of the last 13,000 years are greater than those projected over the next century due to the greenhouse effect, the coming shift will be more rapid than those natural shifts over the past millennia but so is our rate of adaption.

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