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.

8 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.

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