Sunday, October 04, 2009

I need help rewriting Op-Ed on "We talk too much about the science of climate change!"

I was asked to write an op-ed on social science and climate change. Here's a very preliminary draft. I have lots of changes in mind, but before then, you guys are good at keeping me honest:

There was too much science driving the public debate on climate change. Coming from a former economist for the Bush administration, that kind of sentiment probably immediately raise your alarms, echoing images of a closed minded administration engaged in a War on Science. That kind of sentiment reminds you of everything that you thought was wrong with the Bush administration, and the kind of thinking that the Obama administration was supposed to fix. Yet, I maintain that any administration would be well served to not let science dominate policy decisions.

Let me be clear, I have nothing against science. My parents are scientists. Some of my best friends are scientists. Let me be even more clear, there is a scientific consensus that the earth is warning, and at least part of the warming is due to human activity. We should acknowledge that there are reasonable dissenters on this finding, and that nothing in science can be guaranteed with 100% certainty especially as paradigms shift, but I as a non-scientist think it more than reasonable to go with the consensus scientific opinion and acknowledge mankind’s role in climate change.

However, what we should do about climate change is a very different question, and one which quite possibly, scientists are not the ones with the best expertise. An old adage avers that “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Scientists see climate change as a scientific problem to be solved with a scientific solution. However, good public policy requires many inputs, among them, scientific and engineering understanding, but crucially we also need to understand social science as well.

For far too long, expert opinion within the public debate on climate change was dominated by scientists, and that created a large blind spot when it came to thinking about public policy.

To be fair, the scientists were the ones who identified the problem and have been thinking about the problem for the longest, and up until recently, they have been the ones doing most of the research. For reporters looking for stories on global warming, science was a natural place to turn.

Those who doubted the scientific consensus are pilloried as closed minded slack-jawed yokels, yet the same people that defend science often openly flaunt economic consensus. They advocate policies that fail every conceivable cost benefit analysis test, and claim that regulating carbon will increase economic growth. I know economists may not have the best reputation these days for predicting the macro-economy, but I still think the economic evidence is quite strong that added taxes and regulation while worthy, will likely dampen economic growth.

If you read the economic findings within the same Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that people cite for describing the scientific consensus on climate change, you find the prediction that the economic consequences of implementing climate action to be on the order of trillions of dollars over the next 25 years. Implementing policies to stop climate change has consequences that include increasing poverty by the millions, increasing deaths from conditions associated with the cold such as flu or hypothermia, and decreasing potential growing seasons in large parts of the world like Canada and Russia.

The film An Inconvenient Truth frustrates me because after spending two hours deriding junk science, it ends using the junk economic argument that stopping global warming can be painless and is worth any cost.

But, I do believe that the economic analysis is clear that the potential consequences of doing nothing easily justify these costs. Trillions of dollars sounds big, but accounts for only a percent or two of world output over 25 years.

Some would say that informing people of the truth about the costs of climate policy is ill advised because it will only confuse them. While I share the goals of those who advocate for strong action to address climate change, I still think the public is better served when they are better informed. Especially because a better public understanding can make those climate policies are better designed.

Economists for example are fairly certain about certain principles that should drive climate policy.
Policy should begin modest, and increase with time. Policies should use market based instruments such as taxes or cap and trade which are far more effective that heavy handed regulation. Market based policies help ensure that only actions whose benefits outweigh their costs are taken.

In an article in the NY Times about eminent physicist Freeman Dyson who advocates many of these ideas, his ideas are treated with derision and contempt when most of his ideas are in line with economic mainstream.

I should be clear that my frustration comes mostly from the public debate, and not from the experts in the field who are mostly well informed on these issues. Scientists themselves are normally well aware of all of these other issues, though whether they find these other issues interesting enough to care about is another story.

At a meeting hosted by the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, we were discussing why the electric power grid needs to be upgraded to handle renewable power. While the engineers were focused on the science of upgrading the grid, in terms of determining the optimal location of new power lines, and the science of power transmission, I was reminded of a study by a group of economists at Resources for the Future, who found that it wasn’t money, or technology, or government regulation that was the main impediment to upgrading our power grid, but instead, it is primarily NIMBY. The social phenomenon where locals protest any new construction in their backyard, which often means just obtaining the rights to build a single power line can take decades.

And that I have used the past tense, because in recent months as the debate has taken more center stage in congress, more nuanced debate has emerged, and economic concerns have been mooted for debate.

But public perception is slow to shift. Some concrete examples where bad economics has played a role in the public debate include a favorite politician buzzword: Green Jobs. This term frustrates economists who see it as a dishonest slight of hand. Government policy can create jobs, but in general, the net effect long term effect of government policies and regulations is effectively zero: any green jobs created comes at the expense of jobs lost elsewhere in the economy.

Another peeve of mine is the proposal by a Columbia University biologist who has proposed converting Manhattan skyscrapers into giant greenhouses. I appreciate the sentiment of wanting to reduce transportation costs, but given that land in Iowa costs about a thousand dollar an acre, and office space in Manhattan costs hundreds of millions, it is hard to imagine how growing food in Manhattan skyscrapers vs. Iowa could possibly yield hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental benefits.

Note, that we are all hammers, and while I began my discussion criticizing scientific narrow mindedness, I should be cognizant my own economic-tinged narrow minded. I just urge more humility and open-mindedness in public discourse.

Economists often dream up policies without considering the politics, without accounting for the political difficulties in securing international cooperation and navigating well established international treaties, or with balancing the checks inherent in the democratic political process.

Economists have also largely ignored the power of social movements, of social pressure and moral obligation, to effect change. By incorporating insights from sociology and psychology, behavioral economists like myself, working with some colleagues at CALS, have been working on trying to understand how social pressures, and feelings of guilt, altruism, self-expression, or pride can be marshaled toward the environment.
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