Tag Archives: William Nordhaus

Climate Change: A Question of Caves and Mansions 2?

In my last post, I looked at the neoclassical economist’s view of a world undergoing climate change. The consensus within the profession is that global mean temperature rise will become a growing cost to humanity. Further, such a cost is not being borne by those causing it (a so called externality in the economics literature) and therefore justifies a carbon tax. Finally, and most controversially for some, the standard recommendation is for a slow and steady ramp in taxation from a very low starting point. This rests on the recognition that any investment to mitigate carbon emissions now will translate into lost economic output in the future. So the logic goes: it is often better to get rich and dirty first (before cleaning up), rather than staying clean and poor.

In sum, the economics profession calls for a calm, considered but, above all, slow response to climate change.  This is in stark contrast to the position of many climate scientists; for example, the sentiment expressed in the following statement by the climate scientist Lonnie Thompson:

Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.

Since the scientific and the economics communities inhabit completely different academic silos, it is rare to find any intelligent discussion that analyses this dichotomy of opinion. Economists cite scholarly articles published in the leading economics journals, and scientists cite scholarly articles in the leading scientific journals. The one exception is perhaps the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s periodic assessment reviews, which has provided a communal market place of ideas for a variety of disciplines to meet. However, the last report was published in 2007 and was based on an information set available a few years even earlier. Therefore, many economists are not very well placed to tap into the rising alarm of climate scientists as new data comes in and reports get published.

If I were a climate scientist trying to install a sense of urgency among economists, how would plan my avenue of attack? Continue reading

Climate Change: A Question of Caves and Mansions 1?

A can’t count the number of moribund discussions I have had over the veracity of climate change. Having spent the best part of my career in the financial industry, it is impossible not to come across certain colleagues, clients and brokers who see global warming as an affront to free market economics and therefore something that could not possibly exist.

Such questioning of the science, however, doesn’t particularly bother me: a contrarian mindset is a prerequisite for a successful career managing money so the multitude of climate skeptics within the industry should not be a surprise. What does frustrate me, though, is that many of those who argue so vehemently that climate change is a product of statist scientists trying to secure government funding don’t feel the need to acquaint themselves with the basic tenets of what they are arguing against (and yes I have had the painful experience of reading through the standard skeptic offerings from Ian Plimer‘s ‘Heaven and Earth’, to Nigel Lawson’s ‘An Appeal to Reason‘, to Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘Cool It‘ and many more).

When engaging with many skeptics, it is like arguing with someone over the merits of a novel when my opponent has only read the reviews in a newspaper and not the original text. Continue reading

The Conjoined Twins: Peak Oil and Climate Change

Of modern-day dystopias, the conjoined twins of climate change and peak oil energy (or rather peak energy) are poor dance partners, forever out of tune and stepping on one another’s toes. Despite being conjoined through carbon, the interaction between the two is complex and, at times, contradictory. Accordingly, while most of the environmental movement has embraced both issues, it is a somewhat awkward clinch.  At the most extreme, the thesis of one negates the other: a peak energy carbon constraint caps warming; while a carbon concucopia allows economies to grow head long into a climate crunch (that they may or may not have the wealth to cope with).

Peak oil’s path to respectability has been a little more convoluted than that of climate change.  Indeed, it is still quite far from becoming the consensus. For peak oil theorists to emerge victorious they need to slay an even more entrenched existing consensus, that of neoclassical economics. Laurence Summers—a feted economist whose resume includes an academic professorship at Harvard, the role of Chief Economist at the World Bank and stints with both the Clinton and Obama administrations—had this to say about resource constraints back in 1991:

“There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.” Continue reading