David R. Henderson  

Jeffrey Sachs's Sleight of Hand

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The wars over climate science aren't really about whether humanity is dangerously changing the climate. It is.
So begins a short piece in today's (Saturday/Sunday) Wall Street Journal titled "A Grand Bargain on Energy." The rest of the piece is not as bad, given that he countenances the N-word, that is, nuclear energy.

But really, Jeff? There's no debate over whether humanity is dangerously changing the climate? I almost titled this post, "Jeffrey Sachs's Tin Ear," which would have implied that he's just not familiar with the debate. But it's hard to believe that he's not. I don't know which is more disturbing: that he's not aware of the serious debate among serious scientists or that he is aware and just wants his readers to think that he's not.


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
BC writes:

It's strange because, as far as I can tell, nothing in the remainder of the piece requires believing that "humanity is dangerously changing the climate". In fact, if Sachs removed the sentence, "It is," the rest of the piece could remain verbatim without changing the validity of any of the arguments.

Then, the obvious question is why even include these first two sentences? One possibility is that Sachs just wants to take a potshot at those that don't believe that humanity is dangerously changing the climate even though, again, the piece doesn't actually have anything to do with that question. A second possibility is that Sachs believes that he needs to identify himself as part of the tribe that does believe that humanity is dangerously changing the climate so that people in that tribe will take the rest of what he says seriously. This second possibility, if it is the motivation, would be quite concerning as it would imply that people in this tribe are so closed minded that they would never consider ideas from anyone that didn't first declare fidelity to that tribe.

It reminds me of the period before gay rights became popularly accepted. When defending gay rights, some people felt the need to first preface their remarks, "I'm not gay, but...". Apparently, we now have entered a period where some people may feel the need to say, "I believe in anthropogenic climate change. Now, here's what I have to say about energy policy...."

ThomasH writes:

Dave,

OK if you think Sach is wrong, what's right? What's your estimate of the optimal carbon tax? Or, better, what are the variables that the optimal trajectory depends on? And what uncertainties do you attach to your estimate? There is certainly a range of estimates of the matrix of effects and consequent costs. What is the correct policy conclusion to draw from that range?

My own non-expert guess is that it's a fairly small carbon tax right now that can be scaled up or down as more information and better modeling changes our estimates of effects. This would eliminate justification for the plethora of subsidies for "green energy," like the just-renewed investment tax credits (though I'd increase investments in research on climate change itself and zero carbon-emitting energy sources including nuclear) and would permit using the revenue to reduce other taxes with clear dead weight losses like the corporate income tax or the wage taxes that finance SS and Medicare-Medicaid.

Taxes on some kinds of use of land in areas especially at risk for hurricanes, floods, and fires also makes sense (regardless of whether these risks have increased because of climate change or not) since the public pays a substantial sum for relief when these disasters occur.

Does this make sense to Libertarians as it does to this Liberal?

Michael Crone writes:

David, why do write as if Sachs said there's no debate? I agree with BC that he's probably giving this opinion because many have become closed-minded to those who disagree. However, his quote, as you present it, gives his conclusion on the matter. It doesn't claim there's no debate.

ThomasH writes:

@BC

I agree that one need not believe that the externalities from CO2 emissions are of a magnitude to threaten civilization or whatever, but if there is no externality to CO2 accumulation, there is no point of an energy "policy" or "bargain" that increases incentives (decrease the disincentives in the case of nuclear) for zero CO2-emitting and CO2-sequestering energy sources and disincentives for CO2 emitting sources.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Michael Crone,
David, why do write as if Sachs said there's no debate?
I took his word “wars” to mean “debates.” Do you interpret the word “wars" to mean something else?

David R. Henderson writes:

@BC,
A second possibility is that Sachs believes that he needs to identify himself as part of the tribe that does believe that humanity is dangerously changing the climate so that people in that tribe will take the rest of what he says seriously. This second possibility, if it is the motivation, would be quite concerning as it would imply that people in this tribe are so closed minded that they would never consider ideas from anyone that didn't first declare fidelity to that tribe.
Thanks, BC. Interesting thought. And it fits the style I saw from him when we both spoke at a Goldman Sachs event in 2005.

Partisan writes:

David, here's a question for you. If it was generally agreed that global warming was the reason why free-market policies should be adopted, would you be so skeptical? I have a theory that nobody (read: not many people) really care about whether or not global warming is really happening, but that most debates are about the proper policy response.

Left-leaning people (generally) see the proper policy response as consistent with their goals: taxes on large industrial concerns, redistribution to low-income people, etc. Global warming is convenient because industry is a major contributor and low-income people are seen to be affected the most. They have been successful at getting this idea across: "Why do we need to adopt leftist policies? Because of the threat from global warming."

Right-leaning people have, for some reason, accepted the idea that global warming implies leftist policies. They have tried to push the idea "We don't need to adopt leftist policies, because global warming isn't really a threat."

I think this state of affairs is unfortunate, because we could be having a real debate about what the most effective way to mitigate a potential harm is. But we're stuck debating meteorological science instead.

(Disclosure: I am a free-market libertarian and I think global warming is quite real.)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Partisan,
If it was generally agreed that global warming was the reason why free-market policies should be adopted, would you be so skeptical?
Yes. To drive home the point, consider bad arguments I hear about why increases in the minimum wage are a bad idea. One bad argument is that businesses can’t afford to pay it. Whenever anyone makes that argument, I never fail to correct it.

Nick Bradley writes:

Correct; there is no debate on the cause of climate change. The only debate is over the bounds of the problem.

TMC writes:

ThomasH : Tax adjustment would only get adjusted one way regardless of what information is presented - up. Makes them just like temperature adjustments.

Nick Bradley: There can be debates on the causes. Likely a mixture of climate cycles(including the fact we are still exiting a ice age) and CO2. I think CO2 is a minor player. So did Mann and Hansen before they found hysteria gates more funding.

BC writes:

Speaking of the debate between "alarmists" and "lukewarmers":

http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/what-the-climate-wars-did-to-science.aspx

Harold Cockerill writes:

Lots of debate over what's happening with the climate. Used to be a couple of thousand feet of ice sitting on what's now New York. Exactly why is it gone? Could be the warming going on has a human component but proving the amount is really hard. The climate modeling in use now hasn't worked very well (but is still used to scare people). Some evidence shows past warming actually preceded CO2 increases. It's incredibly complicated and not well understood.

Looking at it in an economic sense what's really well understood is government incompetence. They don't fix things. That has been demonstrated over and over. Most of what they mess with gets worse. Thinking they will fix the climate problem is to enter the realm of religion. They will grow government, waste an incredible amount of money, make us poorer and probably make the planet hotter.

Nathan W writes:

The wars on climate science SHOULD revolve around whether humanity is dangerously changing the climate.

But denialism, particularly rife among the Republican right, is so strong that we are held back to trying to convince them of climate science which is better understood by the average grade 7 student in China than it is by the average science graduate in America.

So we patiently try to explain that a greenhouse gas is a greenhouse gas and that putting more of a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere will make things warmer. 2+2 sort of logic, but then real climate modeling is obviously more complicated because there are a trillion moving parts.

Once the Republicans have been persuaded to accept peer-review science as a superior source of information to that provided by self-interested industrial lobbies, then we will be able to move on to step 2: discussing how big of a problem is it going to be.

It appears that some folks want 100% certainty (a statistical impossibility) down to fine-tuned decimal places in a data series with high volatility (a near statistical impossibility) before they are even willing to CONSIDER lifting a finger in the slightest way.

Rational decision makers do not wait for 100% certainty to take action. But rational decision makers faced with a 99% probability of an event makes decisions which are almost identical to the case of 100% certainty.

Instead, we are often stuck debating kindergarten level logic, trying to convince children that a small fire will get bigger and hotter if we put more fuel on it.

An extremely important point in looking at predictions and temperature data is that weekly, monthly or even annual level data is not the suitable level of aggregation for a time series with such high volatility. For which reason I point out the 5-year moving average of global temperature produced by NASA: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/

Partisan writes:

Nathan W, I think your comment illustrates why I think "the debates about global warming aren't about global warming" (to put a Hansonian spin on it).

We know that (many) global warming skeptics/denialists are not stupid, can understand "kindergarten logic," and in other spheres of life understand that risks are uncertain. So the question is: why is this topic different?

The "denialists" don't want to concede the policy implications that have been (for some reason) associated with global warming. So they become more and more obstinate, and unwilling to accept evidence about global warming. (I'll exclude David Henderson from this characterization based on his comment)

I think global warming "realists" (like myself) have done a poor job to date. Rather than trying to be effective at getting our goals across we seem to be more interested in looking smart ("if you don't agree with us then you hate science") and trying to force unconditional surrender than actually changing minds incrementally.

ThomasH writes:

Partisan,

Speak for yourself.

I'm just trying to get climate response skeptics to debate what (including nothing, it that is what they think) should be done.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Nick Bradley,
Correct; there is no debate on the cause of climate change. The only debate is over the bounds of the problem.
Two things:
1. First, there is debate on causes.
2. Your starting with “correct” seems to suggest that you think Sachs’s statement is correct. But you’ve made a very different statement. Notice that you have left out his adverb “dangerously."

Swami writes:

To the various commenters....

There clearly is still a scientific debate on how important human contributions are to climate. They range from small to large. The only thing which is clear is that it is not settled, if it was settled, scientists could publish a global impact on climate prediction which was empirically correct. Results to date are embarrassing.

There clearly is still debate on what the climate is doing absent the above human effects. Is it going to get warmer, colder, wetter, drier? There is no reliable consensus on the baseline going forward. The science is still way too primitive. And absent knowing this, the debate on human impact is pretty limited. Is the warming going to counter natural cooling, or amplify natural warming? If you think "science" knows any of this, you are fooling yourself.

Next there is debate on the relative advantages and disadvantages of global climate trends (the above two combined). These are uncertain, contextual and subjective. It is even possible that the net effects of climate change are in net positive to human utility. This is probably an even tougher question than the two on climate. Pretending this is settled is absurd.

Next there is the other side of the advantages and disadvantages. Specifically what are the costs, externalities, side effects, and "wakes" of our various actions to mitigate CO2? Again, it is entirely possible that the "solution" to CO2 causes more harm than it solves. Or not. The point is it isn't settled. Are those of you saying the issue is settled unaware of this?

In conclusion, it is really tiring to see those on the "it is settled" side of this debate pretending they have either the intellectual or moral high ground. Nothing is settled. We are living in the question.

David Friedman writes:

I'm what Ridley calls a lukewarmer—I think AGW is real but so no reason to expect it to have large net negative effects. In the hope of persuading other people to take that position more seriously, let me point out that it is also the position of the IPCC, although reading the summary for policy makers may not make it obvious.

Figure 10-1 in the latest IPCC report shows the estimated effect of various levels of warming, put as the equivalent reduction in income. For 5.5°C it's 6%. For 3 to 3.5°C, there is one outlier at 12%, all the rest of the estimates between 3% and zero. And that's still well above the much hyped two degree limit.

Anyone interested in checking that claim can find the webbed report, search for Figure 10-1

Michael Crone writes:

David-
I now see your interpretation of the quote and I suspect it's what the author intended. But I'm not positive. It's like one of those pictures that can be two ways to me. Originally, I read it as something like "in my view, the climate activists are misguided even though man-made climate change exists." I believe you read it as "both sides of the debate believe man-made climate change exists."

BorrowedUsername writes:

David Henderson, when was the last time your mind was changed on an issue and when was the last time you thought the more "libertarian" take on an issue was wrong?

It's possible it's just the topics you choose to write about, but it seems like you often times have the same reflexive criticisms of most arguments the same way you would likely criticize your intellectual opponents as doing.

Adam writes:

David, you wrote: "One bad argument [against a minimum wage] is that businesses can’t afford to pay it. Whenever anyone makes that argument, I never fail to correct it."

Can you point me in the direction of something you've written on this before (or another source)?

Thanks,
Adam

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