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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Economists as Experts: Would an Expert Exaggerate?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Economists as Experts: Would an Expert Exaggerate?

(HT A. Watts of Watt's Up With That)  Would an economist in his or her role as a scientific expert exaggerate costs of non-action or the benefits of action to drum up support for a favored policy?  Nobel laureate, Thomas Schelling, condones exaggeration but does not do so himself in an interview with Conor Clarke of the Atlantic, titled, "An Interview With Thomas Schelling, Part Two."  Schelling describes his thoughts about global warming and its policy implications beginning with who benefits from limiting carbon emissions.
Well I do think that one of the difficulties is that most of the beneficiaries aren't yet born. More than that: Most of the beneficiaries will be born in what we now call the developing world. By 2080 or 2100 five-sixths of the population, at least, will be in places like China, India, Indonesia, Africa and so forth. And what I don't know is whether Americans are really willing to understand that and do anything for the benefit of the unborn Chinese.
Given that most beneficiaries are not yet born and will not be Americans, how do you get American's to support policy to limit carbon emissions?
It's a tough sell. And probably you have to find ways to exaggerate the threat. And you can in fact find ways to make the threat serious. I think there's a significant likelihood of a kind of a runaway release of carbon and methane from permafrost, and from huge offshore deposits of methane all around the world. If you begin to get methane leaking on a large scale -- even though methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere very long -- it might warm things up fast enough that it will induce further methane release, which will warm things up more, which will release more. And that will create a huge multiplier effect, and it could become very serious.
Schelling comes clean and explains why he believes that developing countries should not reduce or limit carbon emissions.
If I were to come clean to the American public I would say that, except for a very low probability of a very bad result -- which is the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would put Washington DC under water -- we are probably going to outgrow any vulnerability we have to climate change. And in case we'll be able to afford to buy food or import it is necessary. You know, very little of the US economy is susceptible to climate. All of agriculture is less than 3% of our gross product. Forestry may be endangered. Fisheries may be endangered. But recreation might actually benefit!

So if we can double our GDP in the next 70 or 80 years, even if we lose some of our GDP from climate change -- even if we lose 10% of our GDP from climate change -- we're still ahead so much that the effect of climate change wouldn't be noticed. But it would be pretty disastrous in a lot of the less developed parts of the world. And that's why I think it's crucially important not to demand anything of China, India and so forth that will significantly impede their economic progress.

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