Economists and climate change
Ross Gittins repeats the criticism he, Ken Henry and Martin Parkinson, have put forward previously, that economists were either missing in action or actively unhelpful in the climate change debate. I disagree – I think academic economists as a group look a lot better on this issue than do economic columnists, and (on the limited available evidence) at least as good as public servants.
The views of the profession were stated pretty clearly back in 2002, when Clive Hamilton and I organized a statement calling for ratification of Kyoto which got 250 signatures (about 40 per cent of the entire academic economics profession at the time, which is huge given that many people never sign anything, or don’t get round to answering their email). A second pro-Kyoto statement in 2007 got 270 signatures, including 70 professors.
Against that, there are a handful of rightwingers who accept the delusional anti-science line that is required as a totem of tribal loyalty on the right. Not only is this group numerically small but, AFAIK, it doesn’t include anyone with substantial standing in the profession. That’s certainly what the public record suggests. In 2002, John Humphreys and some others announced a counter-statement, but it never appeared, presumably because of the embarrassing quantity and quality of those willing to sign.
There are also a few people who have been so committed to particular policy formulations that they have been unwilling to support anything else, even though the similarities between different carbon price policies outweigh the differences. This is ultimately a matter of political judgement. The choice between supporting an imperfect policy and waiting for a better one isn’t a simple one. I supported the CPRS as an imperfect compromise right up to the final failed deal with Turnbull, which I thought was worse than starting again from scratch. Others judged, earlier on, that the scheme had been hopelessly compromised. On the whole, I don’t think any of this had any impact on the outcome.
If we compare this to Ross’ colleagues among economic columnists, I’d say the majority are either outright delusionists or “delay and doolittle” types. Alan Wood, who was generally well-regarded as economics editor for the Oz bought the IPCC conspiracy theory (full black helicopter version). Terry McCrann is much the same, and others (Alan Kohler for example) have pushed Abbott’s anti-economics line on the subject.
Public servants rarely go on the record, but discussions of the Greenhouse Mafia suggest that there are plenty who have worked hard to sabotage any action. My run-ins with ABARE in the Howard years certainly support this view.
Looking at the most recent debate, economists mostly supported the Garnaut Report and lots of us worked hard on developing detailed proposals for implementation of various aspects of it, only to see them traded away by the government in the ultimately futile search for a deal with the opposition. Given the speed with which the whole policy collapsed, it’s hard to see where academic economists could have intervened effectively. Whatever the strengths of the academy, rapid reaction times are not among them.
Looking forward, I predict that the majority of economists will back any coherent policy that involves an early shift to pricing carbon, and that the economics profession will be more unified in this respect than almost any other group.
fn1. I can’t rule out the possibility – eminent people can say silly things, particularly in their declining years. But the kinds of nonsense that delusionists are required to go along with (eg “no statistically significant warming since 1993”) make it hard for any self-respecting economist to be part of this movement.