Caught in the middle

An idle moment’s self-googling reveals that I have become embroiled in a dispute between Arnold Kling and the Man Without Qualities regarding Bjorn Lomborg and the Kyoto Protocol. Both of them like Lomborg and dislike Kyoto, but apparently MWQ also dislikes economists, and therefore takes issue with
Kling’s proposition that

Economists agree on many things. We are all for free trade. We are all more persuaded by Bjorn Lomborg than by Edward O. Wilson. We all believe that government support for scientific research helps the economy. We all support Lawrence Lessig in his attempt to overturn copyright extension..

MWQ responds, citing this piece by me at length. It begins:

Experienced debaters rarely commit themselves to an unambiguously false statement. So I was surprised to read Bjorn Lomborg’s claim that ‘the results of all major cost-benefit analyses show that doing Kyoto or something even grander is simply a bad investment for the world’. There are plenty of examples to prove him wrong.

I go on to list large numbers of economists who support Kyoto, and point out that Lomborg (like Kling) presents the views of Kyoto critic William Nordhaus as if they represent the consensus of the profession. As as has been clearly shown in Australia, at least 30 per cent of the profession actively supports Kyoto, while a promised statement of economists opposed to Kyoto never appeared, apparently because the number of credible signatures was so embarrassingly small. As far as I can determine the balance of opinion is not that much different in the US. Of course, the majority is not always right, but Lomborg has no qualifications to make judgements on this point, and his claim that ‘all major cost-benefit analyses’ support him is simply untrue.

Interestingly, MWQ agrees with me that Lomborg is not telling the truth here, but nonetheless describes me as a ‘vicious critic’ for saying so (to be fair, his view of me was formed by reading my good friends at The New Australian). Kling is similarly unfriendly, saying

He says that economists do not all support Bjorn Lomborg, citing one John Quiggin from Australia. Well, I take back the word ‘all’ and say instead ‘all economists for whom I have respect,’ or somesuch.

I’m not too fussed – these guys are equally critical of Paul Krugman, and Kling doesn’t like Daniel Kahneman all that much. In any case, both seem to agree that my insignificance is inherent in the fact that I’m an Australian.

With this out of the way, I want to restate my point about Lomborg. He presents a reasonable facade and his book has all the academic trimmings of footnotes etc. But on any issue where I have professional knowledge, I know he’s presenting a selective and distorted picture, citing the scientists who support his view and ignoring or misrepresenting the rest. The experts in most of the other fields he’s covered say the same thing. Not only were the reviews of his book in the top journals like Science and Nature just as damning as those in the Scientific American, but they consistently made the same point – this is advocacy masquerading as an impartial survey of the evidence.

As I observed a little while ago, it’s easy for a non-expert to check Lomborg’s form on one critical point. Lomborg claims to have got started by attempting and failing to refute the work of Julian Simon. Why, then, doesn’t he report that Simon was completely wrong on a wide range of environmental issues, notably including atmospheric lead pollution and the depletion of the ozone layer.

Coming back to the substance of the debate over the costs of global warming. I’ve studied and written on this topic at length, addressing a range of complex modelling issues. As I’ve noted, even anti-Kyoto modellers like Warwick McKibbin produces estimates of the costs of ratifying Kyoto far below those favored by Lomborg, let alone the economic catastrophes implied by much anti-Kyoto rhetoric. MWQ clearly wouldn’t know an economic model if he fell over one, but he still knows what answer should come out.

Kling is even more interesting. In general he’s a techno-optimist, supporter of free markets and a believer in the flexibility of technology, as opposed to the fixed-proportions model adopted by many environmentalists. But as I point out,

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cites a range of model estimates of the costs of implementing Kyoto using market mechanisms. They show that, with a global system of emission rights trading, the cost of implementing Kyoto would range from 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP.

Lomborg dismisses global emissions trading as politically infeasible because it would involve the redistribution of billions of dollars to developing countries (page 305). But then he turns around and attacks alternative ways of implementing Kyoto by suggesting that the billions required could be better spent – by redistributing them to developing countries.

Apart from the inherent contradiction in Lomborg’s argument, the crucial point here is that he rejects market mechanisms on political grounds, the kind of thing Kling would scorn if it came from an environmentalist. Moreover, Lomborg’s larger-scale argument for doing nothing about global warming rests on pessimism about the capacity to substitute away from fossil fuels and about the prospects for technological improvement that would reduce the cost of cutting emissions. Again, this is the exact opposite of the kind of argument Kling would normally favor.