Scientists vs. economists?
Climate change is a scientific fact, and the effects are seen everywhere, from Australia to Bangladesh .
The United Nations climate conference at Cancun in Mexico was held at the end of 20102, 3. Do the decisions taken at the conference respond adequately to the urgent threats from human activity? Some experts might say it falls substantially short of a global agreement that to prevent dangerous climate change. And also why this delay in reaching at a consensus? Is it because of the old disagreement between some mainstream economists and scientists regarding the climate change?
Believe it or not, physical laws are unchangeable. As long as you live in this universe, the famous three laws of Newton would be applicable everywhere, at least in the universe that we know of. On the other hand, economic theories and practices are manmade and therefore, they can be changed to fit into physical laws but not vice versa. Interestingly, most of the economists ignore this basic truth and set forth priorities that are simply based on economic implications. While the scientists continue giving scientific facts about climate change, some sceptical economists encounter them with serious economic theories. 4
Industrialisation, technology and wars have been changing the shape of the world for decades. Economic growth has become the only parameter of a nation‚Äôs ‚ÄúDevelopment‚ÄĚ! What are the consequences of this apparently ‚Äúunstoppable economic growth‚ÄĚ? Obviously, our demands collide with the earth‚Äôs capacity to satisfy us. Economic growth results in consumption of resources that accumulated over aeons of geological time in a single human lifespan. We often tend to forget that Nature has thresholds. We are crossing natural boundaries that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognise. We realise it only when it is too late.
At this moment, the world is in an ‚Äúovershoot-and-collapse‚ÄĚ mode.14 According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity‚Äôs collective demands first surpassed the earth‚Äôs regenerative capacity around 1980.14 Since then, we have been meeting current demands by consuming the earth‚Äôs natural assets, setting the stage for collapse.14
Yet, some economists insist that there are no serious environmental problems and there would never be long term resource shortages due to drastic human activities. 5 Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg, William Nordhaus are those famous sceptical economists. Lomborg stunned the scientific community by arguing that the attempts to prevent climate change would result in more disasters than letting it happen. As if, ‚Äúlet the climate change happen‚ÄĚ! 6 Despite being rejected by mainstream scientific community, his statements and theories regarding climate change received huge coverage by mass media. Lomborg‚Äôs book, ‚ÄúThe sceptical Environmentalist‚ÄĚ, published in 2001 was rated as one of the most valuable books on public policy by The Economist and Lomborg was regarded as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine (2004) and as one of the 50 people who could save the planet by Guardian newspaper (2008)! 7 Cheers for corporate media! Therefore, our guardian angel, Lomborg continued his attack on ‚Äúgreen‚ÄĚ movements.7
These sceptical economists have a great influence on climate policy as they represent the business community and also influence the source of government funding! Natural scientists, on the contrary enjoy far less influence on government policy and decision making. Nevertheless, scientists feel terribly disturbed when they imagine the future of the earth.
The conflict between a number of economists and natural scientists arise from a very simple ideological difference. These economists are trained to believe that the consumer is God, hence market rules the world. Economic growth must be given main priority. If the consequences of climate change can be converted into consumable products, only then would get climate change its due priority! Natural scientists, on the other hand, naturally take climate change more rationally, based on facts and data, and they are concerned! It is often forgotten that ‚ÄúEconomics‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúEcology‚ÄĚ are derived from same Greek word, oikos, which means household or domain. If ecology is the study of home, economy is its management. So both are reciprocally related!
This conflict was first revealed in 1993 when Nordhaus published an article in Science where he claimed that any action on emission stabilisation would worsen the situation! Despite being challenged by natural scientists, Nordhaus continued to defend his views. He published another article surveying several influential economists and scientists in 1994, in American Scientist.8 He found that most economists argued for insignificant effects of climate change whereas natural scientists described the consequences of climate change as disastrous. Stephen Schneider, a concerned Stanford biologist and climate scientist remarked; ‚ÄúThe most conventional economists accept the paradigm that society is almost independent of nature‚ÄĚ.9 Thomas Schelling, a Nobel prize winner in Economics, shocked the climate scientists by stating that ‚Äúsince the poorer nations of global south will be the victims of climate change, why should the richer nations of the global north invest in the climate change fund!‚ÄĚ10 It gets more interesting when Lawrence Summers, Obama‚Äôs top economic advisor, wrote an internal World Bank memo stating, ‚ÄúThe economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face to that‚ÄĚ. The rationale behind this statement was; ‚ÄúThe measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view, a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country of the lowest wages‚ÄĚ.11
Nordhaus is regarded as one of the most influential economists on Global Warming. In ‚ÄúA question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming policies (2008), he finally acknowledges the catastrophic effect of climate change and agrees on the necessity to go for alternative energy sources. Still he proposes a go-it-slow strategy regarding greenhouse emissions.12
We might take pride in our technological supremacy. But it is dumb-headed to believe that we can live ignoring the laws of nature forever. Nature can be vindictive from time to time. Sumerians, the Mayans, Easter islanders and other early civilisations tell us what happened to them when they failed to respond to their environmental evils. The world needs to maintain the balance between economic growth and nature preservation. Good news is, a lot can be done to avoid the consequences of unsustainable activities on nature.12 If we are late in changing our way of life, if we remain on the existing economic path, the question is not whether environmental deterioration will lead to an end of the mankind, but when. No economy, not even the Americans or Chinese, can survive the collapse of its environmental systems.
Does it matter, whether you are a first or third class passenger on the Titanic? When you hit the iceberg, does it matter whether you are sipping from a cup of Darjeeling tea or Civet coffee? An environmental catastrophe would devastate us all! No matter if you are rich or poor. Fossilised economic theories will not work then. These are hardcore facts, not assumptions!
Human has the greatest gifts; foresight, vision. Brain and technology help human to visualise their own future. Imagine, our very own environmental holocaust, causality: Mankind!
However, a significant number of economists do agree with natural scientists that Global Warming is a real problem and initiatives should be taken as soon as possible to fix it. Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow and James Tobin are among them.
The debate goes on. At the cost of decency, compassion. In response to insensitive attacks on natural scientists, 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, including 11 Nobel laureates, have recently published a ‚Äúlead letter‚ÄĚ in leading journal Science. Quoting the letter;-‚ÄúWe are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular‚ÄĚ.15
The bottom line is that we must act decisively, now! We should educate ourselves on environmental issues and spread the word. We need to get politically and socially involved. We need to put pressure on our political parties so that they come with specific agendas to resolve the environmental problems. It is up to us whether we want a better world for the future generation or wait for the end!
Shamaruh Mirza, a faculty member of Dhaka University is currently doing research at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, The Australian National University. She investigates protein-protein interactions.
- David Suzuki ; The Legacy, (2010)
- Julian Simon ; ‚ÄúThe Ultimate Resource‚ÄĚ; (1980)
- Bjorn Lomborg ;‚ÄĚThe Sceptical Environmentalist‚ÄĚ ( 2001)
- Bjorn Lomborg; ‚ÄúCool it: The Sceptical Environmentalist‚Äôs Guide to Global Warming‚Äú (2007)
- William Nordhaus ;”Expert Opinion on Climatic Change“; American Scientist (1994)
- Stephen H. Schneider, Laboratory Earth (1997); William D. Nordhaus, ‚ÄúAn Optimal Transition Path for Controlling Greenhouse Gases,‚ÄĚ Science (1992); Stephen Schneider, ‚ÄúPondering Greenhouse Policy,‚ÄĚ Science (1993).
10. Thomas C. Schelling, ‚ÄúThe Greenhouse Effect,‚ÄĚ The Concise Encyclopaedia of Economics, http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/GreenhouseEffect.html
11. John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (2002),
12. William Nordhaus, A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies (2008).
13. Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (2007)
14. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization; (2009)