Thursday, September 7, 2017

In the name of Science

"Climate Feedback" has produced a "scientific review" of my WSJ oped with David Henderson on (Oped ungated full text here, see also associated blog post.)

In the blog post, I wrote,
"If it is not clear enough, nothing in this piece takes a stand on climate science, either affirming or denying current climate forecasts. I will be interested to see how quickly we are painted as unscientific climate-deniers."
Now we know the answer. 

To recap, the oped said nothing about climate science, nothing about climate computer model forecasts, and did not even question the integrated model forecasts of economic damage. We did not deny either climate change nor did we argue against CO2 mitigation policies in principle. For argument's sake we granted a rather extreme forecast (level of GDP reduced by 10% forever) of economic costs. We did not even question the highly questionable cost-benefit analyses of policies subject to cost benefit analysis. We mostly complained about the lack of any cost benefit analysis, and the quantitative nonsense of many claims.

So, it's curious that there could be any "scientific" review of a purely economic article in the first place. How do they do it? 
Aaron Bernstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard: writes 
"Although many claims in this op-ed don’t mesh with reality, [no example stated] the most concerning delusion presented is that the health costs of climate change are both known and manageable. Legitimate economic analyses have put the costs of climate change at 2100 to GDP at several percent to more than 20%[1], with the variability largely due to different discount rates." 
We did not say known. We cited estimates, which have standard errors. We cited 10% of the level of GDP, forever. The response cites the discounted cost of all future GDP loss, in terms of one year's  GDP. Our number is much larger. 10% of GDP forever has a discounted value of 10%/(interest rate - growth rate). If interest rate - growth rate is one percentage point, then 10% of GDP forever is worth 10 times annual GDP, 1000% a lot more than 20%. If we took his number, total discounted costs only 20%, then climate change would truly be trivial. Even if he were answering our 10% with 20%, a factor of two is couch change in this business. OK, two tenths of a percentage point of growth.

(The quote is only about losses up to 2100, so you don't get the full r-g effect, but you see the point -- apples to oranges. The lesson is don't divide a present value by one year's flow. The discounted costs are an even larger fraction of a minute's GDP.)  

Bernstein  continues: 
"Even these higher damage estimates may fail to capture the full costs of extreme events over time, as Martin Weitzman’s work has shown. But there’s another, and more difficult, rub. What if we don’t understand the full consequences of greenhouse gas emissions? "
and continues with a standard list of things that might go wrong. We had written, 
"... some advocate that we buy some “insurance.” Sure, they argue, the projected economic cost seems small, but it could turn out to be a lot worse. "
and addressed the issue. 

"Science" and "scientific" review is supposed to include the ability to read and basic quantification. 

David Easterling, Chief of the Scientific Services Division, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center writes:
"This is a very simplistic, almost naive op-ed on climate change impacts." ...
It wasn't an oped on climate change impacts. It was an oped on cost-benefit analysis of policies to address climate change impacts, and never questioned any climate change impacts. 
"The idea that Miami is going to build a dike like Rotterdam is almost laughable. Of course climate change is not the only risk to society, but it is the biggest environmental risk. And most large buildings (e.g. Empire State Building) are not rebuilt every 50 years, only smaller, more expendable ones are."
Just why is building dikes, or other adaptations laughable? Miami is 7 feet above sea level, Rotterdam about the same below sea level, and 7 is greater than most estimates of sea level rise. Rotterdam did it. Climate change is the biggest environmental risk? More than nuclear war, chemical pollution, the crap in the water that most people in the world drink, malaria, loss of habitat, poaching, all put together? A citation or two comparing climate change to the others would be nice. And the total value of smaller more expendable buildings is far larger than the total value of Empire State buildings. 

Easterling falls neatly into our trap. We accused the politicized climate policy community for leaving quantitative, cost-benefit policy analysis behind and he... leaves quantitative cost benefit policy analysis behind.  

Frank Vöhringer, Dr. rer. pol, Scientist, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), 
"The article plays down impacts of climate change that most studies consider to be highly important: e.g. the death toll of heat waves, hazards to coastlines, costs and friction of migration and other adaptation.... economic studies suggest that the risks of climate change are important, especially in certain economic segments (e.g. agriculture, health) and for low income countries with low capacity for adaptation. The article fails to mention that hazards and distributive issues of climate change increase all the other risks that the authors itemize, “nuclear explosions, a world war, global pandemics, crop failures and civil chaos”, even if it is not yet clear to what extent."
Verena Schoepf, Research Associate, The University of Western Australia, 
"The authors seem unaware of many consequences of climate change, particularly related to the ocean. The increase in ocean acidity and temperature, due to uptake of atmospheric CO2, will have tremendous consequences for many marine organisms and thus ultimately humans via sea level rise, impacts on weather and climate, food security, etc."
Wolfgang Cramer, Professor, Directeur de Recherche, Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE) continues in the same vein.  

This is all simply untrue. We didn't "play down" any costs, and certainly not "economic studies," which we fully acknowledge. We do take for granted all the scientific, computer modeling and economic model estimates (though there is plenty to argue with there, but that's for another day). Nothing in the oped questions any of this. And "fails to mention" has to respect our limits: the WSJ gives us 900 words. We can't mention everything. 

Moreover, we acknowledge and consider
"Yes, the costs are not evenly spread. Some places will do better and some will do worse...."
We acknowledge and consider that
"Migration is costly. But much of the world’s population moved from farms to cities in the 20th century...."  
Not bad for 900 words.

Wolfgang Cramer, Professor, Directeur de Recherche, Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE) continues, but I'm running out of steam. You get the idea.

Bottom line

Our main charge for the climate-policy community was, 
"Scientific, quantifiable or even vaguely plausible cause-and-effect thinking are missing from much advocacy for policies to reduce carbon emissions. " has nicely illustrated exactly such flights from scientific, quantifiable, or even vaguely plausible cause and effect thinking. Notice not one counterexample in my quotes or the whole post. Along with a striking inability to read, and a fascinating will to put words in people's mouths that aren't there.

Let me offer a little "scientific review" of this "scientific review." N=5 is a small data sample. There is this little concept called "selection bias." Offering highly interested people a chance to blast an oped is not a "scientific review."

Blogging, opedding, publishing your political opinions is what democracy and free speech are all about. Just don't call it "science." 

Like most people, I revere "science." Its dispassionate quest for the truth has brought us unimagined prosperity. But, dear climate policy "scientists," be careful,  if you are going to invoke the imprimatur of "science" you had darn well better be right. If you end up saying "never mind," as the food establishment has done with the 1970s advice to eat margarine and sugar instead of animal fats, the public prestige of science, and all the good for policy it has brought, will come crashing down. You will be treated no more seriously than economists. And that will be a great tragedy. The fact that you are using such unscientific method in your policy analysis is an early warning sign.

I wrote to the climatefeedback editor, requesting that they post a link to this response on their "review." It will be an interesting test of what ethics remain part of "science" to see if they do that, or answer my email.

Update: climatefeedback answers, in the true spirit of dispassionate transparency that "science" demands:

Hello John,
Thank you for reaching out. We could agree to add a link in our review acknowledging
 your reply; we only require that The Wall Street Journal adds a link to our review from your article.
Thank you,
Emmanuel Vincent
I replied with a guffaw. Grumpy enjoys good snark as much as the next person. I invited them to post a comment at WSJ, which at least WSJ allows and climatefeedback does not ("feedback" does not even include comments), and allow me to post a comment at their site.

I also pointed out that the Wall Street Journal oped page is explicitly an opinion page, while they pretend to be a page of "scientific review." In the old days "science" publications were not opinion, and operated by greater standards of transparency and openness. (Though, not only through comments and letters, even the WSJ opinion page would publish a response such as mine. Editors have contacted me in the past with several inquiries about my articles.)

Not allowing a criticized author a link to a response, forget about posting the response itself, is way out of the bounds of "scientific" ethics. Proof again that the name of "science" is taken in vain here. 


  1. John, thanks for thoughtful writing and blogging as always. Your one fundamental error was assuming that your insights would be met on their own terms, rather than with quasi-political obfuscation that has become the standard in so many areas of public discourse. (Then again, perhaps I'm merely engaging in a self-reinforcing delusion, given how closely my own views tend to align with yours.) To quote the great Austin Millbarge: "We mock what we don't understand."

    1. Political obfuscation is fine -- in the political sphere. (Well, it's not, and our politics would be a lot better if they were more honest). What galls me is the hypocrisy of calling this "science" or "scientific review." I guess I still revere that word too much, and sad to see its reputation thrown down the toilet.

    2. Well, that's just it: politics (or at least political/tribal reasoning and rhetoric) has infiltrated so many areas - see Arnold Kling's post from earlier today about criminology. Perhaps instead of Keynesians, we're all normative sociologists now...

  2. Unfortunately, your ideological opponents will always fight dirty. In the political sphere, truth plays second fiddle to rhetoric. Your readers are largely already convinced of your point, what you need to do is convince their readers. Perhaps you're on the right track with your, "Easterling falls neatly into our trap" approach. Let them expose their own readers to your ideas by falling for the honeytrap , so to speak.

    1. It is enough to convince the sensible reasonable people in the middle.

    2. "It is enough to convince the sensible reasonable people in the middle."

      Sadly that's not true. The great revelation of modern U.S. politics is that "people in the middle" (sensible or otherwise) have nothing to do with election results. As such, their opinions don't matter in the grand scheme of things. What does matter is getting your indoctrinated core supporters to show up at the polls in droves. This is not accomplished via rational cost-benefit analysis.

      The people at Climate Feedback are not stupid; they know what your article is saying, and probably even agree. But they also sincerely believe their cause to be important enough to hold their noses and publish the sort of garbage that actually moves policy discussions.

      Either way, as a proud member of the people in the middle who do not matter cohort, I hope you keep up the great work.
      I find this blog a breath of fresh air, where I actually learn a few things I did not previously know. That makes it highly valuable to me personally. But I'm not the audience you need to convince if you actually want to change the debate.

  3. I teach an undergraduate course in planetary astronomy and I use your insights in the parts that touch on the Earth’s atmosphere. Once the students learn how to calculate the atmosphere’s optical depth in the infrared, I have the students read articles by Robert Pindyck, Bob Litterman, and others - including yourself. I have the students discuss and understand some of the nuances that must go into proper quantitative cost-benefit economic analysis. The students quickly appreciate that while computing the warming effect from infrared re-scattering at the Earth’s surface is a challenging problem, economic analysis is even more challenging!

    At the very least, your efforts have had a positive effect on my class. My students have a much more refined BS detector by the end of the course.

  4. Wow. I'm sure you guys saw this coming but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Too many people will read the "scientific takedown" and conclude you're off your rocker. Many folks, I suspect, won't be bothered to see how well the takedown addresses the original claims in your op-ed.

    The good news, such as it is, is that with such table pounding, my confidence that you are correct has increased.

  5. Such sloppy, almost ad hominen, attacks are a sure sign of insecurity.
    Perhaps these notables are not really all that confident in their prognostication of patterns in weather. Such plotting is notoriously inaccurate even on a weekly basis let alone decades and centuries.

  6. "What if we don’t understand the full consequences of greenhouse gas emissions? "

    If we don't understand then we assume it is safe, considering that fossil fuels are at the moment the most efficient source of energy and have been so for 150 years.

    1. What, Mx. Anonymous, is your variant of "efficient"... what divided by what? The price we pay for fossil fuel, for instance, takes no account of putting things back the way they were before. The price does not reflect the entire "input". So the price/benefit ratio has no relation to any rational form of efficiency.

  7. In the name of Science! I love the title.

  8. "Scientific, quantifiable or even vaguely plausible cause-and-effect thinking are missing from much advocacy for policies to reduce carbon emissions. "

    Thanks for writing such a clear statement.
    Climate Change has become such a untouchable subject treated with religious fervour.
    And you are quite correct in that it is not unreasonable to be cautious - as we have seen how the major error re fats versus sugars has created a clear example of how "science" can get things badly wrong.
    I am personally following the debate with some interest - I have no idea whether CO2 will prove to be an input variable as the current Climate scientists predict or if it is an output one in response to warming through solar radiation which some scientists believe to be more important.
    But I am keeping an open mind on the basis that the evidence will soon make the science clear one way or another.

  9. John, I don't believe that was a legitimate critique of what your article was saying. As I took it, all you were arguing for was some thorough and thoughtful benefit cost analysis of various alternatives and policies and I don't think you meant to offer a definitive estimate of of the costs of any specific policy, just that such estimates should be pursued with due diligence and science to the extent possible with the current state of knowledge.

    However, I do think we economists have to hammer home a very simple but important point. A staple of economic efficiency is that the prices of all products and services should cover all the costs of producing those products and services. No free lunch, no uncovered externalities should be the goal. I don't think we are even close to that in our production of energy that comes from fossil fuels, especially in the amount of green house gasses the production and use of which fossil fuels emit into the atmosphere. A simple policy of a carbon tax sufficiently high to cover green house gas emissions may go a long way to slow climate change. Economists of all persuasions should vigorously support higher carbon taxes, in the name of economic efficiency. And it works in pollution in general. Prices should cover all costs, including pollution run offs into our streams, rivers, lakes and ocean waters and air. Tax the polluters to cover these external costs and we will have cleaner waters and cleaner air.

    1. Absolutely. As per the previous blog post, I support a uniform carbon (and methane) tax, in return for zero direct regulation and subsidies. Then we can argue endlessly over the level of that tax. But not whether I should get subsidies for a snazzy new tesla.

    2. But to implement the tax we need to know the true social cost. If the tax is set too high, society also loses. Estimating the social cost of carbon isn't trivial.

    3. Nonsense Mx Anonymous. The only hard part is resisting those who will lose personal advantage when the tax flow is shifted from one money stream to another.

  10. I think we need more descriptive and informative articles that give out actual discrete numbers, so I'm glad you wrote this article on climate change. If cars have an impact, than we need actual statistics of the impact of the automotive business. Keep up the good work.

  11. It seems that zealots on both sides of the climate change divide are such absolutists in their beliefs that they are unwilling to apply reason in attempting to understand or address the problem of climate change. Sadly, that causes both extremes to reject the sort of rational policy approach (a uniform carbon tax) that you advocate (sigh).

  12. I infer from the response to your article that your critics regard the cost of climate change to be infinite.

    Responders: You are are crazy to apply or ask for an economic analysis. Animals may die, and they are not replaceable. Dikes are large projects that are unimaginable and probably wouldn't work. Plagues and insects may appear, with no defense. Things we haven't thought of may impose costs we can't predict or imagine.

    The only solution to unimaginable costs is to stop immediately what we are doing. Turn over all control to government committees and buy the ultimate insurance policy; Roll back to 1900 and then don't change anything. A small number of permits will be issued each year for charcoal cookouts, primarily for political picnics.

    The climatistas are not numerate and not scientific. Science begins with charts, projections, and what-ifs; it doesn't end with them.

    Major governments want more power. A prediction of catastrophe will get it for them. Introducing economics or tradeoffs is not acceptable. Motto: what is it about catastrophe that you don't understand? They are not going to do any economic analysis worth the name, other than to justify the largest carbon tax that the traffic will bear.

    I don't understand the rationale for a carbon tax. Say we estimate the damage from carbon dioxide emissions, for example moving cities away from rising coastal waters. We collect that amount, among other amounts. Then, are these taxes applied to stockpiling the materials and equipment needed to move the cities? No, it is merely spent on nice projects. So, how does such a tax help to solve the supposed problem?

  13. Richard S. Lindzen is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
    ( )

    He presented the paper "Global Warming: How to approach the science" (PDF 58 pages)
    At the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate Seminar
    Sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    In Westminster, London, 22nd February 2012

    ( )

    This is a careful, scholarly, clear, and readable presentation of claims and data. Global warming is not a hoax, but catastrophic, damaging global warming is a hoax not supported by evidence. This paper deserves wide distribution and reference.

    Prof. Lindzen explains that a doubling of carbon dioxide by 2050 would be expected to increase average world temperature by about 1 degree C (1.8 deg F). The alarmists pose that natural processes will multiply this warming to 3 deg C. Current data seems to give a multiplier of .5, giving .5 deg C of warming by 2050 (.9 deg F).

    A major argument against an explosive, self-multiplying warming is that we are here to talk about it. If the Earth's climate had a multiplier, rather than a brake, then prior much warmer and much colder periods would have spiraled to either a freezing or boiling extreme. Venus would be an example. Earth has been non-catastrophic for 3 billion years.

  14. It is important to remember that scientists slop at the Federal trough just like other special interests. Publish an article that poses a threat to their funding and they react as all special things nteredts react. Climate research is Big Science and Big Science traded integrity for mammon a long time ago.

  15. " We could agree to add a link in our review acknowledging your reply; we only require that The Wall Street Journal adds a link to our review from your article."

    I would suggest that you try to do Mr. Vincent and his colleagues "one better". Encourage the Wall Street journal to publish directly their rebuttal in the paper---as well as your sur-rebuttal. The juxtaposition of these "scientific" views is exactly what the public needs and deserves.


  16. When you try to have an intellectual discussion, the most frustrating thing is when you have to repeat "that's not what I said.."

  17. I tried to warn you. Here is part of what I wrote as a comment to your first post:

    I read the article in the Journal earlier. It is very reasonable.

    That is the problem with the ideas you put forth, which are good ideas. The promoters of "global warming" or "climate change" are not interested in solving a problem.

    Their fundamental motive is not concern for the health and welfare of human beings. It is religious. The religious motivation can be seen in their addiction to the literary genre of Apocalypses, such as the one in New York Magazine last week. Apocalypses every bit as lurid as the one written by St. John of Patmos -- and just as "scientific". Men who write Apocalypses to justify their beliefs are engaged in a fundamentally religious activity as are those who study and preach Apocalypses.

    * * *

    You are wasting your time proposing reasonable solutions to the problems created by a changing climate. They are not interested in reason.

  18. Professor John,
    Being unfamiliar with I don't know what you mean by their "review". But, if their "review" is about science then I would think that an economics blog does not count as science to be reviewed.
    Having said that I agree with you, I believe, that it is important to use the advice of economics when crafting policy aimed at achieving any particular goal. Switching from fossil fuels to non-depleting alternatives being one such goal.
    My personal assessment of the climate "debate" is that denialism is funded by those people owning fossil fuel industry capital who wish to create a psychological "climate" in which they can sell their fossil fuel stocks to the pension plans of us suckers and acquire ownership of the emerging sustainable technologies before fossil fuels become fully passe. After they have completed that transition the climate "debate" will disappear.

    1. Without endorsing your conspiracy theories, we can agree that a uniform carbon tax, in return for getting rid of all the senseless subsidies and deductions, is the right policy approach to carbon.

    2. I being an engineer and you being an economist I trust your judgment that carbon tax is the most effective way to influence the economy in the direction of sustainable future.
      Conspiracy theories can be fun, right?
      It is not theoretical, I believe, that the Brothers Koch have given dozens of M$ to climate denialism advocates. I have wondered what's their motivation. This theory of canny self-interest came to me recently. If the theory is correct then they will, in a while, be advocating for solar panels everywhere and electric vehicles to charge from them. I won't be holding my breath though.

    3. Learn about the Kochs before you pass on partisan attacks. They're mostly libertarians and support many causes you might agree with, like say Nova on PBS. And compared to the amount of money our government has passed around on energy boondoggles and promoting rather unscientific ideas, they're a drop in the bucket!

    4. Sometimes I like the Kochs. Sometimes they support reason. Like their advocating allowing people to get jobs after being in prison. I certainly won't be surprised to find them advocating good sense. I don't always echo partisan stuff. And, I suppose, Fox is not always anti-science. Though their piece on eclipses is decidedly so (Guillen; The solar eclipse that rocked the world of science).
      I noticed Nova getting dumbed down. And then I noticed the Koch support attribution. Coincidence?
      I agree that government has no shortage of boondoggles and un-science to its credit. Mostly, I presume, as rewards to sponsors of politicians (both "sides"). Oops... does that sound like Mr. T. ???


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