Do we think rationally about the environment?

I’ll put to one side my exploration of the present and future of Australian politics for a moment to provide another bit of my holiday reading — an essay by Richard Tol, ‘Hot Stuff, Cold Logic’, in The American Interest, a Washington-based journal that specialises in foreign affairs, and is edited by Walter Russell Mead, who is always worth reading.

Tol is an interesting guy, a Dutchman who specialises in the economics of global warming, and teaches at the University of Sussex. He withdrew as a lead author from the 2013 IPCC Fifth Assessment Report because he thought it was too alarmist, and it gave too little emphasis to the opportunities available to humanity to adapt to climate change. Of course, that has caused him to be called a ‘climate denier’; he says rather that the economic costs of climate policy should be kept in proportion to its benefits. He thinks that humans do have an effect on warming, but that it is small, and there is no risk of sudden climate catastrophe.

After days where the media dutifully reported that the world has just had its hottest year ever (without a single mention that the satellite reports didn’t agree) and that there was less than in chance in 27 million that this warming was natural (a preposterous statement, if ever there was one), it is salutary to read, at the very beginning of Tol’s essay: Politically correct climate change orthodoxy has completely destroyed our ability to think rationally about the environment. That is my text for today.

He argues in this well-written piece that while people talk often about climate change as catastrophic or even apocalyptic, [climate] change, after all, can be for the better or the worse, and at any rate it is inevitable; there has never been a lengthy period of climate stasis. Just as there is no logical or scientific basis for thinking that climate change is new, there is no self-evident reason to assume that the climate of the past is “better” than the climate of the future. 

And he adds a little rider to deal with another of the cant words in climate discourse — ‘unprecedented’. There is no prima facie reason to assume that any given past climate was better than the prospective one. The climate of the 21st century may well be unprecedented in the history of human civilization; the number of people living in countries with free and fair elections is unprecedented, too. So what? “Unprecedented” is not a synonym for “bad.”

And another on ‘the precautionary principle’: The precautionary principle thus enjoins that we should work hard, if not do our utmost, to avoid even the slim possibility of catastrophe. This logic works fine for one-sided risks: We ban carcinogenic material in toys because we do not want our kids to get cancer. Safe materials are only slightly more expensive, and there is no likely or even imaginable “upside” to children having cancer. Climate policy, on the other hand, is about balancing risks, and there are risks to climate policies as well as risks caused by climate change. Sharp increases in energy prices have caused devastating economic recessions in the past, for example. Cheap energy fueled the industrial revolution, and lack of access to reliable energy is one factor holding back economic growth in most developing countries. In the short run, we rely on fossil fuels to keep us warm and keep the lights on, to grow our food, and to purify our drinking water. So there is a cost to human well-being in constraining fossil fuel use.

What this means is that, instead of assuming the worst, we should study the impacts of climate change and seek to balance them against the negative effects of climate policy. This is what climatologists and economists actually have done for years, but their efforts have been overshadowed by the hysteria of the Greens and the Left, and the more subtle lobbying of companies yearning for renewables subsidies and other government hand-outs. It is especially important to maintain an objective attitude toward the tradeoff between possible dangers and the costs of policy, because estimating the impacts of climate change has proven to be remarkably hard.

Surely, you might say, there is guidance in looking at the past. Tol doesn’t agree. It is not only the accumulation of greenhouse gases that changes over time — new seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, better knowledge, the atmospheric deposition of nutrients (and this is only agriculture), they all change too. Many things are changing, often much faster than the climate, and in ways that confound all unifactoral explanations potentially relevant to policy. The same complexity is true for reasoning about future climate, and though he doesn’t say so explicitly, Tol plainly thinks that much foretelling of future climate is akin to soothsaying.

Should we not rely on the scientists who publish in peer-reviewed journals? Academic incentives do not help. It is much easier to publish a paper in a good journal if it improves on a previous one. It is much easier to get funding if you have a track record on a particular subject. Papers or proposals that are genuinely new are often ill-regarded. This implies that some impacts of climate change have been extensively studied whereas other impacts have been largely ignored. Impacts of climate change are so many and so diverse, varying over space, over time, between impacts, and across scenarios, that it makes no sense to speak of “the” impact of climate change. 

This is good stuff, in my view, and the rest of his paper, about the area in which he is a real expert, climate economics, is better still. I think he accepts too easily that a much warmer planet would be bad in net terms, and that we should be moving more purposefully to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and he doesn’t explain his view. But he concludes:

Climate change is a problem, but at least as an economics problem, it is certainly not the biggest problem humankind faces. The euro crisis knocked off a third of the income of the people in Greece in five years’ time. Climate change does not even come close. And the people of Syria wish their problems were as trivial as those of the Greeks. Climate change is not even that large compared to other environmental problems. Urban air pollution kills millions of people per year in Asia. Indoor air pollution kills millions of people per year in Africa. The health problems related to climate change are unlikely to cause similar carnage before the end of the century.

This is a fine essay, thoughtful, without rant or exaggeration. There is much more I could have excerpted, but I hope those who find the extracts interesting go the source. We don’t have a journal as good as The American Interest in Australia, and maybe we couldn’t support one. Quadrant at its best comes close. But how I wish Australians could read this sort of essay in one of our so-called ‘quality’ papers.

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • PeterE says:

    Thanks. Tol puts it very plainly and sanely.

  • DaveW says:

    I read the Tol article and, although his motives have been impugned by both alarmists and skeptics, I thought he made his points clearly and effectively. However, I doubt he convinced many or, perhaps, any to reconsider their positions on the alleged impacts of climate change. I’m also curious about your title: what do you think ‘rational’ means?

    For example, if I had chosen a career in climate science (and that almost happened), then my parroting the doom and gloom of CAGW would be the rational thing to do, because it would keep the dollars flowing and keep me safe within the herd of climate tax dollar consumers. I think you are confounding reason with self-interest and Adam Smith explained this process very well a long time ago.

    Perhaps a better question might be along the lines of ‘What is wrong with our news media?’ You can’t expect people to make ‘rational’ decisions when they only have one-side of an argument, but with climate, as with so many other modern ‘problems’, we get little or no investigative reporting, only a cascade of propaganda. Your point about the ‘hottest year eva!’ proves my point, so I assume you must agree. I’d like to see an essay on what might be done to reform our source of news and information.

  • David says:

    “I think he [Tol] accepts too easily that a much warmer planet would be bad in net terms, and that we should be moving more purposefully to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and he doesn’t explain his view.”

    You don’t like that bit. 🙂

  • David says:

    Don you wrote this .

    “Surely, you might say, there is guidance in looking at the past. Tol doesn’t agree.
    Where is the evidence for this statement ? I think you have over egged it !

  • David says:

    In this working paper Tol explores the effect of Carbon taxes on various economies. Tol’s paper explores the feasibility of Carbon taxes for different economies. Very broadly the paper suggests a cautionary tale. This position is not that different to Nordus who has also argued for a “very” gradual introduction of a Carbon price.
    So our rational Mr Tol, does accept AGW and is open to the possibility that a small to moderate price on carbon may be beneficial.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    When I said it was a good paper, I didn’t thereby mean that I agreed with everything in it. Tol thinks that we should wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and he is in favour of small carbon taxes that produce revenue to assist in R&D. I can’t agree with him there. We don’t need a tax to produce R&D funding. And I favour letting prices determine what we do.

    You’re probably right that I mis-stated Tol’s position on the past. What he says is that just pointing to a past correlation (CO2 and temperatures rising at the same time) isn’t persuasive, because many other things also change over time, and we don’t know all of them. Re-reading what I wrote, that doesn’t mean that he sees no benefit in looking at the past. (Must do better next time…)

    • David says:

      Yes I agree. Its not all or nothing. You can pick and choose parts you like.

      I suppose my point is that concepts of “irrational” and “rational” may sound very objective, but there is also a strong underlying element of subjectivity in those concepts, as well.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        In the last day or so I read someone’s saying that in politics and much else the dividing line can be between those who follow the heart and those who follow the head. I think that has great force in re environmentalism. I would agree that even those who think they are following the head do so in part because of the heart.

        • DaveW says:

          I’m always a bit worried when I find myself agreeing with David, but I do agree and suggest his point also applies to ‘head vs heart’. It has been a long time since I read a book on how people make social judgements, but from what I remember, cold analytical or any kind of statistical thinking (presumably the ‘head’) is rare. Mostly people make judgements based on shortcuts that reflect their experience and their social norms. Attributing such thinking to the ‘heart’ is just a euphemism for hiding in the herd. ‘Mom and apple pie’ used to be a way of expressing such thinking, but now it is ‘save the environment’ or ‘it’s for the children’ (mostly from people that live in cities that depend on despoiling the environment to exist and who have few or no children).

  • Dasher says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have rational discussions such as these in mainstream politics and media. As a media junkie I read both Fairfax and News Ltd, listen to the ABC and the commercials and it amazing what a spread of views you accumulate. ABC and Fairfax in particular appear to hide any news that does not promote the apocalyptic view on climate change. I must say that in my circles I don’t hear people say they don’t believe that the climate is (may) be changing but they do have doubts about what is being done and whether it will make any difference. In my discussions I find that one who has doubts on this hideously complex issue is seen as a denier, while those who behave more like medieval zealots claimed, and are often seen to be enlightened.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Alas, you are right. It appears that about 80 per cent of those in the ACT think that human activity is responsible for climate change, and that must be bad (in both respects). The reality is nowhere so clearcut.

  • Dasher says:

    Professor Asten (Monash Uni) wrote a pithy piece on the current trend in global warming, including a few pot shots at the hyperbole spruiked by people who should know better. Unfortunately this piece will never see the light of day in a large proportion of the print and electronic media. Mores the pity.

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