Wednesday, October 23, 2019

If Scientists Can Get It Wrong, Why Not Economists? What Does This Say About Politicians?

Scientists have been wrong about climate change since that became a household term. They just keep getting it wrong but not in the way you hear it from odious people like Donald Trump and Jason Kenney and Scott Moe. What scientists get wrong is the rate of climate change - it's worsening pace and severity. They understate what's happening. They understate what's coming. They almost sugar coat it.

In today's New York Times, Nick Stern and Naomi Oreskes write that economists have done no better than the science community in considering climate change. Stern, professor of economics and government at LSE's Grantham Institute and Oreskes, Harvard professor of the history of science, say that economists have underestimated the costs we'll bear from a severe climate and rising seas.

How and why this has occurred is explained in a recent report by scientists and economists at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. 
One reason is obvious: Since climate scientists have been underestimating the rate of climate change and the severity of its effects, then economists will necessarily underestimate their costs. 
But it’s worse than that. A set of assumptions and practices in economics has led economists both to underestimate the economic impact of many climate risks and to miss some of them entirely. That is a problem because, as the report notes, these “missing risks” could have “drastic and potentially catastrophic impacts on citizens, communities and companies.” 
...Typically, our estimates of the value or cost of something, whether it is a pair of shoes, a loaf of bread or the impact of a hurricane, are based on experience. Statisticians call this “stationarity.” But when conditions change so much that experience is no longer a reliable guide to the future — when stationarity no longer applies — then estimates become more and more uncertain.
A second difficulty involves parameters that scientists do not feel they can adequately quantify, like the value of biodiversity or the costs of ocean acidification. Research shows that when scientists lack good data for a variable, even if they know it to be salient, they are loath to assign a value out of a fear that they would be “making it up.”

Therefore, in many cases, they simply omit it from the model, assessment or discussion. In economic assessments of climate change, some of the largest factors, like thresholds in the climate system, when a tiny change could tip the system catastrophically, and possible limits to the human capacity to adapt, are omitted for this reason. In effect, economists have assigned them a value of zero, when the risks are decidedly not. 
A third and terrifying problem involves cascading effects. One reason the harms of climate change are hard to fathom is that they will not occur in isolation, but will reinforce one another in damaging ways. In some cases, they may produce a sequence of serious, and perhaps irreversible, damage.
...In a worst-case scenario, climate impacts could set off a feedback loop in which climate change leads to economic losses, which lead to social and political disruption, which undermines both democracy and our capacity to prevent further climate damage. These sorts of cascading effects are rarely captured in economic models of climate impacts. And this set of known omissions does not, of course, include additional risks that we may have failed to have identified. 
The urgency and potential irreversibility of climate effects mean we cannot wait for the results of research to deepen our understanding and reduce the uncertainty about these risks. This is particularly so because the study suggests that if we are missing something in our assessments, it is likely something that makes the problem worse. 
As I read this I realized two things. One, what the scientists and economists tell us is unreliable. We may dismiss them as "alarmist" but they actually err on the side of caution, leave out what's not adequately clear yet and often understating what is, and, with the best of intentions lull us into what could be a lethal degree of complacency. It's Two that most bothers me.

Two is the realization that there's one group that perceives climate change with near absolute certainty and clarity. Among this group there really are no experts. Most of them are not highly educated. Some of them aren't well educated at all. A few are borderline moronic.  More are deeply dishonest and manipulative. This is the group we elect to high office, the very folks who seem bent on driving us over the cliff.  They come with names such as Justin and Jagmeet, Andy, Jason and Moe, or Double-D Doug.

It doesn't take much book learnin' for them to deal with climate change. That's because, to them, it's not a scientific problem, it's not an economic dilemma. It's a political problem and there's always a political solution to a political problem. You can pull them by the dozen straight out of your backside.

Proof that the pols are not competent to address climate change is abundant. It's plain from reading the op-ed of Stern and Oreskes. It is manifest from reading the works of the scientific community. The scientists and the economists are doing one critical thing the politicians are not. They're adapting to the latest knowledge, incorporating it into their own work.

While our knowledge of the climate crisis has changed, deepened, even worsened, our leadership, if you can call it that, has remained stagnant. Justin Trudeau is still working from emissions targets reluctantly set by Stephen Harper and, even on those numbers he's falling further behind. Trudeau is operating on Harper's understanding of climate change as it stood in 2012. He's not even attempting to address climate science as we understand it today - more urgent, more threatening. That's because, to him and the rest of them, it's a political matter but you're not going to resolve a scientific problem, an existential threat, with political measures.

To them, the issue of certainty boils down to certainty that something won't bite them in the ass before the next election. Ten, twenty years down the road - who cares? In the political realm, at least today's political realm, those timelines are meaningless, irrelevant. We don't do "future" any more.

Their interests and your children's and grandchildren's interests are not coterminous. The future of the country and their interests are, in many ways, inconsistent and, hence, incoherent.

Let that sink in a while and then consider whether our elected "deciders" are to be trusted.


Troy said...

Been reading up on David Lloyd George, and the Liberals of Great Britain around the turn of the last century. Sympathetic to the ideas of Non-Conformists and the Fabians. One of the politicians who began to popularize Henry George-style policies, and the modern-day welfare state. Generally ran on unpopular platforms with the rich and powerful, but still managed to get the work he set out to do done, and it was work that improved the lives of a great many living in poverty.

I mean, I don't know why there aren't more like him in politics nowadays. He had very little margin to operate. Less then than now, for sure. He had to fight against the British House of Lords, which still had the power then to veto Bills from the House of Commons. He had to fight against the Monarchy, Aristocrats, and the rich and powerful of the British Empire. Modern day politicians have so many resources at hand in order to reach so many, in comparison.

It just feels as though Veblen was on to something in regards to pecuniary emulation. Those seeking power tend to emulate those already in power in an effort to best those in power.

The Mound of Sound said...

Lloyd George was dynamic in an era of stuffiness, Troy. Why don't we have leaders of that stature today? People of that calibre, people of courage and vision, are giving politics a pass. I think Obama was an outlier.

It's a scary time to have such a profound leadership vacuum.