Monday, January 5, 2009

The real presidential debate

The NYT published an article Friday relating Clinton era weaknesses on climate policy to personalities in the new Obama team, particularly Carol Browner and Larry Summers.

I asked the same question when I saw that Summers was appointed.

Herman Daly used to tell an anecdote about one of his experiences working with Summers when he was President of the World Bank (and Daly the Banks' Chief Economist). The story was about trying to explain the physical impossibility of infinite economic growth on an finite planet to Summers. Shown a picture of what is now the standard ecological economics Venn diagram (with the human economy a wholly contained subset of the biosphere) that Daly wanted placed prominently in a new Bank environmental report issued sometime after the Bruntland Commission's own report, Summers allegedly said dismissively, "That's not the way to think about it."


If the NYT piece isn't speculative, if Larry Summers is still a climate skeptic and as dogmatic, and if he keeps his job, then I can't see how John Holdren can keep his new job very long.

If Summer's views are the same as they were, and if they win the day, or even the first battle, there will have to be a showdown.

I'm not sure the transition team quite understood what mutually incompatible theoretical views they were building into the President-elect's group of closest advisors. You'd probably have to be an academic working in the field to understand all the differences.

Not that they're particularly nuanced.

You can come to the position that we need immediate and effective controls of climate emissions from two primary directions. Either you're a climate scientist or other natural scientist, and you have studied the literature and realized that the human niche on the planet is gravely threatened by climate instability.

Or you're a human ecologist or ecological economist and you understand that if it continues to grow, sooner or later the human economy will crash because it runs out of key resources, one such resource being the atmosphere's continued ability to process emissions without becoming unstable, climatically speaking. (Ecological economists would call this the "sink resource" characteristic of the atmosphere.)

This is sometimes disparagingly called the Malthusian or Neomalthusian view by detractors within conventional economics, although ecologists refer to these kinds of limits simply as carrying capacity and apply a standard population model that has been part of the canon in biology for many years. Holdren in particular is one of the authors of modern human population theory.

If you're like me, and have climate, ecology and ecological economics training, you fit the two views together. In which case, we worry about climate change first, but realize that we have other resource concerns to worry about too, like energy, and so you put the two together.

If you're a skeptic or a denier, you can oppose climate policy via either route too. You can remain skeptic, or deny, that climate scientists have accurately described the way the planet's climate works, and/or accurately predicted the various outcomes. There's probably a spectrum of views and positions between mild scientific skepticism and unreasonable or ideological denial.

Or you come from within economics to deny that the economy is limited in growth by the scale of the planet's resources. This is essentially the Julian Simon or cornucopian position (see below for an update on Simonian thinking). This was the position Summers took, perhaps inadvertently, by opposing Daly's use of the Venn diagram in the World Bank report, way back when.

There is a route between the horns of the dilemma: Nicholas Stern's view that we need climate control as a kind of insurance against dangerous climate change. Insurance is a notion that can be explained within neoclassical economics, and believing in insurance allows you to control emissions without identifying climate change as a kind of Malthusian or ecological check. It's a bit of a fudge, if you ask me, although I can go along with it as a kind of second best.

Maybe Summers has become a New Sternian. (To coin an obviously mortal phrase.)

It seems that one of the first jobs that the new administration must complete, is to decide where it stands on all of these points.

This all seems very academic, I know, but to students of ecological economics, it's an interesting debate. We've been working on this paradigm shift in economic theory now since the mid-eighties. Never before has the inherent theoretical dispute between ecological and neoclassical economics really been aired in such a public way, or become so prominent.

We live in interesting times. Sort of makes me wish I was teaching economics this semester. It would be a great teaching opportunity.

By the way, we can guess which side the NYT author, John M. Broder, is on. Here's the telling quote:

"It may once again prove to be Mr. Summers’s role to inject a rigorous economist’s reality check into the debate over the scope and speed of an attack on global warming."

Rigorous? That seems like wishful thinking, Mr. Broder. At the very least it sounds like editorial approval.

How rigorous is it to deny the results of current climate science? Or to deny that the human economy is a wholly enclosed subset of the biosphere? Or both?

I think we're conflating our fear of the economic unknown here with rigor.

Just because Summer's economic views (assuming they're more or less what they were in the early 1990s) seem nice and safe and, well, normal, doesn't mean to say they're scientifically rigorous!

I think in this case the rigor might all be on John Holdren's side.

No comments: