Day By Day

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Tribalism of Environmental "Science"

Here's what happened when a serious economist was invited to speak at a "scientific" conference on global warming:
Prof. Vince Smith, a nationally respected ag economist at MSU, gave a well-reasoned, sensitive, and good-humored analysis of the implications of global warming to Montana. His logic was identical to that presented by Rob Mendelsohn of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Nobel Prize winner Tom Schelling at several of our judges conferences, but Vince focused on Montana. It was an excellent example of economic thinking applied to an emotional and complex problem. I don’t know an economist who would have taken exception to his presentation.

Vince noted general scientific agreement that global warming is occurring, in part due to human causes, and that there are uncertainties about the speed and degree of change. He explained that warmer and wetter has different implications for crops and forests than would warmer and dryer -- and climate models differ as to which is more likely. He then explained that humans adjust much easier to slow than to rapid change.

Most climate models look out 100 years, but consider the USA in 1906: average income a mere $4000 in today’s dollars, no paved roads, few cars, no modern medicine, short lives. We can’t predict life two or three generations hence. After listing the risks that may accompany global warming he gave this guidance: “There is considerable evidence that a mixture of policy innovations...and markets can address all of these challenges at a relatively low cost compared to the costs of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

Did this make folks happy? No, for this was largely a tribal gathering where most folks already knew the right answers and these weren’t among them. Here are a few of the responses I heard. “He shouldn’t be on the program.” “I’d like to hit him.” (That from a sponsor.) “What do economists know about climate?” Mature and constructive dialogue indeed.

Professionally, I wandered into economics from political science and anthropology. Hence, tribalism isn’t new to me. However, I left this conference knowing a bit more about climate science and with the understanding that economists are to “progressives” as bankers are to cowboys.
Read the whole thing here.

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