The Scientists vs the Economists


Global warming calls forth the services of two professions above most others: science and economics.

Each has specialist knowledge that is needed to address the global warming challenge. The two professions are regarded and treated very differently, but they should not be.

Each profession comprises technical specialists and there are evident limits to the relevance and reliability of their expertise. Many in both professions are narrow specialists, and a few in each are broadly aware and relatively wise. Yet scientists are marginalised and economists are at the centres of power. We give scientists too little credence, and economists too much. We will pay a heavy price in altered climate if we do not redress the imbalance.

Under Howard, scientists were sternly enjoined to speak publicly only about science, and not to cross the line into "policy". The line was hard and the approved scope narrowly defined, although politicians crossed the line from their side to interfere with scientific reports.

Fortunately the new Labor Science Minister, Kim Carr, has made clear – after some early confusion – that he wants scientists to be much freer to join in public debate, and believes they have a responsibility to do so.

But scientists will still have far less influence than economists. Such is the modern mystique of economics that politicians have pretty much abdicated the job of running industrial civilisation to economists.

Your modern economist is basically an optimiser. Economist Professor Ross Garnaut, who the Prime Minister has put in charge of a climate change review, provided a clear illustration this week. Although the PM asked him to come up with a goal for reduction of greenhouse gas emission for the year 2020, Professor Garnaut said publicly he thought it would be better to focus on the long-term goal of a 60 per cent reduction by 2050. It may turn out, he said, that adopting a shorter-term goal pulls us away from the best long-term strategy.

It’s a perfect example of optimiser thinking. Here we are at point A in 2008, and we want to be at point C in 2050. Getting to point B in 2020 might turn out to have been a detour away from the optimal route from A to C.

There are two big problems with Garnaut’s approach. First, the idea that we can optimise our future course is a fantasy. Second, the Earth is showing strong signs of outrunning the scientific projections on which the 2050 goal was based.

Last northern summer so much Arctic sea ice melted that it dropped way out of the range of the IPCC’s projections. Instead of having an ice-free Arctic near the end of the century, as the IPCC projected, it’s plummeting towards a meeting with zero within only five years.

This is alarming, because ice-free water absorbs a lot more of the sun’s heat than iced-over water, so the Arctic as a whole will warm even faster. That means potentially releasing more carbon dioxide and methane from melting tundra, which would accelerate the warming even more. In other words scientists fear a tipping point beyond which the whole thing would run out of control, even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow.

One prominent expert is Professor James Hanson, a climate scientist with NASA. We should pay attention to what he says, because he’s been broadly correct for two or three decades now about the likely course of global warming. Recently he said the danger level for atmospheric carbon dioxide might be much lower that the 450-550 parts per million that has been taken up by politicians and economists.

Professor Hanson now thinks the danger level is 350 parts per million. We passed that level several years ago. We are now at 383 parts per million, and the rate of increase is increasing. The science has moved on from last year’s IPCC report. The Earth may be moving on even faster.

Thus Professor Garnaut’s focus on a 60 per cent reduction by 2050 may be totally irrelevant. The Earth may be tipping right now. We may be able to tip it back, but only if we act quickly and dramatically. We can’t wait for nuclear, or "clean coal", or any other technology that will take decades to put in place and might not work anyway. The most cost-effective option, short-term or otherwise, is to dramatically increase the efficiency with which we use energy.

Ironically, Professor Garnaut’s strategy treats scientists’ estimates as if they are accurate and reliable. The scientists have never claimed that, of course, and they’ve copped a lot of misrepresentation and abuse from the ignorant and self-interested as a result. Scientists are generally careful to estimate uncertainties and, perhaps more importantly, to spell out the assumptions underlying their analysis.

A core problem with modern free-market economics is that it assumes economists can predict the future, though economists are not very conscientious about mentioning that key detail. Everybody knows you can’t usefully map out your life strategy from now until 2050. Life keeps giving us big surprises, and we’d better hedge against bad news or we’re likely to get badly burnt. It means the theoretical core of economics is built on shifting sands and its long-term projections are virtually worthless.

Australia has some of the world’s best climate scientists. They should be on the climate change review panel, and one of them should co-chair with Professor Garnaut. The Department of Science should be given equal say with Treasury.

Economists are narrow technocrats. The world is too important to be left in their hands.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.