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Bridging the divides

Filed under: — gavin @ 2 August 2008

We often discuss the issues that arise in doing interdisciplinary work in climate science, and Liz Moyer and I have a commentary on that just out in Nature Reports Climate Change. Normally I don’t mention these kinds of pieces on the blog, but in this case the editors commissioned a nice cartoon (from Mark Roberts) illustrating our point. I liked the cartoon a lot, and so it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

A bit of context is probably useful. The three main protagonists are representative of the somewhat different foci of paleo-climatologists, climate modellers and economists. Very broadly speaking, paleo-climate science is built around the analysis of single location time series (often from holes that are drilled). Climate modellers spend a lot of time trying to see what is coming up in all its complexity, while economists tend to eschew complexity and look for insight in highly idealised situations. But in order to increase the credibility of models, they have to do well at simulating past climates and what might happen in the future is certainly informed by what has happened in the past. And in order to better understand the impacts of climate change and various proposed policies, economists will need to embrace the complexity of human-climate interactions while modellers need to better understand what aspects of climate really do make a difference. None of these things will happen if we continue to all look in different directions, and more problematically, fail to support and reward those scientists who want to bridge the divides. Sea monsters notwithstanding.

270 Responses to “Bridging the divides”

  1. 1
    Peter Namtvedt says:

    The link in your email to me ( got me this response in Internet Explorer: “Internet Explorer cannot open the Internet site, Operation aborted.” This happened last time as well.

    Mozilla Firefox accepts it and gets me to this page without any problem.

    You may want to fix something.

    [Response: Can anyone with access to IE and a little internet nouse have a look at this? Nothing has changed on the site (except for the addition of reCaptcha) recently, but if there is a IE incompatibility, we’d like to fix it – Please email us any ideas (contrib – at – to avoid clogging up the comment threads. Thanks. – gavin]

    [Further Response: Thanks for all the hints. It appears to be a bug in IE (v 5.5,6.0 or 7) that has been triggered since Friday by a change in the SiteMeter code. Sitemeter has now apparently fixed their code, so you should be ok. It just goes to show you should be using Firefox in any case. – gavin]

  2. 2
    RPauli says:

    You point out that Climatia has two factions that seem to live peacefully together: the Paleos and the Modellos. Their boundaries seem to overlap gracefully.

    The map clearly shows how North Paleo-Climatia, South Modello-Climatia and Economistan are all vulnerable to rising sea levels. Even the tiny, lowland nation of Skeptia seems especially vulnerable to rising seas.

    Cursed with a low and constrained view of the horizon, the Skeptians will probably do nothing to mitigate looming changes. They are further burdened by their populations of the ponderous Sophomores and the dangerous Denialists.

    There are rumors of deep alliance between the Denialists and factions within Economistan – the more extreme members have been know to secretly fund them. This begs the question of whether future Skeptian refugees be welcomed in Economistan.

    Obviously, the respective governments need to co-ordinate both research and public policy to face the common needs among nations. Any child could see that.

  3. 3
    Lou Grinzo says:

    Speaking as a card-carrying economist, I would like to very respectfully point out that not everyone on my side of the divide is a clueless, soulless blockhead, as we’re often portrayed online. I realize no one here said anything nearly that harsh about me or my fellow dismal scientists, but even generalizations about how we over-simplify things become a sore spot with me, especially since I run The Cost of Energy ( and work very hard to understand the complexities behind all the energy and environmental issues I write about. (One handy short cut on climate stuff is to post a link to an RC story and tell my readers to come over here and read about the topic in question.)

    In general, I think all sides the discussion need to stop pigeon-holing each other. And that includes economists who often assume that geologists or climate scientists have zero understanding of how markets and resource allocation work. Sure, you can find many examples, particularly among the doomers in the peak oil crowd (and I’m part of the PO bunch, just to be clear), who are utterly clueless about economics, which leads to their making some mind-blowingly bad predictions. But it’s just as wrong for us to broad brush all of them as it is for them to dump on all economists.

    So–here’s a virtual toast to unity and open minds. We have a lot of common ground, and we need each other more than ever.

    [Response: Hear, hear! I should stress that the point of the piece and Liz’s intention specifically was to find ways to get around the stereotypes and find ways in which a constructive dialogue can emerge – whether it involves new kind of scientists or not. But the background images we have of other fields and the way our own fields operate are often the cause of a great deal of mis-communication, and need to be recognised so that they can be worked around. – gavin]

  4. 4
    Hank Roberts says:

    Good summary on bridging the gap, and flawed arguments here:

    Hat tip thanks to mention here:

    —-excerpt follows—–

    … The fourth flaw in the argument is even more subtle. Perhaps you’ve guessed it by now. Doomers argue that there is no energy source we can switch to that can take oil’s place in modern civilization. That might or might not be true, but it’s beside the point. No single energy source has to, provided we can put enough of the others together….
    —end excerpt—–

  5. 5
    Gary F says:

    Is there any way to enlarge the cartoon? I have to strain my poor old eyes to read some of the text, can’t make out the words under “The Past” in the upper left corner. Looks like an image with lots of meaning, though….

    [Response: “(another country)” – gavin]

  6. 6
    Jim Roland says:

    Nicholas Stern set out how the costs of fossil fuels outweigh the benefits severalfold, but what is the comparative performance of coal, petrol/diesel for cars and natural gas in this regard?

    There is a gaping divide also between supporters and opponents of biofuel mandates, the latter pointing out that the mandates make no sense (in most cases) either from an earth stewardship/ecological/humanitarian or economic point of view.

  7. 7
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Very interesting commentary, but given the apparent urgency in resolving some of these issues, is starting by training new grad students the most effective approach? And are university faculty the only people knowledgeable about economics?

    I’m sure there are many economists employed in industry that are familiar with working in large teams and are flexible enough to communicate with climate scientists.

    From your commentary:
    “Only by combining detailed modelling of economic responses with spatially and temporally complex climate projections can we appropriately direct resources for mitigation and adaptation. Without the synthesis of these fields, policy responses can be incoherent and counter-productive, as in the case of the recent rush to biofuels.”

    I think most economists could have predicted bad consequences from the biofuel subsidies and mandates without “…combining detailed modeling of economic responses with spatially and temporally complex climate projections…”

    [Response: Maybe that’s right, but none of the linkages between biofuels, oil prices, food price rises, increased protectionism etc. play any part in any of the models for the costs and benefits of climate change adaptations/mitigations or impacts. Don’t you think they should? – gavin]

  8. 8
    Rod B says:

    Haven’t read the commentary yet; looking forward to it. The cartoon is quite clever

  9. 9

    In this sort of map, the territory that has been given the name “Skeptia” is more usually known as Ignorantia.

  10. 10
    Figen Mekik says:

    Is it a paleoclimate guy with his nose to the ground? :)

  11. 11
    Lawrence Brown says:

    We’re definitely going to need a multi-disciplinary approach to make meaningful progress on this problem. This is already reflected to some extent by the different scenarios used in the IPCC projections.

    Whether we should rely for the most part on upcoming
    scientists and economists,still in school, is problematic. Those currently practicing in their respective fields have much useful knowledge to share with one another. If the disciplines insist on “looking”(brilliant cartoon!) in different directions we’ll all wind up in Upthecreekistan.

    “We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”- Ben Franklin.

  12. 12
    S. Molnar says:

    Re #5 (Gary F): If you try Opera instead of IE or gavin’s Firefox, you can easily enlarge the illustration and not just the text. Each browser has its good points, although the only good point for IE I can think of is that a lot of developers only test against it, so bad html might still work.

  13. 13

    Hopefully, as the 3 sciences communicate it will be with the smallest carbon footprint, i.e. not flying all over for what could be accomplished with a call or email or fax. Those with the money think nothing of the energy required for their work & vacations. While the poor will bear the brunt of global warming…

  14. 14
    Joe Hunkins says:

    …. economists will need to embrace the complexity of human-climate interactions while modellers need to better understand what aspects of climate really do make a difference. None of these things will happen if we continue to all look in different directions, and more problematically, fail to support and reward those scientists who want to bridge the divides

    Huzzah – well put, Dr G.

  15. 15
    Hank Roberts says:

    Mentioned earlier, but relevant here:

    (clickable links to his sources in original post above)


    “… there’s a really important discussion going on about how to think about the economics of climate change. The key player is Marty Weitzman, who has made a simple point (albeit using very, very difficult math) that’s nicely summarized at Env-Econ ….

    Weitzman’s point is, first, that we don’t actually know that: a small loss may be the most likely outcome given what we know now, but there’s some chance that things will be much worse. (Marty surveys the existing climate models, and suggests that they give about a 1% probability to truly catastrophic change, say a 20-degree centigrade rise in average temperature.)

    And here’s the thing: on any sort of expected-welfare calculation, the small probability of catastrophe dominates the expected loss. Suppose that there’s a 99% chance that Lomborg is right, but a 1% chance that catastrophic climate change will reduce world GDP by 90%. You might be tempted to disregard that small chance — but if you’re even moderately risk averse (say, relative risk aversion of 2 — econowonks know what I mean), you quickly find that the expected loss of welfare isn’t 0.5% of GDP, it’s 10% or more of GDP.

    The question is, can we mobilize people to make modest sacrifices to protect against low-probability catastrophes in the distant future?
    —–end excerpt from Krugman main post—-

    From the Comments to that:
    [excerpt follows]
    July 29th, 2008 12:26 pm
    … JEL published two critiques of the Stern Report last fall – one by Weitzman, the other by Nordhaus. They are both excellent and largely readable. Everybody who wants to have any say on Climate Change policy should be required to read them. The contrast between them is interesting. Nordhaus simply attacks the low discount rate which Stern admittedly uses without much explanation. Weitzman goes much deeper putting the entire standard cost-benefit framework into question – essentially concluding that Stern’s recommendations may be right but not for the reasons that Stern lays out.
    — Posted by joseph guse

    [end excerpt — original at the Krugman link above]

  16. 16
    Steve Reynolds says:

    gavin: “Maybe that’s right, but none of the linkages between biofuels, oil prices, food price rises, increased protectionism etc. play any part in any of the models for the costs and benefits of climate change adaptations/mitigations or impacts. Don’t you think they should?”

    I’m surprised that none of those are in any model, but if so, yes I agree they should be.

    Having better economic models should increase confidence in projections of the effects of various policies, and greatly improve communication with climate modelers.

  17. 17
    JMBL says:

    Some economists use their own simplified climate change models in their work. William Nordhaus is an example.

    My suggestion for some constructive bridging of the gap is for climate scientists to engage in constructive criticism of the economists’ assumptions, when they use their own climate models. Nordhaus is a conscientious economists who makes checking his assumptions fairly easy, at least relative some economist climate skeptics.

    Though Nordhaus has been mentioned several times in RealClimate, I have not seen his climate model examined. Haven’t that anywhere else either.

    You are correct that stereotypes are strong. Nordhaus is frequently mentioned as a global warming skeptic, even though he has been advocating an internationally harmonized $30 to $50 /ton carbon tax be adopted. He emphasizes building an international framework for carbon taxation in case increases as new information warrants.

    Martin Weitzman has also been mentioned as a global warming skeptic, because he expressed skepticism about some of the Stern Report assumptions. This was immediately quoted as Weitzman saying the report was wrong. But apparently Weitzman is conscientious too, and pulled up his socks and looked into the problems. He has recent work that shows that even a small chance of catastrophe will lead normally risk averse people to pay LOTS of attention to that possibility. And as the probability of catastrophe increases, avoiding it will take on a dominant role in planning. And, any modeling that assumes otherwise has to carefully examined for inconsistent or unreasonable assumptions. Weitzman’s work is technical, but soon I hope it is expressed in simpler form for applied work. But, again, stereotypes are strong (and perhaps useful to certain advocates) and Weitzman is also often cited as a prominent economist who is a global warming skeptic.

    William Nordhaus
    with link to full and simplified economics of climate change models (named DICE)

    Martin Weitzman
    discussed in Paul Krugman’s blog
    July 29, 2008, 8:22 am
    Economics of catastrophe

  18. 18
    David W says:

    “Did they ever fit together?”

  19. 19
    Gonzo says:

    In regards to the “peak oil” doomer, peak oil is a scientific theory, it makes falsifiable predictions that have held up quite well. The problem is not with the theory, rather the implications. Without an inexpensive, energy dense, portable energy source it will be a challenge to continue the “Western” way of life.

    I find it interesting how people say we can easily shift to a combination of other forms of energy, it is possible, but it won’t be easy and definitely won’t be cheap. This is true optimism.

    Underneath the false optimism lies the belief that infinite growth is possible, but if growth implies increasing energy use, and energy is limited then guess what, growth is limited. People may say well we can always find new sources of energy to always increase our rate of energy use, though really this is a statement of faith and not scientific. Some may say “the free market will invent new technologies to address these problems”, this may be true, the problem is that we cannot predict when or which technologies will be ready to implement cheaply.

    Could you imagine a doctor telling a patient who smokes, “keep smoking because if one day you develop cancer, the free market will develop a cure”. The free market may indeed one day develop a cure, but by that time you will be long dead. My motto is pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

  20. 20

    To the East of Economistan and linked by a land bridge to Skeptia is Governmentia. The ruling classes, the courts and their many servants live there. Until recently their only means of communication to Climatia was carrier pigeon and they got most of their news from the voodoo drums in Skeptia.

    In planning your multi-disciplinary approach don’t forget the folk in Governmentia.

    Combined undergraduate degrees, such as science/law, are important too for creating researchers and others who are comfortable working in multi-discipinary areas.

    We need to foster thinkers at all levels, not just leading researchers, who can avoid ideologically-driven biases in responding to climate change. Rory Sullivan has a laconic summary of the present divide:

    “While it may be overly harsh to stereotype economists as favouring economic instruments, lawyers as preferring traditional regulatory approaches, scientists as preferring research, and business people as preferring voluntary approaches or self-regulation, such an assessment is probably not too far from the truth.”



    Sullivan R (2005), Rethinking voluntary approaches in environmental policy (Edward Elgar), p 6.

  21. 21
    Hank Roberts says:

    Figen asked
    > Is it a paleoclimate guy with his nose to the ground?
    He should be using a telescope to look down that miles-deep borehole!

  22. 22

    It seems that the African continent is showing the way ahead. We would like to invite you to a Public Panel Discussion

    How can African development be compatible with sustaining a habitable planet?

    Thursday 7th August 2008 at 18:00

    Lecture Theatre 1, Kramer Building, Middle Campus, University of Cape Town

    Keynote Speakers:..
    Professor Philip Black (University of Stellenbosch)
    – Director of the Corporation for Economic Research (CER) and the Africa Institute for Policy Analysis and Economic Integration (AIPA)

    Cormac Cullinan,
    – Author of the ground breaking book ‘Wild Law’.
    – Worked as an environmental lawyer in over 10 African countries.
    – Led the drafting of, amongst others, the Lake Tanganyika Convention and the Integrated
    Coastal Management Bill in South Africa.
    – Included in the book ‘Planet Savers: 301 Extraordinary Environmentalists’

    Professor George Philander (Princeton University & UCT)
    – Research Director of the Africa Centre for Climate & Earth System Science (ACCESS).
    – Director of Princeton University’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences since 1990.
    – Member of the National Academy of Sciences (USA.)


  23. 23
  24. 24
    ScaredAmoeba says:

    With North at the top, the extreme NW of Skeptia is the region of Illegitimi-Mendacius. This broadly triangular region lies [ahem] between Logica-contorta, Verbia-scatalogia and Fossilis-fundus.

  25. 25
    Ike Solem says:

    Well… the problem here, good intentions and all, is that economists use unrealistic “econometric models” to make predictions. Their track record is abysmal. There is no comparison with climate models, because economists don’t rely on basic physical principles like thermodynamics. Instead, economists invented a number of artificial quantities that they claim behave just like various physical equations – with no justification at all. This has been discussed fairly widely, for example see:

    The strategy the economists used was as simple as it was absurd—they substituted economic variables for physical ones. Utility (a measure of economic well-being) took the place of energy; the sum of utility and expenditure replaced potential and kinetic energy. A number of well-known mathematicians and physicists told the economists that there was absolutely no basis for making these substitutions. But the economists ignored such criticisms and proceeded to claim that they had transformed their field of study into a rigorously mathematical scientific discipline…

    …These curious developments explain why the mathematical theories used by mainstream economists are predicated on the following unscientific assumptions:

    * The market system is a closed circular flow between production and consumption, with no inlets or outlets.

    * Natural resources exist in a domain that is separate and distinct from a closed market system, and the economic value of these resources can be determined only by the dynamics that operate within this system.

    * The costs of damage to the external natural environment by economic activities must be treated as costs that lie outside the closed market system or as costs that cannot be included in the pricing mechanisms that operate within the system.

    * The external resources of nature are largely inexhaustible, and those that are not can be replaced by other resources or by technologies that minimize the use of the exhaustible resources or that rely on other resources.

    * There are no biophysical limits to the growth of market systems.

    Now, there is a field of science that bridges this gap and which could give economics a new lease on life, and that is ecology.

    This is easiest to understand by first looking at islands – the Hawaiian chain, for example. Physical climate models can be used along with geological information to predict general climate conditions on those islands with decent accuracy.

    Now, let’s add in plants and animals and microorganisms. There is limited land space and limited fresh water and nutrient supply, and such variables will have some degree of control over the ecosystems that develop on the islands. An ecological model that attempted to predict biological abundance on the basis of the variables like water, nutrients and temperature would likely do a reasonable job of estimating the ecological productivity of a given region.

    If we were to build a simple ecological model of early human hunter-gatherer societies on the islands, we could then build the first simple economic models, which would imply some degree of division of labor and trade among the groups, i.e. economic activity. The myth that modern economists subscribe to is that we have progressed so far that we are no longer dependent on natural ecosystems for our survival. Then floods and heat waves wipe out 20% of your crop…

    The central theme of modern economics is the assumption of natural abundance – which is really just a special case, actually brought on partially by the stable climate of the last 10,000 years. They don’t have a model for how “externalities”, such as an ecological collapse, can lead to an economic collapse, because the basic factors are left out of the econometric models. Who has ever heard an economist talk about the “carrying capacity” of an economy, for example (a routine ecological notion)?

    The ideology that informs this mentality might be this one: “Our natural world is abundant, infinite in extent, stable and capable of absorbing any abuses puny humans inflict. Thus, we should focus on increasing consumer demand in order to create wealth and stimulate the economy!” Error: false assumptions.

    Due to this, modern big-picture economic predictions are somewhat useless when it comes to making plans for slowing and adapting to global warming and climate destabilization over the next 50+ years.

    What economists can do with their skills, however, is figure out how solar and wind based electricity systems will function, financially speaking, on the national-to-local scale – but they might want to talk with some engineers first.

  26. 26
    pete best says:

    The subject is quite simple really. Its all to do with the brain and how it develops. What makes someone right or left wing? It is not in there up bringing as there are plenty of examples of left wing famailies having right wing kids and vice versa. Its the brain, politics you are born with so to speak. Its why we have this dichotomy in society, like minded people flock together. Intelligence and rational thought give way to political and sometimes theological considerations and economic ones to. How do you model that!!

    Here in the UK we are building a new coal fire power plant and it is causing problems because coal is the problem for the world but it is Naive to thing that it will not be burnt even with lots of wind and solar farms being talked about and even being built. The UK environment minister says that of coal:

    CCS must come online but as yet it is not available commercially or for that matter on an industrial scale either, if it wver will be.

    Shell states that tar sands are less damaging that coal: Well since when was coal and oil used to the same ends unless they are talking about widespread adaption of CTL technology which could happen in some countries with large scale coal rserves I guess but even I doubt that CTL projects will scale to 3 – 5 mbpd which is the projected output of Albertas oil sands come 2030.

    The media speak of Algae oil, several recent articles in the media, or grasses that increase existing ethanol yields by up to 250% (recently reported again in the UK media), of CCS trials in Australia, of CCS ready power stations (hillarious to be fair) and of wind and solar farms portrayed as if they will solve our carbon emissions issues. The truth though is that ultimately the amount of fossil fuel being burnt is is not getting any smaller.

    Here are the official figures and projections from the IEA:
    OECD Non-OECD World Total
    2005 13.6 14.5 28.1
    2010 13.8 17.3 31.1
    2015 14.4 20.0 34.3
    2020 14.7 22.3 37.0
    2025 15.1 24.5 39.6
    2030 15.5 26.8 42.3

    Troubling aint it. But of course AGW is a myth, we have done anything about it as yet but of course we really think that we will do somethng about it.

    Our political and economic systems are not setup for this type of problem, the G8 did nothing and were deliberately vague, most people do not realise that now is the time to act and have no say in global or national energy policy and a lot of people and not aware of the issue anyway.

    Presently we extract 85 Mpbd of oil and we need more so we look to either digging up more or we turn to alternatives to fill the gap which the media takes to mean reducing oil extraction. This is just not the case and does not inform the public at all. Even if the world produced 10 MPbd of sustainable biofuel we would still be burning 85 Mbpd of oil. The same applies to gas, biogas cannot replace gas from the earth.

    It is as James Hansen has already stated many times , we need to be on a different track within 10 years and he looks to coal as the problem knowing that all of the oil and gas will be burnt to make us a 450 ppmv world but he is desperately trying to get coal ruled out of get CCS fitted amongst other things such a a low resistance supergrid but coal is as big a global player as oil and gas especially amongst the non OECD countries and indeed the use of coal will more than likely accelerate if oil supplies do peak in the next decade unless we can find something else to fill the gap but biofuels of sustainable typr and industrial scale are decades off.

  27. 27
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    “(another country)” sounds like a quote from Marlowe.

    “but that was in another country; / And besides, the wench is dead.”

    What was in another country wasn’t climate change but “fornication”.

    Who knew that climate modelers could get so racy?

    [Response: Not quite the correct source. “The past is another country” is likely an oft-used misquote of L. P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” (The Go-Between). It gets used a lot (Google it), but I don’t know where it really comes from. – gavin]

  28. 28
    Lance Olsen says:

    Although the quotes below are not directly aimed at the multiple questions raised with increased temperatures, they seem (to me) to bring some basic theses to the discussion.

    “The structural relations within and between human societies and their environments form the most complex systems known to science.” Charles D. Laughlin and Ivan Brady, editors, Extinction and Survival in Human Populations. Columbia U Press. 1978

    “Making connections is the essence of scientific progress.” Chris Quigg, “Aesthetic Science,” Scientific American, April 1999

    “Ignorance of remote causes disposeth men to attribute all events to the causes immediate and instrumental: for these are all the causes they perceive.” (Attributed to) Thomas Hobbes

  29. 29
    tharanga says:

    “linkages between biofuels, oil prices, food price rises, increased protectionism etc”

    You can try to put such factors into the economic models, but I’d say it’s a doomed enterprise.

    Matter and energy tend to act in repeatable and predictable ways. Humans don’t.

  30. 30

    An interdisciplinary approach is just what’s needed. It would probably be too difficult, though, to capture the whole issue (conceptualizing is easy, doing the math nearly impossible, as some things are extremely difficult even to quantify). There would be:
    1. the factors behind the GHG forcings, which would include the social (incl economic, political, etc), cultural (technology, beliefs, values, knowledge, religion, science), and psychological (motivations, personal cognitions, emotions) that are factors in people producing GHG emissions;
    2. then all the stuff that’s in the climate models (informed by paleoclimatology); and
    3. then all the effects and impacts of GW on humans and the natural world.

    Included would be some negative and positive feedback loops in nature (connecting 3 back to 2) and among people (connecting 3 back to 1). Since people are reflective beings, we’d expect mainly negative feedbacks, as in some people trying to mitigate once they understand the problem, tho some would be rushing out to buy ACs bec of the increasing heat (positive feedback).

    For humans, there would also be all sorts of blockages to mitigation — from lack of correct info, to all sorts of other motivations & cultural beliefs/values, and the impact of others (social). I remember reading an environmental sociology article about how knowledge of and concern about environmental problems has only a moderate correlation with environmental behavior to solve those problems, and that is only when all the problems are lumped together into an index, and all the solutions are lumped together into an index.

    We really do need government rigging it with laws and regulations and tax/price incentives so we are more likely to do the right thing. And we need solutions not being blocked from coming online or to the market (as what happened to electric cars in California, or great battery tech gathering dust on an oil company shelf).

    I would think that biology and public health would be needed in a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to climate change, especially when looking at GW effects and impacts. Our well-being depends on the health of the environment, including its biota, not on money.

    I would, however, caution about being too enthralled by mainstream, neoclassical economics. I’ve addressed this issue before ( ).

    First off, “important impacts on agriculture and infrastructure needs,” are not so much economics matters, as they are subsistence (or cultural ecology) matters.

    Cultural Anthropology textbooks have chapters which analytically distinguish “Subsistence Patterns” (or Cultural Ecology) from “Economic Systems.” Cultural ecology is about the various ways humans eke a living out of the environment; it deals with adaptation.

    Economics is more about ownership/tenure, production (including division of labor), distribution, and exchange of goods and services — what happens once the resources are taken out of the environment, with the environment counting as a big fat zero (except re ownership considerations). Healthy air, water, soil, etc, don’t count in economics, unless these get degraded or limited, and people have to buy them (or pay to purify them). Nor do the trees and bees that do a lot of free & uncounted service for us.

    The “food-to-energy” biofuels fiasco, too, could be viewed within cultural ecology as a maladaptive strategy (re the food crisis around the world), or an economic matter in that it is a strategy of agri-biz to increase their profits, or a focus on the resulting price of food. Cultural ecologists might also have counted ALL the calories of energy going into production of “food-to-energy” biofuels and the greenhouse gases emitted in the agri-production process v. the useful work calories produced, and figured it wasn’t worth it, or that energy needed for getting oil from the ground and the burning of those fuels would produce less greenhouse gases.

    When including an economic dimension, it would be good (1) not to let it totally dominate and dictate policy, and (2) have it to go beyond neoclassical theory, which holds GDP and monetary value as the standard; for instance, other indexes of well-being could be used, such as considerations of human health and health of the environment, or “quality of life” indexes.

    Also we might not want everything reduced merely to monetary units. Since we supposedly value human life, perhaps “life-years” could also be used as a measure.

    There should be some way of accounting for externalities, such as harms from pollution — which actually might go in as “goods,” since they increase productivity in the medical field. Rebuilding after a hurricane, in conventional economics, might also be viewed as an increase in productivity. But these reflect “bads.”

    David Pearce, et. al, in BLUEPRINT FOR A GREEN ECONOMY, touch on many such issues. And I’m sure more has been done in this area since 1989. If I remember, the book mentions about how supply and demand don’t work re nature — that the price of trees won’t shoot up until there’s only a few left and the forest is in a irreversible state of collapse — way too late to halt the destructive use of those trees. Likewise, I would suggest that the price of oil and coal may not go up (even if the market were free, which it is not), until civilization and a large chunk of human and other life is in a irreversible state of collapse.

  31. 31
    Gordon says:

    This is not related to this post but as it is the most recent one I will put my message here. The ionizers in shopping malls remove a great deal of pollution why can’t a larger more sophisticated version of these ionizers carried by high altitude jumbo transport planes or by satellites be used to remove co2 and other pollutants from the Earth’s atmosphere?

  32. 32
    Hank Roberts says:

    Gordon, look up “ionosphere” and, in the malls, ask where the pollution goes. Atmospheric chemistry is complicated; this happens now.

  33. 33
    Jess says:

    I think one of the things that gets economists pigeonholed is that many don’t seem to draw a distinction between economic efficiency and social goods– they seem to assume that one begets the other. Milton Friedman is the worst example, as he equates economic freedom with political freedom. But ask a Chilean: the two aren’t synonymous.

    Also, there are a lot of things that I could do that are economically efficient but absolutely disastrous. For example, if i have a country with a slave market you get really cheap labor and goods. You also get economic growth. But the slaves might have a different opinion of how good life is. THe American South was in just this situation: we were the Saudi Arabia of cotton for some sixty years (one reason the Brits were so interested in the Egyptian production as well as India). Economic growth looked positively stunning — look at the increase in the populations and output of ports such as New Orleans, or Mobile, or even Annapolis and Baltimore. But I hope that nobody would advocate a return to slavery, even though economically it makes a lot of sense (else so many civilizations wouldn’t have used it).

    Economists of the free-market variety also tend to rely on the assumption that transactions are entered into voluntarily. But if I need a job to eat there is nothing voluntary about it. I can’t shop my skills around because I might need a job. Labor is one of those things where the seller has little pricing power, unless there is a massive shortage. That doesn’t happen very often (the only widespread example I can think of is after the Black Death, or maybe after major wars that kill off lots of people).

    On the other hand, the buyer of labor can always find someone else. Since there’s an asymmetry of information between buyer and seller, favoring the buyer, (who knows what a lot of workers for a given job are asking for).

    Most free-market economists dismiss this kind of thing, and that’s why I have a tough time taking them seriously.

  34. 34
    Neil Pelkey says:

    I love this blog. It is one of the few places where harmony exists among economists (especially the free market kind), climate scientists (who agree with the Goddard canon), and skeptics (of the Mensa variety). It is a place where screen writers can wax philosophically about consistency and believability while simultaneously believing in global warming doomsday scenarios and that we are past peak oil. Thanks Gavin for letting all the nuttiness survive.

  35. 35
    Rod B says:

    Jess (33), you make some good points but briefly jump too far in one instance. You can not have political freedom without economic freedom. Granted the economic freedom need not and should not be absolute (which I think is your real point??), but should be extraordinarily predominate.

    Your points on economic efficiency are well-taken, and economic efficiency per se is not (should not be) the end-all. Especially if the only metric is the economics of the total system, which, as you point out, can be very good while the economic status of the average (mean, mode, whatever) could be abysmal. It’s the latter that ought to be the measure of an economy (which in no way implies egalitarianism.)

    The social good as part of the economy is a responsibility of government. Gov’t can and should set the rules and guidelines (with a sprinkling of incentive thrown in, but not too much) of economic activity, as it does for other aspects of society. It can do this with minimal incursion into economic freedom, which by definition means free private enterprise, private ownership of assets, and freedom to invest — capitalism. This is one of the areas kicked around in the economics viz-a-viz AGW mitigation.

    Your point that some economists pooh-pooh the asymmetry of some negotiations is interesting. I agree with you. Lost in the trees for the forest are two fundemental aspects of Adam Smith’s capitalism that are missing in our (and everyone else’s) system. One is that the theory looks only at various steady states and makes no account of transient effects, which any EE can tell you can kill you (or your circuit). The theory also assumes complete and total availability and exchange of information. I have to know exactly what Joe is earning making widgets before I decide to jump in. This is an idealistic unrealizable condition, but none-the-less a theoretical requirement. We need to be cognizant, watchful, and leery of the actual conditions, not just discard them out of hand as your example economists did. You’re right: your economists are interested in GDP/GNP, not economic freedom.

    Just for fun, it’s also interesting to note another idealistic fallacy of Smith’s theory. That is his ultimate condition is just the right amount of all goods being produced and used by the public by a mass of enterprises, all of whom are making exactly 0.00% return.

    For the record I am a big fan of Smith’s capitalism. It’s just not perfect.

  36. 36
    Greg says:

    Re #17, paper by Martin Weitzman.

    A good read with some very quotable sentences.

    If the math in the paper holds up, economists will have to re-write the expected utility part of their textbooks, or at least add a section on macro-scale analysis. — Besides, of course, rebuilding their GW impact assessment models.

    I’m starting to hope that we will actually see some reduction in CO2 emissions in a few years – Governmentia buys wholesale what Economistan sells.

  37. 37
    Timothy Chase says:

    Re: Edward Greisch #23

    Regarding the possible role hydrogen sulfide in the major extinctions you might want to check out another book, one which places it in the context of the methane clathrate gun, the destruction of the coccolithophores which help to maintain an oxygenated atmosphere by ocean acidification, the role of algae blooms, etc..

    It is online and open access:

    Killer in Our Midst
    Methane Catastrophes in Earth’s Past . . . and Near Future?
    Dan Dorritie

    … but for primates at least, you might not want to entirely discount carbon dioxide itself:

    D. S. Robertson, Health effects of increase in concentration of
    carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Current Science, Vol. 90, No. 12, 25 June 2006

    Captcha fortune cookie: offensive gold
    (A reference to iron sulfide — pyrite — that would have formed in large quantities alongside hydrogen sulfide perhaps?)

  38. 38
    James Killen says:

    Re #26

    What makes someone right or left wing? It is not in there up bringing as there are plenty of examples of left wing famailies having right wing kids and vice versa.

    Do you have any evidence for that assertion? I have been led to believe that parental voting patterns are the most accurate predictor of any individual voter’s voting behaviour?! Have I been misled?

    In any case ‘upbringing’ happens not only by parents, but by schools, TV, internet chatrooms. So before we go positing some phrenological explanation of belief systems, we ought to remember that in a complex society the informational input to belief systems is complex. I am aware of some work which puported to show that students of conservative political inclination performed less well at tasks requiring rapid adaptation to changing conditions, but I’d like to see a larger body of work on this before giving it too much credence.

    Also the fact that some children exhibit different voting behaviour, or have different political outlooks, from their parents doesn’t in fact exclude a role for ‘upbringing.’ A case in point: my wife. She came from a conservative and Christian background. As political conservatism migrated away from stances reconcilable with Christian compassion, my wife turned left-wards and became a social-ist. Now her political views are antithetical to those of her upbringing, but they are highly determined by her upbringing.

    [Response: Please no more on partisan politics. There are plenty of other places on the web for that. – gavin]

  39. 39
    Edward Greisch says:

    Reference “Personality Types” by Don Richard Riso, the 1996 edition. We scientists and engineers are enneagram Type 5s, or we are out of place. I don’t know what type economists are. Capitalists are Type 8 and have nothing in common with us. Gavin, you are thinking that rationality is normal. The psychologists say that Type 5 personalities are fear based. We actually care about whether or not Homo Sap thrives or goes extinct. The belief that anybody else cares is a bad assumption on our part. Rather that this inter-disciplinary stuff, it might be more productive to establish a self-sustaining colony of scientists on Mars in the expectation that earth will become uninhabitable. Unless scientists can actually sieze power, which is very unlikely, chances are the earth will become uninhabitable and Homo Sap will go extinct on earth. You could hope that the collapse of civilization will wake people up in time, but don’t count on most people to be wakeable, even the ones who survive. Our CORRECT species name is Pan Troglodites, the upright walking ape.

  40. 40
    Ned Ford says:

    I can’t tell you how disappointed that NONE of the 34 preceding comments discuss a different discipline which is critical to solving climate change – resource experts. I’m going to set out the radical idea that energy efficiency is the only response which is pertinent on a scale which matters, and make a couple of observations about it which should reflect on the problems we as a society are having in developing a consensus.

    I first learned the term “economic dispatch model” from the DOE’s Clean Energy Future Report. The concept is quite simple, and without desiring to disparage economists, I have to ask why the profession as a whole does not have a greater interest in this. (Take the chart on page 5 of the Executive Summary of the CEF report, update in your head for the report’s use of $1.50 for gasoline and $2 for natural gas, and see if you don’t agree with me that this report contains at least the foundation of the first half of the Climate Response we need).

    We know what utility efficiency programs can accomplish, and we can eliminate all new growth in the electric and natural gas sectors for about a third of the cost of continuing to do what we do, or about a fifth of the cost of new coal plants and new natural gas development. We can reduce electric consumption by about 2% per year in addition, if we optimize combined heat and power.

    CAFE standards are being raised, but nowhere near the economically justified point. (UCS did a report which said that 45 mpg was justified by $1.50 gas, but that by the time we achieve 45 mpg the technology would permit upwards of 50 mpg. But someone on Barbara Boxer’s staff felt that 45 mpg was economically justified in 1989, by gasoline which was under a dollar per gallon at the time.

    There are some nifty charts of carbon reduction resources, which show long bars below the line for technologies which save a lot of money, and bars rising above the line for technologies which cost money. But no one ever discusses these charts in the context of what happens if we as a society invest to the extent justified, in the technologies which save the most money. They get cheaper, and better, and the bars get bigger (further below the line, which is zero cost).

    Now, as a matter of immediate public policy, we must be scaling up all state utility efficiency programs to the level of the best states. This is not because I like these programs. It is because this is the only thing we know how to do which can be scaled up this decade and also saves more money than it costs. Once we’ve done this, for electricity and natural gas, and done the deed for combined heat and power, and moved last year’s CAFE standard increase to a faster rate and a higher level, we can start working on Zero Energy Buildings. All of these things save money, are immediately available (at least compared to renewables) and provide serious reductions for natural gas and petroleum where no serious renewables are available (except the electric car, which makes this even more sensible).

    Any carbon tax or cap and trade program is going to have to do this anyway. Why not cut out the bells and whistles and get to the structural changes we need?

    The most important part of an economic dispatch strategy is that we MUST get started NOW. In ten years it is quite likely that wind, solar PV and solar thermal will all be cheaper than new coal. That still doesn’t tell us how we will manage to shut down old coal plants. But the time to worry about that is when we’re already doing all the efficiency we can, and we’re nowhere near that point yet.

    Climate Scientists, Economists and Sociologists need to figure out how to cross disciplinary lines. But those three groups are not the only people needed. Figure out who is already doing the best, and then see if we can’t replicate their success. Five U.S. states have nearly eliminated electric sector growth of greenhouse gases. Three of them have done so deliberately – two have apparently done so by running their economies into the ground. The three states with smiles on their faces are saving a lot of money. Other states with smaller proportional programs, but larger dollar investments are saving billions of dollars every year.

    There’s a lot more to be said, but we need to get started. We need to concentrate on the successes, and the dialogue needs to incorporate the notion that we can build on success systematically, effectively and fast.

  41. 41
    a.c. says:

    #40 – “There are some nifty charts of carbon reduction resources, which show long bars below the line for technologies which save a lot of money, and bars rising above the line for technologies which cost money. But no one ever discusses these charts in the context of what happens if we as a society invest to the extent justified, in the technologies which save the most money. They get cheaper, and better, and the bars get bigger (further below the line, which is zero cost).”

    Sounds VERY interesting. But I had trouble locating a webpage. What words do I have to google for this info to pop to the top?

    [Response: Try this figure from the Economist (sub. reqd.) – gavin]

  42. 42
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re: 22
    “It seems that the African continent is showing the way ahead. We would like to invite you to a Public Panel Discussion.”

    Thank you for the invitation. It’s good to get away from the computer screen and out of the house now and then and attend a live discussion. My wife doesn’t care where I go as long as I don’t enjoy myself too much. Unfortunately, Cape Town is kind of far from New York so I’ll have to read about it instead.

    I have one of George Philander’s books,published in 1998 titled “Is The Temperature Rising?”, which is an interesting read on atmospheric physics. The text is non-technical with appendices that go into some derivations but nothing beyond algebra. I found it a good introduction to climate fundamentals.

  43. 43

    RE #40, I meant to include energy efficient experts in my post, but I think your term, resources experts is even better, since that covers it all (we reduce our resource use, we reduce our GHG emissions).

    So the most important things are what people tell us on Earth Day — reduce, reuse, recycle…with “reduce” being the best solution.

    Actually economics does deal with efficiencies, but people tend to assume if there are cost-effective solutions that save money without lowering productivity, people and esp businesses would already be implementing these. But they are not.

    And I don’t think it is only bec of a lack of knowledge or other resources to implement them.

    What I think is that humans are not nearly as rational (maximizing gain, minimizing loss) as economists make them out to be, which is why we need the field of psychology (and other fields) in this project.

  44. 44

    This is going well. We are starting to discuss the realm of the holistic.

    A multi-interdisciplinary approach is required

    multi – meaning multiple disciplines

    inter – meaning everything need to be tied between systems.

    All systems have dynamics and components (centripetal, centrifugal, dynamic equilibrium).

    All systems have parent-systems, co-lateral systems, sub-systems.

    Back in the day, when i was working with Dr. Jonas Salk (polio), Dr. James Grier Miller (Living Systems Theory ), and Dr. Martin Chamberlain (Chancellor, UCSD) I developed a definition of health for system interactions, which I have refined over the years.

    The paper Jonas helped we with (Miller and Chaimberlain also helped by providing some criticisms) was presented at EDUCOM in 1992 in a University of the World meeting

    The systems section:

    included ideas from Jonas and his son Jonathan’s book “World Population & Human Values”

    The Health definition can now be found at:

    I wrote the health definition in order to give an ideological means to evaluate system interactions. This, from a human perspective was to give us some form of objectivity by providing an exoskeleton view where systems (parent, co and sub) touch each other.

    Add to that LST and the 20 Critical sub-systems

    including Millers last paper with the Timer (short, medium, long term) and you can get a better picture.

    It is in my opinion critical to be cognizant of the facts that ‘economy’ is not just monetary. Natural systems have their own economies.

    Any economic analysis must consider all economies, system interaction, supply and depletion, short and long term.

    Example: we get around 1366.5 W/m2 from the sun that is our supply. We don’t give much effect back to the sun

    “What happens at the macro-level effects the micro-level and vice versa, with resonance’s equivalent to the relevance of the individual event.”

    it interacts with earth systems and those systems interact with each other. That is the economy of our biosphere.

    Genealogy of Systems:

    For example, our galaxy is a system of stars and solar systems. Of the multitude of solar systems that exist within the galaxy lies our own solar system which in turn can be considered a system with subsystems. The gravitational pull caused by the mass of the sun (centripetal force) and the mass and speed of the planets (centrifugal force) keeps our solar system in dynamic equilibrium.

    The Earth can be viewed as a system with subsystems as well. Its’ major functional systems can be seen as mass, liquid and gas breaking down into meteorological, tectonic mass and biochemical. Earth is not a closed system since it relies on the energy from the sun (parent system) to fuel its many processes in order for its biological subsystems to survive.

    Within the ecosystem of Earth’s many biological subsystems is humankind. Humankind is unique in the sense that it has the ability to create new systems–whereas most systems simply react and evolve in accordance with the external influences of their environment. The human system reacts and creates external systems to accommodate its evolution. If we view the planet Earth as one living system then all of the processes that operate within that system can be considered subsystems. As we further define and understand the subsystems of our biosphere we have learned that in some way they are all inter­connected and/or influence …

    Human societal systems currently include, but are not limited to systems of education, government, media, industry, medical, (bio-chemical, technological, manufacturing, agricultural). Other human societal systems could be considered; poverty and crime, wealth and giving, spiritual beliefs and social mores, nationalism, sub-culturalism (regionality and peer groups), et cetera.

    We are depleting resources and not returning in kind to the source; our energy, ocean, agricultural, land use, and climate systems especially as those relate to human capacity of existence & survivability. This will reach its own tipping point (tragedy of the commons).

    We have large scale economic issues between our systems.

    Example continued: We are retaining more energy from the sun that the natural equilibrium would normally allow due to industrial greenhouse gases; we are depleting resources assuming technology will solve everything regarding resource usage for the human race.

    Primarily, we need to realize that pertaining to human habitation, we live in a closed living system for the most part (other than TSI, gravitational influences, misc. cosmic stuff and of course the occasional comet and meteor impact).

    A balanced healthy economy between natural and human systems is required for healthy survivability and sustainability. The keys here are (imo) conservation first, energy system transition, alternative energy, resource usage considerations, population issues, government and societal awareness of the issues, etc..

  45. 45
    kevin says:

    RE: 39
    One thing we probably need to be careful of when venturing into Interdisciplinaria: careful with the generalizations. (I guess that’s good advice in many endeavors, not just interdisciplinary ones.) The poster’s point about not assuming rationality on the part of others may be a good one, but it’s kinda hard for me to read his post through the red haze that descended over my eyes upon seeing the words “The psychologists say that…”

    I’m a psychologist. I work with psychologists. Most of the psychologists I know probably have a general idea of what the enneagram is, but it certainly wasn’t covered in my graduate studies. “The psychologists,” as a group, don’t tell us that type 5’s are fear based or whatever–in my experience “the psychologists” don’t talk about this model of personality much if at all. Some psychologists might, but don’t use such a broad brush.

  46. 46

    #40 Ned Ford

    Thank you for that post. I agree. Now if we can get the awareness level high enough for critical understanding to sink in in our public and political realms in order to divert departmental policy, energy and resources to the solutions.

    My opinion remains, we need to illustrate the arguments clearly and effectively. We are still playing whack-a-mole with the denialist crowd, but there arguments have no relevant substance.

    Faster is certainly better, so let’s keep at it!

  47. 47
    Chris M says:

    All this talk of increasing efficiencies tend to forget about the Jevons Paradox – the Jevons Paradox is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

  48. 48

    #44 John P. Reisman

    en addendum

    The health definition is not merely to be used as an exoskeleton view, it is also a means to evaluate individual system health and combined system health.

  49. 49

    RE #40, to add to your suggestions, NATURAL CAPITALISM (see & also see ) has even more exciting ways to drastically cut energy cost-effectively. One of their methods is “tunneling through” in which you get the energy req down low enough, you can dispense with the AC or motor or fan altogether and get even more dramatic cuts. This is all avaliable, off-the-shelf tech. they figure we could reduce our energy req in some cases by 90%, and overall for the whole nation, 75%.

    What’s blocking us is many things in the cultural (beliefs, values, knowledge, info, misguided ideology-based fears), social (impact of other people; economics, political, familial, etc), & psychological dimensions of human behavior.

    And from a religious perspective, downright sin — sloth, greed, pride, wrath, etc.

  50. 50
    Ark says:

    Re #41: Or try this one (for Australia, 2008):
    “emission reduction cost curve” is a good start for Googling.