Don’t Silence Lawson: We Can’t Leave Climate Policy To The Scientists

  • Date: 15/07/14
  • Ryan Bourne, City A.M.

Even if you believe global warming is happening and it’s a significant problem, it is lazy thinking to believe this scientific insight means “Case Closed”

The row between former chancellor Lord Lawson and the BBC has escalated over the past week. In a letter to a green activist, the head of the Beeb’s Editorial Complaints Unit Fraser Steel has reportedly apologised for Lawson’s appearance on the BBC Today Programme to discuss climate change and the extensive flooding at the start of 2014. Responding to complaints that Lawson was “not a scientist”, Steel wrote that Lawson’s views on this issue were not supported by “the evidence from computer modelling.”

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that computer modelling provides us with outputs based on assumptions, not hard evidence. Let’s also leave aside that Ed Davey, secretary of state for energy, and himself a non-scientist, has also been able to pontificate on the causes of the flooding without blowback. For this is a complaint you hear a lot in the climate change debate: this is a question of science and the science is settled. At a recent student event in Warwick on the policy response to climate change and its impact on growth, someone challenged me: “what makes you, an economist, qualified to talk on this subject?”

The answer is simple. While scientists can advise and model how carbon emissions will affect the climate, and estimate what effect these changes will have on the earth itself, deciding what any policy response should be involves economic tools.

We need economic models to estimate future trends in output, and how energy-intensive that output will be. We need economic analysis to help explain how prosperous both developed and developing economies will be, and what level of resources are needed to adapt to or mitigate changes in climate. Most importantly, in deciding what policy should be in regards to the climate, we must understand the potential for innovation, the trade-off involved (particularly for developing countries) of accepting being poorer today for the hope of future climate benefits, and the distribution of who picks up the burden of the costs of any policy imposed. [...]

Even if you believe global warming is happening and it’s a significant problem, it is lazy thinking to believe this scientific insight means “Case Closed” and that the policy response is obvious. You also have to tot up what the consequences of global warming might be, the costs and benefits of different policies, and work out who picks up the tab. This requires a much-needed economic and political debate – and it’s obvious the likes of Lawson and other public figures have much to contribute.

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