In The Field

EGU: A clash of cultures?

Economists? Are cold-hearted, says the dictionary of accepted ideas. Now, Richard Tol, an environmental and energy economist at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin is also a bit of an enfant terrible in his guild. So I, for one, was not surprised that his whistle stop at the EGU sent some palpable shockwaves through the large and well-filled lecture hall D here.

Tol talked about the economic impact of ocean acidification on the tourism industry. People ‘purchase’ the service of coral reefs (which are beginning to severely suffer from rising ocean acidity – a result of increased CO2 uptake by the seas) by going scuba diving in, say, the Caribbean, he explained. Coral reef tourism is however only a small part of the global tourism industry. The economic damage caused by less people coming to places like Belize or Martinique, although painful for these island communities, will amount to no more than 10 to 70 million dollars per year, he argued. A mere trifle.

But his reasoning drove some people mad. After the session Tol was heavily attacked by angry listeners for his (allegedly) deliberately playing down the environmental problems associated with ocean acidification. He had a hard time trying to explain that he didn’t mean to say that other impacts, such as on biodiversity, fisheries or coastal protection, did not matter from an economic standpoint. The sole reason why he focused exclusively on recreation was that impacts on tourism are the only ones that economists can currently hope to determine with reasonable reliability. But his point didn’t really get through.

The current rate of ocean acidification is something the world hasn’t seen in 20 million years, said one biologist. Neither has it ever seen democracy arriving in China, Tol replied.

So, are economists – or is Tol – outfitted with a cynical, die-hard materialist view of the world? No, they aren’t. What this little argy-bargy really goes to show is that the (much-needed) inclusion of economists to the climate debate is sometimes hampered by fear of contact between the two academic communities. That’s bad. So mind, rumours of economists lacking heart and soul are greatly exaggerated.

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