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IHDP: Blasé economics

Popping up at the IHDP conference are signs of a certain gap in perception of climate change risks – one that economist Frank Ackerman pointed to in a letter to NRCC recently. “Climate change can’t be both a fundamental threat to the conditions that support human life, according to scientists, and a mid-sized policy puzzle that can be solved by an adjustment in tax rates, according to economists,” Ackerman wrote.

Much of the social and environmental research on offer here falls into the “fundamental threat” camp. But the blasé attitudes of some mainstream economists came up after last night’s roundtable on ways forward for social science in the 21st century – and made a bold showing in a plenary talk today.

During the Q&A segment of the roundtable, a researcher in the audience – Karen Seto of Yale University – pointed out that the natural sciences have two central journals where media can pick up on the most important results – “I don’t need to tell you their names,” she said – whereas social sciences have no such thing. Later, while making enquiries on behalf of a certain website associated with a Journal That Shall Not be Named, I heard a different opinion from one of the panelists, economist Carlo Jaeger of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research. The Economist magazine actually serves as such a clearinghouse on the social side of research, but the meeting’s brand of socio-ecological work fails to get much attention there, he said. Climate change in particular is a mainstream problem for science, but much less so for economics.

Reinforcing this point was a meta-analysis presented this morning by Robert Richard Tol, an economist at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. Most peer-reviewed studies of the costs of climate change impacts, Tol pointed out, suggest that global warming up to about 1.5 degrees C is in fact slightly beneficial to the world economy, and that 3 degrees of warming depresses global GDP by 2.5%, or about a year’s worth of typical economic growth. (Tol discounts the very different conclusions of the politically influential Stern Review because it wasn’t peer reviewed.)

That’s a fair summary, says Jaeger. But GDP loss is “the wrong yardstick” for climate impacts, he adds. As Jaeger and colleagues argued in a Climatic Change op-ed last year: If we’re concerned about human suffering, we need to recognize that it often fails to register on global economic productivity.

Anna Barnett


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    corrections said:

    He is called Richard Tol, not Robert Tol.

    The link to Jaeger’s climate change op ed doesn’t work.

    The Economist certainly does not serve the same role as Nature and Science. The latter two are peer reviewed journals, while the former is a news magazine.

    There are of course economic journals that are aimed at general purpose audiances. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy is an excellent journal, with lots of material on climate change.

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    david said:

    Jaeger schould know better than that: many of the studies cited by Tol include a broad set of welfare reducing impacts, including many that would not be accounted for in the routine calculation of GDP. Examples include health impacts or biodiversity loss. The impacts are then expressed as an equivalent reduction in GDP, but that is just a unit/measure to express the damage, NOT a statement that only things that Jaeger labels as “economic productivity” are included in these estimates.

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    Anna Barnett said:

    My regrets for the mistakes in Richard Tol’s name and the link to Dr. Jaeger’s commentary. These are now corrected.

    Re the Economist: It’s true that this magazine is crucially different from Nature and Science in not having peer-reviewed research. Jaeger in fact pointed this out when comparing them, though I didn’t mention it. But for the press and public – as opposed to researchers – he argued that the Economist plays an analogous role, as a central place to find out about the latest social science.

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