A Social Scientist’s View on Climate Change
There has been too much climate science driving the public
debate on climate change. That kind of sentiment, coming
from a former economist for the Bush administration, may
remind you of everything that you thought was wrong with
the Bush administration and its alleged “War on Science.” Yet
I maintain that any administration would do well to not let
climate science dominate policy decisions.
Let me be clear: I have nothing against climate science. Let me be even clearer: there is a scientific consensus that the earth is warming, and at least part of the warming is due to human activity. We should acknowledge that there are reasonable dissenters, and that no paradigm in science can be guaranteed with 100 percent certainty. But, as a non-climate scientist, I think it more than reasonable to go with the consensus scientific opinion and acknowledge mankind’s role in climate change.
However, what we should do about climate change is a very different question, and one that climate scientists are not best equipped to address. An old adage avers that “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Climate scientists see climate change as a scientific problem to be solved with scientific solutions. But good public policy requires many inputs. Sound policy requires not only science and engineering, but also an understanding of social science.
For far too long, climate scientists have dominated the expert opinion within the public debate on climate change, and that has created a large blind spot when it comes to thinking about public policy. While most Americans are exposed to natural science in high school, their exposure to social science is limited. Climate scientists first identified the problem, they have been thinking about it the longest, and, up until recently, they have also done most of the research. For reporters looking for stories on global warming, it was natural to turn to climate science.
Those who doubt the scientific consensus are pilloried in the media as closed-minded yokels, yet the same people who rail against junk science turn around and use junk economics. Some advocate policies that fail every conceivable cost-benefit analysis test, and claim that regulating carbon will increase economic growth, even though the evidence is strong that added taxes and regulation, even when worthy, dampen growth.
The economists writing for the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is cited in describing the scientific consensus on climate change, predict that the economic costs of implementing climate policy will be on the order of trillions of dollars over the next 25 years. Such policies will increase poverty by the millions; increase deaths from conditions like flu or hypothermia, which are associated with the cold; and decrease potential growing seasons in large parts of the world, such as Canada and Russia. That said, the economic analysis is clear that the potential consequences of doing nothing to stop global warming easily outweigh the cost of climate action. Trillions of dollars to implement climate policy sounds like a lot of money, but that amount accounts for only a couple percent of world output over 25 years.
Some would say that informing people of the truth about the costs of climate policy is ill-advised because it will only confuse them. While I share the goals of those who advocate strong action to address climate change, I believe the public is better served when they are more informed, especially because increased public understanding can ensure more carefully designed climate policies.
Economists, for example, are fairly certain about specific principles that should drive climate policy. Policy to curtail emissions should begin modestly and increase with time, because science and technology and economic growth all make action cheaper in the future. Policies should be built on market-based instruments such as taxes or cap-and-trade (preferably taxes), which are far more effective and less prone to political manipulation than heavy-handed regulation. Market-based policies help ensure that only actions whose benefits outweigh their costs are taken. More generally, costs and benefits should be balanced, and a changing climate creates benefits in addition to costs. Moreover, while the consequences of climate change are indeed costly, other human dilemmas such as poverty and disease are arguably costlier and thus might be more deserving of our attention.
At a meeting held at the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, we discussed how the electric power grid needs to be upgraded to handle renewable power. While the engineers were focused on the optimal location of new power lines and the technology of power transmission, I was reminded of a study by a group of economists at Resources for the Future. They found that it isn’t lack of money, or technology, or government involvement that impeded the upgrading of the electric power grid, but, instead, it is primarily NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) — the social phenomenon whereby locals protest any new construction in their backyard, which often means that obtaining the rights to build a single power line can take decades.
It is promising that in recent months, as the debate has taken more center stage in Congress, more nuanced debate has started to emerge, and economic concerns have begun to enter the public discussion. But public perception is slow to shift. A concrete example that illustrates how bad economics has played a role in the recent debate is the politician’s favorite catch phrase: Green Jobs. This term frustrates economists, who see it as a dishonest slight of hand. Government policy can create jobs, but, in general, the net long-term employment effect of government regulation is effectively zero: Any green jobs created will come at the expense of jobs lost elsewhere in the economy. Note that we are all hammers looking for our nails. Although I began this discussion by criticizing the narrow-mindedness of climate science, I must also recognize that my own perspective is similarly economics-tinged. I just urge more humility and open-mindedness in public discourse.
Economists often dream up policies without considering the politics, dismissing the political difficulties in securing international cooperation and navigating well-established international treaties, or the impact domestic policy has on international negotiations. We often underestimate these difficulties in navigating our own democratic political process.
Economists have also largely ignored the power of social movements, of social pressure and moral obligation, to effect change. By working with colleagues at CALS to incorporate insights from sociology and psychology, behavioral economists like myself have been trying to understand how social pressures — such as feelings of guilt, altruism, responsibility, status, selfexpression, or pride — can be marshaled to aid the environment.
Research has shown that how much people are willing to pay to combat climate change depends on the information you give them and how you frame that information. We know that social comparison — ranking our behavior against that of others — is a powerful determinant of our behavior. These insights should inform climate policy.
There are many contributions social science can and should be making in the climate change discourse. And, to be fair, a fuller understanding of all the aspects of climate change, including climate science, is essential if we are to responsibly address the challenges climate change presents.