Lomborg Plays Economist-as-Philosopher-King on Climate Change

by Douglas Kysar

Prominent environmental commentator Bjorn Lomborg is at it again, this time convening a blue ribbon panel of five economists to assess the relative merits of different possible methods for addressing climate change.  As reported by Reuters Friday morning, Lomborg's panel concluded that "'climate engineering' projects, such as spraying seawater into the sky to dim sunlight, would be a more effective brake on global warming than increasing taxes on energy."  In a blog entry, The Wall Street Journal added that the economists viewed "any sort of carbon tax" as the least desirable climate policy reviewed and that a "cap-and-trade proposal . . . didn't even make the list." 

It's difficult to evaluate these claims in light of the sparse information actually released thus far about the report.  According to Lomborg's website, the economists relied on background papers concerning each of the proposed climate policies that were prepared by "acknowledged authorities."  Despite being supposedly authoritative, these papers were then "balanced" by a critical "perspective paper" in order to "ensure complete information on each category of solutions."  The names of the authors of these various papers allegedly appear "overleaf" on the final report issued by Lomborg's panel, but that page of the report is conveniently missing from the online version of the report.

A number of acknowledged authorities - who have not remained anonymous - also have looked at climate engineering and reached less bullish conclusions.  Just this week one of the world's most eminent scientific organizations, Britain's Royal Society, cautiously endorsed research into climate engineering possibilities, but stressed that such mass-scale alteration of the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and land systems could have catastrophic side effects.  Because such unintended consequences could be massive - and because scientists as yet have no reliable way to estimate their likelihood - the Royal Society stressed that climate engineering should only be thought of as a kind of last-ditch insurance policy.  In other words, climate engineering is at best a relatively minor complement to - not a substitute for - policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which remain "[t]he safest and most predictable method of moderating climate change." 

To Lomborg's economists, however, the idea of complementary policies was ruled out from the start.  Instead, everything became substitutable by assumption because everything was reduced to a dollar cost/benefit ratio.  It is only in such a contrived world of apples, apples, and still more apples that Lomborg's report can reach its desired result of "ranking" climate change policies according to their "effectiveness."  

But how exactly were these cost/benefit numbers assigned?  Responsible scientists presently refuse to assign probability estimates to the likelihood of either success or catastrophic failure from climate engineering proposals.  As the Royal Society report emphasized, we simply do not know enough to undertake such an exercise. 

Yet Lomborg's economists had to hazard a guess in order to generate the numbers that undergird their conclusion that we should abandon greenhouse gas mitigation as a policy priority.  What relevant expertise do economists have to make such guesses when climate scientists, oceanographers, and other natural scientists do not believe we have a reliable basis for doing so?  

Moreover, what democratic credentials do economists have to assign monetary values to the possible adverse effects of climate engineering?  Did they only calculate the financial cost of reducing the level of sunlight that will reach us, or did they also consider the aesthetic and cultural consequence of living in a darker, more cloudy world?  What about the geopolitical implications of a world in which deliberate planetary engineering has been released from Pandora's box?  Were lawyers, political scientists, military strategists, and government officials consulted regarding the daunting governance issues surrounding climate engineering?  

Even assuming that Lomborg's numbers are somehow reliable, his methodology would still be objectionable.  Lomborg's economists are encouraged to think of themselves as enlightened dictators, capable of shifting resources across issues, across statutory regimes, across agencies, and, indeed, across national borders.  This is not how government works or how policy gets made.  Without sensitivity to institutional and political context, the task of identifying "optimal" climate policies seems likely to accomplish nothing, except perhaps to confirm once more Voltaire's warning that "the best is the enemy of the good."

And that's precisely the point:  Lomborg's economist-as-philosopher-king exercise is not just a harmless academic conceit.  It is a distinctively antiregulatory exercise.  Since the release of his widely criticized book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg has been in the business of first identifying whatever environmental policy seems to be gaining political traction and then generating a wish list of alternative policies that are supposedly more cost-effective.  The effect of this exercise is not to strengthen support for the alternative, but to undermine whatever traction is being gained by Lomborg's target.  

For Lomborg, Voltaire's saying is not a cautionary message about political utopianism.  It's a prescription for how best to attack the good.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform