The Excluded Middle

On the last episode of The Green Majority, I dismissed out of hand a quote from one economist that there might be economic benefits to climate change.  In doing so, I might have implied an unwarranted criticism of economists in general.

Of course, refusing to debate the merits of an argument raises the question of my intellectual honesty.  Also, some economists have been significant influences in my personal evolution as an environmentalist and an informed citizen.  I will try to repent for hasty speech with leisurely blogging.


The economist in question is Richard Tol (photo right).  He withdrew as an author for the summary of the Working Group II report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report stating the drafts were too “alarmist” and “the IPCC emphasized the risks of climate change far more than the opportunities to adapt.”

The IPCC assessment reports represent a consensus of current research.  But the news media persist in qualifying them with the viewpoints of “skeptical” outliers in the name of journalistic “balance.”  This serves to contextualize the public discourse between the crowded middle and a sparse extreme rather than in the crowded middle itself.

Over the years, I have grown quite frustrated with this false dichotomy and the undue weight given to “skeptics.”  In my experience, claims of benefits from climate change have always turned out to be naive.  I dismissed the quote from Professor Tol out of frustration and impatience.  That was simply wrong.  As penance I have done a lot of reading.

This is from an assessment paper written by Professor Tol and published in 2011, “The Economic Impact of Climate Change in the 20th and 21st Centuries,” summarizing his estimation of the total, average, global economic impact of climate change:

“In the 20th century the [welfare] impact is small but positive.  Climate change increased the welfare by the equivalent of a 0.5% increase in income for the first half of the 20th century.  After 1950, the impacts became more positive, edging up to 1.4% of GDP by 2000.  However, impacts roughly stabilize after that, reaching their maximum at 1.5% of GDP in 2025 and then precipitously fall to reach [negative] 1.2% of GDP in 2100.”

So, using estimates for warming to which we might already be committed, Professor Tol is predicting a negative outcome by 2100 that is on a “precipitous” downward trend.  Indeed, we should hope there are opportunities to adapt.  As for the supposed benefits, even Professor Tol predicts them only until 2080.

Of the 19 studies Professor Tol surveyed for the report, only one showed benefits from climate change: his own.  He is a member of the “think tank,” Global Warming Policy Foundation, which does not disclose its funding sources, has ties to coal, has a history of attacking the IPCC, and has been accused of being deliberately misleading about climate science.

This is not an ad hominem or guilt by association.  Rather, it serves to illustrate the true spectrum of viewpoints that are considered in the IPCC process.  For every Professor Tol who thinks the report is too alarmist, there is another researcher who thinks it is too conservative.

This tired, lazy trope of representing the IPCC consensus as one “side” of the scientific discourse is taking a Tol on our public discourse.

Kevin Farmer (AKA Dr. Doom)
Green Majority Radio Co-host



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