Sunday, 8 December 2013

Climate myths translated into econ talk

Yesterday, I was at an amazing meeting. The three public lectures about climatology were not that eventful, although it was interesting to see how you can present the main climatological findings in a clear way.

The amazing part was the Q&A afterwards. I was already surprised to see that I was one of the youngest ones, but had not anticipated that most of these people were engineers and economists, that is climate ostriches. As far as I remember, not one public question was interesting! All were trivially nonsense, I am sorry to have to write.

One of the ostriches showed me some graphs from a book by Fred Singer. Maybe I should go to an economics conference and cite some mercantile theorems of Colbert. I wonder how they would respond.

Afterwards I wondered whether translating their "arguments" against climatology to economy would help non-climatologists to see the weakness of the simplistic arguments. This post is a first attempt.

Seven translations

#1. That there is and always have been natural variability is not an argument again anthropogenic warming just like the pork cycle does not preclude economic growth.

#2. One of our economist ostriches thought that there was no climate change in Germany because one mountain station shows cooling. That is about as stupid as claiming that there is no economic growth because one of your uncles had a decline in his salary.

#3. The claim that the temperature did not increase or that it was even cooling in the last century, that it is all a hoax of climatologists (read the evil Phil Jones) can be compared to a claim that the world did not get wealthier in the last century and that all statistics showing otherwise are a government cover-up. In both cases there are so many independent lines of research showing increases.

#4. The idea that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas and that increases in CO2 cannot warm the atmosphere is comparable to people claiming that their car does not need energy and that they will not drive less if gasoline becomes more expensive. Okay maybe this is not the best example, most readers will likely claim that gas prices have no influence on them, they have no choice and have to drive, but I would hope that economists know better. The strength of both effects needs study, but to suggest that there is no effect is beyond reason.

#5. Which climate change are you talking about, it stopped in 1998. That would be similar to the claim that since the banking crisis in 2008 markets are no longer efficient. Both arguments ignore the previous increases and deny the existence of variability.

#6. The science isn't settled. Both science have foundations that are broadly accepted in the profession (consensus) and problems that are not clear yet and that are a topic of research.

#7. The curve fitting exercises without any physics by the ostriches are similar to "technical analyses" of stock ratings.

[UPDATE. Inspired by a comment of David in the comments of Judith Curry on Climate Change (EconTalk)
#8 The year 1998 was a strong El Nino year and way above trend, well above nearby years. Choosing that window is similar to saying that stocks are a horrible investment because the market collapsed during the Great Depression.]

[UPDATE. Found a nice one.
Daniel Barkalow writes:
Looking at the global average surface temperature (which is what those graphs tend to show), is a bit like looking at someone's bank account. It's a pretty good approximation of how much money they have, but there's going to be a lot of variability, based on not knowing what outstanding bills the person has, and the person is presumably earning income continuously, but only getting paychecks at particular times. This mostly averages out, but there's the risk in looking at any particular moment that it's a really uncharacteristic moment.

In particular, it seems to me that the "pause" idea is based on the fact that 1998 was warmer than nearly every year since, while neglecting that 1998 was warmer than 1997 or any previous year by more than 15 years of predicted warming. If this were someone's bank account, we'd guess that it reflected an event like having their home purchase fall through after selling their old home: some huge asset not usually included ended up in their bank account for a certain period before going back to wherever it was. You wouldn't then think the person had stopped saving, just because they hadn't saved up to a level that matches when their house money was in their bank account. You'd say that there was weird accounting in 1998, rather than an incredible gain followed by a mysterious loss.

One interesting question

The engineers and economists were wearing suits and the scientists were dressed more casually. Thus it was easy to find each other. One had an interesting challenge, which was at least new to me, he argued that the Fahrenheit scale, which was used a lot in the past is uncertain because it depends on the melting point of brine and the amount of salt put in the brine will vary.

One would have to make quite an error with the brine to get rid of global warming, however. Furthermore, everyone would have had to make the same error, because a random errors would average out. And if there were a bias, this would be reduced by homogenization. And almost all of the anthropogenic warming was after the 1950-ies, where this problem no longer existed.

A related problem is that the definition of the Fahrenheit scale has changed and also that there are many temperature scales and in old documents it is not always clear which unit was used. Wikipedia lists these scales: Celsius, Delisle, Fahrenheit, Kelvin, Newton, Rankine, Réaumur and Rømer. Such questions are interesting to get the last decimal right, but no reason to become an ostrich.


I find it a bit disturbing that so many economists come up with so simple counter "arguments". They basically assume that climatologists are stupid or are conspiring against humanity. Expecting that for anther field of study makes one wonder where they got that expectation from and shines a bad light on economics.

This was just a quick post, I would welcome ideas for improvements and additions in the comments. Did I miss any interesting analogies?


  1. It is not really an analogy, but the largest uncertainty in climate projections for 2100 is the uncertainties in the scenarios. In other words the largest uncertainty is due to economists. If they would be able to produce predictions, the climate projections could be called climate predictions.

  2. > so many economists come up with so simple counter "arguments"

    Agreed; but I think that many climatologists make the same mistake when they venture into economics.

  3. William, do you know of any fake skeptical economics articles written by climatologists in borderline relevant journals to avoid knowledgeable peer review?

  4. It's difficult to form economic analogies with climate science since economics is largely a pseudoscience. Embarrassing that the Engineers weren't better informed though.

  5. Great post,Victor.

    Perhaps another example for #4 could be arguing that a duty on cigarettes is not a tax and that increasing this duty is not going to result in a decrease in cigarette sales.

  6. [Moderation note: Anonymous please try and formulate a bit more politely.]

    Anonymous, one should not confuse economists doing research and people from think tanks and the like claiming to be economists. There are many solid idea in economics that help one understand the world (benefits of trade and specialisation, opportunity costs, etc.). The main problem is that they act as if they can give policy advice. In fact, I heard an economist once complain that an economics paper is not seen as complete without policy recommendations. (Nice contrast to the debate about whether climatologists have freedom of speech when it comes to policy.) For policy advice it is typically still too early.

    Rachel, good example!

  7. I'm unsure how you ended up talking to so many climate-skeptic economists. I'm sure nothing in economics makes people that way. Anyway, for all the generally economics-negative comments / accusations of pseudoscience, here's a recent blog post by Simon Wren-Lewis that I think neatly sums up why most critics miss the point / don't really get what economics does.

  8. Welcome Dan Olner, I can only guess for the suits I actually talked to, but they were all economists except for one engineer, if I guessed right. From the discussions at climate ostrich blogs I have the feeling that this is typical for ostriches with a degree.

    Also the host of the most listened to economics podcast, Russ Roberts of EconTalk, is a climate sceptic. I guess for no special reason, just because that is the right opinion in his social circles.

    I learned a lot by listening to EconTalk and I thus agree with you that many economic ideas are valuable. Especially the podcasts where the libertarian host is confronted with colleagues that are empirically rooted are great. The podcasts with his libertarian friends howl like audio feedback.

    A recent very interesting podcast was with Robert Pindyck of MIT on the importance of the unknown discount rate for climate policy. And it is great to hear the host suffer, having to stay polite to a guest with such an insane trust in the basics of climate science. :-)

    Thanks for the link to MainlyMacro, an interesting post. Still I would hope that economists would be more active in debunking the abuse others make of their science. Just like I speak out against the daily nonsense at WUWT. That is one of the public roles a scientist has, in my view, and it would make it easier to claim that economics is not responsible for the neo-liberal ideology.

  9. I've always wanted to get more into economics but here in Argentina we are surrounded by (literally) marxists economists on one hand and I've got a lot of libertarian friends on the other, so it's really hard for me to get at what's really "mainstream" economics and what's just embarrassing pseudocience.

    I'll follow your recommendation and listen to EconTalk. Victor, could you point me to some specially interesting episodes?

    I've also listened to a lot of Freakonomics and I've found that , at least in the case of Levitt and Dubner, economists are like physicists in that they seem to think that they can apply their methods and expertise to every problem in every discipline and get better answers that those actually working in the field. But that's just my impression and I may very well be wrong.

  10. Daneel Olivaw, avoid the ones with fellow libertarian Mike Munger. He is captivating story teller, but you waste your precious life time.

    If I found the right ones, these are nice:
    Weingast on the Violence Trap
    Taleb on Antifragility
    Glaeser on Cities
    Frank on Competition, Government, and Darwin (The book of Frank, The Darwin Economy, is also a great read.)
    McCraw on Schumpeter, Innovation, and Creative Destruction

    Many of the interviews with Nobel laureates are good.

    And finally according to EconTalk these are the highlights.

  11. "skeptical economics articles written by climatologists"

    Well Hansen comes pretty close, but, some practical advice. Look where the economist is working. If it is a school of business, just start laughing. A department of economics is much better.

  12. So this week's EconTalk episode features "Judith Curry on Climate Change".
    Let's see what they say. If I detect too much misinformation I'm unsubscribing from this podcast. If I can detect misinformation about something that I have some limited knowledge, then I start to worry how much misinformation there is about the things I really don't know much about.

  13. I guess you then have to unsubscribe. :)

    I am already busy trying to talk some sense into them in the comments below the transcript and on twitter. Help is appreciated, my percentage of comments is inappropriately high.

    The comments are reasonably civilised. Even if whole sale attacks against mainstream climate science without arguments seems to be allowed, but any unfriendliness in the other direction is not. Libertarians.

    Still, I am not sure whether you should judge the podcasts about economics based on one on climate. Roberts has no expertise whatsoever and makes all the naive mistakes. It should have been Curry that should correct these mistakes.

    Do not expect an American libertarian that wants to have friendly relations with his family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, with no knowledge about climate to have an evidence-based opinion on climate.

    Also when it comes to economics, you should only listen to podcasts with colleagues that are grounded by facts, not the ones with his libertarian colleagues/friends. Also there, listen critically. As always.

  14. Wow. That Curry interview must have been one of the most inane conversations I've ever heard. All I got from her was that the problem is complicated and one should be careful about unforeseen consequences.
    Great. But how about what we can do with what we do know?
    More than misinformation, there was a whole lot of no-information.

    Her approach to the subject is very similar to Intelligent Design Creationists (see a few seconds from this presentation: )

    Also, 1998 means that our models are rubbish. Come on...

  15. Blogger, unfortunately does not automatically link URLs. Great video.

    Complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity.

    Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty.

    Someone seems to have told the ostriches that uncertainty is a great word and something similar to nothing will happen. A great argument for delaying solving the problems.

    It is, in fact, the opposite. The expected damages due to global warming rise rapidly with the temperature change. Thus the risks of climate change (damage * probability) are dominated by the (right, positive) tail of the distribution. The more uncertainty there is, the broader the probability distribution, the higher the probability of really bad things will become. Because of the rapid rise in the damages, this is hardly compensated for by the higher probability of a good outcome.

    So actually, Judith Curry is saying that the risk of climate change is higher as the IPCC expects. Still she advocates against mitigation. Very, very, weird.

  16. Yes, I had seen it and even downloaded it. Did not read it yet.

    If I understand it right, it is about an inhomogeneity in a satellite dataset. That makes it a completely different problem from an inhomogeneity in a station dataset. For satellites you have no, or almost no, comparison data, to detect and correct the break. So it is less a beautiful statistical problem and more of a difficult technical problem.

    Tamino's post suggests that the break is so large that you can see it without needing much statistics. Thus it seems to be an important paper for people working an Antarctic sea ice. It changes the trend considerably. Let's see how it turns out. At the moment it is just a discussion paper.

  17. P.S. I hope to be soon back to blogging soon. Have been busy the last few weeks.


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