Don’t Forget Climate Change: Chapter 8 in which I blame Karl Marx for Donald Trump and waffle about economics

I may have strayed from the topic a bit.

Intro, Ch 1, Ch2, Ch3, An Aside, Ch4, Ch5, Ch6, Section 1, Ch7, Another Aside,…

The strongest position for a right-wing group to take on climate change without descending into overt crackpottery can’t be on the science. However, there are actually two substantial questions in the debate on climate change due to global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. Is it happening? (yes)
  2. What should we do about it and how?

The “skeptic”/“denier”/FUD campaign from the right has focused most strongly on point 1. Even when the debate has been forced to shift to 2 because of government policy, opposition to a given policy has relied on sowing doubt around1. Australia is a prime example, a debate on whether to use an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax has been active among centrist and leftist politicians and policy makers. This, though, has been overshadowed in the public debate by the right wing of the Liberal Party* and their pundit allies on talk radio and the right-leaning press, attempting to spread as much doubt as possible on the reality of climate change.

As a tactic, it has been successful. The Gillard Labor government’s carbon tax was deeply unpopular. The current Liberal Prime Minister is known to support the principle of carbon pricing but is currently unable to act for fear of splitting his party.

The price conservatism has paid has been deep but not immediately obvious. By committing itself to scientific denial, conservatives had been systematically undermining public willingness to believe expert opinion and have also committed themselves to a strange, cynical post-modern epistemology in which the distinction between fact and opinion are so blurred as to be meaningless.

Speaking of which: economics.

The dismal science and the most politicised of numerate, empirical disciplines. I’m happy to blame Karl Marx in this regard. No other thinker has so successfully tied the adoption of an economic theory of how capitalism works to an ideological choice. Marx’s pseudoscientific model was an intellectual challenge to advocates of capitalism and freer markets in the late nineteenth century. The Russian revolution and the growth of the nominally Communist empires of the twentieth century normalised Marxism in public and intellectual discourse. The ideological conflicts of the Twentieth century became marked out in terms of competing economic models.

Even within non-communist Western democracies, politicians could shop around for economic models that suited their ideological preferences. Public spending was/is easier to rationalise in Keynesian economics, tax cuts and reduced public spending easier to rationalise in Monetarism. Although political commitment to either model was likely to be inconsistent.

Not to be outdone by left with its premier pseudoscientific economic theory of Marxism, the right developed its own. The so-called “Austrian School” of Von Mises has all those same traits of a theory that proceeds from ideology rather than informing policy. And so we now find that even within the mainstream of US Republican politics economic ideas that make little sense under any economic model.

In the Soviet Union, this dis-attachment from reality led to economic and social disaster. When policy cannot be judged against the basic question of whether it will practically work or achieve its aims, then effectively policy becomes judged on the basis of pure emotion even when dressed in the trappings of rationality. In such a climate it is necessarily the loudest and the most bullying voice that wins.

There is a strong connection between bullies & bullying and denial of reality. Whether this is done cynically as a tactic of dominance (‘gaslighting’) or as a side effect of pure arrogance, the result is the same.

So why not economics?

By which I mean, given that right-wing parties already employ economic arguments detached from reality and GET AWAY WITH IT (from Tory austerity measures in the UK to the dire warnings of hyperinflation from the Republican Party in the US from 2009 when Democrats enacted moderate stimulus measures) – why don’t they simply concentrate on the POLICY question in response to global warming?

Instead, their approach has been to try and turn climate science into a public debate as fractured by ideology as economics. While this has had a net effect of polarising intellectual commitment to science to the extent that a candidate for President of the United States can get a resounding cheer for saying “I believe in science”, it has also helped leave the right open to dominance by populist bullies.

Three factors are at play I think:

  1. habits developed from lobbyists in multiple industries pushing back against environmental policies (the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ issues)
  2. the maxim that the best defence is a strong offence – by pushing back on the science this prevents the policy debate ever properly happening (see above in Australia)
  3. maybe, the economic arguments they can deploy just aren’t very good ones.

Point three is hard to judge because in the global warming debate we rarely get to that point. The discussion tends to get mired in the weeds of Climategate emails or whether there was a Medieval Warm Period in Greenland or (as we’ve seen in earlier chapters) whether there is a lunar cycle behind earthquakes in New Zealand.

Am I ever going to get around to talking about this chapter?

Sorry. Wandered off a bit there. Alan Moran’s chapter is a strong argument for point 3. There a no comical howlers or cat astrologists to discuss. Instead, Moran concentrates on three economic reports on climate change.

  1. The first is the economic and risk sections of the IPCCs Fifth Assessment report.
  2. The second is the Stern Review commissioned by the UK government.
  3. The third is the Garnaut Climate Change Review commissioned by the Australian government.

But, having read it all there really isn’t much there. The essence is Moran looking for bits of things to disagree with or speculating that many of the assumptions are uncertain. This is true – necessarily any such economic report is at the wrong end of a chain of probability and/or uncertainty**.

Consider it this way.

  • At the top of the chain, we have global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases. There really isn’t any rational doubt about this.
  • A step down the chain we get to climate sensitivity where Richard Lindzen was pitching his argument. We can be sure the extra greenhouse gases will make surface temperatures warmer but slightly less certain about how much. Still, it looks like the answer is that things will get significantly warmer if we continue.
  • With less certainty is what will happen to the climate globally with warmer temperatures. This is quite varied. Sea level rises we can be confident will occur but how much by when is a bit sketchier. More storms? Less clear.
  • Focus now on a given country (e.g. Australia) and things get even more uncertain. More rain? More drought? More rain AND more drought?
  • A step lower and we get to the economic impact of those changes. It is not the case that these are wholly unknowable but a sensible discussion requires a fair number of assumptions.

This chain of uncertainty may seem like an advantage to those who want inaction on climate change and yet even in this chapter on the very issue of economic and climate change Moran doesn’t offer strong arguments. Why not?

The difference is that offering uncertainty is not reassuring. The broad strategy for arguing the political case for inaction on climate change is to suggest that no action is needed. Economic uncertainty in other circumstances (such as financial crisis or political turmoil in a neighbour etc) tend to help those advocating doing something. When faced with change in general, electorates with support action that offers something in the way of reducing or mitigating risk.

The right avoid arguing the economics not because the economic case for action is clear. The case isn’t clear because we can’t possibly know the full impact of climate change on the global economy, so there can’t be a simple ledger-style argument that says the cost of action is $X and the cost of inaction is $X+Y so action is better than inaction. What economist like Stern can do is show plausible scenarios around this and give some sense of the cost of action.

Rather the right avoid arguing the economics because even the most inventive of them haven’t found a convincing argument that global warming will be a consistent net economic benefit for most people. The closest we get is a half-hearted ‘CO2 is plant food’ argument from some quarters.

*[Which is Australia’s conservative leaning party, just to confuse tourists]
**[philosophically these are different but that is a different argument for another day and I’m not really convinced they are different anyway]

7 thoughts on “Don’t Forget Climate Change: Chapter 8 in which I blame Karl Marx for Donald Trump and waffle about economics

  1. (note: your point three then gets the subsequent paragraph pasted on the end. This seems to happen quite a lot – I’m guessing it’s probably something to do with a cut-and-paste rather than you intentionally repeating things!)

    Where was that lovely quote about any science that had to spend time explaining why it was a science probably wasn’t actually a science…? And it’s especially bad in economics because we don’t get the luxury of living in a “what-if” universe; we have to do things to find out whether they work or not, we can’t just simulate it. Combine that with the natural human blame culture, and no-one is ever going to stand up and say “nope, I accept that that was the wrong thing to do.”


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