The excellent David Warsh reviews Gernot Wagner's book (note, Gernot blogged here for awhile):
I don’t know a more interesting young writer on environmental economics than Gernot Wagner. He works for the Environmental Defense Fund: that makes him a good source, but he is lost to journalism. (That Austrian first name, he tells people, is pronounced like “juggernaut” without the “jug.”) When his book arrived, But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World, I began reading immediately.
To begin with, Wagner is a Harvard-trained economist, so there’s a lucid account of what he learned there, from Robert Stavins, an authority on emissions agreements; Richard Zeckhauser, a bridge champion and expert on uncertainty; Martin Weitzman, who thinks scientists may be seriously underestimating the likelihood of massive global warming; Dale Jorgenson, an architect of green accounting; and textbook author and former chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers N. Gregory Mankiw, with his Pigou Club.
Wagner also apprenticed for a time at the Financial Times, so there’s clear and often jaunty writing: “[M]arkets are truly free only when everyone pays the full price for his or her actions. Anything else is socialism,” he wrote the other day in The New York Times. “We pollute too much because the atmosphere serves as a free Dumpster.” Proposals to counteract the effect of greenhouse gases through “geo-engineering” – pump dust into the upper atmosphere, create artificial clouds – are schemes to “hack the planet.”
And he worked for Boston Consulting Group (“twenty somethings in suits, armed with spreadsheets, frequent flier miles and circles under their eyes”), so there is no shortage of confidence in what he says. Cloth bags at the grocery store, food grown close home, hybrid automobiles: volunteerism may be a start, but only economists can devise measures that will change behavior on a broad scale. From the accompanying material, which conveys :
The hope of mankind, and indeed of every living thing on the planet, is now in the hands of the masters of the dismal science. Fortunately, they’ve been there before albeit on a much smaller scale. It was economists who solved acid rain in the 1990s, admittedly with a strong assist from a phalanx of lawyers and activists. Economists have helped get lead out of our gas, and they can explain why lobsters haven’t disappeared off the coast of New England, but tuna is on the verge of extinction. More disquietingly, they can take the lessons of the financial crisis and model with greater accuracy than anyone else the likelihood of environmental catastrophe, and they can rationalize the abandonment of threatened species. They can also solve the climate crisis, if only we let them.
When I finished the book, I thought that somehow I had skipped the chapter on the science. But when I looked back, it saw that it wasn’t there. Instead, various firm stipulations are scattered at intervals throughout the book – the situation is dire, and rapidly deteriorating, etc. Sure, Wagner says, there are aspects of climate instability that remain to be clarified, including a “teeny, tiny chance that the vast scientific consensus is missing something crucial.” Most of the uncertainties make prospects scarier, he says, not less so. “Climate change is a serious threat to our planet and human welfare,” he writes. “Case closed.”
This was not entirely persuasive to me. For one thing, I’ve been keeping one ear open to the Republican debates. For another, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal doesn’t seem to accept the consensus view. ...
Oh. So someone does take the WSJ editorial page seriously ;->
I almost stopped reading after that line but continued and Warsh rallies at the end:
Having said that, I must say that it still seems to me that the evidence of global warming, as interpreted by the great preponderance of well-informed scientists, is accumulating – not just those temperature data, but species migration, ice-melting patterns and, yes, even increasing incidents of extreme weather around the world. The danger may very well be real. That’s why authorities like the Berkeley temperature project are so important. The fact that Muller’s team’s finding turned out to be so close to earlier work is evidence that previous researchers, as he put it, “had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that.”
“Begone, science,” writes Wagner in But Will the Planet Notice?, his mind made up as he plunges ahead with his plans to save the planet. I believe in economics, too, but I am on the lookout for just the opposite – more science, and more independent journalists whose skills are highly developed and whose minds are still not made up even after twenty years. Carl Bialik, the “Numbers Guy” columnist of the WSJ, did an especially good job on the Berkeley project last week (subscription required). Meanwhile, plenty of excellent blogs by scientists, pro and con, have sprung up – a development promising more consensus eventually, not less. Where the fate of the earth is at stake, belief-producers such as Matt Ridley, Bill McKibben and even Gernot Wagner will not do. Put me in Wait-and-Watch-Closely camp, especially where the science behind the Durban meeting is concerned.
I think that little bit of uncertainty about climate science is what makes me in favor of ramp up, relative to diving into the deep end, climate policy.