Posted by: ericgrimsrud | June 9, 2014

An economic philosophy versus scientific evidence

Recently (see it at economist Paul Krugman provided an article entitled “Interests, ideology, and climate” that helps one understand the primary force behind climate denial and our efforts to arrest the advance of man-caused global warming.  That main force is NOT that we cannot afford to make necessary changes in our means of  energy production.  It is instead the ideological or philosophical view that the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem.  A name commonly attached to that ideology is libertarianism.  While I can appreciate some potentially good outcomes of that philosophy,  I have also personally witnessed how it can be used inappropriately when applied to the topic of climate change.

The rest of this post concerns one of those personal experiences.  About one year and a half ago,  I was listening to a conservative radio talk show out of Billings, Montana, where an old friend of mine  was being interviewed.  They were discussing issues related to climate change with my friend who had been a professor of economics at Montana State University, Bozeman, and Stanford University, Californa, and is now the President of one of those so-called “think tanks” going by the name of Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) located in Bozeman, Montana (one of my friend’s recent articles from PERC can be seen at

During his radio interview, my friend’s answer to one question in particular drew my attention.  He was asked to provide his opinion concerning the advisability of a Carbon Tax. He replied by saying that he does not waste time studying a carbon tax because he thought it had no chance of ever being implemented.

That comment both surprised and disappointed me because, as I have pointed out before on this blog and the entire last chapter of my book (see,  I and most scientists believe that a carbon tax is the best, if not only way that CO2 emissions can be significantly reduced.  After all, if we use our atmosphere as a waste dump for the excess CO2 we are putting into the environment,  shouldn’t we assign to that process a waste disposal fee just as we do for the disposal of the nuclear wastes associated with nuclear power plants?  If one believes in the prevailing science associated with CO2’s role in the greenhouse effect, wouldn’t one then believe that a fee or carbon tax should be applied to its emissions?  Yet, my friend said that he was not wasting any time thinking about this form of taxation.

Obviously, I wondered where my friend was coming from and asked him to explain himself in subsequent email communications.  In those communications, I first asked him if he accepted the prevailing view of man-caused warming that has emerged out of the main-stream scientific literature.  His response was that he did not think the science related in those sources was as useful or relevant to the problem as that promoted by another scientist named Matt Ridley of Great Britain – who happened to be good friend of my friend and also was a fellow libertarian on economic issues.  I have discussed Ridley and his view before on this blog (see my post in Feb 2013 entitled “The unwarranted hubris of mankind and Matt Ridely”).  By his  own admission in his book, “Rational Optimist“, he is not really a climate scientist.   He is a biologist and well known writer in that field.  His overall views concerning our climate were not determined by way of real science but instead come from his personal philosophies concerning the historic economic concerns of mankind.  In essence, he believes that mankind will rise to meet whatever challenges face him in the future and in the meantime should arm himself with as much wealth as he can so as to be in a stronger position when the crunch eventually does comes.  In short, both my friend and Ridley appear to be ignoring the best science available today – which recommends that changes be made now in order to prevent disasters later.  The fact that my friend pointed to Matt Ridley as his favored scientific spokesperson of the subject of climate change was both disturbing and telling.

Therefore, I tried to extend my discussions with my friend to include specific irrefutable and obvious aspects of the science.  He was not interested in going there, however, and was clearly annoyed by the “help” I was trying to provide.  I suspected that any subsequent emails I might have sent him would have gone straight into his trash bin. Because I am sure my friend is very intelligent and because he is in a position to influence the opinions of his customers who come to PERC for advice on environmental issues, I was most disappointed to see that my old friend had essentially turned his back on the real science of climate change in order to retain his ideological purity.  In the process, he has become distinctly “anti-intellectual” with respect to one of the most important disciplines of mankind (science).

In pondering this personal experience, I was struck today by how precisely Paul Krugman explained all of this in his article referred to above.  Yes, indeed, the main hurdle to action on climate change is not the costs involved (Krugman is a Noble Prize winning economist whose research has made this point clear).  Instead that main hurdle is the anti-intellectual attack on science perpetrated by the likes of my friend and the pseudo-climate scientist,  Matt Ridley.

I will finish with a few words from Krugman’s article – the first paragraph 0f which seems to be referring to my friend.

“Well, think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian

So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed.

Paul Krugman, New York Times, June 9, 2014″

As Krugman recommends, maybe I will continue to try to drill a bit of basic scientific common sense into the left side of my friend’s brain – he should pay more attention to what it would tell him if he allowed it to function. On the other hand, it is very difficult to convince someone of something if becoming convinced might result in the loss of one’s income. I am sure that the very generous Koch brothers, for example, would not like to see such a change of attitude by the President of PERC.  Nevertheless, my friend’s example represents the main barrier we have today for preserving a better planet for its future residents. My thanks go to Krugman for making this important point so clear.


  1. You are right to believe that by taxing something you will get less of it.

    So a carbon tax will reduce the consumption of carbon.

    Can you explain why we need to reduce the consumption of carbon and what will follow if we do?

    More CO2 in the atmosphere will improve agricultural produvtivity which I regard as a benefit.

    You think that more CO2 in the atmosphere will cause global temperatures to rise which I also consider a benefit. I wish it was so!

    The hypothesis that CO2 provides a “Forcing” raising global temperature by 4.5 K/doubling of CO2 concentration (or any other sensitivity constant) is false because the lower tropopshere is opaque to 15 micron radiation. The “Downwelling” 15 micron radiation is coming from a few feet above your head as my good friend Robert G. Brown explains:

    [Response by EPG: Browns treatment is nonsense. IR radiation, including that at 15 microns, is being emitted everywhere within and throughout the atmosphere by its ghg’s – as well as by the Earth’s surfaces and clouds – in the lower atmosphere as well as the upper. That is strong absorption at 15 um is accompanied by strong reemission by CO2. Thus your misplaced wish for warming will come true!!]

    • Gallopingcamel: There are many real scientist who share you views on CO₂
      NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE | LETTER    Greening of the Earth and its drivers  Nature Climate Change
       25 April 2016
       Global environmental change is rapidly altering the dynamics of terrestrial vegetation, with consequences for the functioning of the Earth system and provision of ecosystem services1, 2. Yet how global vegetation is responding to the changing environment is not well established. Here we use three long-term satellite leaf area index (LAI) records and ten global ecosystem models to investigate four key drivers of LAI trends during 1982–2009. We show a persistent and widespread increase of growing season integrated LAI (greening) over 25% to 50% of the global vegetated area, whereas less than 4% of the globe shows decreasing LAI (browning). Factorial simulations with multiple global ecosystem models suggest that CO2 fertilization effects explain 70% of the observed greening trend, followed by nitrogen deposition (9%), climate change (8%) and land cover change (LCC) (4%). CO2 fertilization effects explain most of the greening trends in the tropics, whereas climate change resulted in greening of the high latitudes and the Tibetan Plateau. LCC contributed most to the regional greening observed in southeast China and the eastern United States. The regional effects of unexplained factors suggest that the next generation of ecosystem models will need to explore the impacts of forest demography, differences in regional management intensities for cropland and pastures, and other emerging productivity constraints such as phosphorus availability.

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  3. Excellent site. Lots of helpful information here.
    I am sending it to several pals ans additionally sharing in delicious.
    And of course, thank you in your effort!

    [REsponse from EPG: Many thanks for your kind words and please do share with your friends.]

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