Most Economists Reject Global Warming Petition

Published June 1, 1997

A highly publicized effort by proponents of the theory of global warming to enlist the support of the nation’s economists has fallen well short of the mark. Over 90 percent of the membership of the American Economic Association (AEA) refused to sign their names to a letter saying that global climate changes poses major risks and that “preventive steps are justified.”

The letter to the economists was circulated by a San Francisco-based group calling itself Redefining Progress. Though the letter was crafted by five prominent economists, two of them Nobel laureates, fewer than 10 percent of the AEA’s 21,000-plus members saw fit to endorse the document. The reluctance of most economists to sign the letter may be attributable to both the underlying assumption that Earth is experiencing a climate change problem caused by human activity, and the nature of the “preventive steps” recommended in the document to address that alleged problem.

Noting that the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernable human influence on global climate change,” the letter fails to acknowledge that the IPCC’s views are by no means universally shared by climatologists, many of whom have challenged the computer models on which the IPCC’s findings are based. And, by recommending that the U.S. and other industrialized nations implement climate change policies through “market mechanisms, such as carbon taxes or the auction of emissions permits,” the letter may have alienated more economists than it converted.

“Working with, rather than against the market, to protect the environment is a good idea,” observes Joe Bast of the Illinois-based Heartland Institute in a recent guest editorial in Investor’s Business Daily. “But the policies that follow are not truly market-based: Taxes are the opposite of voluntary contract,” Bast explains. “And ‘carbon taxes,’ like all other taxes, would merely be determined by the government’s revenue needs, not by the need to offset the dangers caused by air pollution.”

Auctioning off the (tradable) right to emit carbon dioxide is closer to being a “market-based policy,” Bast adds. It beats taxes as a low-cost way to cap carbon emissions, he concedes. But echoing doubts about the very existence of a climate change problem, Bast points out that “we still have no good reason to endorse an economically destructive emissions cap in the first place.”

PF: Additional information on the science, economics, and politics of climate change can be obtained from PolicyFax. For a list of available documents, call 847-202-4888 and request the free topic directory #2329.