The rest is econ…

Getting interviewed by the New York Times, climate scientist Gavin A. Schmidt came up with a very nice quotation:

If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none. All the rest is economics.

It’s a nice pithy summary – well suited to use as an email footer.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

28 thoughts on “The rest is econ…”

  1. Milan

    If you ask how many hits did your website have this month, I will say a record number and tomorrow (and maybe tonight) is likely to pass 10,000 for this month alone.

    Thanks for generating the dialogue and provide us with interesting information.

  2. The stats vary by the system of measurement. Google Analytics has had it flat right near 10,000 hits a month for more than six months now.

    Fall and winter are always higher than summer – more people in front of screens for more hours per day.

  3. The linked article goes on to say:

    “(and technology, and sociology, and psychology and politics etc.) but the point is that working out how we get there from here is the real challenge and the more people who are aware and involved in developing those solutions the better.”

  4. There is a good reason to put economics front and centre: if the necessary changes were cheap and easy to make, this would not be an important political issue. It would just be a technical glitch for the engineers to resolve.

  5. Well, considering the successful countries are the ones that ignore the economic doctrines they impose on their sphere of control, I think there is a good reason not to put economics at the top.

    Another good reason would be that the cost of the change does not make the change an economic challenge. That doesn’t make any sense at all. That’s like saying because an army is expensive, funding it is a problem for economists.

  6. Of course, even after saying that scientists would advise an immediate end to greenhouse gas emissions, that doesn’t mean their role in the process of policy-making is over.

    Given that an immediate halt is impractical, scientists continue to play a key role in the process of choosing between different imperfect options. For instance, between trying to stabilize at 550, 450, or 350 parts per million.

  7. @Tristian
    From the perspective of some areas of economics, everything is economics, or at least Game Theory or probability which can be looked at from a predominantly economics perspective (just as from the perspective of some philosophers, everything is philosophy). However, this view is somewhat more pervasive among those with the power and leverage to actually act or meaningfully influence others to act on climate change.

    Both philosophers and economists seem to co-opt game theory as inextricably belonging to ‘their’ discipline from time to time, which is a nice demonstration of the pitfalls of filtering a complex would into supposedly discrete schools – its easy to forget that such separations are a limited artificial device to break the universe into chunks comprehensible to individual minds and in individual essays.

    Where it isn’t about the numbers, its about Game Theory or Bayesian probability analysis
    Examples of examples of economics outside ‘economies’: (link to Harford’s book on Google Books)

    Background: Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy on game theory Open Yale course on Game Theory

    So yes, everything else is application to life – the lens you use for application depends on your field.

  8. It would be a bit clearer if the quotation read:

    If you ask a scientist: “How much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere?” the answer is going to be none. All the rest is economics.


    If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none. All the rest is economics.

  9. Economics is broader than ‘what economists study.’

    Indeed, it is rather similar to that old definition of ‘politics’: who gets what, when, and how.

  10. @Antonia and Milan

    Politics is not “the study of who gets what, when, where, how” – but it is the ‘art of the possible’. Or, it is the practice of people getting what, when, where, and how.

    Economics is not action. Economics is theory which powerful countries impose on poor ones to subordinate them. Similarly, it is theory which the rich imposes on the poor to subordinate it (corporate welfare, welfare-to-work). Countries that succeed ignore “the laws of the free market”, and then impose those laws on their sphere of influence – i.e. the U.S., China, Britain, etc… Economics enables, motivates action. But, distributive justice can motivate and enable action as well – or any social analysis at all.

    There is nothing about “economics” which makes it any more special, more all-including than geography, anthropology, sociology, cultural theory – other than of course the way it is used to justify various forms of domination. But there is nothing essential about economics that makes it useful for politicians wishing to exert influence – it is as formally possible to use cultural theory for imperialist aims (i.e. Nazi Germany?).

    In short, all the humanities are impotent before being taken up by power.

  11. Economics isn’t just “the laws of the free market.” Free markets of various sorts are just one set of circumstances in which economics can be considered. Economic ideas can be applied to everything from POW camps to monopoly situations to hostage negotiations.

    In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the biggest barriers to climate change action are economic. If it wasn’t expensive to cut our emissions to zero, we would just do it without a fuss. The fact that it is more expensive for some people than others – such as the oil and gas sector – gives them a strong incentive to try to capture the political system, both by gaining influence over political figures and by confusing the public about the nature of the climate change problem.

  12. You can even analze non-human phenomenon from an economic perspective. For instance, an ecosystem could be said to have an ‘economy’ with primary production based on photosynthesis, and predator-prey relationships that operate within equilibria.

  13. You are using the term “economic” equivocally.

    In a sense the barrier to buying an expensive tractor is “economic”, but you wouldn’t hire an economist to help you buy the tractor. You discuss the common benefits of the tractor, you get buy-in from a wide range of people, and you raise the money for the tractor. This is a political activity.

    “Economic ideas can be applied to everything from POW camps to monopoly situations to hostage negotiations.”

    And so can ideas from any of the humanities. Wide applicability doesn’t prove anything about priority.

  14. On the narrow question of which word should be at the end of: “The rest is _____.” I still think ‘economics’ fits best.

    In a way, economics is a subset of politics. There can be politics on issues that aren’t matters of economic importance (gay marriage, etc), but all matters of considerable economic importance are political.

  15. So, you mean economics as a mode of analysis. Do you think more economic analysis will make us find cheaper ways to mitigate climate change?

    If you think the major bulwark against climate change mitigation is mis-information, and people’s unwillingness to make personal sacrifice – how can economic analysis help with that? Pyscho-analysis seems much more appropriate for cognizing the structures of disavowal.

  16. The problem isn’t a lack of analysis – it is the lack of the will to change, despite considerable evidence that it is necessary.

    It’s akin to someone spending twice their income, funding consumption using credit cards. The problem isn’t understanding the problem; rather, it is getting them to stop.

  17. So how does economics produce the will to do anything? It’s just a set of methods of analysis, like philosophy, theology, sociology etc…

  18. Another good quote:

    “This idea that costly actions are unwarranted if the dangers are uncertain is almost unique to climate. In other areas of policy, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, inflation, or vaccination, some ‘insurance’ principle seems to prevail: if there is a sufficient likelihood of sufficient damage we take some measured anticipatory action.”

    Thomas Schelling, Nobel Laureate (Economics)

  19. Another favourite:

    “No longer may we live without restraint. No longer may we swing our fists regardless of whose nose might be in the way. In everything we do we must now be mindful of the lives of others, cautious, constrained, meticulous. We may no longer live in the moment, as if there were no tomorrow.”

    -George Monbiot

  20. “Men are generally idle, and ready to satisfy themselves, and intimidate the industry of others, by calling that impossible which is only difficult.”

    -Samuel Johnson

  21. Another good quote:

    “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.”

    -Peter Bernstein

  22. “We’ve basically decided to keep pumping greenhouse gases into Mother Nature’s operating system and take our chances that the results will be benign — even though a vast majority of scientists warn that this will not be so. Fasten your seat belts. As the environmentalist Rob Watson likes to say: “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000,” says Watson. Do not mess with Mother Nature. But that is just what we’re doing.”

  23. “We have gotten past the stage, my fellow-citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of the country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation, whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery.”

    Theodore Roosevelt, 1903
    Quoted in: McKibben, Bill ed. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

  24. “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?” 

    -Sherwood Rowland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *