Discipline envy

Richard Black, the BBC's online environment correspondent, attracted attention when he noticed that almost all climate sceptics are men. Instead, he might have chosen to comment that many of them were social scientists with leanings towards economics. Coincidentally, economics is populated by males. It is only this year that the first woman won the subject's Nobel prize, and her work would not be regarded as part of the subject by many academic purists. Sceptics Nigel Lawson, Steven Levitt, Bjørn Lomborg, and others all think about the world as economists. That's probably more important than that they are male.


My hypothesis is that the growing scepticism of economists is a reaction to the decline in the public standing of the subject: it is a symptom of increasing discipline envy as other academic subjects supplant economics as the place where alpha male academics congregate.[1] Climate change is a threat to the status of the profession so it is no surprise that economists are among the most vociferous opponents of what they increasingly call the 'alarmism' of climate scientists. They are reacting as groups under threat always do - lashing out at those that seem to be replacing them. Economics overreached itself, promising limitless prosperity and happiness for all if we all followed its simple rules. Climate change is one of the many indications that suggest that economics got it badly wrong. The consequent rise of subjects that many economists hold in contempt, such as psychology and ecology, has infuriated some in the profession and helped caused it to retreat into baleful scepticism.

As Tim Jackson's powerful and honest book Prosperity without Growth (advertised by its publisher on this site) points out, the economists led many countries, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones, down a path of aggressive individualism, telling us that our choices of what to consume would give us all contentment and would help efficiently allocate scarce resources between competing demands. The standard recommendations of economists may well turn out to have been catastrophically destructive to planetary ecology - Jackson certainly seems to think so. But you can certainly understand that the people who genuinely believe that ruthless pursuit of economic self-interest leads to maximum happiness have problems with Professor Jackson's idea that economics loosened the claims of morality and made ecological problems more, not less, severe.

Economists increasingly often express incomprehension why the world takes any notice of the scientific papers on global warming. Their view is that much climate science is unduly abstracted from the real world. It ignores economic forces, such as the drive for efficiency in the use of resources, which will moderate greenhouse gas emissions. When the price of fossil fuels goes up, say economists, usage will go down. Secondly, scientists, say the envious economists, fail ever to understand the principles of cost benefit analysis. Restraining temperature rises is costly and without complex analysis we can't simply decide that it wouldn’t be better to let the temperatures rise and adapt to the change. So people like Lord Lawson and Lomborg dress up their scepticism by telling us just how expensive actually doing something about climate is going to be.

Unlike physical scientists, economists are taught not to believe in tipping points or rapid inflections. The predictions of the alarmists seem incomprehensible: there are bound to be feedbacks that damp the impact of CO2 rise, the economists say. I cannot remember a curve in the textbooks of the great economist Paul Samuelson, who died this week, that wasn’t smooth and predictable. The vertiginous abrupt changes in climate systems are simply not comprehensible to the average neo-classically trained economist. The burgeoning social movements, such as Avaaz, are treated with contempt by some of those aligned with the economic sceptics – why should any single individual do anything, they say, when this is a problem affecting everybody in the world? Generous, altruistic actions are anathema to economics which deals only in cold exchange and rational calculus. Unsurprisingly, economists have fixated on these differences between their world views and those of the physical sciences and swung away from belief in climate change.

This generation of economists will probably never get over their discipline envy. The powerful rarely adapt to a loss of authority and influence. But until the economics profession gets used to the idea that their subject is a small planet at the edge of the intellectual solar system, it will continue to impede progress towards climate safety.[2]

Footnotes [1] Thank you to Jonathan Sinclair Wilson, managing director of publishers Earthscan for coining the phrase 'discipline envy'. [2] Disclosure: I trained as an economist and briefly taught it at university.