Economist says climate science deserves praise

by Bryan Walker on February 20, 2010

A forthright article from economist Jeffrey Sachs in today’s Guardian acknowledges that recent harsh attacks on the science of climate change have disconcerted the global public.

But the fact is that the critics, few in number but aggressive in their attacks, are deploying tactics that they have honed for more than 25 years. They greatly exaggerate scientific disagreements in order to stop action on climate change, with special interests like Exxon Mobil footing the bill.  The free-market idealogues of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page provide a platform.

Sachs refers to a forthcoming book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oeskes and Erik Conway (which will be reviewed on Hot Topic when it is published in May) as giving an authoritative account of the games played by the deniers.

Behind the deniers are the same lobbies that tried to discredit the science linking smoking and lung cancer, that fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired power plants were causing “acid rain”, that launched a nasty campaign to discredit the science that discovered that chlorofluorocarbons were causing the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere, and that later fought charges that second-hand smoke causes cancer and other diseases. This same group took on the battle against climate change.

“What is amazing is that, although these attacks on science have been wrong for 30 years, they still sow doubts about established facts. The truth is that there is big money backing the climate-change deniers, whether it is companies that don’t want to pay the extra costs of regulation, or free-market ideologues opposed to any government controls.”

Sachs comments on the two episodes in the latest round of attacks. On the hacking of the UEA emails he says: “Whatever the details of this specific case, the studies in question represent a tiny fraction of the overwhelming scientific evidence that points to the reality and urgency of man-made climate change.”  And on the Himalayan glacier error in the IPCC report: “errors in the midst of a vast and complex report by the IPCC point to the inevitability of human shortcomings, not to any fundamental flaws in climate science.”

The vicious campaign which has followed by editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal, describing climate science as a hoax and a conspiracy undertaken to obtain government research grants, he finds ludicrous. “The scientists under attack have devoted their lives to finding the truth, and have certainly not become rich relative to their peers in finance and business.”

There follows a tribute which ought by now to be commonplace but stands our rather in the current media negativity and caution.

“Climate change science is a wondrous intellectual activity. Great scientific minds have learned over the course of many decades to “read” the Earth’s history, in order to understand how the climate system works. They have deployed brilliant physics, biology, and instrumentation (such as satellites reading detailed features of the Earth’s systems) in order to advance our understanding.”

And the message is clear, that we are threatening the biology and chemistry of the planet and that we need to act urgently to transform our energy, transport, food, industrial, and construction systems.

Sachs is a prominent economist. He was once involved in advising governments in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  More recently his focus has been on sustainable global economic development and he is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Here he is much in contact with climate scientists and is himself an effective lay communicator of the basic elements of the science.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

StephenR February 22, 2010 at 8:54 am

Sachs is a prominent economist. He was once involved in advising governments in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In a very free-markety kinda way, incidentally.

Bryan Walker February 22, 2010 at 9:45 am

Yes, Sachs has often been criticised for his advice to governments during those years. I haven’t been able to work out whether there is a disconnect in his position in the years since or whether it’s simply a matter of advocating different measures for different times. He’s certainly highly critical of unrestrained free market ideology these days. In his book Common Wealth he speaks of the necessity for an activist philosophy of the role of government “which holds that the self-organizing forces of a market economy should be guided by overarching principles of social justice and environmental stewardship” and wants to see it extended robustly to global society.

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