BBC on Overselling Climate Science

April 21st, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The BBC has a really excellent half-hour program on the overselling of climate science. A short news story accompanies the program, but it is really worth listening to the program in full, and it is available here. The program makes a compelling case that climate science has, in many instances, been oversold. A central focus on the program is the path between scientific publication, official press release, and media reporting. The BBC program finds fault at all three stops. I have a few thoughts on the program after the jump.

First, the BBC critiques a number of areas of arguably exaggerated climate science and a card-carrying climate skeptic is nowhere to be found. This is smart and responsible reporting, given the intense politicization of the climate issue. In a comment posted at the Climate Audit weblog the producer of the piece explains (in response to an earlier comment about the program’s conclusion that it should give skeptics little comfort — a conclusion that the earlier commenter called a “rider”),

I produced the documentary. I think what you describe as the rider was important because we wanted to move beyond the sceptics v believers argument. I think the programme was better for not featuring sceptics, that the true believers could just dismiss.

Climate science needs to be put under the same degree of public scrutiny as politics, business and other scientific fields. This can’t happen if you have to choose to be either a partisan sceptic or an uncritical believer.

It would be oh-so-easy for someone to simply dismiss the BBC story had they not carefully chosen who they interviewed. On numerous occasions the program clearly described that the people that they were interviewing actually believe that climate change is real and a problem. As the news story accompanying the program notes,

All of the climate scientists we spoke to fervently believe global warming is being caused by human activity. Many agree there’s also a major problem with alarmism. As one scientist said: “If we cry wolf too loudly or too often, no-one will believe us when the beast actually comes for dinner.”

Second, the program interviews Hans von Storch and Steve Rayner, two extremely thoughtful observers of and participants in climate science. In January, 2005 we highlighted this passage from a paper that von Storch had written with Nico Stehr and Dennis Bray:

We need to respond openly to the agenda-driven advocates, not only skeptics but also alarmists, who misuse their standing as scientists to pursue their private value-driven agendas. This is a tragedy of the commons, namely that the short term gains (in terms of public attention; success of specific political agendas; possible funding) of a few are paid for on the long term by the scientific credibility of the whole discipline. Instead, sustainability requires that the discipline of climate science to provide the public with options of policy responses to the challenge of climate change, and not to prescriptively focus on only one such option (i.e., maximum reduction of GHG emissions).

von Storch and Stehr also teamed up on an essay which appeared in January 2005 in Der Spiegel in which they wrote,

Sadly, the mechanisms for correction within science itself have failed. Within the sciences, openly expressed doubts about the current evidence for climatic catastrophe are often seen as inconvenient, because they damage the “good cause,” particularly since they could be “misused by skeptics.” The incremental dramatization comes to be accepted, while any correction of the exaggeration is regarded as dangerous, because it is politically inopportune. Doubts are not made public; rather, people are led to believe in a solid edifice of knowledge that needs only to be completed at the outer edges.

The result of this self-censorship in scientists’ minds is a deaf ear for new and surprising ideas that compete with or even contradict conventional patterns of explanation; science degenerates into being a repair shop for popular, politically opportune claims to knowledge. Thus it not only becomes sterile; it also loses its ability to advise the public objectively.

Steve Rayner from Oxford whose perspectives were highlighted here just last month warned of the “danger of using bad arguments for good causes.”

Third, that exaggerated climate science via press release is often used as a tool of stealth (or even overt) political advocacy has been well documented in, of all places, the peer reviewed literature. Consider the following two articles:

Henderson-Seller, A., 1998. Climate whispers: Media communication about climate change. Climatic Change 40:421-456. (link, subscription required)

Ladle, R. J., P. Jepson, and R. J. Whittaker, 2005. Scientists and the media: the struggle for legitimacy in climate change and conservation science, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 30: 231-240. (PDF)

These articles indicate that scientific community has at its disposal solid information based on practical experience and academic knowledge of communication on how to avoid misrepresentations of climate science, whether willful or by accident.

The BBC program is a breath of fresh air because it breaks out of the stale skeptic vs., believer (to use their words) framing of almost all discussions of climate change. Such efforts to regulate excess without falling into a clearly defined, pre-existing political battle are far too rare in this area. Here’s hoping that more media, and more scientists, see the value in such a third-way approach for keeping both skeptics and believers in check. In the long run, it is science that will benefit.

29 Responses to “BBC on Overselling Climate Science”

  1. James Annan Says:

    Trackback not working for me, but I don’t have much to say beyond agreeing with Roger.

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  3. Benny Peiser Says:


    In view of the BBC’s discredited campaign journalism on global warming, I doubt that a few programmes that make an effort to provide *balanced* reporting will be able to restore its tarnished reputation in the foreseeable future.

    After all, its notoriously overdramatic coverage of green campaign issues carries on obstinately. What the the UK media’s environmental journalists underestimate, though, is the detrimental if not opposite effect of the incessant doom-and-gloom mongering on the perception of the general population. As survey after survey confirms, and as Piotr Brzezinski points out in yesterday’s The Harvard Crimson, “Although such scare mongering persists, it has reached the point of diminishing returns. Knowing the movement’s track record of false alarms, the public dismiss dire environmental warnings out of hand…

    Doomsday warnings no longer shock the public into action; instead, environmentalists need to develop moderate arguments that don’t depend on the ’stick’ of calamity. This means abandoning Soviet-style “command-and-control” regulation, epitomized by the Kyoto Treaty, and exploring ideas, like the use of DDT, that are currently considered heretical.

    Thus, on the 37th anniversary of Earth Day, the environmental movement is looking increasingly long in the tooth. Alarmist environmentalists have overshadowed moderate, careful researchers, and undermined the credibility of the entire movement. Until environmentalists cease depending on nightmare scenarios, they will fail to influence the public at large. Let the next generation of environmentalists begin to reestablish the movement’s credibility by exploring currently heretical ideas and producing moderate, nuanced reports, even if they do not make for good press.”

    I couldn’t have said it any better.

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  5. Carl Christensen Says:

    (reposted from Annan’s site – since this seems to be more of the discussion area)

    Well, I’m a biased view (, and a computer scientist not a climate scientist, but it seems that it’s trying to be “alarmist about alarmism.” Although as an American, it was a far better presntation than what you would get from the usual corporate media in the US on the subject (i.e. polemics from Myron Ebell as if he’s a leading climate researcher).

    But it’s sort of like how the British media goes psychotic over the effectively powerless BNP party (as “Question Time” showed last night, 20 BNP councillors out of 20K potential doesn’t mean Britain is going down a racist trend).

    There were a few limp counterexamples (i.e. the frogs, the malaria) of things that have perhaps been misattributed to climate change. And of course they love the misinterpreted “11C rise” from, as if you can blame the project and/or scientists for lazy journalists.

    I would say in summary that overall (worldwide media, esp the USA) that the extremism/alarmism of anthropogenic global warming is far outweighed by the corporate media outlets worldwide, who reiterate the anti-global-warming hype of their interests (via “right-wing think tanks” or whatever).

    Which is not to say that scientists should fall prey to helping out the lazy journalists looking for a headline, but to whinge on about the Metro headline of 11C or misattributing tree frog declines or whatever is a bit unbalanced IMHO.

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  7. Benny Peiser Says:

    Nice try, Carl. But I very much doubt that your attempt to blame “lazy journalists” for the silly ‘11C rise’ alarm you issued last year will wash.

    It was a classical example of what Roger has called ‘exaggerated climate science via press release:’

    “Greenhouse gases could cause global temperatures to rise by more than double the
    maximum warming so far considered likely by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate
    Change (IPCC), according to results from the world’s largest climate prediction experiment,
    published in the journal Nature this week.

    The first results from, a global experiment using computing time donated
    by the general public, show that average temperatures could eventually rise by up to 11°C – even if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are limited to twice those found before the industrial revolution. Such levels are expected to be reached around the middle of this century unless deep cuts are made in greenhouse gas emissions…”

    Who needs right-wing think tanks with climate modelling like this?

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  9. Carl Christensen Says:

    Err, yeah, which part of “could” don’t you understand? You guys just come off sounding sanctimonious, as if only your range counts.

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  11. Greg Lewis Says:

    I wonder how much of this is specific to climate change, or just a common phenomenon with the current sexy science. I’m thinking of the hype about “nano” technology, or genetic engineering, or stem cell research or even chaos theory and non-linear dynamics. Climate science is much more political so it is clearly different on some level but the other topics were hyped, oversold and miss-reported.

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  13. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Speaking of…

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  15. Dano Says:

    I appreciate the fact that poor Benben must take the outrageous outlier and mischaracterize that as typical.

    I appreciate it ’cause that’s all they have. Nothing more.



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  17. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Carl, Benny, Steve- I encourage a close look at the Henderson-Sellers piece that I referenced.

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  19. Mark Shapiro Says:

    Roger -
    I couldn’t get the link to work, but found the article here

    Is this the article?

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  21. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks Mark, I fixed the broken link …

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  23. Mark Shapiro Says:

    Roger -

    I think the BBC article is useful. We have progressed from the many questions about global warming itself to even more questions of how best to discuss it.

    But regardless of what scientists find and how well journalists present it, skeptics will always cast doubt. Then they conclude, almost as an afterthought, that it is not worth spending trillions of dollars to decarbonize the economy. This conclusion, uncontested, is demonstrably false. The question to ask is: how much money would we save by decarbonizing? How energy efficient can we become, how fast, and how profitably? What is the best array of renewables? How many other problems would we solve by decarbonizing? How healthy, wealthy, safe, and secure do we want to be?

    Consider fossil fuel subsidies. Doesn’t every reader of this site (along with every free market economist) agree that we should end them? But they are rarely even mentioned, even though it is a policy no-brainer regardless of the risks of AGW.

    You are absolutely right that we needn’t argue over the size of the problem. We should shout about the many benefits of the solution.

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  25. Carl Christensen Says:

    Well I find it sort of amusing (and a little tragic) that climate scientists (at least the blogger ones) are patting themselves on the back over their high standards of a press release that will just focus on the mundane “we also show a 3K sensitivity as most likely.”

    And then act “ever so ‘umble” that they aren’t investigating the extremes, so as not to seem too “mad” or “liberal” or “wild.” So then they work on constraining things to chop off the extremes, as if the skeptics will even allow them a 3K increase.

    So what we have in the climate change area (and what I find fascinating for cynical reasons) is that everyone and their grandmother, whether they be lawyers, anthropologists, economists, semi-retired mineral engineers, poets, old academic codgers, weigh in on this scientific issue often with more aplomb and fanfare than the actual scientists (earth obs through modellers) themselves. So the great mass of scientists is far behind in the battle for minds even before they get started. But they’ll send out a conservatively-stated press release, by god!

    Let’s get a grip — a little hyperbole in a press release is to be expected — the critical moment is whether the science is backed up. I’m starting to whiff a bit of jealousy behind the sanctimony over “alarmism in the media.”

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  27. laurence jewett Says:

    Mark Shapiro writes: “The question to ask is: how much money would we save by decarbonizing? How energy efficient can we become, how fast, and how profitably? What is the best array of renewables? How many other problems would we solve by decarbonizing? How healthy, wealthy, safe, and secure do we want to be?”

    I could not agree with this more.

    The unstated assumption in many (though not all) cases is that efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions HAVE to cost money — when this is clearly not true in all cases. Reducing emissions CAN actually SAVE money, conservation being the case in point.

    I’m NOT referring here to the “Sitting in a dark, cold house in the dead of winter with the light and heat off” brand of conservation (which I myself have engaged in out of necessity, though not in recent years, thank goodness). I’m referring to conservation through more efficent use of energy so that you attain the same (or possibly even better) end result with less energy use.

    It sounds like Mark is familiar with the ideas, research and writing of Amory and Hunter Lovins on this very subject, but I am not sure how many others are.

    Their “Rocky Mountain Institute” focuses on the advantages (economic, environmental, social, security, etc) of increased energy efficiency in particular and more efficient resource use in general.

    I know there are some (economists and others) who scoff at the Lovins’ claims** but the fact is, they have been “right on the money” with regard some very big claims/predictions that they have made in the past with regard to energy efficiency.

    **I once had an interesting (though not particularly useful) e-mail correspondence with an oil economist at a top university who dismissed the Lovins’ research and suggestions with a simple statement (and I quote) “They are not economists”.
    (Amory Lovins is a physicist and L. Hunter Lovins a political scientist by training).

    Perhaps not, but they are extremely smart people who have done their homework — (Rocky) mountains of it — over the years. To the oil economist I felt like saying in reply (but did not): “No, and you are not a scientist or engineer, so why are you pontificating in economic journals about what is possible — and what is not — with regard to increases in automobile fuel economy” — which he was at the time. For those who think scientists are academic snobs, I would only say that, “if they are, they are HARDLY alone in this regard!”

    I think any of the large number of issues considered by the Lovins’ on their Rocky Mountain Intsitute website would be a good starting point for discussions on this blog.

    Some businesses have undoubtedly already adopted some of the Lovin’s suggestions about the use of enery and resources and may therefore be ahead of policymakers in regard to some of these issues.

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  29. Mark Shapiro Says:

    Laurence is exactly correct. I have been reading Lovins’ work at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in fact, ever since I worked at a bank doing financial risk analysis some years ago.

    I recommend RMI’s work without reservation, especially to policymakers. In a nutshell, energy efficiency has economic benefits along with all the co-benefits, and the potential is huge. They have crunched the numbers, shown examples, and laid it all out. Using just a few of their recommendations, our family of four has lower gas and electric bills than the US average – even lower than the California average.

    RMI’s latest book, “Winning the Oil Endgame”, is available free on their website. Browse the summary or read the whole thing.

    The benefits: increased wealth, health, national security, and yes, lower climate change risk.

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  31. laurence jewett Says:

    I would second Mark’s recommendation to read the work of the Lovins.

    Unfortunately, as I metioned above, there seems to be a knee-jerk resistance by some to the Lovins’ claims about the potential savings to be had through efficiency improvments.

    If I had to guess, I’d say at least some of this opposition arises from the perception that what the Lovins’ are proposing is somehow a “free lunch” — the economic equivalent of a violation of the “first law of thermodynamics” (energy conservation): “How can one POSSIBLY reduce emissions, save money and gain a higher standard of living simultaneously? There has GOT to be a catch.”

    But nothing could be further from the truth. The Lovins’ are VERY much aware of what the first AND second laws of thermodynamics say (more so than the average economist, I would guess), even referencing these laws in their arguments.

    In fact, they leverage their knowledge of these laws (and physics in general) to achieve an optimal outcome under a given set of circumstances.

    They take their cue from the natural world, where animals and plants have evolved (over millions of years) to use energy and resources in very efficient ways.

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  33. Steve Bloom Says:

    Laurence, I would suggest that the problem with mass acceptance of the Lovins’ ideas (and much similar work) is that it necessarily involves an admission that there is something wrong with the current economic paradigm that encourages the rapid consumption of limited resources. Too many powerful interests in our society believe that they will benefit from continuing that paradigm for as long as possible and that (and I think this is very important) they will not suffer disproportionately when environmental factors force the adoption of a new paradigm. As well, too many individuals have a hard time imagining living life in a different way.

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  35. Benny Peiser Says:

    I think this reviewer of “Natural Capitalism” provides some of the reasons why the Lovins have been falling through the cracks on both sides of the debate on free-market environmentalism:

    “For traditional environmentalists, much of this book is going to be too idealistic, since it does argue that capitalism should be embraced and harnessed rather than fought. For classical liberals (libertarians), there isn’t anything new here. I expected to find something akin to Anderson and Leal’s Free Market Environmentalism, but there is very little discussion of natural resource economics, endangered species, or property rights issues.

    Instead, the book focuses on improving industrial and commercial processes and products and improving household efficiency. Like CEO’s need to be told that they need to be more efficient! The chapters which discuss existing applications and best practices are reminiscent of similar anecdotes in Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource, a book reviled by environmentalists.

    If there is one difference between NatCap and Simon’s work, it is that economists are repeatedly and (nearly) consistently regarded with contempt in NatCap; the exception are the economists they quote to support their points. NatCap argues that the “bad” economists, who are never named, only count dollars input and output, that they measure efficiency by cost, and that they don’t understand or even like the real world. One chapter is dedicated to proving that market solutions cannot be trusted because market failures exist. This is bizarre for two reasons: first, the rest of the book argues that conservation is both practical and profitable and therefore will work in a market economy without reference to market failures, and second, that the market failures discussed are all the result of work done by … economists!

    The anonymous economists in NatCap are a dangerous or naïve caricature of real world economists, and the authors have a child’s view of economists and their work. The value of this book is in its potential proselytization of radical environmentalists to embrace rather than to oppose market-based solutions to environmental problems, not in its theoretical or empirical content, its discussion of economic principles, or its pro-market stance.

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  37. Benny Peiser Says:


    I am the only one who is wondering whether we are witnessing a new trend – a slightly more critical attitude towards the global warming doomsday-brigade?

    After the refreshingly balanced and very encouraging BBC programme “Overselling Climate Change,” today we see another anti-alarmist commentary, this time by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times:

    “There is no serious debate any more about one thing: more of these gases will cause more warming. Dr. Lindzen, who contends any human climate influence is negligible and has long criticized those calling global warming a catastrophe, agreed on this basic fact in his article.

    At the same time, few scientists agree with the idea that the recent spate of potent hurricanes, European heat waves, African drought and other weather extremes are, in essence, our fault. There is more than enough natural variability in nature to mask a direct connection, they say.

    Even recent sightings of drowned polar bears cannot be firmly ascribed to human influence on climate given the big cyclical fluctuations of sea ice around the Arctic…

    Stressing the problem’s urgency could well be counterproductive, according to “Americans and Climate Change,” a new book by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

    The book notes that urgency does not appear to be something that can be imposed on people. Moreover, it says, “Urgency is especially prone to being discounted as unreasoned alarmism or even passion.”

    Among its recommendations, the Yale book suggests something radical: drop the reluctance to accept adaptation as a strategy. Adaptation to climate extremes has long been derided by many environmentalists as defeatism. But, the book says, adaptation may help people focus on the reality of what is coming — and that may motivate them to cut emissions to limit chances of bigger changes to come…..

    And then there is this eminently sensible editorial on “Common sense must top green agenda”
    in today’s The Scotman newspaper:

    “What are the facts about global warming? The only honest answer is: we do not know. Nor is our knowledge advanced by scientists who are not climatic experts issuing sensational pronouncements. Detailed temperature records date only from 1860. These show that between then and 1915 there was no change in the northern hemisphere. Between 1915 and 1945 there was a rise of 0.4C, countered in the following 20 years by a fall of 0.2C. During the remainder of the 20th century there was a rise of 0.4C, making an overall increase of 0.6C over the century.

    That is hardly grounds for panic in the streets, especially when we recall that Britain had almost tropical temperatures in the Roman period and was at least as hot as today in the Middle Ages.

    What casts further confusion on the issue is the supposition that our curbing sulphur dioxide emissions (which have a cooling effect) from 1965 allowed carbon dioxide full rein to heat up the planet. In that case, might China’s planned 562 new coal-fired power stations, while emitting twice as much warming carbon dioxide as gas-fired stations, also restore cooling sulphur dioxide emissions to pre-1965 levels? The equation is unreadable….

    Whatever the answer to environmental concerns may be, it most emphatically is not Kyoto – a cynical exercise in gesture politics. It is characteristic that the first country to sign the protocol was Romania, whose toxic emissions can be seen from outer space. America is vilified for having refused to endorse Kyoto (by a telling 95-0 vote in the Senate). But it has devoted $20bn to serious exploration of environmentally friendly alternative energy.

    Science and the market are the twin pillars on which environmental recovery will be supported. Instead of fining firms for carbon emissions, they should be offered tax breaks to clean up their act. Incentive rather than coercion should be the motor of environmental improvement. If there is an urgent need for something, the market can react by producing it. We do not know the scale of the risk. But we must allow for the possibility that the more pessimistic forecasts are right. We need an insurance policy; but we should shop around discriminatingly and calmly. We are not a’ doomed; but we need to research, to plan and to invest in a sensibly green future.”

    Could it really be that the Kyoto fiasco together with the sobering Gallup surveys on global warming attitudes are finally having a significant cooling effect on the overheated climate change debates? If so, could it be that the latest doomsday documentary (“by far, the most terrifying film you will ever see,” in the words of its producer) will also backfire?,1,6514840.column?coll=la-util-opinion-sunday&ctrack=1&cset=true

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  39. laurence jewett Says:

    I appologize if I sent the readers of my above comments off on a tangent by speculating why some might dismiss the Lovins’ ideas out of hand.

    That was not my intention.

    There may be any number of reasons why some people dismiss the Lovin’s ideas (and why some embrace them, as some clearly have — including at least one US Presidient (Carter) and some at DOD over the years).

    Each of these criticism MAY or MAY NOT BE valid and must be judged on an individual basis on its merits.

    It is RARELY (if ever) warranted, at any rate, to dismiss ideas without first going to the source.

    To get back on track, I would simply say that I suggest that people FIRST actually read FOR THEMSELVES the Lovins’ publications. They have produced voluminous writing on resource use and energy efficiency over the 20+ years that they have been researching such issues and “Natural Capitalism” (for which the anonymous amazon review was provided above) is just ONE of those works.

    Only by reading the Lovins’ work cane one be in a position to make an informed judgement about whether criticism of one of their particular ideas is valid. (I am ALWAYS dubious of sweeping criticisms — like “They are not economists” — at any rate)

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  41. Dano Says:

    Poor Benny tries a comical plan;

    “Instead of fining firms for carbon emissions, they should be offered tax breaks to clean up their act.”

    You know, drunk drivers shouldn’t be fined when caught, they should be paid when they drive sober!



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  43. Benny Peiser Says:

    It would appear that the usual suspects are more interested in fostering strife and shenanigans rather than in pondering cost-effective policy options.

    What’s wrong with tax breaks on climate-related policies and energy efficiency? They exist in almost every country in the world:

    Here is a good European example that might actually work if the economic incentives are right:

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  45. Dano Says:

    ‘usual suspects’ is my phrase, Ben, used most recently with your 60 ’scientists’ in Canada clown show:

    Anyway, I continue to appreciate how you must mischaracterize stuff to make your argument. Your 95-0 phrase a case in point, and your ‘Gallup’ highlight are just two of the easily-spottable mendacicizations. I note that Roger’s recent post on polls had not a one comment from you in there, perhaps because the public polling differs from your touts…




    [Unnecessary ad homs deleted. In the future Dano I'll just delete the whole post. Take that stuff elsewhere, please. Thx. RP]

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  47. Carl Christensen Says:

    Are Gallup Polls on an underinformated at best/misinformated at worst public, and paid-off politicians who voted against Kyoto (i.e. all of ‘em) really a sound basis for public policy or for judgement of scientific findings? Maybe at the Cato Institute to keep the pseudo-libertarian pipe-dreams afloat…

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  49. Chad Says:

    Here are my thoughts on the Gallup polls:

    First, are they a sound basis for policy? Of course not. Unfortunately, they do limit what is possible. Just about any economist will tell you that carbon/gasoline/pollution taxes (or virtually identical cap-and-trade systems) are the way to go. Guess what was the least popular item in the Gallup poll…

    Additionally, you can be sure of three things in politics. First, the majority want more spending on just about everything. Second, they want to cut taxes on themselves, and will oppose almost all increases on taxes unless specifically targeted on someone else. Third, everyone wants to reduce the deficit. From this, you can pretty much conclude that the average voter is a greedy moron, but it is the system we have to work within. Note how most of the things with strong support in the Gallup poll consisted of “someone else” being forced to solve them problem.

    When I saw the large numbers of people who opposed a gasoline tax increase, I was wondering how this really differs from a tax increase in general. Yes, only 15% of Republicans would consider a gas tax increase, but on the other hand, I am surprised 15% of Republicans support ANY tax increase. I wonder how much support for a gasoline/carbon tax one could find if it were coupled with a proportionate income tax rebate. This would separate opposition to tax increases in general from opposition to gasoline taxes specifically. I have been able to convince a number of my libertarian/conservative friends that a carbon/gas tax is superior to an income tax, which is actually a pretty easy argument to make. It is fairly obvious that it is in general better to tax bad behavior than productive behavior. Offer these people a 1:1 trade from a bad tax to a good tax, and many will bite.

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  51. Mark Shapiro Says:

    I have to agree with Chad that a carbon tax would be the right way to bring efficiency into the marketplace. More important than my opinion, economist William Nordhaus has analyzed this extensively and calls for carbon taxes.

    Unfortunately that is the least popular option. However, That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call for it. Tax away, (assuming it is offset elsewhere, of course.)

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  53. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Mark -

    Your comment on a carbon tax brings up a point. I fully believe we should tax bads, not goods (forgive me for quoting Rachel).

    The question remains: Is carbon, the base of our food chain, bad?

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  55. Paul Says:


    “You know, drunk drivers shouldn’t be fined when caught, they should be paid when they drive sober!”

    It is an accepted academic result.

    If your sole interest in dealing with an externality is to modify the outcome, it doesn’t matter whether you whether it is a charge continue the act, or a payment to desist from it.

    Google Ronald Coase – Coase Theorem.

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  57. Dano Says:


    One method does not work for all. Flexibility is better, as some will not respond to incentives.

    And Coasian bargaining works well for self-regarding individuals, and rather less well for other-regarding individuals.

    The issue here in real-world application is the inability to properly calculate Pareto optima. As we can see here in the various comment threads, there is asymmetric information processed along preferential and self-referential lines.