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Of simmering frogs and economists leaping to terminal conclusions

by Stephen Hesse

They say that if a frog is dropped into boiling water it will jump out, but if it is placed in water that is then heated slowly it will steadily acclimate and boil to death — having missed its chance to escape.

I have no idea if this is true, and I wouldn’t boil a frog to find out, but the anecdote intrigues me.

It comes to mind often these days as I watch status-quo apologists, particularly economists, offer projections that keep the public from getting jumpy.

It also seems to me to perfectly capture humanity’s communal acquiescence and gradual acceptance of climate change and myriad other environmental concerns now reaching tipping points.

We face a perplexing array of problems, from dramatic declines in biodiversity, freshwater supplies and farmland, to ocean acidification and toxic chemicals accumulating in our bodies. And yet we sit and stew like simmering frogs as news anchors and talking heads keep us focused on the near term, reassuring us that quarterly gains in exports, corporate earnings, Gross National Product and the like are the real concerns.

Too often we seem to be giving up our individual, independent critical thought, instead abdicating all decision-making to so-called experts. Our obeisance at the shrine of economics is particularly worrisome.

Economists have become our new fortunetellers, the shamans of the 21st century. They make the unknowable appear certain and, with unsettling hubris, insist that their models can confidently project cost-benefit estimates far into the future.

And we let them. We hunger for answers, especially the predictability of numbers and monetary figures — and economists duly deliver them, speaking of money with a casual fluency that reassures us however two-dimensional and simplistic their analysis might actually be.

Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, is a perfect example.

In a recent Washington Post story, Lomborg termed Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and other world leaders “fantasists” for their determination to make substantial cuts in global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. Hatoyama has pledged to cut Japan’s GHG emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

If other nations commit to reduce GHGs even more than Japan, “the result will be a global price tag of $46 trillion in 2100, to avoid expected climate damage costing just $1.1 trillion,” Lomborg wrote with smug certainty.

And that was it: no facts, no details, no evidence — just nonsensical syntax and unsubstantiated claims.

No doubt bumptious Lomborg can explain how he reached his conclusions; but what worries me about him and his ilk is that they never betray doubts about their conclusions. That’s even though they are, in effect, viewing the entire universe, all time and space, through the tiny keyhole of their fallible models.

Or how about this published factoid from Lomborg.

If Japan follows former Prime Minister Taro Aso’s earlier and weaker pledge of reducing GHGs by just 8 percent below 1990 levels, he declared that “Japan needs to build nine new nuclear power plants and increase their use by one third, construct more than 1 million new wind turbines, install solar panels on nearly 3 million homes, double the percentage of new homes that meet rigorous insulation standards, and increase sales of ‘green’ vehicles from 4 percent to 50 percent of its auto purchases.”

Again, that’s it. No sources cited, no possible alternatives — just another unverified assertion cloaked in self-satisfied, professional hubris.

Like too many economists who are influencing the positions being taken in the climate-change negotiations going on this autumn, Lomborg writes in sound bites that easily seduce uncritical readers.

For those willing to look, however, there are numerous thoughtful researchers whose opinions directly contradict Lomborg’s claims.

In an Oct. 12 Op-ed piece in The Japan Times, Prof. Kawamitsu Sawa of Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of Policy Science in Kyoto laid out four suggestions for how Japan can cut its GHG emissions by 25 percent by 2020 — none of which included new nuclear power plants.

In another article, Tetsunari Iida and Andrew DeWit (Asia-Pacific Journal, Sept. 21, 2009) confirm that Hatoyama’s pledge is most certainly doable.

“A 25-percent emissions cut can be achieved. . . . The new coalition has to revise midterm targets, set up a basic law on emissions, facilitate the diffusion of renewable energy, and the like. Essential means to these ends include an environmental tax, an emissions trading scheme, incentives for green technological innovation, and a comprehensive feed-in tariff,” explains Iida, who is head of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies in Tokyo, and an adviser to the Japanese government.

The important point here is not that Sawa and Iida are right and Lomborg is wrong. The real concern is that Lomborg and his cohorts too often lack the circumspection and humility needed of today’s leaders and decision-makers.

We are dealing with a daunting tangle of causes and effects tied to the dynamics of 6.5 billion humans and our planetary ecosystems. Influencing factors include human history, culture, politics and economics — as well as our own production, consumption, waste and greed.

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, described where we are headed in a recent article titled “Our Global Ponzi Economy,” which was adapted from the first chapter of his book, “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009).

“In a 2002 study from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences,” he wrote, “a team of scientists concluded that humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the Earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. As of 2009, global demands on natural systems exceed their sustainable yield capacity by nearly 30 percent.”

He continued: “As of mid-2009, nearly all the world’s major aquifers were being overpumped. We get the feeling that we’re doing very well in agriculture — but the reality is that an estimated 400 million people are today being fed by overpumping, a process that is by definition short term. With aquifers being depleted, this water-based food bubble is about to burst.”

Oceans, too, are in trouble.

“Three-fourths of oceanic fisheries are now being fished at or beyond capacity, or are recovering from overexploitation. If we continue with business as usual, many of these fisheries will collapse. Overfishing, simply defined, means we are taking fish from the oceans faster than they can reproduce,” Brown notes.

“With overpumping, overgrazing, overplowing, overfishing, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, how long will it be before the Ponzi economy unravels and collapses? No one knows. Our industrial civilization has not been here before,” Brown writes.

This is not conjecture: it is the frog-boiling truth.

Yet, as we consume too much and conserve too little, a small coterie of apologist economists continue to lecture us that we need to crank up GDP, and in turn GHGs, to save the planet. One recent JT commentator even suggested that humans must cross an annual income threshold of about $4,000 before they value a clean environment. Thus, rather than cutting GHGs, which could dampen economic growth, he suggested the pursuit of rapid economic growth to help us reach this threshold as quickly as possible.

Whatever perverse logic we might find in burning more coal — so the world’s poor can become wealthy enough to demand a clean environment — the writing is on the wall, in soot: Unbridled consumption will never be a viable path to economic or environmental sustainability.

So should we leave our children in the hands of brave new world economists or trust in environmentalists who love the trees and the forests?

Neither. When groups of humans keep too much company with themselves, their views of the world tend to narrow, and specialists are no different.

Policy-making decisions that will guide our future course require multi- disciplinary teams who can craft well-reasoned and realistic approaches to providing for the needs of humanity, while ensuring the sustainability of the planet’s ecosystems.

Economists are not any worse than politicians or environmentalists, but whenever a clique of narrow-minded thinkers appears to be becoming the dominant arbiter of our future, we should all begin to get very jumpy.

Otherwise, like the boiled frog, we may not realize it’s time to leap until it’s too late.

Stephen Hesse can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com