Development Roast

Does the World Benefit from Being Deceived?

"A good lie will have travelled half way around the world
while the truth is putting on her boots"
Mark Twain

As regular readers of this newsletter will have discovered, I believe the threat of Climate Change is being vastly exaggerated not only by the media and certain individuals, but also by big international institutions, such as the United Nations and WWF.

One might defend such exaggeration if one believes that it would benefit the World if people get scared into taking some actions that they would not otherwise take. For many people, the fight against Global Warming is a symbol of a broader and higher objective: promoting environmental awareness, sustainability, and fairness instead of greed, pollution, environmental destruction, and ever increasing consumption. One might argue that these noble causes justify misleading the population.

I don't think deception is a good strategy, even if it is done for noble reasons.

First of all, wild exaggerations are likely to backfire and bite you in the end, as your exaggerated claims will be easier to prove wrong. For example, it won't take much more data generation and scientific research to prove that a 4ºC increase in global temperatures this century is extremely unlikely, whereas a 1ºC increase really can't be ruled out until very close to year 2100. A sea-level rise of 20 feet this century has already been ruled out, whereas a 1-2 feet increase will remain plausible for a long time. By exaggerating, you make yourself vulnerable to being proven wrong faster, and thus to losing credibility and effectiveness in promoting your objectives.

Second, exaggerating a distant, uncertain threat seems to be a very inefficient way of promoting your higher goals. We all want clean water to drink, pure air to breathe, healthy food to eat, spectacular natural areas to visit, world peace, and less disease and suffering, but caps on carbon emissions sure seem like a very roundabout way of achieving those objectives (or any other objectives you might have, except for making money from carbon trading). There may be some positive side-effects of the policies implemented to fight climate change, but one would expect considerably better results if the money was spent directly targeting a well-specified set of goals through well-understood relationships between cause and effect. The current approach is a bit like shooting wildly in the dark with a machine gun in the hope of hitting a target, instead of turning on the light, aim, and shoot a few carefully selected targets and avoid hitting innocent bystanders in the process.

Third, scaring people and institutions into taking certain actions will necessarily divert attention and money away from other actions, which might be more worthwhile. It is often claimed that the poor will suffer most from climate change, so for the sake of world justice we have to limit carbon emissions. However, there are certainly more direct and immediate ways of benefitting the poor. It seems unethical to trick governments into spending incredible amounts of money on fighting a distant, uncertain threat when there are huge, immediate problems that could be tackled instead. It seems particularly unethical if you claim to do it for the benefit of the poor.

Good policies and good actions require a good understanding of causes, effects, and side-effects. At the moment our understanding of how we affect the climate and how the climate affects us is extremely limited, and the best thing that can be said about the Global Warming hype is that it has prompted a lot of interesting research. A lot more is still needed for us to be able to implement good policies, so postulating that "the debate is over" and that there is a "scientific consensus" is both counterproductive and deceptive.

Hollywood and Greenpeace are allowed to lie and exaggerate all they want. That is anticipated by the audience and easily compensated for in people's minds. But scientists, Nobel Prize Laureates and international development institutions ought to be more responsible and live up to the trust that society has placed with them.

Is this exaggeration worthwhile? Leave your thoughts below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.