I was pleased to spot economist Prof John Fitzgerald among the audience at the recent EPA lecture in the Mansion House, Dublin, presented by Prof Myles Allen. As it transpires, Fitzgerald was doing some field work for an opinion article that appeared in the business section of the Irish Times earlier this week, under the headline: ‘Solution to global warming is technology’ (authors rarely get to write the headline, so we won’t hold that one against him).
This is one of only a handful of articles the otherwise prolific Fitzgerald has dedicated to the topic of climate change. It is always welcome to see a senior Irish economist to turn his quill to this vast, challenging topic (two fairly strong critiques of Fitzgerald’s piece, by Profs Barry McMullin and John Sweeney appeared in the Letters Page a week after publication)
To be fair, it started well enough, with phrases such as: “If urgent action is not taken the world’s climate will get worse at an accelerated pace”. That’s as good as it gets, alas. “Governments rarely choose to go to their electorates and tell them they are going to make life more expensive and that there will be no go financial reward for their pain” is how Fitzgerald sums up moves to address climate change.
You will note he repeats uncritically the standard canard that addressing climate change is all about costs and ignoring it is a rosebed of benefits. Had he read and absorbed the 2006 Stern review for the UK government on the economic costs of action versus inaction on climate change (our failure to tax carbon pollution was famously described by Lord Stern as “the greatest market failure in history”) Fitzgerald might have had an altogether more nuanced approach to the topic.
“It is our grandchildren and great grandchildren who would benefit from applying the brakes today to bring the momentum of climate change to a slow halt. Like development aid, action on climate change involves an appeal to altruism on the part of voters – there is little in it for people living in Ireland today.”
This quite staggeringly inept summary shows Fitzgerald to be hopelessly out of his depth, a figure from another era who has simply been unable (or just not bothered) to keep up with the science of climate change, as well as its rapidly unfolding physical realities. Perhaps he failed to notice last year’s €100 million Irish ‘once-in-a-century’ flooding event, and the one before that, and the one before that. And as for the virtually unprecedented 2012 fodder crisis, news clearly didn’t make it as far as the ESRI. And as for the once-in-a-lifetime freezing events of 2010 – and 2011 – well that’s weather for you, right, John?
To describe tackling climate change as ‘an appeal to altruism’ makes about as much sense as my not bothering to tackle a smouldering fire under the stairs in my house on the grounds that, by the time it becomes a conflagration, I’ll be at safely at work and it’ll only be my kids/grandkids who’ll be killed and my house burned down. Unless, of course, I was feeling particularly altruistic that morning and decided to tackle the fire…
While Fitzgerald’s ethical framework resembles a colander, it’s when he starts trying to work out the economics, his arguments unravel even more spectacularly. He starts with the (not unreasonable) point that shifting economic activity from, say, Europe to China could be counter-productive from an emissions standpoint. This is not, however, news.
Fitzgerald then joins the ever-lengthening line of Irish pundits queuing up to make the case for Irish dairy products as being somehow uniquely carbon-efficient. Given the slippery nature of emissions (including the emissions embedded in the goods we import from China, India, etc.), Fitzgerald points out the obvious: “in theory this pattern of trade would suggest that, instead of taxing producers of goods for emitting carbon, we should tax consumers based on the carbon embodied in the goods they consume. This would mean that there would be no incentive to relocate production and consumers would be encouraged to reduce consumption”.
No sooner had he uttered the vile heresy (“reduce consumption”) than Fitzgerald poo poohs the very notion of taxing carbon as “utterly unworkable”. And that two-word analysis is about as deep as he goes in explaining the utter unworkability of simply applying a market price on pollution that, left unchecked, will quite certainly destroy human civilisation and most of the natural world in the coming decades.
Maybe Fitzgerald is simply so completely out of touch that he is unaware of the crystal clear warnings and time frames set out by the world’s scientific community on our countdown to carbon armadeggon as global average surface temperatures smash through the +2C ‘red line’ in the next two to three decades, leading to climate collapse, regional and global famine, water and food wars and the evisceration of international trade so beloved of economists like Fitzgerald (you can read what those lefties over at the World Bank have to say here).
But wait, he has an answer! “In the long run the solution to global warming will have to be found in new technologies”. Hurrah! Technologies that don’t exist will somehow magically appear in a matter of years to ‘solve’ global warming. A report issued by no less a body than the US National Academy of Sciences last month stated bluntly: “current technologies would take decades to achieve moderate results and be cost-prohibitive at scales large enough to have a sizeable impact.” There is, the NAS reiterated, “no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change”. No ifs, buts or maybes.
And of course, we don’t have decades to wait for some technological rabbit to be pulled from the hat. The ‘long run’ that Fitzgerald mistakenly believes our unfolding ecological disaster is unfolding over, is in fact quite a short trot…right off a cliff edge.
In Fitzgerald’s world, it is just too crazy a notion to even imagine that our current (and utterly unsustainable) global consumption binge could be reined in, or that the pollution that is destroying our shared atmosphere might actually carry a price tag for the polluters. And heaven forbid that this is “unlikely to prove acceptable” when governments meet later this year to ponder the fate of the world.
In a delightful piece of unintended irony, an article adjacent to Fitzgerald’s piece from Clifford Coonan pointed out that “10-15% of all China’s infant milk formula comes from Ireland”. Here, in a nutshell, is the mad logic of globalised food production: use marketing to persuade and embarrass Chinese mums to abandon breast feeding, then import powdered milk from 12,000km always, from the ‘greenest little country in the world in which to flog just about anything’, then tell the public and fool yourselves that this madhouse logic is necessary to ‘feed the world’.
I said at the outset that I was pleased to see Prof Fitzgerald attending a climate change lecture. Every public official and elected representative should be fully informed on the science of climate change before opening their beak in public, or drafting papers such as the Department of Food, Agriculture & the Marine’s recent discussion document on GHG mitigation in agriculture & forestry (An Taisce’s full-blooded response/rebuttal is here).
The DAFM, with more than a little help from its friends in the IFA, has dreampt up something called ‘sustainable intensification of food production’ to paper over a policy that has little to do with sustainability and everything to do with promoting its favoured model of ramping up the most emissions-intensive forms of export-oriented agriculture, namely intensive dairy and beef production.
But back to Prof Fitzgerald and his late, late outbreak of interest in climate change. Given that, on the evidence of his Irish Times article, he has nothing but his misconceptions to bring to the discussion, why the sudden interest? People far more cynical than me might suggest that he is in fact brushing up his CV to be in the running for a spot (possibly as Chair) of the forthcoming Government-appointed Expert Advisory Council to oversee the roll-out of Alan Kelly’s shambolic ‘Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015’.
The Climate Act is set to become a toothless paper tiger beloved only by the assorted special interest groups who lobbied so tirelessly to ensure that none of what Australian PM, Tony Abbott memorably called “that climate crap” gets in the way of Irish industry and agriculture raking in the cash while steering the Good Ship Planet Earth straight for the rocks.
FOOTNOTE: There is a line where tragedy slopes into farce, and here it is Prof Fitzgerald’s referencing in his article of the ill-starred ‘ESRI Medium Term Review, 2008-2015’ – this is the ‘expert report’ that completely and utterly failed to spot that the Irish economy was a gigantic building boom-cum-pyramid scheme of crooked bankers lending to crooked builders and preparing to drop the tab on the entirely uninformed Irish public. (What kind of wilful blindness or wishful thinking leads seasoned experts to miss a bubble that size is a topic will doubtless keep economic historians busy for years to come).
This underlines the capacity for eminent economists to screw up spectacularly when projecting in the very areas they profess actual in-depth expertise. There have been fewer more comically awful reports ever produced by a Government think tank, in this country or elsewhere. Its two most senior authors: Prof Fitzgerald and…Prof Richard Tol, the Panglossian climate economist who has single-handedly pedalled the fantasy that climate change is about good as well as bad outcomes. This author sincerely hopes that Prof Fitzgerald is not depending too much on his former ESRI colleague for his views on the actual economic costs of dealing – and not dealing – with climate change.