I asserted in Part 1 that economists don’t understand climate science. Exhibit 1 would be Robert Mendelsohn, an economics professor at Yale University, whose “research” has prompted headlines in our neighbor up north like “A warmer climate could hold lots of benefits for Canada” and “The UP side of global warming“:

Leading the charge is Robert Mendelsohn, an economics professor at Yale University, who says the benefits of global warming for Canada — from a longer growing season to the opening up of shipping through the Northwest Passage — will outweigh the negative effects.

“You’re lucky because you’re a northern-latitude country, Mendelsohn says. “If you add it all up, it’s a good thing for Canada.”

This series will have three recurring themes about Voodoo Economists aka Mainstream Economists who Opine on Weather (MEOWs):

  1. MEOW’s understanding of what global warming is doing to the planet now and what it is likely to do by 2100 on our current emissions path ranges from arrogantly incomplete to criminally ignorant. They really talk more about the weather than the climate.
  2. MEOW’s cost-benefit calculations [“if you add it all up”] are analytically unsound and qualify more as an opinion than a scientifically accurate statement.
  3. The right wing loves what the economics profession is saying and publishing on climate, which is why they quote and cite them so giddily.

For instance, you would never know from this article — or any of Mendelsohn’s comments — that Canada is already suffering widespread and completely unpredicted devastation from climate change:

The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada” notes Doug McArthur, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

The pests are “projected to kill 80 per cent of merchantable and susceptible lodgepole pine” in parts of British Columbia within 10 years — and that’s why the harvest levels in the region have been “increased significantly.” One analyst calls the devastation “probably the biggest landscape-level change since the ice age.”

Losing every harvestable pine tree in British Columbia is apparently not a big deal to arrogant MEOWs like Mendelsohn:

Forests will become more productive, Mendelsohn says. The northern forests will expand into the tundra and the southern forests will grow better. The types of trees in different regions will change. Fire and disease might well take out old forests, but Mendelsohn says forestry companies can also be allowed to go in and take out at-risk trees. “Rather than let it be destroyed naturally, you harvest it into the marketplace and then just let the natural systems replace what should be there next.”

Yeah, cut down the “old forests” before the climate-driven pests get them and replace them with “what should be there” — that’s an economic plus for everyone! If you look up hubris in the dictionary …

The reality on the ground is quite different than the opining from Mendelsohn’s ivory tower (Note to self: Maybe the towers are made of ivory because in economist-land there ain’t no friggin’ trees left). As the Chicago Tribune reported this month in a story titled, “Canada’s forests, once huge help on greenhouse gases, now contribute to climate change“:

Canada's threatened forests

(“Forestry officials in British Colombia used a controlled fire to check the spread of a devastating infestation by the mountain pine beetle.”)

As relentlessly bad as the news about global warming seems to be, with ice at the poles melting faster than scientists had predicted and world temperatures rising higher than expected, there was at least a reservoir of hope stored here in Canada’s vast forests.

The country’s 1.2 million square miles of trees have been dubbed the “lungs of the planet” by ecologists because they account for more than 7 percent of Earth’s total forest lands. They could always be depended upon to suck in vast quantities of carbon dioxide, naturally cleansing the world of much of the harmful heat-trapping gas.

But not anymore.

In an alarming yet little-noticed series of recent studies, scientists have concluded that Canada’s precious forests, stressed from damage caused by global warming, insect infestations and persistent fires, have crossed an ominous line and are now pumping out more climate-changing carbon dioxide than they are sequestering.

Worse yet, the experts predict that Canada’s forests will remain net carbon sources, as opposed to carbon storage “sinks,” until at least 2022, and possibly much longer.

Well, not little-noticed here, but apparently little noticed by the economics profession, which really prefers to stick with what it can model:

In his work, Mendelsohn and his colleagues look at economic impacts of global warming, but focus mostly on agriculture, because this is the realm most affected by global warming. “With agriculture we think that’s going to be a big benefit for Canada,” Mendelsohn says …

Some high-value crops, like corn and soybeans, that can mainly be grown in the U.S., will be grown more commonly in Canada, Mendelsohn says.

“The more the temperature rises, the bigger the benefits will be (for agriculture). As far as Canada is concerned, over the next century whether it’s a two-degree rise or a five-degree rise, it’s probably going to be beneficial.”

That is criminally ignorant.

Even in economist-land where the primary impacts are agricultural, what Mendelsohn and his models seem blind to is the fact that the warming is continuous and accelerating. Yes, if you model a single step change in temperature of 2° or 5°, followed by a stable climate, then maybe, over a period of decades, a steady state, higher productivity agriculture could occur — if we also unjustifiably assume no unproductive changes in rainfall intensity or soil moisture.

But on our current path, we are just going to get warmer and warmer and warmer decade after decade after decade. When is there ever a steady state absent mitigation efforts far, far beyond that endorsed by MEOWs?

The Hadley Center warns of “catastrophic” 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path. The interior of a big, northern country like Canada is typically projected to warm 50 percent or more faster than the planet as a whole. So much of Canada might see 10°C warming by 2100. If inland Canada starts warming some 1°C a decade by mid-century, is that still “probably going to be beneficial,” Dr. Mendelsohn?

At least the article hints at the narrowness of Mendelsohn’s modeling, by quoting “geographer David Sauchyn, a professo
r at the University of Regina, who recently led a federal government study on the impacts of climate change on the prairies”:

Mendelsohn’s optimistic outlook for Canada is based on average annual rises in temperature and precipitation, but this overlooks how things might be in exceptionally dry and hot years, Sauchyn says.

Any gains that come from an increased growing season in some years could be wiped out by a lengthy drought, Sauchyn says.

“A shift in the distribution of water from season to season and from year to year and from basin to basin, is by far the most challenging scenario under climate change.”

“Duh” for those who understand even the basics about climate science, but apparently “too damn tricky to model” for MEOWs.

Immediately after Mendelsohn is quoted in the article saying “If you add it all up, it’s a good thing for Canada,” the piece continues:

Such benefits could well make Canadians feel ambivalent about taking measures to stop global warming, says economist Thomas Gale Moore, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute in California.

“When it comes down to doing something about global warming, it quickly turns out to be kind of expensive and certain people … would look out and say, `Wow, global warming, that’s going to be nice. I don’t want to spend any money stopping that.’ “

Note to economics profession: When the global warming deniers and delayers at right-wing think tanks like the Hoover Institute agree with your analysis, you should start to ask yourself whether you really know what you’re talking about.

What about sea-level rise?

With global warming, the ocean level will also rise, but this shouldn’t be a big issue in Canada, because most of the country’s coastal areas are uninhabited, and it won’t be significant if some of that land is claimed by the ocean, Mendelsohn says. Populated areas will fight back by building higher. “It turns out not to be a big issue. The land is extremely valuable and people will defend it.”

Sure the latest research says we “most likely” face 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100, but what do climate scientists know? Mellow out, Canada! Dr. Mendelsohn says it’s no big deal — “The land is extremely valuable and people will defend it.”

But again, Mendelsohn seems stuck with a static view. On our current emissions path, not only do we face 5 feet of sea-level rise by century’s end, but by then, the rate of sea-level rise may be 10 inches a decade (ultimately rising to 20 inches a decade), which could last for centuries until we are a completely ice-free planet and sea levels are 250 feet higher. How the heck do you “defend” against that, Dr. Mendelsohn?

But cheer up, Canada. To make up for the loss of their forests and the loss of their extremely valuable coastal property, the MEOWs say you will get more tourists!

Warmer temperatures will mean more tourists for Canada, reports Richard Tol of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland. The optimal annual average temperature for a tourist destination is now found in cities like Barcelona and Atlanta. Canada will see a 220-per-cent increase in tourists this century, followed by Russia at 174 per cent, Tol told USA Today.

Yeah — I just bet people are going to be flocking to Russia.

If people are going to flock to the north, however, it is going to be driven by the billion-plus environmental refugees from sea-level rise and agricultural decline in the tropics and subtropics.

Tol may be the leading voodoo economist in the world, and I will deal with him in a separate post.

The article ends with a bunch of contradictory quotes by our MEOW from Yale:

“It’s important that we start trying to control greenhouse gases … Eventually it’s going to get too warm. Damages will far exceed the benefits.”

In the end, civilization won’t be brought down by global warming, Mendelsohn believes. “There’s an enormous amount of adaptations we can undertake. And at least the stuff that is going to happen this century, we will be able to adapt to it.

“I’m not saying that climate change is a non-issue. It is an issue and it is going to cause damages. It’s just that it’s not the calamity that people say. People exaggerate how bad it is.”

Damages will far exceed the benefits, yes, but for MEOWs, that justifies only the most modest carbon price, as future posts will discuss. Ironically, or rather, tragically, if we listen to voodoo economists like Mendelsohn and Tol and Norhaus, then global warming is all but certain to be the calamity that people say.

The bottom line is that non-scientist Mendelsohn has a knowledge of climate science and impacts that ranges from arrogantly incomplete to criminally ignorant. He has no business telling anybody that on our current emissions path it will not be a calamity. He simply has no clue.

The economics profession should throw him out for malpractice, but they won’t do that because, as Part 3 (and 4 and 5) will make all too painfully clear, his views are solidly in the mainstream of MEOWs. You just can’t teach an old cat new tricks.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.