An (ig)nobel tragedy

In my most recent newsletter, I wrote:

I was surprised and upset to hear that Marty Weitzman, a Harvard environmental-economist of 77 years, killed himself recently. Weitzman brought, in my opinion, the right perspective to the costs and benefits of acting on climate change, and it was his work that motivated me to start the Life plus 2 meters project. I initially assumed he killed himself in despair over climate chaos, it seems that he was upset to not win the Nobel. (A third possibility is that the award of the Nobel to Nordhaus, who deserves zero respect for his highly flawed model and its recommendation to leave action to future generations,* convinced Weitzman that his work would not get the attention it deserves, thus sealing the miserable fate of our civilization.)

* I want to add more on that comment, which is based on two of Nordhaus’s assumptions. First, he assumes that it’s a good idea to use “market” discount rates to discuss (decidedly non-market) costs and benefits from climate change chaos (CC). I prefer Lord Stern’s view, i.e., that low discount rates (which make future damages from CC more salient in making sacrifices today to avoid CC) are more appropriate for discussing a existential threat like CC. Second, Nordhaus assumes that GDP captures the costs of CC when GDP misses many “ecosystem services” that CC will destroy (e.g., 2/3rds of our oxygen from oceanic phytoplankton). You can read his 2018 Nobel lecture in which he sticks with these flawed assumptions. Weitzman did not.

[Addendum (22 Sep): The lecture link returned a 404. Here’s a copy.]

When comparing these two environmental economists, I would have preferred that Weitzman get the Nobel and Nordhaus get the Ignobel prize, which is “devoted to people who’s research makes people laugh and then think.” Nordhaus’s work is worth thinking about (and laughing at once that’s done), but it’s instead taken seriously, which explains (partially) why the world has taken no substantial steps to slow CC.

How about an example of the dangers from CC? Last week, Hurricane Dorian slapped the Bahamas with winds of up to 300 km/h and a storm surge (more or less instantaneous sea level rise, or SLR) of 8 meters (24 freedom units). That much sea level rise would devastate many coastal cities, and the Bahamas were unlucky. 

The Netherlands (where I live) is planning for 1.2 meters of SLR by 2100. What would happen if a 5.5m surge arrived? The whole country would flood, as the country’s famous “delta works” is really only configured to storms bringing a 3m rise. (Listen to my discussion with Ties on this.)

Why is this an emerging (and uncertain) threat? Because SLR is predictable but storms are not. The warming Arctic (see this month’s National Geographic) is making such conditions more and more likely.

My one-handed conclusion is that Nordhaus would be surprised at  the Netherlands getting flooded while Weitzman would not. These reactions explain (to me) why the Nobel went to the wrong guy and my sorrow at losing a real visionary on the dangers of CC.

R.I.P. Marty Weitzman.

Addendum (12 Oct): Tim Hartford shares my views

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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