Environmental Economics?
Jude Wanniski
March 12, 1997

 

Memo To: G. Pascal Zachary, The Wall Street Journal
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Global Warming

Your front page "Outlook" column Monday morning may have been read by several million people, which means if each took five minutes to digest it, several hundred thousand manhours were spent in reliance on your efforts. This is a heavy burden of responsibility, especially when the topic is one that involves a gigantic hoax the warning that global economic growth will burn so many hydrocarbons that the earth's weather will warm to the point where bad things will happen to mankind. I must commend you for limiting your warnings to the possibility that the costs of hurricane insurance will double and a dustbowl will appear in the Midwest, as it did in the 1930s, when the last global warming alarms were sounded. Overall, I give your effort a D-, not quite failing. After all, you are a business science writer, which tells me I might expect more of the scientific method underpinning your work in this area. Alas, I find right near the top the following: "Although bold action may not be needed, experts say standing pat isn't an option, either. 'No serious economist has come to the conclusion that one should do nothing,' says William Nordhaus, an environmental economist at Yale University. 'The idea of waiting around until everything is resolved in this particular case means doing something that's much more costly.'"

Mr. Zachary, I hate to break it to you, but there is no such thing as an 'environmental economist.' Yale's William Nordhaus a few years ago discovered that he was so hapless in predicting the unemployment rate or GNP in the last quarter, that if he wanted to make a name for himself, he should predict the weather 100 years from now. When Nordhaus says "no serious economist" concludes we should do nothing about something they know nothing about, you might have reminded yourself that you are supposed to be a serious journalist with an extremely important audience, to which time is money. If only one million WSJournal readers read your column, you must realize that is a lot of people. They would fill the Los Angeles coliseum five times over.

Once, I worked for the Journal, writing editorials during the years of "energy crisis," when William Nordhaus was probably among those warning that we would be out of liquid petroleum and natural gas by 1997, freezing in the dark. We now have 40 years worth of global reserves, an all-time high, at projected rates of consumption. Your science writing has been concentrated in computer science, which may be your problem. Nordhaus and his buddies have been predicting the toasting of the world in the computer models they write, at great expense, with money contributed by Yale graduates who have made their fortunes as entrepreneurs in economic growth activities we now are told must stop.

My advice to you and your editors is to buy a copy of Gregg Easterbrook's book, A Moment on the Earth, Viking 1995, 745 pages. Easterbrook is one of the finest science writers of our generation and his book is the most comprehensive and reliable on environmental issues I've ever seen. It was largely ignored by the political press because, for conservatives, he gives too much credence to many issues favored by liberals, and vice versa. That is, he is politically incorrect on both ideological sides. Chapter 17, on "Global Warmth," may not be all you need to know on the subject, but if you had read it, you would have had a better fix on the issue, and wasted less time for your many readers. Here is just one paragraph, from P. 283:

In recent years the belief among greenhouse thinkers that the future may be viewed on  computer projections has gotten out of hand. For instance in 1992 in the footnoted letters column of Science, Stephen Schneider, Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund, William Nordhaus of Yale University, and other prominent players in the greenhouse controversy debated in somber tones a computer projection Nordhaus made regarding economic impacts of global warming. About what did the letter writers syllogize? Whether Nordhaus could assume that cumulative U.S. GNP growth will be 450 percent or 470 percent by the year 2015. It turned out this choice determined whether Yale's computer predicted a gloomy or rosy result. These are the sorts of environmental data points, earnestly debated today by intelligent and conscientious souls, that are 100 percent guaranteed to be wrong.

Mr. Zachary, you may recall that when I was still publishing the MediaGuide, I consistently gave you high marks for your reporting, once at the level of (***). This should tell you I do not have anything personal against you and in fact am inclined to appreciate your work. Next time, please try harder.