Sen and Sensibility on Climate

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen

I’ve never quite made up my mind about Harvard’s Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in economics who also traffics in philosophy—a rather rare combination. Sen has an article in the current issue of The New Republic with the promising title “Stop Obsessing About Global Warming,” noting sensibly (or should that be “Sen-sibly,” just as we used to say Irving made everything “Kristol-clear”) in the subtitle that “Environmentalists are ignoring poor countries’ needs.” Hear hear, except that for many environmentalists, ignoring the development needs of poor countries is a main point of their whole enterprise. (Sen has always favored rapid development of the poor nations of the world.)

But after this promising headline the long (and I do mean loooonnnng) article is a disappointment. Start with the beginning of the second paragraph:

I would like to comment on two quite different, but ultimately related, areas of neglected environmental analyses that demand immediate attention. The first is the general problem of not having anything like an overall normative framework, involving ethics as well as science, that could serve as the basis of debates and discussions on policy recommendations. Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge.

Still awake? Please God, spare us from “normative frameworks.” Some other time perhaps I’ll condense my lecture/rant on why I never use the word “normative” in the classroom (though I did give a fragment of this here on Power Line early last year). As soon as you hear social scientists start talking about “normative” questions, you can stop listening. This is not the language of normal (heh) human beings, and its pervasive use by academics is one reason why even the intelligent reading public doesn’t pay much attention to academics. (What do I say instead? Typically I say justice, without any mischievous adornments, like “social” appended in front of justice.)

The piece unfortunately goes downhill from there. Instead of arguing that developing nations need to use cheap energy—which means hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future—Sen goes full-out energy-romantic on us:

Many areas of the world where poverty is common are also particularly sunny and offer hugely underappreciated opportunities for the generation and use of solar power, if the scientific and engineering problems of using this source of energy—including the development of cheaper storage of seasonally variable power—are adequately addressed.

Yes, and why don’t we just assume we have a ladder, if you know that old joke about economists stuck at the bottom of a well. But it gets worse: Sent then goes full put platitudinous on us:

The need for concerted action for “our common future” was powerfully outlined more than a quarter century ago in a pioneering manifesto, prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development, led by Gro Brundtland, formerly the prime minister of Norway and later the director-general of the World Health Organization. The Brundtland report defined sustainable development as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

No, this definition isn’t even a “powerful outline” of a usable idea. It’s virtually meaningless; it is certainly vacuous in practice. Not long ago Donald Boudreaux of George Mason University proposed a simple litmus test for exposing platitudes: just imagine someone saying the opposite and see if sounds plausible. If someone says, “I’m for policies that help people,” imagine if you can see someone saying directly “I’m for policies that hurt people.” Does anyone actually say, “I’m for unsustainable development”? (By the way, much of the article is devoted to discounting the potential of nuclear power. So there’s nothing new here; just the usual wind/solar blather.)

I’ve often wondered how people like Sen get their reputations as deep thinkers. In development economics perhaps his reputation is deserved. But the gulf between the headline of this article and its content is glaring.

I’ve also long argued that the environmental obsession with global warming to the near-exclusion of every other environmental problem was a major detriment to the environmental movement—even if the catastrophic global warming hypothesis turned out to be true. It has eaten the movement alive, and done much to discredit it with the public. With his enormous prestige Sen had an opportunity to strike a blow for some serious reflection. Instead we got an unsustainable academic word salad that says nothing new at all.

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