From what I have seen of academia and government, The Economist is one of the most widely-read and influential news publications out there. Keeping on top of what they report upon and argue was a necessary task for a university-level debater. It also helps avoid surprises when dealing with academics and bureaucrats. If The Economist gives a national leader a nickname, you can be sure there will be much scurrying that results among both bureaucrats and political staff.
That reputation and influence makes it all the more regrettable that The Economist doesn’t understand climate change. They concur that the key science is settled, that climate change is happening, and that action should be taken in response. They support the creation of carbon taxes. At the same time, they don’t recognize the magnitude of the problem, and they haven’t adapted their general editorial stance to properly take it into account. For them, climate change is a potentially important sideshow – it is not the key phenomenon determining the future of humanity.
That is odd, given their general appreciation for science and the clarity of the messages scientists are sending. Right now, we are on track to warm the planet by more than 5°C by 2100 – as much of a difference in mean global temperature as there is between the present climate and the one that prevailed at the middle of the last ice age. And yet, The Economist seems to believe that following this business-as-usual path wouldn’t have a major effect on the ongoing process of economic growth, which they are unflinching supporters of. The fact that we are profoundly altering things like sea levels and precipitation patterns in ways that will endure for thousands of years is apparently less important than what the global GDP growth figure for the next couple of years will be.
For humanity to have a prosperous future, we need to stop the climate from changing so much that it undermines human welfare and prosperity. Given the inescapable link between burning fossil fuels and climate change, achieving that goal will require moving to other sources of energy and leaving most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels unburned. The Economist certainly has not recognized this – nor have they recognized the danger of catastrophic or runaway climate change if humanity keeps burning coal, oil, and gas heedlessly. Because of that, they still think that it will be possible to adapt to climate change even if no success is found in mitigating it. They commit the error of making fun of renewable sources of energy, just because they represent a small portion of humanity’s total energy use today. Ultimately, only renewable forms of energy can be relied upon to serve human needs indefinitely. The fact that they remain a niche energy source is cause for concern – not a reason to believe we can keep relying on fossil fuels forever.
Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for the worst effects of climate change to become visible, before The Economist will start taking the full range of risks seriously. By the time the droughts, storms, and flooded coastlines are fully visible, it will be far too late to prevent even more serious and widespread effects. For now, The Economist remains in denial. They have accepted the fact that human beings are warming the planet in threatening ways, but the implications of those facts have not yet flowed through all the channels of their thinking and marinated their ideology.
Indeed, I suspect that ideology is the main problem here. The fundamental worldview of The Economist is libertarian. They believe that consenting adults can make agreements between themselves that provide benefits without harming everyone else. Governments need to step in and regulate in circumstances where private agreements cause public harm. The problem with climate change is that – since so many different activities contribute to it – governments effectively need to regulate all significant private agreements, at least insofar as they involve the production of greenhouse gases. Because The Economist is unwilling to accept such a broad mandate for government, they cannot recognize the scope of the problem being faced.
Given where the world is right now, it is not enough to just call for a carbon tax and then get back to the business of encouraging growth. If the choice is between a world with both growth and unlimited climate change and another with neither growth nor climate change, the latter is preferable for humanity as a whole, despite how it would involve major sacrifices both from those who are already affluent and those who are trying to escape from extreme poverty. Maintaining a climate that is compatible with human welfare and prosperity has over-arching moral and economic importance. Given how massively the world’s governments and corporations are failing to achieve that aim, The Economist should be calling for non-violent resistance, the blocking of rail lines to coal plants, and the pulling of investment from fossil fuel companies.
Until they begin to propose a response to climate change that is proportionate to the risk it involves, they will be doing a disservice to all those who rely upon their analysis and advice.