Niall Ferguson is talking about climate change, which means somebody needs to explain why you shouldn’t be listening to him. This is pretty easy, because if you subject his argument to even the most gentle scrutiny, it becomes clear that Ferguson has no idea what he is talking about, or even that he knows how to productively think about climate change and its potential impacts. The giveaway is Ferguson’s enthusiasm for Bjorn Lomborg, whose economic arguments about climate change are persistently and willfully misleading. To quote Ferguson:

Subsidies to renewable energy have a cost. Cutting CO2 emissions has a cost. Those costs in terms of forgone growth could exceed the costs of climate damage if we over-reach in the way that, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would. The key point, as Lomborg says, is that vastly more people die as a consequence of poverty each year than die as a consequence of global warming. A CO2 emissions target is not the optimal target if meeting it would trap millions in poverty, not to mention ignorance and ill health.

The argument here is attractive at first glance because it seems simple and logical enough – the costs of reducing CO2 might reduce economic growth, trapping people in poverty, which kills more people than climate change, so we’d actually be making things worse by reducing emissions. But whenever someone gives you simple logic for a complicated problem engaging multiple complex systems (the global climate, the global economy, etc.), beware.

First, there is Ferguson’s willful efforts to mislead the reader. Of course subsidies have costs. Ferguson’s framing, however, willfully ignores the spectacular costs of the subsidies to fossil fuels that long reduced their direct consumer costs and thus made them more attractive than renewables. Further, this shabby line of argument elides the fact that even in the face of subsidies to fossil fuels, many forms of renewable energy are becoming economically efficient choices. And of course cutting emissions will have costs. What Ferguson ignores in this statement is that emissions also have costs. The amount of these costs, while debated, never come in cheap – its just a question of how expensive these costs are (for example, here, here, and here). So Ferguson’s implicit suggestion that we have a choice to make between incurring costs and not incurring costs is false. Our choice is between which costs we want to pay – those to mitigate and adapt to climate change and its impacts, or those to respond to those escalating impacts into the future. Whether talking about the cost of subsidies to clean energy, or the cost of cutting emissions in general, Ferguson offers a terribly disingenuous argument, and one I cannot believe he does not fully understand.

Second, it appears the Ferguson understands little about poverty, climate change impacts, or most crltically the relationship between the two. Ferguson’s argument about poverty and mortality (borrowed from Lomborg) is a bit odd, if you think about it a little. Poverty is a descriptive term for a human condition of lack – whether of needed assets, resources, or opportunities. Those lacks result in conditions in which people can and do die – for example, those who lack adequate housing are at risk for death from exposure, while those who lack access to adequate nutritious food are at risk for death from malnutrition. As these examples illustrate, poverty is not the agent of death. Poverty is the condition under which agents, such as weather conditions, can lead to death.

This is more than a pedantic point about poverty – it has everything to do with why Ferguson’s/Lomborg’s zero-sum argument about poverty versus climate change mitigation is garbage. This argument assumes that poverty and climate change are unrelated causes of death that can be measured against one another. However, it is extraordinarily well-established that the outcomes of climate change, from acute stresses produced by climate extremes to chronic impacts produced by long-term changes in temperature and precipitation, tend to exacerbate existing inequalities in whatever society they are found. Thus, climate change impacts will exacerbate poverty, the conditions under which people encounter higher rates of mortality. Put another way, it is not a choice between investment in anti-poverty efforts and investment in climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. Investments in anti-poverty work that pay no attention to climate change are likely to be less effective than those that do not. These are NOT INDEPENDENT VARIABLES.

Lomborg knows this, and has had this screamed at him, for something like a decade. The fact he continues to argue otherwise is just bad faith. Ferguson, on the other hand, likely has no idea what he is talking about and is just grabbing on to a narrative he likes. It’s pathetic when Harvard and Stanford give positions to someone willing to make misleading arguments about concepts he does not really understand to put forth an opinion that is not only demonstrably wrong, but just a rehashed, boring version of previous demonstrably wrong framings of climate change, its impacts, and the need for action. And it is tragic that the Boston Globe, a paper I otherwise respect, gave him the column inches to offer that opinion.