It appears that news media and some pro-environmental organizations have the tendency to accentuate or even exaggerate the damage caused by climate change. This article provides a rationale for this tendency by using a modified International Environmental Agreement (IEA) model with asymmetric information. We find that the information manipulation has an instrumental value, as it ex post induces more countries to participate in an IEA, which will eventually enhance global welfare. From the ex ante perspective, however, the impact that manipulating information has on the level of participation in an IEA and on welfare is ambiguous. -Fuhai Hong and Xiaojian Zhao, Information Manipulation and Climate Agreements, American Journal of Agricultural Economics
This article offers a rationale for the phenomenon of climate damage accentuation or exaggeration on the part of the international mainstream media or other pro-environmental organizations. Forming a binding IEA to curb climate change is a matter of urgency (see, e.g., Beccherle and Tirole 2011). The IEA literature generally takes the pessimistic view that an IEA has little chance of success in resolving the climate problem because strong free-riding incentives prevent a sufficient number of countries from participating in that agreement. Using a modified IEA model with two states and asymmetric information, we show that the aforementioned exaggeration of climate damage may alleviate the problem of insufficient IEA participation. When the media or pro-environmental organizations have private information on the damage caused by climate change, in equilibrium they may manipulate this information to increase pessimism regarding climate damage, even though the damage may not be that great. Consequently, more countries (with overpessimistic beliefs about climate damage) will be induced to participate in an IEA in this state, thereby leading to greater global welfare expost. In essence, overpessimism mitigates the problem of underparticipation that is caused by free-riding incentives. However, because people update their beliefs using the Bayesian rule, such information manipulation has a negative externality on the other state when climate damage is really huge, in which case the aforementioned information provider will not be sufficiently trusted even if it indicates the true state. As a result, the participation level falls further in this situation. Overall, information manipulation has an ambiguous effect on IEA membership and global welfare from the ex ante perspective.
The basic idea isn’t new. Well-known science writer John Horgan has said similar stuff about whether it is right to lie for global warming:
Kant said that when judging the morality of an act, we must weigh the intentions of the actor. Was he acting selfishly, to benefit himself, or selflessly, to help others? By this criterion, Gleick’s lie was clearly moral, because he was defending a cause that he passionately views as righteous. Gleick, you might say, is a hero comparable to Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who in 1971 stole and released documents that revealed that U.S. officials lied to justify the war in Vietnam.
But another philosopher my students and I are reading, the utilitarian John Stuart Mill, said that judging acts according to intentions is not enough. We also have to look at consequences. And if Gleick’s deception has any consequences, they will probably be harmful. His exposure of the Heartland Institute’s plans, far from convincing skeptics to reconsider their position, will probably just confirm their suspicions about environmentalists. Even if Gleick’s lie was morally right, it was strategically wrong.
I’ll give the last word to one of my students. The Gleick incident, he said, shows that the “debate” over global warming is not really a debate any more. It’s a war, and when people are waging war, they always lie for their cause.
Okay, so on this subject, we won’t believe John Horgan. But can we believe any media now, even the journals?
Oddly, none of these people think the rest of us are capable of figuring out that they aren’t telling the truth.
They’re going to have to manipulate a LOT of news systems … and corrode a lot of memories.
Note: Is it relevant that the Darwin-in-the-schools lobby recently added a climate change desk?
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