The social responsibility of economics and economists
COP26 approaches this year in the wake of a sobering IPCC report. It is the opinion of many that the conference is among the last chances to direct the world economy on the path to sustainability, notwithstanding the societal and natural disasters already occurring around the world. However, as the public are bombarded daily with scientific reports on the accelerating emergency, and on the tireless efforts of activists and civil society to induce rapid political action, one set of voices remains uncomfortably reposed – those of the economists. Where the academic consensus in the natural sciences becomes more unequivocal by the day, where other social sciences dedicate special issue after special issue to sustainability, the very words ‘climate change’ are deigned unfit to grace the pages of the world’s top economics journals (Oswald and Stern, 2019; Beckmann and Butler-Sloss 2021). Historically, economists have by far underestimated the costs of ecological breakdown. This has contributed to an intellectual environment in which the ecological crisis is at best a concern of a subdiscipline.
In 1968, Karl Popper proposed the adoption of a Hippocratic Oath for Scientists. He believed that the scientist should have an ‘overriding responsibility’ which ‘he owes neither to his teacher nor to his colleagues, but to mankind, just as the physician owes his overriding loyalty to his patients’ (Popper, 1971). A similar sentiment was echoed in January 2020, when over 11,000 scientists signed a letter which began with the affirmation that ‘’scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to “tell it like it is.”’ (Ripple et al 2019, pp 8). Such a commitment finds no parallel in the world of economics, an exclusion which makes possible the sidelining of the burning questions posed by the ongoing emergency. This has much to do with the predilection of economists for treating their discipline as divorced from ethics.
This needs to change. Economic decisions do have ethical consequences, and it follows that the willful exclusion of research, teaching and policy engagement on the ecological crisis is tacitly unethical. In the face of the possibility of the already ongoing multi-species devastation our ecosystems are facing, a profoundly unethical crisis, can the silence and inaction of economists be considered anything less than complicit? Economists are typically loath to consider that their field should have a professional code of ethics but we believe that economists must bear a social responsibility for the betterment of life on this planet, and a part of this responsibility must be to work towards arresting the planetary emergency.
The economies of the world are confronted with a mismatch between indicators of economic well-being and the limits imposed by planetary boundaries (O’Neill et al 2018), but economists seem to have few answers on how to close the gap. The old ideas that climate change begets minimal economic damage, that the world’s natural resources are infinitely interchangeable, or that eliminating pollution is just a problem of finding the right price sound almost laughable in the face of what we now know from environmental science. The implications of the recent IPCC report are clear – the economic case for ecological integrity can no longer be considered up for debate.
Rather the discipline needs to put the latter at its heart, and motivate it’s research and policy recommendations accordingly. Economies must be redesigned to thrive with planetary boundaries, while at the same time ensuring a good quality of life for all. Economists have a responsibility to study connections between these topics in an honest and realistic way, and bring this research to the policy frontier with the wellbeing of the entire biosphere as the primary motivation. However, economists are constrained by the institutions they are a part of, meaning that we need structural changes in the discipline. Funding must be redirected towards research on climate-economy interactions, and top journals must be incentivised to publish and popularise this research. Economists must put themselves at the forefront of the public discourse on environmental policy. All this and more must be essential components of being a professional economist in the 21st century. Anything less is indefensible.
DeMartino and McCloskey (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics
DeMartino, George F. (2013) The Economists Oath: On the Need for and Content of Professional Economic Ethics
Oswald, A., & Stern, N. (2019). Why does the economics of climate change matter so much, and why has the engagement of economists been so weak?. Royal Economic Society Newsletter.
Butler-Sloss, S. & Beckmann, M (2021) Economics journals’ engagement in the planetary emergency: a misallocation of resources?. Economists for Future International
Popper, K. R. (1971). The moral responsibility of the scientist. Bulletin of Peace Proposals, 2(3), 279-283.
Ripple, W., Wolf, C., Newsome, T., Barnard, P., Moomaw, W., & Grandcolas, P. (2019). World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency. BioScience.
O’Neill, Daniel W., et al. “A good life for all within planetary boundaries.” Nature sustainability 1.2 (2018): 88-95.
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