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What economists really think about environmental issues

In a 2009 survey or economists on climate change, more than 94 per cent believed that the United States should sign a global treaty committing to greenhouse gas reductions.


In my previous post I took on David Suzuki, who suggested – among other things – that academic economists support the unchecked depletion of natural resources. That argument does not pass scrutiny. So, what do economists believe about environmental and societal issues?

Two surveys, one presented to the economics profession as a whole and a second given to economists studying climate change provide a window to the thoughts of economists.

In the spring of 2003, economists Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern sent surveys to a random selection of economists who belong to the American Economics Association and asked questions on their political affiliations and their views on 18 policy issues, such as free trade and immigration. The 264 respondents showed a marked preference for the Democratic Party, and were 2.5 times more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. Of the 18 issues, economists had consensus views on 13 of them. The issue that garnered the most support was anti-discrimination laws. The second-strongest issue of support was for air-quality and water-quality regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Economists were also in favour of workplace health and safety regulations, food and drug regulations, redistributions from rich to poor and gun control; they were opposed to tight immigration laws and tariffs on imported goods.

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Opinions on climate change were examined in a 2009 survey of economists who had written at least one academic paper on the subject. Out of the 144 respondents, more than 94 per cent believed that the United States should sign a global treaty committing to greenhouse gas reductions. Only 2 per cent of the respondents believe that the U.S. should not seek to reduce GHG emissions. Overwhelmingly, economists supported market-based measures, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade rather than command and control regulations. If cap-and-trade was implemented, more than 80 per cent of the respondents believed that permits should be auctioned to industry rather than given to corporations for free.

Taken together, these two surveys provide insight to the beliefs of academic economists. Your average U.S. academic economist is a moderate Democrat, though with higher levels of support for immigration and free-trade than most. He (and your average economist is still a he) supports efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and supports measures for cleaner air and water. He prefers market-based measures, such as the cap-and-trade measures of the Clean Air Act, rather than the heavy hand of government regulations. He worries about inequality and wants to see corporations pay for their pollution, rather than be handed permits for free. He does not resemble Mr. Suzuki's characterization of an academic economist.

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About the Author

Mike Moffatt is an Assistant Professor in the Business, Economics and Public Policy (BEPP) group at the Richard Ivey School of Business – Western University. Mike also does private sector consulting for the chemical industry. More


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