Leading US researcher says vested interests of fossil fuel companies still active in political debate

A leading researcher from the United States will today claim that the vested interests of the fossil fuel industries are continuing to perpetuate false controversies over the economics of climate change.

Professor Geoffrey Heal, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, will tell a public audience, in a lecture on ‘Controversies in the economics of climate change’ at the London School of Economics and Political Science, that political agreement on measures to cut greenhouse gases is being hampered by members of Congress who are representing the interests of oil and coal companies.

Professor Heal, who is a visiting professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, will say: “The United States is among the leading producers worldwide of fossil fuels and historically a lot of the political debate over the science of climate change was promoted by the oil and coal industries. Now that they know they cannot win by disputing the science, those representing these vested interests have moved on to promoting controversies over the economics. But in my view, the economics of climate change is as clear as the science.”

He will add: “Public awareness in the United States about climate change and its impacts has increased in the past few years, particularly after Hurricane Katrina even though it is not possible to attribute individual weather events to the global rise in greenhouse gas concentrations. But the vested interests of the fossil fuel industries remain active, and a number of members of Congress represent States that have strong coal and oil lobbies, even though President Obama’s administration has taken office. Tragically, it might only be another weather disaster, such as a major hurricane strike during the season that begins on 1 June, that sweeps aside these interests and makes a difference to the political debate about climate change.”

Professor Heal will identify three main areas of public controversy that currently exist over the economics of climate change:

  • the costs of allowing climate change to continue unabated, leading to the transformation of our natural world;
  •  the risk of a sudden or irreversible catastrophe, such as the rapid beak-up of a massive ice sheet that raises global sea levels and inundates coasts around the world;
  • the asymmetry of costs arising from dealing with climate change, with future generations only able to avoid the costs of climate change impacts if current generations bear the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Professor Heal will say: “These are all areas of controversy, yet the analysis is very clear. The costs of tackling greenhouse gas emissions should be far less than the costs of dealing with the impacts of climate change. The Stern Review showed this, but vested interests in the United States have tried to dispute its findings.”

He will add: “It is mainly politicians on the right, who champion the efficiency of free markets, that have tended to dispute both the science and economics of climate change. They have a problem because they believe that governments should not intervene in markets. But environmental problems, such as climate change, cannot be tackled without governments acting. In addition, there are many on the right in the United States who are hostile to science because of their beliefs, whether it is evolution or climate change.”

Notes for Editors

  1. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.