Ethics of the scientist qua policy advisor: inductive risk, uncertainty, and catastrophe in climate economics

Synthese:3123-3138 (2019)
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This paper discusses ethical issues surrounding Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) of the economic effects of climate change, and how climate economists acting as policy advisors ought to represent the uncertain possibility of catastrophe. Some climate economists, especially Martin Weitzman, have argued for a precautionary approach where avoiding catastrophe should structure climate economists’ welfare analysis. This paper details ethical arguments that justify this approach, showing how Weitzman’s “fat tail” probabilities of climate catastrophe pose ethical problems for widely used IAMs. The main claim is that economists who ignore or downplay catastrophic risks in their representations of uncertainty likely fall afoul of ethical constraints on scientists acting as policy advisors. Such scientists have duties to honestly articulate uncertainties and manage (some) inductive risks, or the risks of being wrong in different ways.

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David M. Frank
University of Tennessee, Knoxville