By Sam Butler-Sloss, Co-Lead of WEAll Youth Scotland and Organiser at Economists for Future
I got involved in the Wellbeing Economy Alliance because the case for repurposing and redesigning the economy to deliver wellbeing for people and planet is overwhelming. Yet, as a student of economics, it is unclear to me to what extent the economics profession agrees with this.
In my experience, most economists want to enhance the wellbeing of humanity through analytical contributions. Yet, in the past several decades, dominant economic theory and practice has made a number of consequential errors that have compromised the discipline’s ability to fulfil this goal. Chief among them is the de-prioritisation of the single greatest threat to the wellbeing of humanity in the 21st century – the climate and ecological crisis.
Across teaching, research and public and policy engagement, economists have failed to adequately engage in this issue. The most cited journal in economics has never published an article on climate change. The teaching of economics remains abstracted from ecological foundations. And even as other academic disciplines have become increasingly vocal on this issue, economists have remained too silent.
Worse too, when economists do engage, they often distort the problem. To name a few examples, their models tend to leave out tipping points, catastrophic risks and treat all threats as ‘marginal’. As a result, many economists’ contributions have been used as evidence to scale back, rather than scale up, climate ambition.
The economics profession’s insufficient response to the climate crisis puzzles me – it appears they are not even living up to their own standards.
Firstly, over the last several decades, economists have tried to convince the world that they are ‘scientific’. But, if they pride themselves on being scientific, then they must take the most important science of our day seriously.
Secondly, if the purpose of economics is to further human prosperity, then in an era of environmental breakdown, the exclusion of the natural world is only undermining that very goal.
Thirdly, the priorities of economists are often governed by cost-benefit analysis, but there is no scenario that is more expensive than unabated climate change. Even when using this dangerously narrow framework, the economic imperative for urgent action is clear. With the inclusion of harder-to-quantify aspects, such as distributional justice, this imperative for action is only amplified.
You might ask, why focus on economists? Is the inaction not the fault of politicians? Is it not a lack of political will? Sure, political willpower is in serious shortfall. As COP comes to an end, all eyes are on the world leaders. Rightly so. They must show leadership: they must take decisive and ambitious action or step aside for those that will. But pressure groups must also dig one layer deeper and ask how policy-makers make their decisions. For better or worse, economics has a central role in this process. If we are going to radically ramp up the ambition of climate policy, we must change how it is designed. We must change economics.
That is what motivated us, a group of students from across the world, to found Economists for Future. To arrest the climate crisis, economics must move from getting it wrong to making it right.
At Economists for Future, we are critical optimists. We have a deep belief in the power of good economics to make the world a better and more humane place. But we believe that we are currently not living up to our responsibility to help create and communicate a policy framework that accelerates the transformation to a more sustainable, prosperous and fairer world.
At this stage, failure to step up to this responsibility and to seize this opportunity is to let down the world. If economists cannot engage in this economic transformation the science requires—then who? If we do not raise our game now—then when? The likelihood is it will be too late. In which case, history has every right to judge us harshly.
In our one-page open letterwe lay out the case for economists to raise their game.