Why Does a Climatologist Need to Explain Economics to Joe Nocera?

When Joe Nocera was given his own New York Times op-ed page column, we noted (FAIR Blog, 3/2/11) that his Times business column had been responsible for some embarrassing corrections. For example, he had written a piece (6/26/10) about how offshore oil drilling had an “astonishing” safety record, having lost only 1,800 barrels of oil to accidents between 1964 and 2009. The actual number, a subsequent correction (7/1/10) admitted: 532,000 barrels.

We expressed hope at the time that Nocera was the kind of writer who learned from his mistakes, but–not so much.


Nocera is a big fan of the Keystone pipeline, despite the fact that climate scientists say the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands it’s intended to facilitate will have a devastating impact on efforts to curb global warming. Not to worry, says Nocera (2/18/13)–assuring us that “the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small“–that link going to a Congressional Research Service report that compares the greenhouse impact of burning tar sands vs. burning the same amount of other sorts of petroleum, not the impact of burning the 2 trillion barrels of tar sands oil (roughly 170 billion of which are currently extractable) vs. leaving it in the ground.

NASA climatologist James Hansen has tried to explain to Nocera why he’s so wrong about the tar sands, but Nocera’s account of their argument makes it seem like explaining anything to him would be an uphill battle. Here’s the key passage:

Hansen…told me he would like to see oil companies pay a fee, which would rise annually, based on carbon emissions. He said that such a tax could reduce emissions by 30 percent within 10 years. Well, maybe. But it would also likely make the expensive tar sands oil more viable. If you really want to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources, the best way is to lower the price of oil, which would render them uneconomical. But, of course, that wouldn’t exactly lower demand either.

The idea that a tax on carbon emissions would make expensive, high-carbon petroleum more viable is a surprising argument to hear from a  former business columnist–it’s like saying that a tax on alcohol content would make expensive Scotch more affordable. Actually, that would make more sense, because if Scotch becomes less expensive relative to beer–if it costs only three times as much, say, rather than 10 times as much–some people might decide to splurge on it. If you significantly raise the cost of burning carbon, though, people will switch to other forms of energy–that’s the whole point of a carbon tax!–and no one’s going to be using the most expensive forms of petroleum for its status value.

As Hansen wrote in a response:

Joe Nocera was polite, but he does not understand basic economics.  If a rising price is placed on carbon, the tar sands will be left in the ground where they belong.

Or as Climate Progress‘s Joe Romm (2/19/13) put it:

You might think an A-list business reporter for the NY Times would know basic economics. But not in the case of Joe Nocera.




About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.