Top economics textbook — McConnell, Brue, and Flynn — gets climate science and policy wrong

The most popular economics textbook in the United States gives a misleading picture of climate science and policy.

A new analysis of textbooks by economist the Bauman for the Sightline Institute criticizes Economics: Principles, Problems, and Policies by Campbell McConnell, Stanley Brue, and Sean Flynn, its 18th edition published in 2008, for “multiple errors” and “climate science that is almost 15 years out of date.” Brad Johnson has the story and, at the end, CP will run some highlights and lowlights from other key economics texts.

Bauman bemoans the fact that Economics has “over 20 percent of the market” for introductory economics textbooks:

Overall, the book is not too bad if you ignore that it’s based on climate science that is almost 15 years out of date and that it has multiple errors that would make Wikipedia blush. The fact that this textbook has over 20 percent of the market shakes my faith in capitalism.

The book’s 16th chapter has an extended discussion of climate change, with misleading, outdated, or false statements throughout:

The earth’s surface has warmed over the last century by about 1 degree Fahrenheit, with an acceleration of warming during the past two decades. Some of this surface warming may simply reflect natural fluctuations of the earth’s warming and cooling, but the balance of scientific evidence suggests that human activity is a contributing factor.

The “balance of evidence” language quoted above is 15 years out of date, coming from the 1995 IPCC second assessment report. The most recent IPCC report, from 2007, says that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [greater than 90 percent] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [man-made] greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Since 1997 all signatory nations except the United States have ratified the Kyoto agreement although few are actually likely to meet the 2012 goals.

This claim is false. In fact, as of 2007, 26 of 30 European Union countries are on track to meet their Kyoto targets, and the EU will meet its collective target. As will Australia, Japan, Russia, and the industrialized countries as a whole.

Because of the greenhouse effect, average temperatures are predicted to rise by 1 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 50 years and 2.2 to 10 degrees by 3000.

“The authors are off by 900 years,” Bauman writes. “If they substituted ‘2100″² for ‘3000″² they would be more in line with the 2007 IPCC report.” In the three years since the IPCC report, expectations have worsened. Scientists now expect temperatures to rise by another 3.5 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2060 and 5 to 11 degrees by 2100 if dramatic reductions in pollution are not made.

Rainfall will increase, rainfall patterns will change, and ocean levels will gradually rise by as much as 2 feet. Snow accumulations may decline in some regions and rise in others. More violent storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes may occur in some regions.

The projection of sea level rise is wrong. The upper bound on very long-term sea level rise due to global warming is about 80 meters (260 feet) above current levels. The 2007 IPCC report did not place an upper bound on sea level rise by 2100, because ice sheet dynamics were not sufficiently understood to make a projection based on anything over than thermal expansion. Current expectations of sea level rise this century are of a minimum of 1.6 feet to 6 feet increase. Mort importantly, significant and deadly changes in rainfall, sea level rise, snow accumulation, and violent storms have already been observed across the world. These are not just changes that scientists expect to happen “” but changes that are already happening.

The authors also get basic climate policy wrong in a misquote of Gilbert Metcalf’s carbon tax paper:

According to a 2007 study, a proposed $15 tax per ton of carbon emitted would add an estimated 14 cents to a gallon of gasoline, $1.63 to a kilowatt hour of electricity, $28.50 to a ton of coal, and $6.48 to a barrel of crude oil.

“They’re off by two full orders of magnitude here,” Bauman explains. “$1.63 should be $0.0163, and that’s not the only mathematical error. The figures they use refer to a tax per ton of carbon dioxide, not a tax per ton of carbon.” A $15 tax on a ton of carbon is a $55 tax on a ton of carbon dioxide.

Bauman charitably gives the textbook a C- grade, classing it with other major economics texts that are “not recommended.”

— Brad Johnson, in a WonkRoom cross-post.

JR:  I asked Bauman, perhaps best known as the world’s only “stand-up economist,” for the best and words from his new report out, “Grading Economics Textbooks on Climate Change.”  Here’s what he sent (sans McConnell, Brue, and Flynn):

Of the 16 books reviewed, only 4 are “highly recommended”: Colander, Mankiw, Krugman and Wells, and Baumol and Blinder.

The other end of the spectrum includes:

* Hubbard and O’Brien, which includes a NASA graph with a shameful overlay. (For comparison purposes, imagine a biology book with an pointlessly skeptical image about whether the Galapagos Islands really provides evidence for evolution by natural selection.)

* Gwartney, Stroup, Sobel, and Macpherson, which says things like “[T]he earth has experienced both warming and cooling trends in the past, and the current warming trend may well be unrelated to the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”  I’m sad to announce that this book is the winner of the 2010 Ruffin and Gregory Award for the Worst Treatment of Climate Change in an Economics Textbook. The tradition prize here—as pioneered by Ruffin and Gregory, whose book died 10 years ago and is now selling for $0.09 on Amazon—is for the book in question to be hounded out of print. You can help make that happen by sending a complaint to the publisher’s representative at Cengage Learning,, and to the authors themselves:,,,

10 Responses to Top economics textbook — McConnell, Brue, and Flynn — gets climate science and policy wrong

  1. I. Snarlalot Thiezdaise says:

    Well it’s good to hear that at least a few texts are “highly recommended.” I can’t help remembering that it was America’s best in business education that gave us G. W. Bush, our first MBA president.

    So sad.

  2. dwight says:

    Wow, and I thought statements like, “the increase in earth’s temperature indicates global warming” were simply tautological.

  3. john atcheson says:

    The tow biggest impediments to action on global warming are misguided economists and a misguided (perhaps intentionally) media.

    It’s sad to see we’re churning out more of them. I teach an environmental economics course and the degree of misinformation in my students about basic things like the effect of discounting, the fact that we assign zero value to natural capital (encouraging their liquidation), and the “cost” of regulation.

    As for the latter, Michael Porter of Harvard’s business school has done a lot of work showing that intelligent regulation can actually function as an economic stimulus.

    But thanks to 35 years of Reaganism, no one seems to know that.

  4. Foppe says:

    Don’t worry, it also gets a lot of the economics wrong, by treating every little topic as being something that needs to be considered in isolation rather than as part of a larger picture. I’ve skimmed the book last week for a different reason, and it’s crap – though arguably no worse than most other econ textbooks.

  5. Is this just Freakonomics for Older Folks?

  6. Leif says:

    Senator Bernie Sanders has a few things to say about the economy. I clapped!

    ~13 minute floor speech.

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    Economists’ Statement Opposing The Bush Tax Cuts

    Does anyone remember this, signed by 10 Nobel Prize winners in economics and about 450 economists in total, not many years ago? Check it out:

  8. The economics author that I read with high regard is Herman Daly. He compiled a series of essays in Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development and an economics textbook called Ecological Economics: Principals and Applications by Daly and Farley. Admittedly, their text is not a basic text, but a specialized treatment that assumes the reader understands the basics.

    I think Daly’s point of view is best summarized in the first Essay included in Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development on P. 9: “The limits to growth, in today’s usage, refers to the limits of the ecosystem to absorb wastes and replenish raw materials in order to sustain the economy (the two populations of dissipative structures). The economy is a subsystem of the larger ecosystem, and the latter is finite, non-growing, and materially closed. Although the ecosystem is open with respect to solar energy, that solar flow too is non-growing.”

    As an engineer teaching Sustainability in Business in business schools, I appreciate his treatment of energy flows and physical limits. I would welcome any other text suggestions as economics references for my class.

  9. John Cobb says:

    That an economics text acknowledges that the consequences of economic growth for the planet may be relevant is progress. The next step will be getting the facts straight. Perhaps once that happens it will be clear even to members of the economic guild that they are working with the wrong model. Perhaps the idea will occur to some that the economy should serve the Earth and its inhabitants rather than having all these serve the economy. Sadly, by the time this happens there may not be many inhabitants to serve or much left to serve them with.

  10. riverat says:

    The economy is a subsystem of the larger ecosystem…

    I wish we could get that fact through to a bunch of economic fundamentalists.