The debate over climate change, says Richard Carson, “has long centered on the notion that we needed a lot more science before we should do something about it — and that’s just a fantasy of lobbyists.

“Now that we know what climate change is, and we’re pretty capable of forecasting some of the whens, ifs, and whats, most of the problem now is on the economic side and the implementation side.”

And says Carson, economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, who delivered the keynote lecture celebrating the Mississippi State University Agricultural Economics Department’s 100-year anniversary, “The U.S. is no longer in the driver’s seat” with the climate change issue.

“The U.S. is rapidly decarbonizing and reducing its energy consumption. Almost all the problems that will occur in the future will happen in a relatively small number of big developing countries — China, Brazil, Indonesia — and they’re very much opposed to doing anything. Their position is that anything they do to tax energy or carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will reduce their level of economic growth. China is very fearful of the instability that may happen if their growth level drops.”

Carson, a Jackson, Miss., native and a 1977 MSU graduate, has been at UC San Diego for 25 years, and is said to be the most cited environmental economist in the world. He participated in development of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and was principal investigator on the economic damage assessment for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

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“Environmental economics analyzes products and services where there are no prices,” says Steve Turner, head of the MSU Department of Agricultural Economics. “Clean air for example — What price can we put on clean air? Or clean water? On the flip side, what is the cost of polluted air? Or polluted water? What are the economic consequences and impacts of catastrophic events like hurricanes, earthquakes … or oil spills? Environmental economists try to estimate values for these things and come up with policy.

“This is where Dr. Carson has made his biggest impact. The concept of contingent valuation, outlined in his book by that name, is now one of the predominant methods of valuing environmental goods and services.”

MSU began a major in environmental economics and management in 2009, Turner noted, and “today we have about 30 students in that major.”

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The difficulty in thinking about climate change, Carson says, “is that there are many who say this could never, ever be true,” and even those who may accept the underlying premise of the physics behind climate change “may say there are better things to spend our money on now, that people in the future are going to be wealthier than we are — let them deal with the problem.

“Others take the position that most of the adverse effects won’t be felt in the U.S. or Europe, or that actions by the U.S., Europe, and other major developed countries would be completely ineffective in the long run unless the undeveloped countries also bought into doing something about it.”