by Judith Curry
So, is the climate ‘cure’ worse than the climate ‘disease’?
Definition of ‘iatrogenic’:
Iatrogenic: Due to the activity of a physician or therapy. For example, an iatrogenic illness is an illness that is caused by a medication or physician.
The seriousness of iatrogenic illness, and even death, is highlighted in a recent medical journal article A new, evidence based estimate of patient harms associated with hospital care.
An issue of serious concern, but why am I talking about iatrogenics on a climate blog?
This ‘iatrogenic’ post was triggered by a series of tweets on Nov 13 by Nassim Taleb, summarized below:
- Iatrogenics kills between 300,000 and 700,000 pple/year in US. The “bullshit” treatments are more often delivered by a doctor
- Benefit of homeopathy: harmless pacebo & waiting/preventing marginal patients frm overtreatment/iatrogenic intrvtion
- RupertRead: Homeopathy is nonsense. It ‘works’ because its practitioners manifest a caring attitude to their patients, and give them plenty of time.
- Superstitions can be rational if 1) harmless, 2) lower your anxiety, 3) prevent you from listening to forecasts by economists & BS “experts”
- Many surviving popular treatments are harmless and “distract the patient while nature does its job” (Voltaire)
It was the ‘forecasts by economists and BS experts’ that triggered my linking of iatrogenics to climate policy.
In the absence of an existential threat or ‘ruin’ from human-caused climate change (see previous post), climate policies should be judged on a cost-benefit basis, with the added complexity of multi-generational discount rates, and in the presence of massive uncertainty in projections and assessments.
So, is the climate ‘cure’ being organized by the UNFCCC worse than the climate ‘disease’?
Of greatest relevance here is his op-ed in the WSJ: Gambling the world economy on climate. Excerpts:
The U.N.’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, says openly that the aim of the talks is “to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution.”
But before ditching that economic model, it’s worth considering how much progress it has brought.
For one, life expectancy in the past 150 years has more than doubled, to 71 years in 2013 from fewer than 30 years in 1870. Meanwhile, billions of people have risen out of poverty. One and a half centuries ago, more than 75% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, consuming less than $1 a day, in 1985 money. This year the World Bank expects extreme poverty to fall below 10% for the first time in history.
It is telling that U.N. officials provide no estimated costs for an economic transformation. But one can make an unofficial tally by adding up the costs of Paris promises for 2016-30 submitted by the U.S., European Union, Mexico and China, which together account for about 80% of the globe’s pledged emissions reductions.
There is no official cost estimate for Mr. Obama’s promise to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. However, the peer-reviewed Stanford Energy Modeling Forum has run more than a hundred scenarios for greenhouse-gas reductions and the costs to gross domestic product. Taking this data and performing a regression analysis across the reductions shows that hitting the 26%-28% target would reduce GDP between $154 billion and $172 billion annually.
The EU says it will cut emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Again, there is no official estimate of the cost given, which is extraordinary. The data from the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum suggests hitting that target would reduce the EU’s GDP by 1.6% in 2030, or €287 billion in 2010 money.
Mexico has put into place the strongest climate legislation of any developing country, conditionally promising to cut greenhouse-gas and black-carbon emissions by 40% below the current trend line by 2030. The Mexican government estimates that cutting emissions in half by 2050 will cost between $6 billion and $33 billion in 2005 money, but that is many times too low. Peer-reviewed literature, supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the EU, suggests that by 2030 the cost would already reach 4.5% of GDP, or $80 billion in 2005 money.
China has promised by 2030 to reduce its carbon-dioxide emissions, per unit of GDP, to at least 60% below 2005. Using the data from the Asia Modeling Exercise we find that hitting this target will cost at least $200 billion a year.
So in total, the Paris promises of the EU, Mexico, U.S. and China will diminish the economy at least $730 billion a year by 2030—and that is in an ideal world, where politicians consistently reduce emissions in the most effective ways.
Experience tells us that won’t happen. For instance, policy makers could have chipped away at emissions efficiently with modest taxes on carbon, or by switching electrical generation to natural gas. Instead many countries, including the U.S. and those in the EU, have poured money into phenomenally inefficient subsidies for solar and biofuels, which politicians go for like catnip. The EU’s 20/20 climate policy—the goal, embarked upon in 2010, to cut emissions 20% from 1990 levels by 2020—is the clearest example of such gross inefficiency.
The cuts on the table in Paris, then, will leave the global economy, in rough terms, $1 trillion short every year for the rest of the century—and that’s if the politicians do everything right. If not, the real cost could double.
All of these high-flown promises will fail to accomplish anything substantial to rein in climate change. At best, the emissions cuts pledged in Paris will prevent a total temperature rise by 2100 of only 0.306 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a peer-reviewed study I recently published in Global Policy.
If nations formalize their planned carbon cuts in Paris and then stick to them, Ms. Figueres’s economic transformation will indeed happen: But it won’t be a transformation to be proud of.
Business as usual in terms of the energy sector expects a slow transition away from fossil fuels over the 21st century – all other things being equal, people prefer clean energy; and fossil fuels will become increasingly expensive to extract.
The UNFCCC seeks to radically accelerate this transition, all to the effect of preventing a few tenths of a degree of global warming in the 21st century, with the climate ‘benefits’ of these reductions being realized in the 22nd and 23rd centuries.
Any benefits of the UNFCCC emission reductions assumes that we understand how the climates of the 21st – 23rd centuries will actually play out, and that these climates will be dominated by human-caused greenhouse warming. The CMIP5 climate model simulations not withstanding, the IPCC admits that they don’t have confidence in the size of the CO2 effect:
No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement of values across assessed lines of evidence and studies.
It seems most economists didn’t get this memo (including AR5 WG3), since they continue to use ECS = 3 C. Lower values of ECS imply that it is much easier to stay within the 2C ‘danger’ limit:
- The uncertainty of climate sensitivity and its implication for the Paris negotiations
- My WSJ op-ed: Global warming statistical meltdown
It is difficult to see how the UNFCCC policies make economic sense, and I suspect that there are unforeseen adverse impacts to (economies and human well being) of this attempt to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels. I have not seen an estimate of the opportunity cost of spending a trillion dollars a year on alternative energy, as opposed to dealing with the more urgent human development needs (although perhaps Lomborg will be writing about this).
I use this quote in some of my presentations, I’ve forgotten the source at this point (Obersteiner?):
Key climate policy dilemma – Whether betting big today with a comprehensive global climate policy targeted at stabilization will:
- fundamentally reshape our common future on a global scale to our advantage. OR
- quickly produce losses that throw mankind into economic, social, & environmental bankruptcy
In 50 years, we may be looking back on all this as using chemotherapy to try to cure a head cold, all the while ignoring more serious diseases.