by Judith Curry
Don’t be fooled by the post-Paris fanfare: The climate change movement faces big trouble ahead.
Mario Loyola has written a lengthy essay for The American Interest, entitled Green Idols: Twilight of the Climate Change Movement. The American Interest allows one free article per month; if you have already used yours, here are some extensive excerpts (about 35% of the original article):
The UN’s climate summit in Paris at the end of 2015 concluded with a bang. The world’s governments promised sweeping cuts in carbon emissions. Rich countries promised to help poor ones with $100 billion per year in climate assistance. The consensus quickly jelled that this was a major, historic achievement.
Then came the fizzle: The agreement is non-binding. Secretary of State John Kerry asserted on NBC’s Meet the Press that compliance would be enforced through the “powerful weapon” of public shaming, apparently implying a policy of verbal confrontation toward states that fall short. The Danish scientist Bjørn Lomborg called the Paris agreement the “costliest in history” if implemented. According to Lomborg, the agreement would “reduce temperatures by 2100 by just 0.05 degrees Celsius (0.09 degrees Fahrenheit)…. This is simply cynical political theater, meant to convince us that our leaders are taking serious action…a phenomenally expensive but almost empty gesture.” NASA scientist Jim Hansen, one of the earliest proponents of the idea that global warming is manmade, slammed the deal as “half-assed and half-baked,” a “fake,” and a “fraud.”
Hansen’s assessment is probably close to the mark—and he and his fellow alarmists have only themselves to blame. While those who flatly deny the possibility of any global warming can be readily brushed aside, the alarmists have been much too quick to dismiss legitimate questions about precisely what the evidence shows. Indeed, they have frequently treated such questions as heresies to be persecuted, adopting an even more virulently anti-scientific mindset than the one they accuse others of.
Meanwhile, on the policy side, the alarmists’ call for worldwide economic controls, including caps on fossil fuels, are largely recycled from previous scientific doomsday fads, such as the oil scarcity scare of the late 1970s. Despite the enormous costs these policies would impose, especially on poor countries, they would do virtually nothing to stop anthropogenic climate change, let alone protect anyone from relentless natural climate change that is one of our planet’s most prominent and inescapable features. They are also distracting attention both from investments that would make society less vulnerable to climate change.
Don’t be fooled by the fanfare in Paris: The climate change movement faces big trouble ahead. Its principal propositions contain two major fallacies that can only become more glaring with time. First, in stark contrast to popular belief and to the public statements of government officials and many scientists, the science on which the dire predictions of manmade climate change is based is nowhere near the level of understanding or certainty that popular discourse commonly ascribes to it. Second, and relatedly, the movement’s embrace of an absolute form of the precautionary principle distorts rational cost-benefit analysis, or throws it out the window altogether.
The right strategy for confronting environmental challenges will have to be based on rational market incentives, rational cost-benefit analysis, and a broad-based consensus about the vital importance of efficient markets. Strategies that distort rational cost-benefit analysis (or the science on which it is based) to suit an anti-market agenda will not work and can only maintain the illusion of legitimacy for so long before they are discredited.
In political discourse, it is often necessary to simplify complex policy matters in order to make them accessible for public debate. But too much simplification can have the effect of stifling public discourse, as in this unfortunate State of the Union statement by President Obama: “The debate is over. Climate change is real.” Of course climate change is real. The climate is always changing. Only the most foolish of the President’s critics believe otherwise, and it doesn’t help his cause to demonstrate that he can be just as foolish.
The evidence is overwhelming that the planet has been warming off and on for several centuries. There is also compelling evidence that at least some significant part of this warming is attributable to carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels since the mid-20th century. There is good scientific reason to believe that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases almost certainly constitute a net contribution to global warming. But crucial questions remain about the relative importance of natural factors that influence climate. The President is therefore wrong in the sense that, for the most crucial scientific questions, the debate is just beginning.
The public debate is dominated by simplistic claims that “climate change is man-made,” which might lead one to think that all of the current warming trend is man-made. But nearly all climate scientists accept that many factors influence temperatures, including major shifts in patterns of ocean circulation, variations in the earth’s orbit, variations in solar activity, and volcanic activity. The “attribution statement” in the IPCC’s latest assessment report is carefully couched: “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in GHG [greenhouse gases] and other anthropogenic forces together.”
The distinction between “more than half” (the IPCC summary’s of scientific literature) and “all” or “nearly all” is crucial from the point of view of public policy. If only about half the observed warming is due to human activity, the cost-benefit analysis of currently proposed policies becomes far more dubious, and reveals another problem: As much as half the current warming trend (whatever that is) could be due to natural causes, and current policies will do nothing to address that.
This highlights an important self-correcting feature in the development of climate science. Yes, it’s true that many major journals reject articles that critique the current consensus, and that funding priorities strongly reinforce the consensus. But even the strong bias in favor of more dire findings, which has been introduced into scientific inquiry by the pervasive politicization of the issue, cannot readily invent false data. Every year produces more raw data than the year before, and the discrepancies between the new data and the simple climate models are increasing. Alarmists say that discrepancies are to be expected, and models are meant to be refined. But they have boxed themselves in with misleading claims to certain knowledge where in fact considerable uncertainty remains. Uncertainty about risks is not necessarily fatal to a policy of precaution, and but false claims to certainty usually are, sooner or later. Witness the Iraq War and Saddam’s non-existent WMD.
There is a huge difference between admitting that anthropogenic carbon dioxide is a driver of current global warming, and claiming that it responsible for virtually all current global warming. Many climate scientists who agree that humans contribute to global warming are skeptical of prognostications of catastrophic climate change.
This blurring of the lines between inquiry and advocacy confuses the public and leaves scientists open to charges of professional dishonesty. The fact that the apocalyptic vision of impending doom is a matter of obligatory orthodoxy gives the movement a quasi-religious tone, and lends itself to the persecution of “skeptics” as heretics.
In the United States, where unadulterated socialism usually doesn’t sell well, the climate alarmists put a decidedly capitalist face on their policy prescriptions. Led by prominent social-democratic billionaires, these capitalist-climate-alarmists go for huge clean energy subsidies and come armed with all kinds of theories about how a 50 percent or even 80 percent renewable energy mandate would pay for itself. The Clean Power Plan essentially forces “red” states like Texas (and chiefly Texas, in terms of overall carbon emissions reductions) to adopt the electricity mix of “blue” states like California—precisely because electricity is so much cheaper and more reliable in Texas than in California, conferring a huge advantage in interstate competition.
Americans across the political spectrum might agree that the scientific evidence on climate change justifies certain precautionary measures, and that naturalism is an important value. But with so many alarmists, from Bill McKibben to Naomi Klein, calling for an end to capitalism as we know it, the debate tends to go off the rails from the start.
Do climate alarmists want to eliminate the human impact on climate, regardless what the climate would be doing otherwise? Or are they trying to eliminate climate change itself, regardless of cause? Obama’s loose talk about “saving the planet” seems to elide rather than to clarify whether it’s really the planet that needs saving from mankind, mankind that needs saving from itself.
The question hasn’t gone unnoticed. In Slate, Joseph Romm concedes that the planet will be fine no matter what we do, so we should be more worried about ourselves. We live on a planet where adaptation is a necessary skill.
Imagine something that is entirely possible—that a single such technological breakthrough enables us to control the world’s average temperatures. Could we then agree on what the ideal temperature should be? Is the current global average temperature the ideal one? Many would take that for granted, and climate alarmists appear to presuppose it, but the proposition is hardly self-evident.
To read the IPCC reports, alarmists find the idea of adapting to climate change far less satisfying than the idea of preventing it. But their focus on worldwide economic controls boils down to a kind of climate engineering, because it presupposes that humanity should not learn to live with a changing planet. Hence we are to believe that the most adaptable species that has ever existed, a species so sophisticated that it can survive in outer space, requires an absolutely stable average temperature and sea-level in order to survive. This defies common sense.
Human civilization faces many challenges. We face an ever-present risk of dangerous climate change due to natural causes. We face an immediate crisis in the rapid loss of the world’s most valuable and critical habitat, due chiefly to farming and logging. The future will bring further challenges for which we will find ourselves far less prepared than we could have been. But frightfully little attention is being paid to these risks, for the simple reason that they don’t fit snugly into the environmentalists’ essentially anti-industrial agenda.
The Paris conference achieved agreement on an annual $100-billion Global Climate Fund to help developing countries reduce their carbon footprint. The money would be far better spent on adaptation assistance, to make sure that poor societies preserve critical habitat while reinforcing their access to things they will need in the event of really catastrophic climate change: food, water, and fossil fuels.
I excerpted about a third of Loyola’s essay, highlighting the parts that I find most insightful. This essay shows a remarkable grasp of the public debate on climate change.
I didn’t excerpt the discussion about the science. Loyola raised most of the outstanding issues that contribute major uncertainty to understanding of climate change. He got the bit picture right, if not all of the details.
I bolded the statements I found most insightful, here are my favorites.
Uncertainty about risks is not necessarily fatal to a policy of precaution, and but false claims to certainty usually are, sooner or later.
The distinction between “more than half” (the IPCC summary’s of scientific literature) and “all” or “nearly all” is crucial from the point of view of public policy.
These are both hugely important points, that I have tried to make also, but alas not as concisely or elegantly.
It is very good to see legal scholars such as Mario Loyola providing perspective on the climate change debate.