WE CAN TALK ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE, AND DIFFER, CALMLY
Too much ideology and not enough science informs the debate on environmental issues
These authors have no idea about the true economic costs of seeking to limit the rise in the world temperature to 1.5C
If I were in any doubt that the theory of anthropogenic global warming — now more commonly referred to as climate change because it’s a more encompassing term — is more religion than science, the reaction to the few pieces I have written on the topic completely dispels any misgivings I may have had.
Not that I am totally aware of the insults and abuse thrown in my direction — I don’t use Twitter — but my friends let me know how I am trending on that damnatory and vicious medium. I’m akin to an apostate in an orthodox church. My reputation must be sullied, my credentials questioned, my views firmly rejected.
Don’t get me wrong, I can take it. I rather enjoy getting those obnoxious and unmannerly emails accusing me of failing to care about my children, my grandchildren and the world. And those are the more pleasant ones.
It’s obvious from these encounters that true AGW believers are ardent followers of the Alinsky playbook. Attack the person, not the ideas. Use damning terms such as “climate denier” (these believers forget the Godwin rule here). Keep the pressure on and attempt to isolate that person. Ridicule her work. Add in some serious-looking data, claim that all the experts agree and the task is done.
In this context, let me point out that quite a few AGW disciples even took offence to the article I wrote about the replication crisis in science and the lack of faith we should place in the peer-review process. (Pal-review is a more accurate description.)
None of this could possibly apply to climate science, came their firm reply. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports are beyond reproach. The latest report involved 90 of the world’s top experts — selected by the IPCC, by the way — referencing more than 6000 papers. There is no uncertainty, there are no doubts. No one should be allowed to call into question the credibility of the IPCC reports. To do so is to act in a malign fashion, possibly doing the bidding of self-serving and wicked commercial parties in the fossil fuel industry as well as complying with the wishes of the publication’s proprietor.
But why don’t we all just dial it down a notch and treat each other as interested, intelligent individuals? If people actually bothered to read the IPCC reports, with all their long and tortuous prose, they would realise there are very large elements of uncertainty to many of the findings and this is acknowledged in the body of the reports. But as Al Gore, of An Inconvenient Truth fame and former US vicepresident, admitted, the executive summary of the latest IPCC report was deliberately “torqued up to get the attention of policymakers around the world”. For the scientists who were involved in the report, they should be very alarmed to hear this. To torque something up is not consistent with highquality science.
Let me cover three aspects of the latest IPCC report: the issue of extreme weather events, the role that nuclear power can play in a low-emissions future, and the wonky economics that underpins the report.
The proposition that climate change will lead to more extreme weather events — think droughts, flooding, cyclones and hurricanes — is a favourite of the AGW set.
Unlike a slow rise in global temperatures, extreme weather events provide the sensational background to calls for “more action on climate change”. Leaving aside the confusion here between weather and climate, credible scientists will admit the link between rising temperatures and extreme weather events is particularly uncertain. This is actually admitted by the IPCC in various reports.
And here is an important point made by Richard Lindzen, who was professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a leading figure in climate science: “Global warming refers to the increase in temperature of about 1C since the Little Ice Age … Weather extremes involve temperature changes of the order of 20C. Such large changes have a profoundly different origin from global warming. The models used to project global warming predict that this temperature difference will decrease rather than increase.”
In the latest IPCC report, indeed, it is conceded that there is little proof that there have been more generalised droughts as a result of climate change. Also, it is noted that “numerous studies … have reported a decreasing trend in the global number of tropical cyclones and/or the globally accumulated cyclonic energy”.
Let me deal quickly with the role nuclear power might play in reducing CO2 emissions. To the consternation of many scientists, the latest IPCC report seeks to downplay that role while overstating the risks and understating the benefits. Intermittent renewable energy is the way forward, according to the latest treatise, in association with complete decarbonisation of electricity. This is not science talking but ideology.
But let me come to my deepest reservation about the latest IPCC report, and it relates to my area of speciality: economics. Take it from me, these authors have no idea about the true economic costs of seeking to limit the rise in the world temperature to 1.5C and how these need to be assessed against the benefits.
Indeed, the authors make no attempt to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the measures, such as deep reductions in agricultural emissions and decarbonisation of electricity, which it is assumed are needed to meet this self-imposed target.
And here is the gobbledygook explanation for this failure: “Since policy goals like limiting warming to 1.5C do not directly result from a money metric trade-off between mitigation and damages, associated shadow prices can differ from the social cost of carbon in a costbenefit analysis.”
To translate: because there is no economic basis for the predetermined climate goal based on the benefits outweighing the costs, there is no point undertaking any real economic analysis.
Luckily, Robert Murphy of Texas Tech University has been able to extract from the IPCC report the implied level of carbon tax that would be required to meet the climate goal. It ranges from $US135 a ton to $US5500 a ton of CO2 emissions by 2030 (a ridiculously wide range that further calls into question the IPCC’s analysis). If this tax were imposed in the US, it would add up to $48 a gallon (or $12.68 a litre) to the cost of petrol.
What the IPCC report is saying in effect is that to meet the assumed climate goal, the required carbon tax needs to be between $US135 and $US5500 a ton which, according to Murphy, would be economically efficient only if the estimated optimal carbon tax is also in this range.
This is where the work of William Nordhaus becomes important. A firm believer in climate change and the need for government action (he advocates a global carbon tax), he was recently awarded the Nobel prize in economics.
But here’s the thing: his latest estimate of the optimal carbon tax is $US44 a ton, which is less than one-third of the lowest figure nominated by the IPCC. This is the tax that maximises the net benefits of carbon abatement in terms of environmental benefits relative to the no action baseline.
The bottom line is this: the IPCC reports, including the latest one with its torqued-up summary, are not the last word on climate change. There is plenty of room for respectful debate, both fundamental and on the details. Where the IPCC fails most dramatically is in respect of the economic analysis, which essentially ignores the costs of abatement as well as the scope for adaptation.