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.

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