Sunday, December 09, 2018

Five myths plaguing the “climate change” debate

A shorter version was published on the website of Chinese public broadcaster CGTN as well as on European Scientist

For the 24th time now, a global UN climate conference is being hosted, this time in Katowice, in Poland. As countries around the globe are dealing with this policy challenge, the political debate surrounding it all is being plagued by a number of myths, which I’ll highlight hereunder. 

1. The scientific consensus is less clear-cut than often presented

In the “climate change” debate, grand statements are typically made about how the science would be “settled” that the climate would be warming due to human activity and that this has all kinds of proven consequences. Any sceptical attitude about these claims would qualify one as “anti-scientific”.

That last claim is easiest to counter: scepticism is the very cornerstone of science, which has brought so much benefits to humankind. To find anti-scientific instincts, it is better to look at the attitude of some “climate activists” instead, some of whom have adopted a rather religious outlook on things. Ironically, religious groups themselves seem to be responding quite well to their climate counterparts, with the Swedish church just having named a 15 year old climate campaigner as the successor of Jesus.

However, on a more serious note, the scientific consensus that humans would be to blame or that the earth would even be warming isn't all that clearcut. It certainly isn't supported by “97% of climate scientists”, as has been claimed by for example former US President Barack Obama. Economist Richard Tol, who has been active in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1994, has debunked the research on which this figure was based, amongst others revealing that “most of the papers studied are not about climate change and its causes”. He nevertheless states that “there is widespread agreement, though, that climate change is real and human-made” but “there is disagreement, of course, particularly on the extent to which humans contributed to the observed warming”.

Last but not least, there is the often cited claim that there would be more unprecedented weather extremes due to human-made global warming. This is simply contradicted by the latest US government report, which finds that “drought statistics over the entire contiguous US have declined,”. The IPCC itself has also stated that increased floodings were “not” due to human influence.
Nevertheless, for the sake of the argument, let's take the view of those scientists who think humans have a very big effect on global warming and that climate change is having all kinds of dire consequences.

2. The real cost of climate change isn't as catastrophic as presented

A brand new US government study was reported as concluding that global warming would shrink the US economy by 10 percent. However, a closer look by “skeptical environmentalist” Bjørn Lomborg  reveals that this 10 percent reduction by the end of this century would come from an economy that's 300 percent larger than it is today. What's more, that 10% off the 300% bonanza should actually only be maximum 5%. That's because the "10%" - figure is based on the assumption that temperatures will increase by about 14 degrees Fahrenheit, which is almost twice as high as figures coming from the US climate assessment. This also indicates how difficult estimates are in this field.

Another important thing to know is that two-thirds of the estimated damage to the economy would result from people dying from heat. In reality, however, Lomborg explains that while it is true that more people die when it is unusually hot, people also adapt very quickly, so even a 14% increase in temperature would never translate in an equivalent increase in mortalities. In a nutshell: the massive economic growth we can expect by the end of this century will only be hit marginally by climate change even if the direst predictions turn out to be correct.

3. Political action has a modest effect on limiting global warming at best

If climate change would be a big danger after all, the sad truth is that there isn’t so much political action can do about it. At least, that’s the obvious conclusion of findings by economist William Nordhaus, the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize.

He estimates that even massive taxes would only affect global warming to a very limited degree. According to his calculations, a globally coordinated and gradually increasing carbon tax would cut temperature rises only to 6.3 degrees, which is only slightly lower from the 7.4 degrees if nothing is done. Not only the election of US President Trump, but also of the new Brazilian President, an ally of Trump when it comes to climate change, as well as the violent protests in France against the ecologically inspired fuel taxes, indicate that global coordination would be in effect very hard to achieve. French President Macron, a strong proponent of "climate action", cannot even convince his own countrymen, so how could he convince the world?

What's more, to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement to limit temperature rises to 3.6 degrees (F, 2 degrees C) would according to Nordhaus cost around $134 trillion.

Nordhaus notes that when the “modest” taxation, to prevent temperatures from rising more than 6.3 degrees, would be tried, the benefits would be higher than the economic cost extra taxes cause to the economy, but as said, this is hard to implement. He however calculated that if the more extreme taxation at a cost of  $134 trillion would be imposed to prevent temperatures from rising more than 3.6%, this cost would be so astronomical that the medicine would be worse than the disease. So if we would want to limit temperature rises to 3.6%, as prescribed by the Paris deal, we shouldn’t even need to try that very unrealistic global coordination exercise.

Does that mean that we may as well live it up and enjoy it all, as long as it lasts? Of course not. It suggests that it may be more prudent to pour the available resources into mitigation of many of the unforeseeable consequences, rather than waste them on prevention.

4. Many climate policies aren't necessarily good for the climate only because they carry the “climate” label 

It can be entertaining to highlight the hypocrisy of some of the climate campaigners, how the 22.000 delegates at the UN climate conference in Poland emit more CO2 in 11 days than 8000 households do during one year, with anti-meat groups calculating that meat consumption at the conference would equal burning 500,000 gallons of gasoline.

That’s of course not a serious argument against current “climate change” policies. What’s much more troubling is that many of the actual policies have ended up hurting the cause they are supposed to support. The EU's “emission trading system” (ETS), which was meant to force companies that emit CO2 to provide compensation but at the same time allow them to buy the right to emit, so to optimize this process, has ended up supporting big manufacturers that emit a lot of CO2. Those companies simply told policy makers they needed to be receive free emission rights or would have to cut jobs. The politicians listened and as a result, smaller companies ended up bearing a proportionally larger brunt than their big competitors, thereby distorting fair competition.

On top of that, many technologies that are bad for emission levels or that hurt the environment have been receiving distorting state subsidies. Diesel-fueled cars for example were thought to emit less CO2 than their petrol counterparts, while driving electric cars – that enjoy tax breaks - won’t make a dent in global carbon emissions, and may even increase pollution levels, the International Energy Agency has just warned. Biofuels were originally seen as blissful before they were seen to be damaging. Hazardous materials are needed to produce solar panels while the environmental downsides of wind turbines have also been documented. All of these energy sources have been receiving state support, under the guise of “saving the climate”.

Meanwhile, nuclear energy is enjoying some renewed support. One prominent climate scientist, Valerie Trouet, recently even said that it is “too late” to try to develop wind and solar energy, and we better double down on nuclear energy, which has a low carbon footprint. Prominent environmentalist George Monbiot already changed his opinion in 2011, right after and because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March of 2011, as he considered this to be the ultimate stress-test for nuclear, as he wrote: “a crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down”, as “no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation”, something that perhaps today, in 2018, may be up to one person.

Then politicians, like for example German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stand in the way of this, as they have associated themselves with an anti-nuclear stance.

Renewable technology holds great promise, but how responsible is it to exclusively rely on it while ignoring very real downsides? Apart from their environmental downsides, Wind and solar energy infrastructure operates part-time and needs back-up capacity, driving up electricity prices. How wise is it to declare only one particular kind of energy production environmentally friendly and economically viable? Renewables have made great headway and are a more “decentralized” way of energy production, in contrast to old, often crony energy sources, with their more “centralized” structures . Renewables should not fear a “level playing field” whereby energy sources can freely compete without subsidies and political distortions, as long as external costs are born by the polluter.

5. Financial transfers between states cannot be assumed to be implemented well, on the contrary

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world’s wealthy countries have pledged to provide developing states with at least $100 billion a year (starting in 2020) in funding to ease the latter’s transition to renewable energy, and mitigate the harms of climate change. The idea behind this is that developing countries will need to forswear fossil fuels, at some potential economic cost.

We cannot assume that transfers of money between governments will happen according to the rules. Past evidence suggests we should assume the opposite. US President Trump's administration, which is trying to leave the agreement but can only do so by 2020, has been trying to undermine this, by suggesting developed countries should be able to count commercial loans as transfers or by disputing the definition between “developed” and “non-developed”.

This all shows that this process is basically already being corrupted from the beginning.
It’s not the first time that the assumption that everyone will play by the climate rules is a fatal one. A study published in Nature Climate Change in 2015 already found that due to weak environmental oversight of the UN’s 1997 carbon credit scheme, there were “perverse incentives” for some industrial plants in Russia to increase emissions, so they could then be paid to reduce them. As the controlling responsibility fell on the host country, checks weren't done in a proper way. Not only Russia, but also Ukraine was highlighted as problematic, with over 80% of the credits issued by Ukraine and Russia raising significant concerns about environmental integrity, according to the study.
The lesson is that we must assume that transfers between governments will go wrong. A positive aspect of Paris is that it exempts developing countries to a degree, as developing countries only need to lower emissions based on units tied to measures such as gross domestic product or economic output. The idea to provide large-scale “climate finance”, up to 100 billion euro carries a major risk of cronyism.

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