Climate Better than 'We' Thought
By Marlo Lewis
The pro-Obama group Organizing for Action last week launched a campaign to “call out” climate change deniers in Congress. They’re trying to restart the debate by mobilizing people to tweet their congressman with messages like: “Rep. [X] Stop denying the science of climate change. It’s time for Congress to act.” This tactic is unlikely to prove any more successful than the previous 20 years of scaremongering, vilification, and hype.
We won’t have productive conversations in Congress about climate policy until the pro-“action” (i.e. pro-tax, pro-regulation) side starts acknowledging some basic realities:
(1) Affordable, abundant energy is a blessing, not a curse. As Cato Institute scholar Indur Goklany explains in a recent study, fossil fuels, by dramatically increasing the productivity of food production, distribution, and storage, “saved humanity from nature and nature from humanity.” The same fossil-fueled productivity gains that emancipated mankind from the Malthusian trap of overpopulation and famine also helped spare 2.3 billion hectares of habitat (an area the size of the U.S., Canada, and India combined) that would otherwise have to be converted to cropland to maintain today’s farm output.
Fossil fuels have been and remain the chief energy source of a “cycle of progress” in which economic growth, technological change, human capital formation, and freer trade co-evolve and mutually reinforce each other. If “action” advocates want to be taken seriously, they must stop demonizing these still vital sources of human and environmental well-being.
(2) Carbon mitigation schemes make nations and consumers poorer, not richer. Heritage Foundation economists David Kreutzer and Nicholas Loris compared household income, utility bills, gasoline prices, and job creation in two policy scenarios (“side cases”) in the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012. Compared to the “no greenhouse gas concern” case, the $25/ton carbon tax case cut the income of a family of four by $1,900 per year in 2016, increased the family-of-four energy bill by more than $500 per year (not counting the cost of gasoline), and reduced employment by more than 1 million jobs in 2016 alone. If “action” advocates want to be taken seriously, they must stop pretending that carbon mitigation schemes are “win-win.”
(3) Carbon mitigation policies have social costs. Livelihoods, living standards, and life expectancy are linked by more than etymology. Given the continuing indispensability of fossil fuels to human flourishing and the mortality risks of poverty and unemployment, carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and renewable energy mandates can easily do more harm than good to public health. If “action” advocates want to be taken seriously, they must stop ignoring the social costs of carbon mitigation.
(4) We can’t get there from here. Because affordable energy is vital to prosperity and much of the world is energy poor, it would be economically ruinous and, thus, politically suicidal to make people abandon fossil fuels before cheaper alternative energies are available. In “Rethinking Wedges,” Davis et al. (2013) conclude that “Current technologies and systems cannot provide the amounts of carbon-free energy needed soon enough or affordably enough” to meet projected global energy demand and stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations at 500 parts per million. If “action” advocates want to be taken seriously, they must stop pretending that the only or main thing lacking to “solve” the “climate crisis” is political will.
(5) Many findings in climate science are reassuring, not alarming. For many years, the “action” crowd’s constant refrain has been that climate change is “even worse” than scientists previously believed – as if all news in climate science must inevitably be bad news. This once-fashionable narrative is no longer credible.
One reason is simply that “it’s worse than we predicted” is hard to square with a 15-year period of no-net warming. The long pause in warming is a development most scientists did not predict and struggle to explain. Whatever the underlying causes, the observed warming rate over the past 15 years is lower than the IPCC’s best estimate, as this graph by NASA scientist Roy Spencer clearly shows.
A plausible explanation, based on several 2012 studies summarized by Cato Institute climatologist Chip Knappenberger, is that “consensus” science has overestimated climate sensitivity (the amount of warming from a doubling of pre-industrial greenhouse gas concentrations).
Otto et al. (2013), a study published last week in Nature, also indicates that climate sensitivity is at the low-end of the IPCC range. The researchers, who include 14 IPCC lead and coordinating authors, conclude that the “most likely value” for equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is 2.0°C, and that the “best estimate” for “the more policy-relevant” transient climate response (TCR) is 1.3°C.One of the co-authors, Nick Lewis, describes the significance of the study as follows:
“The take-home message from this study, like several other recent ones, is that the 'very likely' 5–95% ranges for ECS and TCR in Chapter 12 of the leaked IPCC AR5 second draft scientific report, of 1.5–6/7°C for ECS and 1–3°C for TCR, and the most likely values of near 3°C for ECS and near 1.8°C for TCR, are out of line with instrumental-period observational evidence.”
Lower climate sensitivity means less warming, hence less damaging climate change impacts. That’s good news.
But wait, there’s more! In 2006-2007, authors like Al Gore, Joseph Romm, and Fred Pearce popularized scary climate change impact scenarios, such as ice sheet disintegration and catastrophic sea-level rise, dramatic increases in extreme-weather frequency and/or severity, and climate-destabilizing releases of CO2 and methane from melting permafrost. Recent studies undercut the credibility of those scenarios. A partial list follows:
King et al. (2012): The rate of Antarctic ice loss is not accelerating and translates to less than one inch of sea-level rise per century.
Faezeh et al. (2013): Greenland’s four main outlet glaciers are projected to contribute 19 to 30 millimeters (0.7 to 1.1 inches) to sea level rise by 2200 under a mid-range warming scenario (2.8°C by 2100) and 29 to 49 millimeters (1.1 to 1.9 inches) under a high-end warming scenario (4.5°C by 2100).
Weinkle et al. (2012): There is no trend in the strength or frequency of land-falling hurricanes in the world’s five main hurricane basins during the past 50-70 years.
Chenoweth and Divine (2012): There is no trend in the strength or frequency of tropical cyclones in the main Atlantic hurricane development corridor over the past 370 years.Bouwer (2011): There is no trend in hurricane-related damages since 1900 once economic loss data are adjusted for changes in population, wealth, and the consumer price index.
NOAA: There is no trend since 1950 in the frequency of strong (F3-F5) U.S. tornadoes.
National Climate Data Center: There is no trend since 1900 in U.S. soil moisture as measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index.
Hirsch and Ryberg (2011): There is no trend in U.S. flood magnitudes over the past 85 years.
Dmitrenko et al. (2011): Even under the most extreme climatic scenario tested, permafrost thaw in the Siberian shelf will not exceed 10 meters in depth by 2100 or 50 meters by the turn of the next millennium, whereas the bulk of methane stores are trapped roughly 200 meters below the sea floor.
Kessler et al. (2011): Microbes digested the methane released during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Any warming-induced “large-scale releases of methane from hydrate in the deep ocean are likely to be met by a similarly rapid methanotrophic response.”
Sistla et al. (2013): Over the past two decades, warming increased net eco-system carbon storage in the Arctic tundra as the growth of woody biomass outpaced the increase in CO2 emissions from subsoil microbial activity.
Goklany (2009): Global deaths and death rates related to extreme weather have declined by 93% and 98%, respectively, since the 1920s.
Range et al. (2012): There is no evidence of CO2-related mortalities of juvenile or adult mussels “even under conditions that far exceed the worst-case scenarios for future ocean acidification.”
Notwithstanding such studies, climate alarm persists. The main reason is that climate risk is easily confused with climate change risk. Due to their sheer magnitude and terror, natural catastrophes have an almost supernatural aspect. People by nature are prone to imagine that natural disasters have non-natural causes. Thus, each time disaster strikes, pundits – especially those with scientific credentials – can plausibly blame fossil fuels and declare “it’s worse than we predicted.”
Many commentators, for example, blamed Hurricane Sandy on climate change. That was politics talking, not science. What turned Sandy, a category 1 cyclone at landfall, into a “super storm” was the hurricane’s merging with a winter, frontal storm. MIT’s Kerry Emanuel cautioned that scientists “don’t have very good theoretical or modeling guidance on how hybrid storms might be expected to change with climate.” He added: “I feel strongly about that. I think that anyone who says we do know that is not giving you a straight answer.”
During last summer’s drought, NASA scientist James Hansen published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Climate change is here – and worse than we thought.” His thesis: The worst hot spells of the past decade were “a consequence of climate change” and have “virtually no explanation other than climate change.” However, expert assessments of the European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010, the Texas-Oklahoma drought of 2011, and the Midwest drought of 2012 attributed each event chiefly to natural variability.
In 2000-2009, the years of the big push for climate “action” in Congress, most legislators did not know that the world was warming more slowly than feared, that long-term hurricane behavior was not changing, that runaway warming from permafrost melting and methane releases was wildly implausible, and that the great ice sheets were more likely to contribute inches rather than feet to sea-level rise.
Far from climate change being “worse than we thought,” the climate outlook is better than we have long been told. If “action” advocates want to be taken seriously, they must stop reciting a mantra inconsistent with the best available science.