The world’s gone far astray in attempts to battle climate change through forced reductions in carbon emissions. Last Wednesday, in an outrageously stupid ruling, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels. It has nothing to do with Shell’s historical record on the environment. Rather, the Court said Shell’s existing climate action plans did not meet “the company’s own responsibility for achieving a CO2 reduction.” The decision will be appealed, but it appears that “industry agreements” under the Netherlands’ Climate Act of 2019 are in dispute
Later that same day, a shareholder dissident group supporting corporate action on climate change won at least two ExxonMobil board seats. And then we have the story of John Kerry’s effort to stop major banks from lending to the fossil fuel industry. Together with the Biden Administration’s other actions on energy policy, we are witnessing the greatest attack on conventional power sources in history, and we’ll all pay dearly for it.
The Central Planner’s Conceit
Technological advance is a great thing, and we’ve seen it in the development of safe nuclear power generation, but the environmental left has successfully placed roadblocks in the way of its deployment. Instead, they favor the mandated adoption of what amount to beta versions of technologies that might never be economic and create extreme environmental hazards of their own (see here, here, here, and here). To private adopters, green energy installations are often subsidized by the government, disguising their underlying inefficiencies. These premature beta versions are then embedded in our base of productive capital and often remain even as they are made obsolete by subsequent advances. The “putty-clay” nature of technology decisions should caution us against premature adoptions of this kind. This is just one of the many curses of central planning.
Not only have our leftist planners forced the deployment of inferior technologies: they are actively seeking to bring more viable alternatives to ruination. I mentioned nuclear power and even natural gas offer a path for reducing carbon emissions, yet climate alarmists wage war against it as much as other fossil fuels. We have Kerry’s plot to deny funding for the fossil fuel industry and even activist “woke” investors, attempting to override management expertise and divert internal resources to green energy. It’s not as if renewable energy sources are not already part of these energy firms’ development portfolios. Allocations of capital and staff to these projects are usually dependent upon a company’s professional and technical expertise, market forces, and (less propitiously) incentives decreed by the government. Yet, the activist investors are there to impose their will.
Placing Faith and Fate in Models
All these attempts to remake our energy complex and the economy are based on the presumed external costs associated with carbon emissions. Those costs, and the potential savings achievable through the mitigation efforts of government and private greenies around the globe, have been wildly exaggerated.
The first thing to understand about the climate “science” relied upon by the environmental left is that it is almost exclusively model-dependent. In other words, it is based on mathematical relationships specified by the researchers. Their projections depend on those specs, the selection of parameter values, and the scenarios to which they are subjected. The models are usually calibrated to be roughly consistent with outcomes over some historical time period, but as modelers in almost any field can attest, that is not hard to do. It’s still possible to produce extreme results out-of-sample. The point is that these models are generally not estimated statistically from a lengthy sample of historical data. Even when sound statistical methodologies are employed, the samples are blinkingly short on climatological timescales. That means they are highly sample-specific and likely to propagate large errors out-of-sample. But most of these are what might be called “toy models” specified by the researcher. And what are often billed as “findings” are merely projections based on scenarios that are themselves manufactured by imaginative climate “researchers” cum grant-seeking partisans. In fact, it’s much worse than that because even historical climate data is subject to manipulation, but that’s a topic for another day.
Key Model Components
What follows are basic components of the climate apocalypse narrative as supported by “the science” of man-made or anthropomorphic global warming (AGW):
(A) The first kind of model output to consider is the increase in atmospheric carbon concentration over time, measured in parts per million (PPM). This is a function of many natural processes, including volcanism and other kinds of outgassing from oceans and decomposing biomass, as well absorption by carbon sinks like vegetation and various geological materials. But the primary focus is human carbon generating activity, which depends on the carbon-intensity of production technology. As Ross McKitrick shows (see chart below), projections from these kinds of models have demonstrated significant upside bias over the years. Whether that is because of slower than expected economic growth, unexpected technological efficiencies, an increase in the service-orientation of economic activity worldwide, or feedback from carbon-induced greening or other processes, most of the models have over-predicted atmospheric carbon PPM. Those errors tend to increase with the passage of time, of course.
(B) Most of the models promoted by climate alarmists are carbon forcing models, meaning that carbon emissions are the primary driver of global temperatures and other phenomena like storm strength and increases in sea level. With increases in carbon concentration predicted by the models in (A) above, the next stage of models predicts that temperatures must rise. But the models tend to run “hot.” This chart shows the mean of several prominent global temperature series contrasted with 1990 projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The following is even more revealing, as it shows the dispersion of various model runs relative to three different global temperature series:
And here’s another, which is a more “stylized” view, showing ranges of predictions. The gaps show errors of fairly large magnitude relative to the mean trend of actual temperatures of 0.11 degrees Celsius per decade.
(C) Climate sensitivity to “radiative forcing” is a key assumption underlying all of the forecasts of AGW. A simple explanation is that a stronger greenhouse effect, and increases in the atmosphere’s carbon concentration, cause more solar energy to be “trapped” within our “greenhouse,” and less is radiated back into space. Climate sensitivity is usually measured in degrees Celsius relative to a doubling of atmospheric carbon.
And how large is the climate’s sensitivity to a doubling of carbon PPM? The IPCC says it’s in a range of 1.5C to 4.5C. However, findings published by Nic Lewis and Judith Curry are close to the low end of that range, and are those found by the author of the paper described here.
In separate efforts, Finnish and Japanese researchers have asserted that the primary cause of recent warming is an increase in low cloud cover, which the Japanese team attributes to increases in the Earth’s bombardment by cosmic rays due to a weakening magnetic field. The Finnish authors note that most of the models used by the climate establishment ignore cloud formation, an omission they believe leads to a massive overstatement (10x) of sensitivity to carbon forcings. Furthermore, they assert that carbon forcings are mainly attributable to ocean discharge as opposed to human activity.
(D) Estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) per ton of emissions are used as a rationale for carbon abatement efforts. The SCC was pioneered by economist William Nordhaus in the 1990s, and today there are a number of prominent models that produce distributions of possible SCC values, which tend to have high dispersion and extremely long upper tails. Of course, the highest estimates are driven by the same assumptions about extreme climate sensitivities discussed above. The Biden Administration is using an SCC of $51 per ton. Some recommend the adoption of even higher values for regulatory purposes in order to achieve net-zero emissions at an early date, revealing the manipulative purposes to which the SCC concept is put. This is a raw attempt to usurp economic power, not any sort of exercise in optimization, as this admission from a “climate expert” shows. In the midst of a barrage of false climate propaganda (hurricanes! wildfires!), he tells 60 Minutes that an acceptable limit on warming of 1.5C is just a number they “chose” as a “tipping point.”
As a measurement exercise, more realistic climate sensitivities yield much lower SCCs. McKitrick presents a chart from Lewis-Curry comparing their estimates of the SCC at lower climate sensitivities to an average of earlier estimates used by IPCC:
High levels of the SCC are used as a rationale for high-cost carbon abatement efforts. If the SCC is overstated, however, then costly abatements represent waste. And there is no guarantee that spending an amount on abatements equal to the SCC will eliminate the presumed cost of a ton’s worth of anthropomorphic warming. Again, there are strong reasons to believe that the warming experienced over the past several decades has had multiple causes, and human carbon emissions might have played a relatively minor role.
Crisis Is King
Some people just aren’t happy unless they have a crisis over which to harangue the rest of us. But try as they might, the vast resources dedicated to carbon reduction are largely wasted. I hesitate to say their effort is quixotic because they want more windmills and are completely lacking in gallantry. As McKitrick notes, it takes many years for abatement to have a meaningful impact on carbon concentrations, and since emissions mix globally, unilateral efforts are practically worthless. Worse yet, the resource costs of abatement and lost economic growth are unacceptable, especially when some of the most promising alternative sources of “clean” energy are dismissed by activists. So we forego economic growth, rush to adopt immature energy alternatives, and make very little progress toward the stated goals of the climate alarmists.
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