Dr. Frank Ackerman, Senior Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute – US Center, has written a thoughtful rebuttal to my recent post “The Climate Change Switcheroo.” Herewith my reply.
1. Dr. Ackerman states, “Year after year, we’re breaking records for high temperatures.” The Climate Change Hypothesis claims that recent temperatures are at historical highs as a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. We know that climate cycles can last tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. The Earth is still recovering from an ice age 10,000-30,000 years ago, and the geologic record shows a number of such cycles. We also know historically that there was an unusually warm period in Western Europe, known as the Medieval Warm Period from 950-1250 AD and a “Little Ice Age” from 1550 to 1850 AD. Clearly, these variations were not caused by human activity. Confirmation of the Climate Change Hypothesis requires strong evidence that either the magnitude or the rate of recent warming is outside the range of natural warming events over at least tens of thousands of years, not just what an individual can remember. I cannot, for example, support the claim that the coming winter will be exceptionally cold by pointing out that today is 1° cooler than yesterday.
2. Dr. Ackerman states, “Repeated government inquiries in the U.K. and here have established that the stolen [climate] e-mails do not challenge or undermine the published record of climate science. Where is the peer-reviewed research showing that the “hockey stick” graph of temperatures is wrong?” The “hockey stick” was an attempt to extend the historical record by examining tree rings and other “proxy” measurements and then grafting these data onto actual measurements for the 20th century. This approach purported to demonstrate a prolonged period (about 1,000 years) of relatively stable temperatures, followed by a sharp increase in the last 150 years or so. The “hockey stick” has been largely discredited for three reasons. The first is that tree rings are affected by factors other than temperature, including humidity and sunlight. If the tree ring data are carried into the 20th century, they do not match the measured temperature record. Why then should they be regarded as good proxies for historical information? The second is the strong implication in the emails that statistical “tricks” were used to bolster the conclusion. Science requires that hypotheses be tested openly and honestly against the available data. Statistical sleight-of-hand is the antithesis of good science. Third, much of the data on which the “hockey stick” conclusions were based seems to have gone missing. Although the “hockey stick” authors blame poor record keeping, science that cannot be reproduced is useless. The “hockey stick” was so discredited that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change excluded it from its 2007 assessment report.
Regarding Dr. Ackerman’s final point about peer-review, the burden of proof is on those who offer a hypothesis, not on the skeptics. Furthermore, the climategate emails show disturbing attempts to undermine the peer review process by pressuring journals to exclude work by scientists who disagree with the Climate Change Hypothesis. (For more on this issue, see my post “The Death of Peer Review” from July 16, 2010).
3. Dr. Ackerman states, “It’s true that uncertain feedback effects determine the exact strength of global warming, and hence the temperature increase expected from any given level of emissions.” This statement concedes my point. I’m really tired of hearing that “the science of climate change is definitive.” A slight increase in temperature does follow logically from a substantial increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Accelerated warming with catastrophic consequences, however, is based on an opinion about the nature of the feedback effects. Regarding aerosols, supporters of the Climate Change Hypothesis started focusing on the cooling impact of aerosols, such as soot, only to help explain why the models have been so wrong. This attempt to find a set of variables that supports your view is called “curve fitting” and is methodologically unacceptable.
4. Dr. Ackerman notes that “A survey of 486 U.S. climate scientists in 2005 found 88% agreed or strongly agreed we have “great certainty” that human activities are accelerating global warming (Rosenberg et al., “Climate Change: A Profile of US Climate Scientists’ Perspectives,” Climatic Change, 2010).” I agree, but have a look at the specific questions that were asked: (1) Scientists can say with great certainty that global warming is a process that is already underway, (2) Scientists can say with great certainty that human activities are accelerating global warming, and (3) There is enough scientific uncertainty about the rate and extent of global warming and climate change that there is no need for immediate policy decisions. Although not a scientist, I would probably agree with all of these statements. All, however, avoid the real issues of HOW MUCH warming is underway, HOW MUCH human activities are accelerating and WHAT POLICIES should be pursued. These questions are designed to support the “straw man” fallacy that climate change “skeptics” don’t see any warming, don’t see any human influence and don’t believe in doing anything. As an analogy, you can’t support the argument that we should raise taxes on high-income earners by asking economists whether there should be an income tax. They’ll all say yes. So what?
5. Dr. Ackerman asks “So why has Denmark moved so heavily into wind power? Are they secretly a coercive, totalitarian country? Or Germany, where elected governments from all major parties have continued to promote renewable energy (without destroying Germany’s remarkable competitiveness in world markets, by the way)?” He’s certainly right that these two countries have invested heavily into renewables. Denmark had (as of 2010) 3,545 MW of wind capacity, up from about 400 MW in 1990. At today’s price of about $1.50 per peak Watt, Denmark’s investment in wind power is about $5 billion. Between 1990 and 2006, however, Danish carbon dioxide emissions INCREASED from 57 to 59 million metric tons. Why did wind power not reduce CO2 emissions? Here’s a hint: wind power comes at night in the western part of Denmark, while electricity demand comes during the day in the eastern part of the country. Since 2006, Denmark has achieved a real reduction in carbon dioxide emissions through the only truly effective mechanism yet demonstrated – a prolonged, deep recession.
The German story is similar. After reunification in 1990, the German government took the sensible step of shutting down the East German brown coal industry – a 19th century nightmare that accounted for most of Communist East Germany’s energy supply. The main drivers of the shut-down were cost and air quality. Greenhouse gases had nothing to do with it. Elimination of brown coal helped Germany reduce carbon emissions through about 1999. After that point, German emissions were on the increase again until (guess what?) the recession hit in 2007.
The point here is that Germany and Denmark have invested heavily in renewable energy sources. They have not, however, made any effort at meaningful carbon reductions. The European Union approach is to rely on accounting tricks, such as emissions trading and the other UN “flexible mechanisms” to achieve an appearance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, even with the recent recession, the European Union, with the exception of special cases Germany and the UK, have increased their carbon dioxide emissions by over 12% since 1990. (For more on the clever Europeans, see my post “Europe’s Big Lie” on November 18, 2009.)
6. Dr. Ackerman says, “Interest rates have dropped sharply in the last few years, as the economic crisis has unfolded, lowering the cost of capital. Meanwhile, the McKinsey studies, done a few years ago, also assume that oil costs $60 per barrel.” Both valid points, but the gap between renewables and conventional energy is just too great. For example, my calculations show that a modern combined cycle natural gas plant can earn a 15% return selling electricity at 7¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh). An offshore wind farm would earn a return of -4% at that price. Looked at another way, the offshore wind farm would need a price of 23¢ per kWh to earn a 15% return. Solar is much worse. Playing with interest rates and oil prices just won’t narrow this chasm.
7. Dr. Ackerman asks me “does Nicholas Stern understand net present value, in the Stern Review?” The answer is clearly NO. The Stern Review makes the explicit argument that it is unethical on grounds of intergenerational equity to use anything other than a ridiculously low discount rate (about 1½%) in evaluating the benefits of climate actions. This concept of net present value assumes that we would be happy to invest $1 today in return for $2 fifty years from now. Do you know anyone who would put his retirement money into such an investment? Neither do I. Intergenerational equity requires that we bequeath to our children and grandchildren a vibrant, functioning free-market economy which supports high living standards and personal freedom. Decarbonization of the economy would require an Orwellian nightmare in which individual liberty is subordinated to complete central planning by the government.
8. With regard to Prof. Nelson’s article, Dr. Ackerman says, “It [the article] is actually a thoughtful discussion of how economic theories and models often fail to reflect real-life experience…” Not really. The article is an attempt to demonstrate why it’s wrong to think rationally, rather than emotionally about climate change. Just take this quote from Prof. Nelson’s article, for example, “More recent work on decision-making, in contrast, demonstrates that less information and deliberation can sometimes lead to more satisfactory outcomes.” Or this one, “Nicholas Stern has said that we need a “new industrial revolution” to address climate change (Stern 2011, 6). He also suggests that economists must consult other fields — including “science, technology, philosophy, economic history, [and] international relations” — as we develop our economic analysis (Stern 2011, 19). An even more basic revolution is, however, needed as well: An overhaul of the ideas of the Enlightenment, Beta Version, of the 18th century.” In other words, the Enlightenment and our entire basis of rational thought are wrong because they don’t give us the answer we want on climate change. ‘Nuff said.