Posted by: bmeverett | July 15, 2009

Climate Change in Camelot


It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The climate must be perfect all the year.


So sang Richard Burton to Julie Andrews in the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot.  A King decreeing the weather is cute, romantic and wildly imaginative.  Unless, of course, you are President Barack Obama, in which case it makes perfectly good sense.  Consider the following from the final communiqué of last week’s G-8 Summit:

“We recognize the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C.  In this regard and in the context of the ultimate objective of the Convention and the Bali Action Plan, we will work between now and Copenhagen, with each other and under the Convention, to identify a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050.”

The crowned heads have decreed that global temperatures must not increase by more than 2° Centigrade (3.6° Farenheit), a climate which should be perfect all the year.

So our climate policy, which is oh-so scientific, will be based on the following equation:

x – y < 2° C

Where x is the future temperature if we don’t do anything.  We of course have no idea what this number is.  And y is the future temperature if we do something.  We have absolutely no idea what this number is either.

What we have are climate models which use simplified assumptions, limited data and a lot of wishful thinking to analyze extraordinarily complex phenomena.  A climate model is rather like a computer model that claims to predict who will win the World Series in 2025 by analyzing past data and making assumptions about payrolls, injuries, farm system success and which team Joe Torre is managing.  Such as model might look great, particularly if all the sports writers agreed with its output, but it would have zero predictive capability.  Not minimal predictive value, but NO predictive value.

At last week’s meeting in Italy of the Group of Eight (G-8) major world economic powers, President Obama performed according to a template which is becoming increasingly common in the “climate community.”  He started by blaming the US for the problem, noting that “I know that in the past, the United States has sometimes fallen short of meeting our responsibilities. So, let me be clear: Those days are over…..”  Second, he offered a plan to deal with the problem which consists of, well, making a plan to set a goal.  In other words, he just kicked the can down the road again.

There are three closely related reasons why this keeps happening on climate change.  The first is that we just don’t understand the science behind the problem.  The second is that reducing carbon emissions means cutting energy consumption, which is extremely expensive.  Even modest cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, well below the level that would be required to decrease atmospheric concentrations, would severely burden national economies and reduce living standards.  The third reason is that, as a result of the first two, not a single government anywhere in the world has shown a willingness to pay the high price required for carbon reduction.

Lots of governments, particularly in Europe, talk about climate change all the time.  Some governments have actually reduced carbon emissions, and taken lots of credit for it.  Take the UK for example, which replaced domestic coal with North Sea natural gas during the 1980s and 1990s.  A perfectly sensible step, but it was based on economics, not environmental considerations.  Germany shut down the filthy, expensive and inefficient East German brown coal industry soon after reunification.  A good move, but not related to climate change.  Both countries have trumpeted these accomplishments as evidence of their green credentials.  Nonsense.

President Obama is very popular in Europe.  One reason is that he agrees with the Europeans that the US is at fault for the world’s problems.  That way, Europeans don’t have to confront the real problem of climate change.  They can keep talking and planning and promising and decreeing.  President Obama has now joined this happy crew, like college students walking around campus wearing “Save the Planet” t-shirts.

I have a suggestion for a slight edit to the G-8 communiqué that would sharpen and clarify the language:

“We will work with each other and under the Convention, to identify by 2050 a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions.”

I could get on board with this.  It’s much better for politicians to spend taxpayer money hosting lavish meetings in Italy and issuing embarrassingly vapid communiqués than to actually force carbon reductions and thereby damage their economies.  Let’s hope President Obama stays with that approach.

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