Posted by: bmeverett | December 21, 2011

Climate Change Whimper

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot’s famous words are a fitting epitaph for the late, but unlamented Climate Change Movement. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992. Since that time, the UN has held 17 Conferences of Parties (COPs) and seven Conferences of Parties Serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMPs). The latest session of each just wrapped up in November and December of this year in Durban, South Africa. The global effort to combat climate change has progressed from its original 1992 promise to do something in the future about climate change to its most recent decision in Durban to, well, do something in the future about climate change. In between, we have experienced the Kyoto Protocol, which established extensive rules for carbon trading, systems for crediting carbon mitigation investments in developing countries, procedures for joint implementation projects and employment for thousands of climate change bureaucrats, but did not, of course, reduce carbon emissions. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 1997, the year the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, global emissions of carbon dioxide were about 23 billion metric tonnes (mt). A total of 191 countries signed and ratified Kyoto, yet global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 were an estimated 32 billion mt – an increase of nearly 40%.

If you ask members of the “Climate Community” why they have been unable to make any real progress toward carbon reduction, they will generally answer that “climate deniers,” financed by oil companies, right-wing extremists and other sinister forces have deceived the public with deliberate disinformation, making political support for a substantive carbon mitigation agenda impossible. Some people, like Tom Friedman, even long for a more dictatorial form of government like China’s, where politicians can force people to do the right thing, even against their will. In reality, there are three reasons why global climate negotiations have produced nothing.

Although the scientific evidence for some linkage between temperature and carbon dioxide is strong, evidence for an impending climate apocalypse is weak. (See my August 25, 2011 post “The Climate Change Switcheroo” for more details on this point). The average person understands that arguments based on credentials (I’m a scientist, and you’re not) are unpersuasive. The Climate Community has tried and failed to convince the public that scientific consensus is the same as scientific evidence. Fortunately, the public is not that gullible.

In a democracy, no policy can be implemented unless the electorate is convinced that the policy is both necessary and cost-effective. The Climate Community has utterly failed to persuade the American public that their apocalyptic visions are real. Despite the prevailing view on the American Left, Americans are not sheep, but are in fact quite capable of weighing arguments on important issues and reaching sensible conclusions. Fortunately, most Americans have not been subjected to elite university educations where students’ bulls**t detectors are surgically removed.

The second point is that carbon mitigation is expensive. At the low end of the supply curve for carbon mitigation steps are a few low-cost actions. Unfortunately, these inexpensive steps have no real impact on our national carbon footprint. For example, if every American household planted an extra tree in their yard, we would cut our net carbon dioxide emissions by about 2 million metric tons a year – about 0.04% of the total. A complete change-out of all incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents would save about 1.2%. If we assume that every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of solar electricity generated in the US replaces a kWh of coal-fired power, our entire solar power generation reduces our national carbon footprint by 0.02%.

In order to reduce US carbon emissions significantly, we would have to stop tinkering around the edges of the problem and begin to impose punitive taxes on economic activity. A carbon tax of $1 per mt is equivalent to $0.01 per gallon of gasoline. How much of a tax would be required to really cause people to reduce their energy consumption? The “Cap and Trade” bills submitted to Congress in recent years have put a ceiling on the price of carbon of between $25 and $50 per mt, equivalent to $0.25 to $0.50 per gallon of gasoline. A $50 tax would cost the American people $280 billion per year, but does anyone really believe that this tax would change peoples’ behavior? Clearly, politicians of both parties understand that the purpose of climate legislation is to appease environmental constituents, not to bring about significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

The third point is that it makes no real difference what the United States does. According to the EIA, global carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase from 32 billion mt per year in 2010 to 43 billion mt in 2035, an increase of 11 billion mt. The US accounts for only about 6% of the increase, while Western European emissions are projected to be flat. China, on the other hand, accounts for almost half the growth. Most of the rest of the increase is in other developing countries. These are the nations that had no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The Climate Community argues that it’s only fair that the rich countries bear the brunt of carbon reductions, since they enjoyed the benefit of all those years of economic growth. That may be true, but there will be no progress without a determined effort by China, and China shows no inclination whatsoever to accept lower economic growth in return for reduced carbon emissions.

China’s biggest problem is moving a billion people from poverty to a modern living standard before the Communist Party gets thrown out of power. (A second goal is to increase the reach of China’s military power in Asia at the expense of the US, but we’ll leave that issue alone for today.) Economic growth, particularly at rates of 5-10% annually will require cheap energy – and lots of it. Despite all its PR about renewable energy, the International Energy Agency’s data show that China’s energy consumption is about two-thirds coal – the highest carbon energy source there is.

The Climate Community wants the United States and other wealthy countries to convince China to ultimate get on board with carbon mitigation by offering an example. If we show the way, the Chinese will ultimately follow. Unfortunately, what we have shown China over the last 15 years in the clearest possible terms is (1) no Western politician will compromise economic growth for carbon reductions, (2) therefore, Western climate change policy is based on symbolic actions and promises of future progress, combined with complex accounting tricks and (3) the environmental movement is easily satisfied by these rhetorical efforts. China is, in fact, following our lead.

Amazingly, the UN calls the inaction of the recent Durban meetings “a breakthrough.” Over the next year, look for the climate change issue to continue down the path to irrelevance.



  1. “Here is no water but only rock
    Rock and no water and the sandy road
    The road winding above among the mountains
    Which are mountains of rock without water
    If there were water we should stop and drink
    Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
    Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
    If there were only water amongst the rock”
    – T.S. Eliot

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