Posted by: bmeverett | February 6, 2016

Paul Krugman fails Climate Change 101

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Laureate and former distinguished professor at my alma mater Princeton University. His February 1 column in the New York Times entitled “Wind, Sun and Fire” is an embarrassment to himself and to Princeton. Professor Krugman is, of course, entitled to express his views, but he should show at least a basic understanding of the issues before he starts pontificating.

The initial argument in the piece is “Last year was the hottest on record, by a wide margin, which should — but won’t — put an end to climate deniers’ claims that global warming has stopped.” Four points in this regard. First, “the record” is only 100-150 years, the time period for which we have instrumental data. That does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that 2015 was the hottest year ever. Second, the “wide margin” is only 0.16 degrees Celsius. Third, 2015 was an El Nino year, during which changes in ocean currents redistribute heat from the ocean around the planet. The relationship between surface air temperatures and ocean currents is one of the key unknowns in climate science. Finally, climate “skeptics” are not basing their case on an absolute pause in temperature increase. Most “skeptical” scientists acknowledge that carbon dioxide has a warming effect on the atmosphere. The argument is about climate sensitivity – how much CO2 leads to how much warming. Climate activists have relied for the last 25 years or so on computer models to tell us what will happen. Over that period of time, however, we have developed actual data that indicate that CO2 causes much less warming than the models predict. Strangely, climate activists still prefer the models to actual data.

Krugman’s next argument is intended to be optimistic. He says that “Most people who think about the issue at all probably imagine that achieving a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would necessarily involve big economic sacrifices….. But things are actually much more hopeful than that, thanks to remarkable technological progress in renewable energy.” He quotes, for example a Lazard study that claims that the cost of wind power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the cost of solar power fell 82 percent. That may or may not be true, but compared to what? A Ferrari F12 Berlinetta currently costs about $325,000. If the price fell 82%, it would still be out of the reach of the average driver. He claims, but does not document that renewable energy is now in “a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels.” That assertion is too powerful to make without support.
Professor Krugman acknowledges the serious problem of intermittent generation from wind and solar, but just dismisses it with a wave of his hand, claiming “But this issue seems to be of diminishing significance, partly thanks to improving storage technology, partly thanks to the realization that “demand response” — paying consumers to cut energy use during peak periods — can greatly reduce the problem.” Sounds good, but should we believe this? Energy storage, including batteries, has made considerable technological progress in recent years, but it’s nowhere near the point where large amounts of intermittent electricity can be economically and reliably integrated into the power grid. Bear in mind, for example, that an all-electric Nissan Leaf costs twice as much as the similar gasoline-powered Nissan Versa. The Leaf battery doubles the cost of the vehicle. Paying consumers not to use electricity may reduce consumption, but does it increase overall economic welfare? Again, no support for this claim. Climate activists are going to have to provide evidence, not just an assertion that these problems have been solved.
Finally, Professor Krugman reaches for the sky with “But I’d argue that the kind of progress now within reach could produce a tipping point, in the right direction. Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success and, yes, a powerful interest group, anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip. And an energy revolution in America would let us take the lead in global action.” In other words, if the renewable energy revolution is successful, then the renewable energy revolution will be successful.
Among the many things I learned in my four years at Princeton are that assertions are not arguments and that calling people who disagree with you “crazies” does not advance knowledge in any way.


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