Posted by: bmeverett | June 2, 2014

Friedman Watch 6-2-14

Everyone holds some views which are more or less contradictory, and struggling to reconcile those views is a constructive and intellectually important part of life. The right starting point for this process is recognizing that your views do conflict and avoiding the trap of forcing them to fit together when they really don’t. Thomas Friedman has been struggling for a very long time with his mutually exclusive opinions on democracy and totalitarianism and writes periodic columns attempting to reconcile these ideas. I first pointed this out in my post of January 17, 2010 in which he expressed admiration for the Chinese leadership who can spend their time doing the right things instead of worrying about getting elected. Mr. Friedman is at it again in his May 24, 2014 New York Times column entitled “Memorial Day 2050.”

In this piece, Mr. Friedman bemoans the fact that the American public is insufficiently motivated to follow his advice on climate change because they are “skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life”. Heaven forbid that voters be skeptical of a pundit who instructs them on what to believe. Mr. Friedman is overjoyed to have found a new and creative solution to this problem in the form of a recommendation by a young Dutch philosopher named Thomas Wells. Mr. Wells is a post-doc fellow at Erasmus University in Rotterdam who suggests that a certain bloc of votes, say 10%, be reserved for “trustees” who would take the interest of future generations into account in the democratic process. According to Mr. Wells, those interests include “decarbonizing the economy” and the trustees would be “nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks”. In other words, the Ford Foundation and Friends of the Earth get extra votes to offset the provincialism and short-term bias of the peasantry, who could care less about their children and grandchildren.

Apart from the oxymoron of non-partisan think tanks with voting power and the absurdity of charging environmental organizations with understanding the future (cf. the population bomb, acid rain, global cooling, The Silent Spring, alar, ethanol, etc.), the logical problems with this line of thinking should be obvious. Mr. Friedman starts out with the premise that he has acquired some eternal truths, particularly the link between fossil fuels and catastrophic climate change. He has thought these issues through and is absolutely convinced of the correctness of his thinking. Therefore, by definition, people who disagree with him must be flawed in some way. They are perhaps not very bright or motivated by selfish considerations or, in Mr. Friedman’s latest criticism, “preoccupied with the demands of daily life” and therefore unable to think clearly. This is the root premise of totalitarianism.

Lenin was the first to put into practice the idea of a small group of right-thinking people (The Vanguard of the Proletariat) seizing power and exercising it on behalf of the people. Since the people had limited consciousness (“clueless” in today’s parlance), smart people would rule in such a way that the broad masses would eventually enjoy utopia and be grateful. The first task for the vanguard, of course, was to eliminate the people’s enemies, and somehow those in power never got beyond that stage.

Democracy, however, is a powerful moral idea, and even Lenin was careful to create a veneer of democracy. He spoke of “democratic centralism”, i.e., a system in which anyone could voice his opinion until Lenin had made up his mind. Then everyone had to shut up and do as they were told. Lenin’s state was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. China is called the People’s Republic of China. Iran is called the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and not the Pitiless Dictatorship of Kim Jong Un.

Virtually all countries try to present a democratic face to the world. Iran, for example, holds periodic elections, but only among candidates pre-approved by the unelected rulers. The idea is that people should be free to choose, but only within a narrowly defined range of possible outcomes. This seems to be exactly what Mr. Friedman has in mind. Americans should be allowed to vote, but certain outcomes, i.e., decarbonization of the economy, should not be at issue. If, for example, the American electorate is divided 50/50 on what to do about climate change, the 10% special voting rights for right-thinking people would create the proper majority. What would happen if 90% of the population voted against Mr. Friedman’s views of appropriate climate change action is not clear.

I suspect that if you had asked Lenin privately, he would have admitted he had no interest in democracy, which he regarded as purely tactical. He wanted certain outcomes from the political process, and he was bound and determined to get them one way or another. It seems to me that it’s time for Mr. Friedman to abandon his effort to have it both ways. He really doesn’t believe in democracy. He believes in getting his way. A statement to that effect would at least have the virtue of honesty, something sorely lacking in “Memorial Day 2050”.

Posted by: bmeverett | May 19, 2014

More on Carbon Reporting

On May 3, I posted an extensive comment I offered to a discussion paper prepared by the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB). The comment prompted an email exchange with Dr. Jarlath Molloy, the Technical Manager of the CDSB. I’ve copied the exchange here for my readers. To me, Dr. Molloy’s commentary demonstrates the difficulty of having a constructive exchange of views on climate change, but you can make up your own mind.

May 6, 2014
To Bruce Everett
I note your recent comment on our proposals for reporting on Carbon Asset Stranding Risks. I have moderated the comment, given the nature of your post.
You specifically ask “What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference?” You can simply say just that in a comment in the same section.
Regards,
Jarlath Molloy

May 6, 2014
Good morning, Jarlath-
Hope you are well. I’m not sure I understand your email. Are you saying that you would like to replace my extensive comment with the simple, one-line question “What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference?”?
Regards,
Bruce Everett

May 7, 2014
Dear Bruce,
To clarify, we will review and consider your comment in the normal way once the consultation is complete. If you want to engage constructively and/or establish a discussion on the merits of the text, I suggest you keep your contribution concise and on-topic. Anything else will be moderated.
Regards,
Jarlath

May 7, 2014
Good morning, Jarlath-
Thanks for the clarification. I would certainly disagree that my comments were either off-topic or not constructive, but, under the circumstances, I withdraw my comment.
You have offered a 10,000-word discussion paper that makes comprehensive and highly debatable assertions. If you want to have a true discussion about these important issues, you need to allow your commenters the opportunity to make an equally comprehensive reply. You cannot have a debate in which one side gets 30 minutes to present and the other side gets 10 seconds to respond.
Best regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Dear Bruce,
Perhaps you have misunderstood my previous email. If you believe that there are highly debatable assertions in the text, the consultation platform is specifically designed to allow users highlight, review and comment on these.
We welcome all comment and my earlier suggestion was that to get the most out of the process, you should avoid long comments dealing with multiple issues, as they are less likely to be considered by other users.
The consultation platform has worked very well for other organisations and we encourage you to look again and be a little more specific in your review.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 7, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
Climate change is a complex topic and doesn’t lend itself to a set of short, disjointed comments. For example, your discussion paper starts out with the assertions that there is a 2 degree C permissible temperature increase, that we know how much carbon would cause such an increase and that we therefore know what the allowable “carbon budget” is. Those statements determine how to evaluate CASRs and what fossil fuel companies should do in response. A comment such as “I disagree with this.” is not useful to the conversation.
The only useful response is to make a complete and interconnected argument, which is what I have attempted to do. I have offered a comment, which lays out the argument as I see it. I can’t see how my comment is either unconstructive or off-topic, but it’s up to you whether to accept it or not.
Regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Hi Bruce,
To reconfirm, it is not the case that your comment was accepted/rejected. Like all comments, it will receive due consideration at the review stage. It did not fit the parameters of the consultation platform and what we are trying to achieve with it, so it is just no longer visible there. It will be made public in the same way as all others, at the end of the process.
Our experience with the recent GHGMI review of the ISO standards (using this consultation platform) was that users were quite able to review and comment on lengthy documents, adding supporting / dissenting opinions with appropriate justifications, as appropriate.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 7, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
Maybe we are just misunderstanding each other. Your initial email suggested that my comment was non-constructive and off-topic and would therefore be “moderated.” I have my own Blog, and I understand that “comment moderation” is a way of eliminating spam and inappropriate (hateful, profane, etc.) commentary. Nobody wants a serious discussion filled with “Buy cheap Canadian pharmaceuticals now!”. I interpreted your email as saying that I should either extensively rework my comment or it would be rejected. If that’s incorrect, what did you mean by “moderate”? Did you mean that you would edit my comment? Surely not.
I understand that many documents are worked in the way you prefer. It’s a useful technique to get from 90% agreement to 100% agreement, when all the basic terms of reference and key arguments are agreed among the participants. Although the Climate Community (and your discussion paper) claim that this is true for climate change, it is not. Hence the need for more extensive and comprehensive commentary.
I know you are very busy, and I don’t want to take up more of your time. I have offered you a comment, which I regard as relevant and constructive. Please use it as you wish.
Regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Hi Bruce,
Yes perhaps moderate was a poor choice of phrase. It might be more accurate to say my intention is to actively manage the process to ensure we make the most of the opportunity to establish a dialogue on the specifics in the text. This is entirely separate to longer submissions which we also welcome on/offline.
Your claim of a lack of consensus is not supported by the evidence; see Cook et al. 2013 and Oreskes 2004 for two journal articles which spring to mind. The discussion paper highlights just a small number of the many growing calls for this issue to be addressed, by leaders in the global financial and investment area. You are entitled to disagree with the international expert consensus on these issues, but I didn’t notice any evidence cited to the contrary in your comment.
I now regard this query as closed.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 8, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
As noted, I have made my comment, and you are free to use it or not as you wish.
Not so fast, however, on your second paragraph. First of all, scientific issues are not resolved by expert consensus. Science concerns the testing of hypotheses against empirical evidence, not asking scientists to express their opinions. The catastrophic climate scenarios, the 2 degree “limit” and the “carbon budget” are based on computer models that do not match the empirical evidence and have never been able to predict anything. As Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman once said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
The two sources you cite don’t help your point. Naomi Oreskes’ essay is first of all 10 years old. Second, she reviewed papers to measure their conformity with “the scientific consensus” without being clear about what that meant. Was the consensus that some warming is anthropogenic? Most warming? All warming? Was the consensus that future warming will be catastrophic? Might be catastrophic?
Cook’s study did not meet even the minimal conditions for sound analysis. His team reviewed the abstracts of about 2,000 journal articles on climate. Without actually asking the authors, he deduced from the abstracts whether the authors agreed with the assertion that observed warming was primarily caused by human activity. He included in his 97% consensus (1) the articles which explicitly stated that humans are the primary cause of warming, (2) the articles that stated that human activity caused some warming without saying how much and (3) the articles that implied that human activity caused some warming without saying how much. It turns out that most of the articles in the 97% were in category (3). This of course does not even address the issue of whether future warming will be catastrophic, a conclusion that requires additional major and questionable assumptions.
I think your comment made the point that these issues cannot be addressed by short, pithy sentences.
Regards,
Bruce

May 8, 2014
Hi Bruce,
A quote from Upton Sinclair has been in my mind in recent days when reading your emails: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” I don’t expect that your views will change in response to anything I might say, even if I highlight the relevancy of the precautionary principle. However, I find the means by which you articulate those views as somewhat puerile. For one thing, generalising the entire “Climate Community” – and by this I take it you include all those working on climate science, impacts, adaptation, mitigation, as well as those focused on various related policy issues – is quite vacuous. Indeed, comparing the climate community to an ill-informed and misguided anti-vaccination campaign is illogical.
As entertaining as all this is, unfortunately it is not my day-job to critique your straw man arguments.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 8, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
I’m disappointed that you would turn an exchange of views into a personal attack. You do not know me and have no basis to question my motivations or my integrity.
In response to your points, I use the term “Climate Community” to denote people who believe that catastrophic climate change is likely without a major restructuring of the global economy. This term is not pejorative in any sense, and I use it only because most of the people I know who hold that view use that term to describe themselves. I avoid at all cost emotionally charged terms like “climate alarmists” or “climate extremists”, since I respect the people who disagree with me.
Second, I never compared the Climate Community to the anti-vaccine crowd. I was using an analogy to raise the question of how corporations should properly respond when asked to report on a risk that they do not regard as serious. It seems to me that this issue is critical to the discussion you are promoting.
Regards,
Bruce

Posted by: bmeverett | May 14, 2014

Another Bad Climate Study

With great fanfare, President Obama announced last week the release of the third National Climate Assessment (NCA), a periodic report required by law under the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The White House called the report “the most comprehensive scientific assessment ever generated of climate change and its impacts across every region of America and major sectors of the U.S. economy.” The climate chorus naturally echoed the refrain. The New York Times ran a front page headline, “U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods.” ABC News says, “Fed Report Says Climate Change ‘Has Moved Firmly Into the Present’”. If you Google “National Climate Assessment”, you’ll get 118,000,000 hits.

Far from being a fresh look at climate change, the report is just a tired rehash of all the old climate arguments. The Climate Community will love it, but nobody interested in climate change will learn anything new. For future reference, there should be three no-no’s for climate reports: (1) calling its conclusions definitive because it was written by scientists, (2) claiming that any meteorological event off the trend line is clear evidence of impending catastrophe and (3) presenting climate model simulations as evidence. If you eliminate these three problem areas from the NCA, there’s nothing left.

Take no-no (1), for example. The New York Times article starts out “The effects of human-induced climate change are being felt in every corner of the United States, scientists reported…” The implication here is that scientists are united in their view and that non-scientists lack standing to object. The White House tried hard to reinforce this view by explaining that the report had been prepared by 300 experts overseen by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee. The report was subjected to extensive public review, etc.

Anyone who has participated in a study group understands the pitfalls. Somebody gets to decide who’s invited to participate and, more importantly, who’s not invited. Somebody gets to draft the report, and finally, somebody gets to decide which comments to incorporate and which to reject. Some studies are managed by people who try very hard to produce a high-quality report that advances our understanding of the issue. Others, however, are structured to produce a predetermined answer.

The study was chaired by Dr. Jerry Melillo, a Senior Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and a Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Dr. Melillo is a scientist of the highest caliber with distinguished credentials and an important position at a prestigious institution. But (and this is a big BUT), he has for years expressed a clear position on climate change. For example, Dr. Melillo was the co-author of the 2009 report “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” At the press conference announcing the issuance of that report, Dr. Melillo stated, “It is clear that climate change is happening now. The observed climate changes we report are not opinions to be debated, they are facts to be reported.” Dr. Melillo has every right to state his view, but by doing so he has switched from scientist to political advocate. Scientists want to find the truth; political advocates want to win the debate. His appointment as Chair of the NCA determined from the outset what the report would say. To be clear, Dr. Melillo did nothing in any way unethical or unprofessional. He simply organized the work to show what he wanted to show. Does anyone believe that the NCA would have produced the same result under the chairmanship of Pat Michaels, Ross McKitrick or Stephen McIntyre?

Regarding no-no (2), the NCA’s portrayal of the current (and supposedly obvious) evidence of extreme weather events is an embarrassment. This problem persists in our climate change discussion for a couple of reasons. First, weather is a long-term phenomenon, and humans have very short data sets of personal experience. A bad winter may seem unusual, but who carries in his head enough data to determine how unusual it actually was? Second, extreme weather variability is the rule, not the exception.

DC snow stats

As an example, I’ve attached a chart showing annual snowfall in Washington, DC since 1888, when record-keeping started. Just a quick glance at the chart shows the enormous year-to-year variation and the difficulty of discerning a pattern. Snowfall in our nation’s capital has averaged 18.1 inches per winter, but the average annual variation from that average has been roughly 50%. There have been years when snowfall was nearly triple the average (2010 and 1899, for example) and years when there was virtually no snow at all (1973 and 1998). What are we to make of this?

All of the following statements are true.

1. 2010 was the highest winter snow accumulation in DC’s recorded history.
2. Three out of the five snowiest winters in the last 45 years occurred in the last 10 years.
3. Snowfall in the first 15 winters of the 21st century was 6% higher than in the last 15 winters of the 20th century.

However, the following statements are also true:

1. Three of the four snowiest decades in DC history were the 1890s, the 1900s and the 1910s.
2. DC snowfall over the last 50 years was 13% lower than snowfall in the prior 50 years.
3. So far, DC snowfall in the 21st century has been 14% less than snowfall in the 20th century, which was in turn 27% less than snowfall in the 19th century.

Since the data are all over the map, it’s easy to craft statements that support whatever position you wish. Extreme weather events occurred just as regularly a hundred years ago, before human greenhouse gas emissions became significant.

If I were to catalogue all the occurrences of this fallacy in the NCA, this post would be way too long, so let me give you one clear example. Page 41 of the report contains Key Message #8 “The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s.” But we have data for Atlantic storms back to 1900, so why look at just the last 30 years rather than the whole data set? Furthermore, climate change is a global phenomenon, so why not look at hurricanes on a worldwide basis?

Worldwide, there were 318 hurricanes in the 1980s, 347 in the 1990s, 308 in the 2000s, and we are on track for 275 in the 2010s. See a pattern? I don’t.

There were 10 Category 4/5 North Atlantic storms in the 1980s, 14 in the 1990s and 23 in the 2000s, so the NCA’s statement about major storms is true, but I could say with equal validity that there have been no Category 5 storms in the last 6 years compared to 8 in the previous 6 years. Does this mean that severe storms are decreasing? If the high severe hurricane activity in the 2000s was in fact caused by human-induced climate change, what caused the high activity levels in the 1930s (16 Category 4/5 hurricanes) when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were much lower than they were today? What caused the drop in the 1970s (8 Category 4/5 storms) when atmospheric carbon levels were increasing?

In many ways, no-no (3) is the most troubling. The NCA frequently conflates statements about what is happening now with statements about what is predicted to happen in the future. Chapters 16-25 address regional impacts. The overall regional section starts out with the statement that “One common challenge facing every U.S. region is a new and dynamic set of realities resulting from our changing climate. The evidence can be found in every region, and impacts are visible in every state.” This theme was repeated extensively in the press. For example, US News and World Report states “[The NCA’s] main conclusion is that climate change is already here. Worse, its effects have arrived with a speed and severity that few thought possible.” Each regional chapter includes a series of “Key Messages”. Have a look at the Key Messages for the Northeast from page 372:

1. Heat waves, coastal flooding, and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social, and economic systems.
2. Infrastructure will be increasingly compromised by climate-related hazards, including sea level rise, coastal flooding, and intense precipitation events.
3. Agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised over the next century by climate change impacts.
4. While a majority of states and a rapidly growing number of municipalities have begun to incorporate the risk of climate change into their planning activities, implementation of adaptation measures is still at early stages.

All of these Key Messages are predictions of dire consequences in the future, not conditions that have already happened. The text includes some disjointed observations of actual climate events, but these observations are mixed in with predictions. The same is true for the Key Messages from the other regions.

Predictions are not evidence of anything, unless they are based on models which have a meaningful theoretical and empirical basis and a track record of success. We can predict with real accuracy what would happen if we drop a brick from the top of the Empire State Building because we understand not only how gravity works, but also the more subtle impacts of air pressure and wind. Climate models reflect our limited understanding of climate dynamics. These models will become a useful basis for policy when and only when they are able to make correct predictions. Furthermore, these predictions must be falsifiable. It’s meaningless to say that our model predicts extreme weather events, since we always have extreme weather events. The models would have to predict which extreme events would occur and where. So far, they can’t predict anything.

Nice try, but nothing new here.

Posted by: bmeverett | May 3, 2014

The Real Problem with Corporate Carbon Reporting

I recently received an email from a former student with a copy of a discussion paper by the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB) on corporate carbon reporting and an invitation to comment. This is an important topic and deserves serious attention. We need to know more about the influence of human activity on climate and how corporations are addressing the issue. A good statistical database on carbon emission is essential, and most corporations, including fossil fuel producers, are already providing such data. So what else should companies report? Rather than encouraging an open discussion of how to report climate change risks, the CDSB discussion paper is just a rehash of the arguments predicting climate catastrophe and demanding radical action in response. This discussion can produce nothing serious without more open and realistic terms of reference.

The Executive Summary of the discussion paper starts by citing the IPCC’s conclusion “that warming of the climate system is ‘unequivocal’” and “that to have a 66% chance of limiting temperature rises to the internationally agreed 2°C target, cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources will have to be limited to 3,670 GtCO2; i.e. a global CO2 cap or budget.” These numbers are political fictions and scientifically meaningless. All we actually know about climate change is that there has been modest warming over the last 100 years and that some indeterminate part of that warming was caused by man-made carbon emissions. The catastrophic climate scenarios, the 2° C target, the 66% probability and the “carbon budget” are based on computer models that rely on questionable assumptions and have never been able to make useful predictions regarding the impact of human activity on climate. These terms of reference end the discussion before it starts.

What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference? The recent case of ExxonMobil is illustrative. Most large publicly traded companies encounter shareholder proposals of various types at their annual meetings. Often these proposals are offered by activist groups or “ethical investment funds” that own shares in the company for the specific purpose of pursuing economic and social agendas rather than earning a return on their investment. In March of this year, Arjuna Capital, whose stated mission is “to advance the understanding of what sustainability means for investor returns and corporate profitability” requested that ExxonMobil issue a report on climate change and, in particular, on the risk to the corporation of stranded fossil fuel assets that the company would be unable to produce in a low carbon future. Much to the surprise of Arjuna and other activists, ExxonMobil agreed.

The ExxonMobil report, which you can find at http://corporate.exxonmobil.com/search?search=carbon%20report, makes the following arguments (my phrasing, not theirs!):
1. ExxonMobil regards climate change as an important issue.
2. Fossil fuels are critical to economic growth, which will be the primary driver of government policy.
3. Governments are likely to apply small carbon prices in the range of $20-$80 per metric tonne of carbon dioxide (equivalent to 18-70¢ per gallon of gasoline).
4. These relatively low carbon prices will encourage gradual improvements in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy production, but are not large enough to imperil the fossil fuel industry.
5. Over time, the growth in global carbon emissions is likely to slow, reaching a peak around the year 2030 and declining thereafter.
6. The Corporation expects that none of its profitable fossil fuels assets will become stranded.

This seems like a perfectly reasonable story to me. Despite the desires of the Climate Community to eliminate fossil fuels, no government has ever indicated any inclination actually to do so. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the flagship accomplishment of international climate negotiations, was a clever web of loopholes and accounting tricks that allowed its signatories to meet their treaty obligations without any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The climate policies currently advocated by the Obama Administration, the Senate Democrats, the State of California, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and other programs are symbolic actions which would have no measurable impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations. In effect, governments around the world have simply been seeking to define a minimum climate program that will satisfy their environmental constituencies without further impeding the anemic economic growth the world is currently suffering. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate a change in this approach.

Although ExxonMobil did exactly what they were asked, Arjuna, the activist group that made the reporting demand, was still unhappy. Natasha Lamb, Director of Equity Research at Arjuna, wanted the Corporation “to explain what would happen if society did in fact adopt policies that would lead to sharply lower emissions, something known broadly as a low-carbon standard.”. This is a rather strange comment. Would it make sense to ask United Airlines to state to its investors that a government prohibition on air travel would strand all the Company’s assets and put them out of business? How about asking Microsoft to report on the consequences of a government ban on personal computers? What on Earth is the purpose of asking companies to report on the consequences of government actions that would put them out of business? The statement “Policies that would put me out of business would put me out of business” is a tautology.

The intent here is clearly to maneuver ExxonMobil into stating that the risk of governments’ mandating “sharply lower emissions” is high, thereby discouraging investors from buying ExxonMobil shares and depriving the Corporation of capital. The “divestment movement” is currently encouraging universities, mutual funds, pension funds and other financial institutions to divest their fossil fuel holdings. That is their right, but do they really expect the fossil fuel companies to cooperate?

Despite ExxonMobil’s failure to tow the line, the Climate Community has been spinning the company’s carbon report to the best of its ability. On December 13, for example, The New York Times claimed that “More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming.” That statement is quite misleading. In fact, ExxonMobil predicted only that governments would impose a small price on carbon. A simple analysis would demonstrate that ExxonMobil’s assumed carbon price is nowhere near high enough to “control global warming”.

There’s an interesting analogy here in the anti-vaccine movement. In the mid-late 1990s, an eclectic group of people, including the trial lawyers, environmental guru Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and celebrities like actors Jenny McCarthy, Reese Witherspoon and Jim Carrey and radio host Don Imus and his wife Deirdre, argued that childhood vaccinations cause autism. The argument focused first on the preservative thimerosol, but then shifted to vaccines in general and other “toxic” components when the elimination of thimerisol failed to reduce the incidence of autism. The fire was fueled by a 1998 article in the prestigious British journal The Lancet, claiming a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. Even though the study was completely discredited and retracted by the journal and even though its author lost his license to practice medicine, the controversy continues. Like the Climate Community, the anti-vaccination crowd believes passionately in the justness of its cause and has no patience with disbelievers or with contrary scientific evidence. If you want to get a sense of the emotional power of this debate, check out Deirdre Imus’s rant at http://video.foxbusiness.com/v/1546174739001/how-are-vaccines-linked-to-autism/#sp=show-clips (Skip the first four minutes of fluff). Some doctors are attributing the surprising resurgence of childhood measles to parents’ fears about these vaccines.

What should Merck tell its shareholders under these circumstances? Would you expect them to state that there is a real risk that a ban on the MMR vaccine would strand significant manufacturing or intellectual assets? A more reasonable statement would be (a) there is no proof of any link between vaccines and autism, (b) the benefits of childhood vaccination far outweigh the small number of allergic reactions and other side effects and (c) these vaccines are more than likely to remain in widespread use for the foreseeable future. Such a statement might outrage Mr. Kennedy, but it would seem like a responsible statement to most people.

Carbon reporting makes sense only as a means to better understand carbon emissions and to track what companies are doing to manage their carbon emissions. It will not be a useful exercise if its purpose is merely to score debating points.

The beatings will continue until the suspect confesses.

Posted by: bmeverett | April 25, 2014

The Newest Dumb Climate Change Comment

In a January, 2010 post, I conferred on former Congresswoman Jane Harmon my award for dumbest climate change comment for claiming that CIA satellites should be tasked with studying climate change because that could show us where al-Qaeda is moving next. My standards for the dumb climate change comment award are pretty high, but I am pleased to announce a second winner – Chris Hayes of MSNBC.

On April 22, Mr. Hayes wrote an article for The Nation entitled “The New Abolitionism” which you can find at http://www.thenation.com/article/179461/new-abolitionism#. The piece draws a strange comparison between the abolition of slavery and the fight against climate change. Mr. Hayes’ thesis goes as follows: (1) the main obstacle to the abolition of slavery in the 1860s was the asset value of the slaves, estimated at $10 trillion (in today’s dollars) or 16% of total US household assets at the time, (2) the slaveholders were not going to give up this asset without a fight, (3) saving the planet from global warming requires the nearly cessation of fossil fuel production, (4) like slave-owners, the shareholders of fossil fuel companies, like ExxonMobil, will never give up their assets, which he estimates at $20 trillion, without a fight, and (5) we must therefore starve the industry of the investment capital it needs to continue growth. (The dumbest comment he makes is not, in fact, central to his argument, so I’m going to keep you in suspense a while longer while I address his main points.)

Mr. Hayes’ thesis is confused, and he alternates between making the slavery-fossil fuels analogy and claiming that the analogy is not really valid. Let me help him out by noting that the latter point is correct. Slavery was a purely moral question with no unresolved factual issues. We knew precisely how many slaves there were, since, prior to adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, 60% of the slave population could be counted for purposes of the apportionment of seats in Congress. We knew precisely which states and in which counties the slaves lived. We knew precisely the value of slaves since there was an active market. We knew precisely the value of the labor stolen from the slaves and, despite southern propaganda, we as a nation understood fully the deplorable conditions under which slaves lived. Mr. Hayes is correct in saying that the slave-owners vehemently resisted the loss of their “property”, but the drive for abolition was based entirely on the utter immorality of robbing a human being of his liberty. Although slavery was legal under the US Constitution before the Civil War, the US was a country steeped in “natural law” – the inherent rights of human beings which could not be taken away by government. Abolitionists saw slavery as a violation of natural law and were rightly unconcerned with the costs or practical implications of eliminating this horror.

Climate change, on the other hand, is entirely a debate over the facts. Like most warmists, Mr. Hayes glibly states that “The scientific consensus is that human civilization cannot survive in any recognizable form a temperature increase this century more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).” This claim and the associated claim that the atmosphere cannot tolerate more than 350 parts per million of carbon are utterly meaningless. As discussed often in my posts, science tells us only that increasing carbon concentrations imply continued modest warming. The catastrophic scenarios and the numbers that accompany them are political fictions designed solely to frighten people into accepting a massive increase in government economic planning and severe limitations on their lifestyles.

Only fossil fuels provide the combination of scale, cost and performance required to support a mobile industrial economy. To deprive people of that form of society is in essence to impoverish them. According to our basic principles, abolitionism could not be morally wrong. If, on the other hand, the warmist view of science proves to be wrong, shutting down the fossil fuel industry would be a moral outrage. The analogy with slavery thus fails completely, and Mr. Hayes’ article simply illustrates the arrogance of people who cannot even imagine that they might be wrong and are therefore quite happy to coerce (dare I say enslave?) everyone else in the service of their supposedly infallible opinions.

Mr. Hayes’ slavery analogy continues. He notes that Southern slave-owners offered an increasingly passionate defense of slavery as the abolitionist movement grew and threatened their way of life. By analogy, he claims that Republican support for fossil fuel production is an increasingly desperate attempt to hold off the forces of climate activism. He notes that George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, John McCain and Newt Gingrich once worried about climate change and supported climate action. Isn’t it just possible that the increasingly obvious weaknesses of warmist science and the declining public concern with climate change have some role in the Republican view?

Mr. Hayes then tries to sound an optimistic note (at least for him). They key to eliminating fossil fuels is the decapitalization of the industry accomplished by convincing investors to shun fossil fuel stocks. Mr. Hayes trumpets that “The divestment movement is pushing colleges, universities, municipalities, pension funds and others to remove their investment from fossil fuel companies. So far, eighteen foundations, twenty-seven religious institutions, twenty-two cities, and eleven colleges and universities have committed themselves to divestment. Together, they have pledged to divest hundreds of millions of dollars from the fossil fuel companies so far.” The international oil industry has an annual turnover of $4-5 trillion, so Mr. Hayes needs to restrain his enthusiasm a bit.

Which takes us, finally, to his truly dumb comment. Mr. Hayes is placing a lot of faith in “sovereign wealth funds” to help decapitalize the fossil fuel industry. In particular, he claims that “The largest such fund belongs to Norway, which is seriously considering divesting from fossil fuels.” Mr. Hayes might wish to note that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is the repository for the country’s oil and gas revenue. Now it makes sense from a portfolio diversification standpoint not to invest these funds in ExxonMobil, since Norway’s economy is already highly exposed to the oil and gas industry. On the other hand, Norway is investing massively in its own oil and gas industry. In addition to the taxes Norway imposes on foreign oil and gas companies, the government owns 67% of Statoil, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. By the way, the next largest sovereign wealth funds are Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, China and Kuwait. Are these really the people Mr. Hayes is relying on to shut down the fossil fuel industry? Good luck with that. Anyway, congratulations to Mr. Hayes for besting Congresswoman Harmon. The award is well-deserved.

I am in absolute agreement with Mr. Hayes’ final statement in his article: “What the climate justice movement is demanding is the ultimate abolition of fossil fuels. And our fates all depend on whether they succeed.” How true. Their success would be one of the worst disasters ever to befall mankind.

Posted by: bmeverett | April 15, 2014

Response to Greg, Part 3

Here’s part 3 of my open letter to Greg Craven regarding his book “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.”

Dear Greg:
In my last two posts, I offered my arguments on climate science and economics. Based on these arguments, I have attached my proposed decision matrix using your methodology.

It will come as no surprise that I see the size of the rows very differently than you do. As discussed, the warmists have not made their case for catastrophic climate change, which seems to me likely to occur only under a rather contorted and implausible set of assumptions. If anything, the bottom row in my matrix is larger than I would have like to portray it, but it needs to be wide enough to include the captions.

BME CC matrix

I have opted for three columns, rather than two. As I discussed previously, “take action” versus “take no action” is a false dichotomy. I would challenge you to present a program of climate action that would actually reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations materially. Putting up a few wind mills, tightening building codes and impeding new coal-fired power plants aren’t going to cut it. (Here’s an interesting exercise. At the end Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth”, he scrolls through a series of climate actions he wants us to take. See how many of these suggestions would actually reduce carbon by any significant amount.) Also, bear in mind that the US is now too small a share of global carbon emissions to solve the problem on our own.

The April 15 New York Times had yet another front page article about climate change (“Political Rifts Slow U.S. Effort on Climate Laws” by Coral Davenport) rehashes the same old argument that climate action is being impeded by Republicans motivated by their political need to protest fossil fuel industries. Ms. Davenport cites the IPCC’s call for massive carbon cuts and notes approvingly the efforts that president Obama is trying to make. Nowhere in the article does she attempt to compare the two and evaluate whether the President’s program would actually reduce atmospheric carbon by any meaningful amount.

Running around the US trying to convince people to “do something” is hardly a meaningful plan. You have to tell them what you want them to do to actually solve the problem and to do so at an acceptable cost.

I therefore have six boxes, instead of your three, and here’s what they look like. Box #1 is the upper left (warmists are wrong on the science, and we take no action). The result is that everything is fine. As I noted in my last post, you do not get to claim that this box is a disaster because other problems will make the future horrible anyway.

Box #2 is the upper middle box (warmists are wrong on the science, but we adopt the warmist agenda of expensive but ineffective climate actions). The results are not catastrophic, but useless, expensive government programs divert capital, labor and brainpower from more production uses. As a result, we suffer wasted resources, unnecessarily higher energy costs, lower economic growth, higher unemployment, limitations on mobility and higher global poverty levels. How bad the problem is depends on how much money you can convince people to throw away.

Box #3 (warmists are wrong on the science, and we adopt radical de-carbonization) is a real nightmare. Remember that this box is beyond the control of the US, and of necessity involves decarbonization by all major countries – a very unlikely development. For generations to come, we will face a loss not only of our living standard, which can never be sustained with massive government planning powers, but also of our personal freedom. Since Americans are less than 5% of the global population, we can defend ourselves against external threats only if we have a strong, nimble and innovative economy. The US economy in Box #3 is a wreck.

The lower left Box #4 (the warmists are right on the science, but we take no action) is, I grant you, bad. The real problem we have with climate change policy, however, is that Box #5 (the warmists are right on the science but we adopt the warmist agenda) is just as bad. Only Box #6 (the warmists are right on the science and we adopt radical decarbonization) saves the world from climate catastrophe.

You are welcome to make your case to the people of the world. If you are honest about what you are asking, however, your chances are pretty slim. You’ll get a receptive audience in San Francisco, but I doubt you’ll get much support from people in China who still live on $2-3 per day. If you can’t achieve Box #6, do you really want Box #5 instead?

Greg, as I noted before, I’m happy to print any reply you might wish to make.

Posted by: bmeverett | April 2, 2014

Response to Greg, Part 2

Here’s part 2 of my open letter to Greg Craven regarding his book “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.”

Dear Greg:
Last week, I went through my arguments on climate science. Here are my comments on climate economics.

Your economic analysis is driven by two powerful, but highly arguable assumptions: (1) even if the warmists are wrong, the future is still bleak because of peak oil and population pressures and (2) it doesn’t really cost much to reduce carbon emissions anyway.

Regarding the first proposition, I argued last week that Peak Oil, always a questionable proposition, has now been almost entirely discredited. The global hydrocarbon resource base will probably allow us grow production of oil, coal and natural gas for at least 100 if not 200 years. In the copper industry, technology has been outpacing resource depletion for 5,000 years.

I’m not sure the source of your pessimistic view of population. The latest UN projections show a growth in global population from 7 billion today to just under 11 billion by 2100. There’s no reason to believe that the Earth can’t sustain a 50% increase in humans. The US population has more than doubled since I was a child, but I don’t see us killing each other for the last scrap of food. Many other analysts see world population peaking and then beginning to decline sometime this century. A recent Deutschebank study, for example, projects population to rise to about 8.5 billion by mid-century, then to fall to 8 billion by 2100. The “population bomb” argument was wrong when Thomas Malthus made it in 1798, it was wrong when Paul Ehrlich made it in the 1970s and it’s wrong now.

Making these questionable assumptions severely distorts your comparison basis. Suppose your doctor recommends a heart transplant, and you ask him about the risks. He explains to you that you could easily die on the operating table, but that doesn’t matter since you’ll probably get killed in a car crash next week anyway. If we are evaluating what happens if the warmists are wrong, we should more reasonably assume that world economy can continue to grow at a healthy pace. Otherwise, you have decided that mankind has no optimistic future regardless.

What about your second assertion, that climate mitigation would be easy and inexpensive? You haven’t really offered a coherent argument here, just some bits and pieces of the usual environmental narrative, which you toss out without any critical evaluation. My primary comment is that you should get yourself an Economics 101 textbook and learn the basics of this field. Since you’re a busy guy and may not have the time to do that, let me offer some specific comments on some of your economic assertions.

A key component of the warmist agenda is strong and truly puzzling faith in central planning – the ability of government to manage the economy. The field of economics involves many controversies, but there is one overwhelming conclusion from history: central planning produces political oppression and poverty, while free markets are conducive to democracy and wealth creation.

I note in your book references to the standard myths about American economic history. The Depression Myth, which all schoolchildren are taught, claims that (1) the Great Depression started in 1929 with the stock market crash, (2) President Herbert Hoover and the Republicans believed that the economy could correct itself and did nothing, (3) President Roosevelt understood that only massive government intervention could save us and (4) fifteen years of central planning plus the massive government stimulus of World War II finally ended the Great Depression. A more accurate history is (1) in 1929 the US economy entered one of the painful recessions we had periodically endured over the prior hundred years, (2) unlike previous recessions, the federal government believed it could “fix” this one, (3) President Hoover and the Republicans immediately did all the wrong things, like raising taxes and contracting international trade, (4) the electorate replaced Hoover with FDR who did exactly the same things Hoover had done, thereby turning the recession into a depression and (5) World War II ended the Great Depression not because of stimulus but because FDR stopped messing around with the economy and let it produce at its capacity. For a rigorously researched and well-argued presentation of this alternative narrative, I would recommend you read “The Forgotten Man” by Amity Shlaes.

The political left jumped on the Great Depression as proof that free market economies don’t work and that government planning is necessary. Fortunately, the post war boom allowed us to overcome this severely misguided view. Until 2008, that is. The political left has once again seen an opportunity to attack free markets with the misguided narrative that (1) unregulated markets fueled by greed caused a financial collapse, (2) only massive government saved us from a repeat of the Great Depression and (3) government must take a much stronger role in the economy from now on to prevent this from happening again. The reality is that (1) both Republicans and Democrats in the 1990s and early 2000s demanded an increase in home ownership, (2) the federal government forced banks to extend mortgages to people who could not repay them, (3) to overcome resistance by the banks, the government allowed all these bad loans to be shifted to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, (4) the federal government told the American people that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were private institutions and (5) when the bad mortgages entered default, the federal government decided to bail out (almost) everyone, including the supposedly private Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In reality, the 2008 financial crisis was, like the Great Depression, an artifact of government economic meddling. The free market would never have produced such a result.

Nonetheless, the warmists see the 2008 financial crisis as validation of central planning. This is an extremely dangerous view. Warmists (and central planners in general) tend to see government as a panel of experts dedicated to the technocratic management of the economy in the general interest. In fact, government is run by politicians who use the money and authority granted to them to continue to build their power base by rewarding their supporters and punishing their enemies. Any public interest served is incidental to this process. I continue to be amazed at what we have seen in Washington over the last 20 years or so. Our elected officials identify social and economic problems, ask for money and authority to deal with those problems, make the problems worse and then ask for even more money and authority. It’s my sincere hope that we will soon wise up and stop granting this request.

You fall right into this trap when you claim that “Shifting to a low-carbon economy, including building a massive new energy infrastructure, may be the greatest job-creation opportunity we’ve seen in a long time.” When the government forces the replacement of any good or service with a more expensive option, jobs will be created, but other jobs will be lost. Suppose we passed a law requiring everyone to wear a $500 Stetson hat whenever they are in public. Suppose further that that law created 5,000 jobs for people to make, distribute and retail the hats. Those people would be happy, and the government would claim that they had added 5,000 good jobs to the economy. Not so fast. The $500 you spend on your hat would have been spent on something else, say a new suit. The people who would have grown the wool, made and transported the cloth and tailored and sold the suit would now be out of jobs.

In a growing economy, the people whose jobs are created by government action can be identified and their smiling faces shown on TV. The jobs that were not created, however, cannot easily be assigned to particular people, but just add to the general unemployment. Remember that government has no money other than what it extracts from the economy through taxation, borrowing or inflation. The money government spends would have been spent on something else.

Energy is a critical input into a modern economy. A massive increase in energy costs would have profound impacts on our living standards, affecting not just the utility and gasoline bills of average Americans, but the cost of everything we produce and move around our huge and highly mobile society. There is no reason to be glib about the joys of replacing fossil fuels with energy sources that are much, much worse in terms of cost and performance.

Politicians are in fact too smart to even attempt the replacement of fossil fuels, since they know that the impacts on living standards would be so severe that the public would never accept them and would likely throw the politicians out of office. What elected officials like President Obama are actually proposing is a series of largely symbolic steps that would cost us some real money, but would have no material impact on US carbon emissions. If you doubt that statement, here’s an interesting exercise. Have a look at President Obama’s “Climate Action Plan” from June, 2013, which you can find at http://www.whitehouse.gov. This 21-page report is full of exciting words like “lead”, develop”, “promote” and “identify”. What exactly would the impact be on our carbon emissions? Well, page 4 reiterates the President’s 2009 pledge to reduce US carbon emissions by 2020 to 17% below the 2005 level. Note the careful choice of base year. In 2005, US carbon dioxide emissions from energy use were 5,999 million metric tonnes (mt) (http://www.eia.gov/environment/data.cfm#summary). By 2009, when the President made this wondrous pledge, the US was deep in recession and, as a result, carbon dioxide emissions had fallen to 5,418 million mt, a reduction of 10%. So the President was in fact proposing a further reduction of only 438 million mt by 2020, equivalent to 1.2% of projected global emissions. By the way, he only promises to do this “if all other major economies agreed to limit their emissions as well.” What you risk here is spending lots of money borrowed from China but having no impact whatsoever on atmospheric carbon levels. Are you OK with that?

Elected officials in the US and Europe are actually testing the willingness of their warmist constituents to accept promises and symbolic gestures rather than actual carbon reductions. Subsidies, renewable portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs and loan guarantees have cost American and European consumers billions of dollars with negligible effects on global carbon emissions. The worst example was the Kyoto Protocol – an expensive cap-and-trade system with loopholes and accounting gimmicks that allowed the European Union to meet its obligations without reducing greenhouse gas emissions at all. Politicians may like this approach, but the rest of us shouldn’t.

This gets us to the 800 pound gorilla in the climate room. American warmists talk about the problem as though carbon dioxide is coming primarily from the extravagant lifestyle of Americans with their big cars and excessive air conditioning. The US has certainly been a major emitter of carbon dioxide over the years, but that calculus has changed rather dramatically over the last few years. There are 190 signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. When the Convention was signed in 1992, US CO2 emissions were 5½ billion metric tonnes (mt) per year – about a quarter of the world total. US emissions, however, have not increased much since, and the Energy Information Administration projects minimal growth through 2040, when the US will represent less than 13% of the global total. Chinese emissions, on the other hand, have increased from 2½ billion mt per year in 1992 to 9 billion today with a projected growth to nearly 15 billion by 2040 – a third of the world total. If there is a danger from greenhouse gas emissions, it comes not from rich Americans but from Chinese peasants not unreasonably seeking a middle class lifestyle by burning massive amounts of cheap domestic coal and imported oil. If there is a climate problem, it will arrive on a wave of Chinese coal.

The key to reducing atmospheric carbon concentrations lies not in the US but elsewhere. I am continually amazed at the faith my Fletcher students and faculty colleagues have that if the US would just destroy our economy, the Chinese would happily follow suit. Unfortunately for warmists, the Chinese leadership has only two objectives: staying in power and enhancing China’s geopolitical position. Achieving these goals requires a single-minded focus on economic growth to bring the Chinese population out of poverty and to provide the resources for a superpower-quality military. Climate change may be low on America’s priority list, but it’s not on China’s list at all. Chinese engagement in climate change negotiations serves only to encourage the West to hobble their economies with high energy costs and to offer China real economic benefits in return for vague promises.

The bottom line here is that the dichotomy between climate action and no climate action is entirely false. It makes more sense to talk about three scenarios: (a) no climate action, (b) reductions in carbon dioxide emissions sufficient to materially change atmospheric carbon concentrations and (c) meaningless, symbolic actions which would reduce economic growth slightly but have no impact whatsoever on climate. The warmists may like option (b), but the best they will ever get is option (c).

Next week, I’ll make an attempt to put the science and economics together and offer my own decision matrix.

Posted by: bmeverett | March 20, 2014

A Reply to Greg Craven (Part 1)

I recently posted some comments on a Youtube video by Greg Craven, a high school teacher in Oregon (“The Kid’s Logic”, February 21). I received a nice response from Greg asking for comments on his book “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.” I have now read the book and offer the following open letter to Greg. If Greg elects to reply, I promise to post his comments in full. Here goes.

Dear Greg:

I’ve finished reading your book and appreciate the opportunity to comment. First, some positive remarks. I fully agree that the climate debate has become a shouting match, and I would like to make common cause with people like you who want to understand the issue and discuss the problem rationally and reasonably. Second, you’re a great writer, and I really like your style and humor. By the way, I bought your book, rather than finding a free pdf on the web. Please spend the money wisely.

Now for the negative part. Your argument is still completely wrong. Let’s accept for a moment that your 2 X 2 matrix is valid, even if oversimplified. I’ll use your terminology of “warmist” vs “skeptical”. In your original video, you claimed that the decision on climate change action did not rely on determining whether the “warmist” view is true. You now acknowledge that this approach is incorrect and spend most of your book time trying to convince the reader that the warmist argument is correct. You’ve failed to make this case, at least to me.

Let me offer my comments in three batches over the next three weeks: science, economics and general. Let’s start with science.
The key question for the climate change issue is how lay people (also known as voters) can come to understand a complex scientific issue that carries major implications for their living standards. You offer a structure in which we should essentially see climate change as a debate in which scientific propositions are being offered by various people, and you then suggest that we organize these people into a credibility spectrum.

The upper left of your spectrum consists of high-credibility people in the warmist camp, and the upper right is high-credibility skeptics. You find lots of people on the left side and nothing comparable on the right. This is in essence your argument, which I believe is flawed. The credibility of the scientific community depends on open inquiry and the willingness of scientists to evaluate empirical evidence on its merits. These conditions are met for most scientific questions, but not for climate change.

Most scientists are academics and live in university communities. Universities used to be repositories of scholarship and were fierce defenders of the rules of open inquiry, especially the scientific method. Many academic institutions have evolved, however, into political advocacy organizations that see their role as changing the world for the better, an approach sometimes known as the “social justice” movement. There’s nothing at all wrong with scientists and other university faculty expressing political opinions and exercising their rights as citizens. The problem comes when the search for truth is subordinated to the construction of effective debating points. The social justice movement has come to define certain issues, particularly climate change, “diversity,” “sexual assault awareness”, gay marriage, immigration, affirmative action and abortion as moral crusades rather than subjects for legitimate debate. Solidarity trumps open inquiry, and opposing views are regarded not as incorrect logic but as character flaws.

This approach to climate change was articulated openly and honestly in 1989 by Stephen Schneider, Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

Climate change orthodoxy has been institutionalized on many campuses. I doubt you could find a university with an “Office of String Theory Advancement” or an “Office of Higgs Boson Promotion”, but you can find many “Offices of Sustainability”. In fact, a Google search of “university office of sustainability” gets over 91 million hits. If you ask the university sustainability directors what they are doing, they will happily talk about reducing the campus’s carbon footprint by maximizing the use of renewable energy, cutting energy consumption and improving environmental literacy. A core part of their mission is to teach the University community that the warmist view is an established fact and that advancing the warmist agenda is a matter of personal responsibility, not a subject for scientific inquiry. Students are told that reducing carbon and lobbying for carbon mitigation is a social service activity, akin to feeding the homeless. Tufts University, where I teach, has an Institute for the Environment, which includes a program called “Climate Change, Climate Justice”. Here’s its mission statement:

As an enormous body of research makes explicitly clear, people of color, women, and especially the poor will bear the brunt of the catastrophic effects of climate change globally. Climate change is without doubt the biggest social justice issue of this century as it is estimated that many millions of people, primarily in poor countries, are likely to face displacement, disease, war and death as a result of climate change caused primarily by rich Western countries.

Does that sound like an invitation to open discussion? When the community in which you live and work establishes and constantly reinforces an official orthodoxy on a critical issue, the effect is to chill speech and limit debate.

Under these circumstances, you should not assume that what you are reading and hearing represents a full spectrum of views. When I discuss climate change in my class, my warmist students push back hard. I’m glad they do, since we can have a spirited debate. Many other students, however, tell me privately in office hours that they share my concerns about climate change, but don’t dare express these views publicly for fear of provoking hostility or ridicule from classmates and faculty.

I have no data, but do wonder about (1) how many skeptical scientists keep quiet for fear of the consequences, (2) how many scientists choose to research less controversial topics in order to retain full freedom of expression, (3) how many skeptical young scientists are not hired because their views are unacceptable to their peers and (4) how many smart young people pick fields other than climate science where they are free to pursue open inquiry safely.

Greg, you place a great deal of weight on scientific bodies, such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Professor Schneider’s view, however, has begun to permeate the bodies you rely on for honest and objective science. Forty years ago, we could have easily distinguished, for example, between the American Physical Association (APS) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The APS was founded to advance knowledge of physics, while the UCS was established to advocate for certain government policies, initially nuclear disarmament and later climate change. The members of the UCS are distinguished scientists, but their mission is to win political debates using the credibility of their members as a tool. They are in effect salesmen. There’s nothing wrong with this, provided we all understand what they are doing. In the last 15-20 years, the APS has evolved from a scientific professional organization to a political advocacy group akin to the UCS. If you don’t believe me, check their climate change statement at http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/07_1.cfm. Their position is purely political, not scientific, and some members of the APS objected on those grounds. The APS may be correct, but they now resemble the UCS rather than a professional physics society.

This problem is amplified in the IPCC. Hundreds of scientists participate in the detailed work of the IPCC, but only a handful write the critical “Summary for Policy-Makers”. Many of these people are avowed warmists who see their role as making the strongest possible case for carbon mitigation. They may be right, but they are not a scientific body.

You also rely on the peer review process to filter out good ideas from the noise. The peer review process itself has been badly damaged by the climate debate. When the universe of potential writers and reviewers consists primarily of warmist scientists with a social justice attitude, the process will filter for politics, not science. If you doubt the seriousness of this problem, review the infamous emails from the 2009-2010 “climategate” scandal, in which prominent warmist scientists discuss how to subvert peer review to make sure that skeptical articles do not appear.

You also give credibility to corporations who express support for some or all of the warmist agenda on the grounds that the interests of these organizations should incline them toward the skeptical camp. Therefore, their support for warmism must be sincere. I believe you are misreading what’s happening here. During the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, ExxonMobil made a series of strong public statements, warning that (a) climate science is insufficient to support scary climate scenarios and (2) the economic costs of carbon mitigation are very high. I can tell you from my personal experience as an ExxonMobil executive that these positions were sincerely held by the management of the corporation, particularly our CEO Lee Raymond. Inside ExxonMobil, we regarded these statements as thoughtful and constructive, but they generated a massive attack by environmental groups, such as Greenpeace. This pushback did some damage to the corporation’s public image, which wasn’t all that great to begin with after the Valdez oil spill of 1989. When Lee Raymond retired in 2005, the new management reevaluated the Corporation’s position on climate change and concluded not that the corporation’s position was wrong, but that the pain of public engagement on the issue wasn’t worth the gain. ExxonMobil never endorsed the warmist position, but simply stopped talking about climate science and politics. Opinion research suggests that the public assumes that anything oil companies say is self-serving and that the public just wants to know that corporations are behaving responsibly. As a result, ExxonMobil chose simply to say that long-term reduction of carbon emissions would be a good idea, provided carbon mitigation was balanced against other priorities, such as economic growth. The Corporation would do its part by improving its energy efficiency. You can find the Corporation’s full statement at http://corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/current-issues/climate-policy/climate-policy-principles/overview. Not much here to support the warmist agenda.

Many other corporations watched ExxonMobil get beaten up and got the message. Shell and BP, in particular, took public positions much closer to the warmist view. Many of my colleagues at these two companies told me privately that their managements agreed with ExxonMobil on the substance of climate science and economics, but chose to avoid the flak associated with stating that position publicly. This “positioning by focus group” may be sensible corporate strategy, but has nothing to do with the views the business community really holds on climate science. Other companies, such as General Electric, manufacture renewable energy equipment and are happy to encourage the federal government to subsidize their products.

As a final comment, you place a great deal of importance on the views of distinguished individual scientists, such as James Hansen, one of the icons of the warmist camp. A person like Dr. Hansen, who chains himself to the White House fence and demands that oil company executives be tried for crimes against humanity, may be a brilliant scientist and he may even be right, but he cannot be regarded as a credible interpreter of balanced and impartial science. Dr. Hansen has staked his entire professional reputation on the validity of the extreme warmist position and would look like a complete fool if the skeptical position proved to be correct. Many skeptical scientists suffer from the same problem. Dr. Pat Michaels, for example, is a brilliant scientist with impeccable credentials, but he has staked his reputation on the validity of the skeptical camp. Both of these men chose to change their role from scientist to political advocate. You cannot be both.

The problem then, Greg, is that nobody has any real credibility here. Virtually everyone who is knowledgeable on climate science has either chosen sides in this debate or is sitting it out. Your credibility spectrum may be an excellent approach to evaluating the state of play of some scientific controversies, but climate change is simply too politicized. We need to find some other way.

We are in a position analogous to jurors in a complex technical trial who have listened to the testimony of paid experts put on the witness stand by the plaintiff and the defendant. All are acknowledged experts in their fields, and they all sound convincing, but all have an obvious conflict of interest. The jurors have no choice in this situation but to look at the merits of the arguments, not the credibility of the people making the arguments.

So, setting aside the individuals involved, what are we arguing about? Since the warmists are arguing for fundamental changes in our economic and political life (more on this in the next installment), the burden of proof is on them. Here, ladies and gentlemen of the jury are the arguments for the prosecution.

First, the atmosphere has been warming over the last 100 years or so. Despite some methodological issues, the science on this point seems pretty compelling. Measured surface temperatures, confirmed by later satellite observations, show an increase of about 1° C this past century. This point goes to the warmists.

Second, this temperature increase is unprecedented in known history. Not so fast here. Several prominent warmists, notably Prof. Michael Mann of Penn State, have constructed a historical time series, known colloquially as the “hockey stick” that purports to show relatively flat temperatures over the past 1,000 years or so followed by a sharp uptick over the last century. The analysis is based on combining thermometer readings over the last 100-150 years with indirect historical data series based on tree rings, coral, ice cores and other parameters. There are many methodological problems with this approach, and I am not in a position to sort them out. It is clear, however, that this analysis is highly controversial, despite the vigorous defense of the warmists. The verdict on this contention is “not proven”.

The third argument is that increased atmospheric carbon concentrations will cause temperature to increase. There is solid theoretical and empirical evidence for this contention, and the point goes clearly to the warmists. However, the direct effect of expected carbon emissions is likely to be relatively modest and would not produce the scary climate scenarios we are all familiar with.

The fourth, and most critical argument, is that climate feedback loops amplify rather than dampen the climate impacts of atmospheric carbon concentrations. Here, Greg, I think you have misinterpreted the IPCC work. You suggest in your book that the IPCC reports ignore the possible feedback loops in the climate system. In your view, this oversight creates a major risk that the temperature effects will be much higher than the IPCC scenarios suggest. In fact, all the climate models used in the IPCC studies already include positive feedback loops. The lowest IPCC scenarios show warming still above what we would expect from the direct effect of increased atmospheric carbon. This assumption actually skews the temperature analysis upward.

The IPCC acknowledges the large uncertainties here. The biggest uncertainty is the impact of warming on cloud formation. Clouds trap heat but they also reflect sunlight. The latest IPCC report (AR5) states, “The quantification of cloud and convective effects in models, and of aerosol–cloud interactions, continues to be a challenge. Climate models are incorporating more of the relevant processes than at the time of AR4, but confidence in the representation of these processes remains weak.” In reality, we don’t know whether the net effect of climate feedback loops is positive or negative, which creates a very wide range of possible outcomes, including scenarios in which increased carbon concentrations cause little if any long-term warming and scenarios in which modest climate warming is actually beneficial to humans. The IPCC does not properly acknowledge these more benign outcomes.

Positive climate feedback is an opinion, not a scientific conclusion. I don’t have the time or training to resolve this issue, but there is a theoretical argument that the feedback loops may be negative. As a scientist, Greg, you are undoubtedly familiar with Le Chatelier’s Principle, which states that “Any change in the status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system.” In fact, the entire modern environmental debate is really about Le Chatelier’s Principle. Environmentalists tend to believe that natural systems are inherently fragile and prone to collapse if disturbed. Le Chatelier’s Principle suggests the opposite, i.e., that natural systems are robust and will compensate for disturbances. This is not to say that there are never adverse consequences when natural systems are disturbed, but they will tend to push back, restoring a new, if different equilibrium. In other words, Le Chatelier tells us to expect negative feedback loops. This by no means resolves the controversy, but it does suggest that the current IPCC assumptions may be too pessimistic rather than too optimistic as you suggest.

To wrap up this section, let me address one more issue: the track record of warmist predictions. I realize, Greg, that your book was published in 2008, so a lot has happened since then, but the prediction record of the warmists is just plain terrible. Every month through the 1990s, warmists like Al Gore trumpeted a new temperature record. Beginning in the late 1990s, however, a funny thing happened: the warming stopped. Climate scientists should have reevaluated the warmist conclusions to see whether they were still valid. Instead, the warmists frantically sought explanations that would preserve the warmist agenda, insisting that no matter what the data show, the warmist agenda must still be right. The warmists seem to have settled on aerosols – particulates that reflect sunlight causing an unanticipated cooling effect. This may be true, but it’s a classic case of “curve fitting” – structuring the data to meet the expected correlation – a no-no in statistical methodology.

What about the predictions of the severe consequences of warming? In your discussion of the supposedly high-credibility Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), you say “[In 2006] The association claimed that the pace of climate change has increased in recent years and said that ‘the intensification of droughts, heat waves, floods, fires and severe storms’ are ‘early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible’”. This claim has been repeated time and again by warmists and even by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address. The problem is that these statements are not factually correct. Severe storms, wildfires and droughts have shown no clear trend over the past 100 years. Wildfires, for example, are determined more by forest management practices than by climate and were far more severe in the US in the 1930s than they are today. For more on the severe storm fallacy, see my post “Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change” from November 13, 2012 at https://bmeverett.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/hurricane-sandy-and-climate-change/.

In your book, you asked a very sensible question: What would it take to change your mind? I don’t know if all your highly credible warmists could answer that question, but I can. If the general circulation models the IPCC uses to predict climate effects could show any predictive ability, I would take them seriously. The problem is that, despite your contention, these models are unable to predict anything. Your contention that the warmists have a good track record is simply not true.

The warmists have failed to convince me that the scary scenarios are anything other than debating tools with no real science behind them. In my 2 X 2 matrix, the row for catastrophic climate change would be extremely thin, probably too thin to appear on the chart. The warmists will have to do much better.

P.S. Greg, you really shot your scientific argument in the foot with your comment that “… Peak Oil is also a certainty (or, as close as science can get to one) in our lifetimes”. I realize that a lot has happened since you wrote your book, but Peak Oil was always a highly controversial proposition. Although there have been some thoughtful proponents of this idea, including M. King Hubbert, Ken Deffeyes and Matt Simmons, very few people in the oil industry ever believed it. In fact, the oil industry has found more oil than it produced consistently for the past 150 years. To cite an example I use in my class, in 1980, global oil reserves were estimated by BP at 683 billion barrels. Since then, we have consumed approximately 829 billion barrels. How much do we have left? 1,669 billion barrels. Humans have been producing increasing amounts of copper for 5,000 years without hitting peak production. Why? Because technology can beat depletion over millennia. If this is your definition of scientific certainty, perhaps a rethink is in order.

I realize that this was an unusually long post, but Greg’s arguments deserve a thorough response. Next week, some comments on climate economics.

Posted by: bmeverett | March 13, 2014

Climate negotiations

On March 1, I mentioned the debate on climate negotiations currently underway at The Fletcher Forum – Fletcher’s student journal of international affairs. I have submitted by views which you can find at http://www.fletcherforum.org/2014/03/13/everett/

Posted by: bmeverett | March 7, 2014

US Natural Gas Exports and Ukraine

The recent crisis in Ukraine has prompted calls for increased US natural gas exports to reduce the Russian pressure on Ukraine and Western Europe. On balance, this crisis may encourage us to take some sensible steps here. Common sense suggests that the US should develop its extensive natural gas resources, and economics tells us that that natural gas should flow to its highest value use, whether domestic or export markets. We need to be careful, however, not to overstate what we can do in the European, and particularly in the Ukrainian gas markets.

Ukraine currently imports about 1 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas every year from Russia. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has sold this gas at a discount, presumably to keep a hook in Ukraine’s economy. Since last December, the Russian price to Ukraine was about $7.50 per thousand cubic feet (MCF), an attractive price, given that the average import price into the EU has been running about $11.50 per MCF. This discounted price, however, has been further sweetened by Russia’s allowing Ukraine to run a tab on its gas imports, accumulating a debt currently estimated at around $1.5 billion.

Before we consider the policy implications, a few general comments about the global natural gas market. First and foremost, oil is easy and inexpensive to transport while gas is not. A barrel of oil can be shipped from any coastal location in the world to any other coastal location for $3/barrel or less. With oil prices at over $100/barrel, the transportation cost is only a small share of the delivered price. Oil can be poured into tankers under ambient temperature and pressure conditions, while natural gas must be moved (a) through pipelines, (b) in liquefied form which requires liquefaction facilities, special cryogenic ships and regasification facilities or (c) chemically converted into liquid fuels. All of these methods are very expensive with new projects costing in the tens of billions of dollars. Unlike oil, the delivered price of natural gas depends heavily on distance from potential suppliers.

Second, the world has a large number of discovered natural gas fields which are not under development because the infrastructure is not in place. The industry calls this “stranded” or “static” gas. We know it’s there, but there’s no market willing to commit to its purchase. Much of this resource base is in the Middle East, the Caspian and Central Asia. The constraint on gas supplies is infrastructure investment, not resource availability.

The Ukrainians’ problem is not the lack of access to natural gas supplies, but their desire to maintain cheap supplies of Russian gas. The key strategic issue is whether the Ukrainians are willing to pay more for gas in order to get themselves out from under the thumb of the Russians. Let’s assume for the moment that the discount for Russian gas is about $4 per MCF. With imports of about 1 TCF, the discount is about $4 billion per year. There are about 45 million Ukrainians, so the Russian discount is roughly $100 per person. According to World Bank data, per capita income in Ukraine is about $3,900, so the discount is about 2.5% of the average Ukrainian’s income.

If Ukraine wants to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, the US is probably not the place to start. Odessa is about 7,700 ocean miles from Houston – a long haul for LNG tankers. The Turkish LNG hub is only 450 miles from Odessa. Potential Israeli or Egyptian export terminals are only about 1,400 miles away, and Yemeni natural gas is less than 3,000 miles away. The question is whether Ukrainians will be willing to pay the price. Moving from a subsidized price to a market price is critical for Ukraine’s future. Either they are independent from Russia or they are not. None of the regional LNG suppliers will subsidize Ukrainian gas consumption, and the US shouldn’t either. If the Ukrainians choose to move forward with non-Russian gas supplies, it will take some time and lots of infrastructure investment. Here the West can help with political and financial support.

Western Europe’s problem is similar. The EU currently consumes about 16 TCF of natural gas annually of which 4 comes from Russia via pipeline. The EU can reduce their dependence on Russian gas by negotiating LNG contracts with other suppliers in the Middle East and Africa. Qatar, which has almost inexhaustible supply of natural gas, is about 4,900 miles from the Adriatic terminals. Nigeria is a similar distance from Northwest Europe. The US is a competitor for the European natural gas market, but it’s by no means an easy reach. Houston is 5,600 miles from Northwest Europe. Although US natural gas prices are currently below historic levels at less than $5 per MCF, Nigeria has gas currently being flared, i.e., zero value gas, and gas can be produced in Qatar for less than $1 per MCF. Each major US LNG export project that comes on line could sell roughly 1 TCF/year – a significant market player, but not exactly enough to overwhelm the European market and push the Russians out. Again, the issue is how much, if anything, the Europeans will pay to reduce their dependence on Russia.

By all means, let’s develop our gas and take advantage of export sales when they make commercial sense. Let’s be careful, however, about threatening Putin. The US currently has natural gas reserves of about 300 TCF, most of which we will consume ourselves. Russian gas reserves are currently 1,165 TCF, and their consumption is only about two-thirds of ours. They are likely to remain a much more powerful player in the gas market than we are.

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