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Energy Policy: The Facts and Myths on the Consensus on Climate Change In-Depth Article

By:
Ken Malloy
Posted On:
Aug 11, 2016  at  at 8:35 AM
Category
Energy Policy, Climate Change

"No challenge--no challenge--poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.  Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century," said President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address.

 

 

“I am skeptical humans are the main cause of climate change and that it will be catastrophic in the near future. There is no scientific proof of this hypothesis, yet we are told ‘the debate is over’ and ‘the science is settled’. … We have no proof increased carbon dioxide is responsible for the earth’s slight warming over the past 300 years,” said Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace.

 

“Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.” NASA (the guys that put a man on the moon)(emphasis added)

 

 

The authors of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change “say the IPCC [United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has exaggerated the amount of warming likely to occur if the concentration of atmospheric CO2 were to double, and such warming as occurs is likely to be modest and cause no net harm to the global environment or to human well-being.” NIPCC Summary for Policymakers, page 3 (2013)

 

Who could blame you if you were confused by all the conflicting claims about climate change?  The problem is almost everything you hear has some truth to it but much of it is exaggerated.  But frankly, both sides have extremists in the debate that are guilty of some fudging if not outright prevarication. As with so many things, the devil is in the details and who has time to ferret out all those details? (I have spent the last 5 years focusing on the impact of climate change on energy markets.)

But Climate Change Alarmism is now one of the main drivers of energy policy.  I call it the Golden Thread.  One’s views on energy policy are nearly completely a function of what you believe about climate change.  If the alarmists are wrong and you pull out this Golden Thread, then nearly all of current energy policy unravels or at least must be radically altered.

While I have opinions on many of the issues below, I have made a studious attempt to refrain from any pontificating and intend to simply follow Joe Friday’s advice in Dragnet “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”  My main goal is to put claims that there is a “consensus” on climate change into some perspective so the debate over energy policy can be better understood. I have tried to present a range of opinions faithfully.

There does indeed seem to be a broad consensus on at least nine points:

  • First, since the dawn of time, the earth’s climate has changed, is changing, and will change in the future due to natural variability. The earth has historically been both colder and hotter than it is today. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have historically been both higher and lower than it is today.
  • Second, the science on the impact of releasing ever increasing carbon emissions is theoretically sound.  All other things being equal, there is a strong scientific consensus that more carbon in the atmosphere will increase the greenhouse effect. 
  • Third, man’s use of fossil fuels has increased the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere over the last century and will continue to increase it in the future under the status quo.
  • Fourth, increasing the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has had and will “very likely” have some impact on increasing earth’s average temperature (temp).
  • Fifth, even scientists labeled as Skeptics (or more derogatorily “Deniers”) acknowledge that average temp has increased about 1 degree Centigrade between 1880 and the present.
  • Sixth, even scientists labeled Warmists (or more derogatorily “Alarmists”) acknowledge that average temp has been fairly stable (The Pause) over the last 18 or so years, i.e., it has not increased as predicted by the models despite dramatic increases in global carbon emissions.
  • Seventh, the United States acting alone cannot solve the problem, whatever that turns out to be. 
  • Eighth, US action to radically reduce carbon will have a profound effect on our economy.
  • Ninth, we don’t know what the “right” or optimal temperature for the earth should be.

So when you see a statement like “97%” of scientists agree on climate change, these facts are the strongest basis for that claim.  In fact, these claims about consensus would be largely correct if they are limited to these nine conclusions.  

So end of article, right?  Actually, this is just the beginning and the easy part.  Unfortunately, some have tortured this “consensus” into confessing more than is actually supported by the science.  

Did you happen to notice that the statement about the rise in temp followed the statements about how carbon emissions created a greenhouse effect, that using fossil fuels had increased carbon emissions, and that there was a recent increase in temp?  You probably reasonably assumed that the temp increase was caused by man’s use of fossil fuels. Therein lies the rub.

Did you notice the phrase “all other things being equal”?  Well guess what? All other things are not equal.  The earth’s climate is an exceedingly complex phenomenon.

Let’s first start with how we measure the temp of the earth.  Think of what that means the temp of the earth.  You probably call to mind how we measure our own temp.  Put a thermometer in our mouth for a minute and read the temp.  It should be obvious there is no single place or device to measure the earth’s temp.  The earth is a pretty big place.  If it is hot in the northern hemisphere it is cold in the southern hemisphere.  So measuring the earth’s temp is tricky business. 

Today, there is a consensus that the most accurate temp readings are from satellite data.  Guess what?  There were no satellites a century ago much less a millennia ago.  In addition to satellites, we use historical data from thermometers on the ground.  Not surprisingly, this yields some questionable results.  Some thermometers are affected by how the land they are located on has changed over time.  The “urban heat island effect” is one such development.  If a thermometer was located 50 years ago around vegetation and now is surrounded by parking lots and buildings, then its ability to compare today’s temp to historical data is tainted.

In some cases, we actually have consistent thermometer readings going back hundreds of years, but not enough to have a high degree of confidence in their ability to accurately measure the temp of the globe.  We thus use other surrogates for estimating the past correlation between carbon concentration and temp.  Popular methods includes tree ring data, ice core data and ocean floor seashell deposits.  To make a long story short, there is actually a vigorous debate about how to accurately measure the past temp of the earth and how it correlates with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  While it is fair to say that there is a consensus on increases in the last century, it is also fair to say that nothing approaching 97% of scientists agree on the accuracy of different methods of measuring historic temp before satellite data and how the recent temp compares to historic temps.

Another important fact of climate history is that there are periods where warming occurred in a stable CO2 atmospheric condition and in which CO2 thereafter increased.  Did the warming increase the growth of vegetation which then emits more CO2, thus increasing CO2?

One of the biggest controversies is the attempt to explain warmer temps in the medieval period (900 to 1200 AD) and colder temps that followed (1400 to 1600).  There had been historically strong support that higher and lower temps existed during this medieval period, i.e., grapes grew where they can no longer grow; rivers froze that do not freeze today, ships could pass areas now frozen and couldn’t in areas that are now passable.  But since this was obviously before man started burning fossil fuels, it created a dilemma for the theory that fossil fuels alone were causing higher temps in recent times. 

So several scientists reassessed the temp data of the medieval period and concluded the temps were actually colder during this period, thus adding support to the role of fossil fuels in the current period as the likely cause of the temp increase.  This set off a firestorm of controversy and has largely been discredited.  As part of this controversy over some scientific conclusions, someone hacked a prominent university’s email system and released the emails to the public.  Sadly, even a generous reading of the emails indicated that there was manipulation of data and political considerations in how to interpret, treat, and release important data and conclusions. 

Given the magnitude of some of the actions that would need to be taken if the alarmist theory is right, trust in the scientific community is essential.  This email episode and many of the actions of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change have undermined that trust and conflated science and politics.

So what caused the higher temps in the medieval period?  There is certainly no significant consensus on the temps of the medieval period and thus this period remains a difficult anomaly for those who believe that fossil fuel is a very significant cause of any recent warming.

Second, there is the question of how much man’s burning of fossil fuels has contributed to any temp increase and will contribute to any future increase.  Even the UN IPCC (the main organization that tries to develop scientific consensus) acknowledges that climate change is “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” (emphasis added)

As the UN IPCC recognizes, many natural factors affect the earth’s temp.  Let’s start with the most obvious, the sun.  The sun’s rays are not static over time but ebb and flow. Sunspots can go “silent” for periods of time and be very active in other periods.  The earth has clouds that block the radiative force of the sun.  Another little understood factor is extra-galactic cosmic ray bursts which can significantly affect the earth’s cloud formation.  Then there are the oceans that absorb and release carbon.  Volcanos and aerosols affect temp by blocking the sun. The axis of the earth has an effect, and this axis is constantly changing.  Additionally, there are periodic weather patterns called El Nino and La Nina that can have a profound effect on temperature and rainfall.  Like sunspot activity, the strength and thus impact of these weather patterns are not fully predictable.  

No scientist denies that “natural variation” plays some role in the temp of the earth.  But it is a knotty problem to ferret out how much is attributable to man and how much is due to natural variation.  There is a vigorous debate about how much each of these factors, and many others, contribute to the temp of the earth.  For example, if the sun is responsible for 99% of the earth’s temp and carbon from fossil fuels for 1%, then you can see that there is probably not much advantage to reducing fossil fuel emissions since it will not have much effect.  The fact is that there is a lot we don’t know about how clouds, oceans, aerosols, and many other factors affecting temp. So while there is little debate that man has some impact, there is a vigorous debate about how significant man’s impact is to any potential future warming.

So how much carbon does man emit compared to these other factors. One scientist developed the following table to put man’s contribution into perspective with other natural factors:

Based on concentrations (ppb) adjusted for heat retention characteristics

 % of Greenhouse Effect

% Natural

% Man-made

Water vapor

95.000%

94.999%

0.001%

 Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

3.618%

3.502%

0.117%

 Methane (CH4)

0.360%

0.294%

0.066%

 Nitrous Oxide (N2O)

0.950%

0.903%

0.047%

 Misc. gases (CFC's, etc.)

0.072%

0.025%

0.047%

 Total

100.00%

99.72

0.28%

 

Table 4a. Anthropogenic (man-made) Contribution to the "Greenhouse Effect," expressed as % of Total (water vapor INCLUDED)

While it may look like man’s contribution is miniscule (about a quarter of 1%), some scientists argue that this small amount is the tipping point that will cause the dramatic rise in temp.  Other scientists disagree and believe that man’s contribution is not and will not be a major factor in climate change.  But there is nowhere near a 97% consensus here on how much warming can be attributed to man versus natural variability.

Much of the discussion of “man’s” contribution centers around burning fossil fuels.  Yet there is a vigorous debate about how much carbon is emitted by agribusiness and the consumption of meat.  Cite Cowspiracy

Related to man’s use of fossil fuel is the question of how quickly carbon dissipates once it is emitted. Some scientists believe (and historically the conventional wisdom is) that it dissipates within 5 years.  But more recently, some scientists have come to understand that the answer is much more complex since there is a constant interchange of carbon between the earth (plants and oceans) and the atmosphere.  Some now believe that carbon emissions hang around for a much longer period that previously believed. Again, there is nowhere near a 97% consensus on this issue.

One of my favorite questions is given the variability of the historical record what is the right temp for the earth?  Why do we assume that the current temperature is scientifically proven to be optimal?  We certainly have a scientific basis for knowing that 98.6 degrees is the “normal” temp of the human body.  No such scientific consensus exists on the right temp for the earth.

To sum up, there is indeed a strong consensus on some issues, but there is also strong debate on other issues.

So given that many uncertainties still exist, how do we know what the temp will be a century from now?  We develop models.

Let’s try a thought experiment.  Think of the issue of how much money you will spend in April 2019.  Suppose I gave you and several other financial experts a million dollars to each come up with the best possible calculation.  You would take a spreadsheet and start listing all the categories of expenditure (and likely sources of income since that would operate as a boundary).  You would then try to estimate how much you would spend for each category.  You would try to anticipate all the life events that would happen in just 3 years.  You might get married or divorced.  You might have a child.  An elderly parent might come to live with you.  You might get sick.  You might get fired or get a promotion.  The economy might crash.  Inflation might accelerate.  Taxes might increase.  You might have a car accident and buy a new car.

You do your best to make educated guesses about your life.  After all who knows you better than you?  You then hit the sum button and you get a number.  Is that number a “fact?”  Or is it an educated guess, indeed the best educated guess you could make after lots of effort.  But at the end of you day, you would surely realize that there are a hundred things that could happen to throw off your calculation.  Additionally, how do you think your calculations would compare to the financial experts?  How would the financial experts compare to each other?   You would not be surprised if everyone had a different estimate.  Only time will tell whose educated guesses will come closest to reality.

This is what scientists have done.  They have created incredibly sophisticated models to predict how much the earth’s temp will increase over the next century.  We don’t have just one model.  We have a lot of models.  And the scientists building the models are incredibly credentialed, hardworking, and well-funded.  And different models make hundreds of different assumptions and not surprisingly reach different conclusions.

Let’s conduct a thought experiment on change over time.  Modelers want to make an educated guess about the earth’s climate about 100 years from now.  Take half that time period (50 years) and answer this question.  If you were to predict in 1965 what life would be like in 2015 (50 years), how close to reality do you think you would be?  A century ago the most challenging environmental problem was horse poop in burgeoning urban centers.  Indeed, this calls for some humility.  It seems simply preposterous to anticipate all the technological changes that will happen over a 50-year period much less a century.  You may call it naïve but isn’t it likely that we will find an innovative technological solution to climate change if indeed carbon concentration turns out to be as serious a problem as the Alarmists believe?

Nonetheless, the models seem to generally support a projection that temp will increase with some correlation to our burning of fossil fuels, but with a significant variation as to how much temp will increase and the degree of the increase attributable to burning fossil fuels. To be fair, there are some credentialed critics (MIT, Princeton, and Harvard) that are concerned that there is a bias in the models, reflecting the need for ever increasing funding for the modelers scientific efforts.  The concern is that there is more academic success by winning large grants of funds and that demonstrating a serious problem leads to large funding.  If there is no serious climate change problem, funds will likely dry up for research.  There are also claims that scientists who are skeptical about the seriousness of climate change do not get funded on an equal basis if at all.  But this may be an unfair criticism.  Some of the scientists no doubt care about doing sound scientific research.

So how well have the models done so far?  Well, not a single model predicted that temp would remain relatively stable for almost the last two decades.  It is fair to ask if the models cannot accurately predict the easy stuff (how much will you spend next month versus 3 years from now?), how much confidence should we have in predicting the hard stuff a century from now?  This is especially true given that many of the conditions embedded in the model are the subject of substantial debate and uncertainty.  Indeed, there are some instances where scientists use “plug” numbers to make sure that the models can be reconciled with historic climate patterns.  It is not unusual for modelers even in modeling outside the arena of climate models to use a variety of techniques to accommodate uncertainties.  So track records have to matter in whether our confidence in the results of models should be increased or decreased.  And indeed it seems somewhat surprising that when “adjustments” to the data or models are made they all too often seem to be in the direction of increasing projections of warming.

The climate change literature is now replete with explanations of why the models failed to anticipate the “pause.”  One wag has actually counted 66 different explanations.  There is certainly no 97% consensus here.

In 2015, there was a good example of the difference between engineering models and their ability to accurately predict future reality.  There is an engineering model that is nearly universally used to predict the cost and benefits of making various energy efficiency investments in a given residential home.  For example, if you invest in insulation, more efficient windows, and weather stripping and it cost you $5000, the model will show how quickly that investment will save you enough in lower energy bills to pay back the investment.  The key calculation is projecting the anticipated energy savings.  A study by professors at the University of Chicago and Berkley did a very detailed analysis of the projected energy savings and compared them to the actual energy savings in 30,000 homes that were part of a federal program for funding such investments.  The study found that the model systematically overestimated savings by more than half.  Thus investments that the model predicted would be cost effective were in fact bad investments. 

Another example of the difficulty of making even much more focused computer projections is the famous bets between Ehrlich-Simon and the Simmons-Tierney (put your money where your mouth is).  In both instances, a bet was made between experts who were alarmists about the future of scarcity of natural resources and those who thought they were, well, being alarmists.  The bets consisted of predicting natural resource prices over relatively short periods (10 and 5 years respectively).  In both instances the alarmists were, indeed, alarmists, wrong in their predictions, losers in the bet (both paid off).  Yet, alarmists are much more likely to get media coverage than those who claim that the alarmists claims are overblown.

The point of discussing the personal finance thought experiment, the nearly two decade pause, the energy efficiency study, and the natural resource bets is to raise a cautionary concern about relying on computer models for making projections far into the future.  Computer models are no doubt helpful to our understanding of what may happen in the future but the results of these models are NOT FACTS.  They are best-guess estimates that are subject to a variety of flaws and biases.      

OK so there is a high degree of consensus on some issues and a lot of debate among scientists on other issues.  Where does that leave us?

Let’s assume that we magically develop a high degree of confidence that the earth’s temp will increase in the future by something like 5 degrees Fahrenheit and that man’s use of fossil fuels is a very significant reason for the increase. (Alert: There certainly is no such consensus today but for the sake of argument let’s assume there is.)

The question then is what will happen.  Surprisingly, there is no clear consensus on what the earth looks like in 2100 if temp increases by 5 degrees.  Botanists pump carbon dioxide into greenhouses to help plants and flowers grow better.  Carbon dioxide is essential to life.  We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  Plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.  The earth has been hotter and colder than our predicted conclusion of a 5 degree increase and it has had higher and lower concentrations of carbon dioxide.  So will a temp increase be beneficial or catastrophic for humankind? 

On the plus side is the fact that the global area producing food crops will substantially increase.  With higher CO2 concentrations, crop production in tropical and temperate areas can be expected to increase.  Fishing catches in the oceans of the world may increase.  Based on the current models of temperature increases, Arctic and Antarctic ice and glaciers may not melt enough to inundate coastal urban areas or islands.  There will be fewer deaths from frigid temperatures, which by far outnumber deaths from high temperatures. 

But some scientists predict the end of the world as we know it.  Storms will increase.  Floods will cover Manhattan. People will suffer from pestilence and starvation. Al Gore won an Oscar for shocking us in “An Inconvenient Truth.”  The UN’s IPCC has won a Nobel Peace prize for raising concerns about the potential devastating impacts of climate change. There are clearly a lot of loud voices from both scientists and non-scientists claiming that the results will be catastrophic and that radical efforts must be undertaken to avert this outcome.

Some scientists believe just the opposite.  “The chief benefits of global warming include: fewer winter deaths; lower energy costs; better agricultural yields; probably fewer droughts; maybe richer biodiversity.”  Even some of those scientists that recognize that there will be some negative impacts from climate change believe the harms are exaggerated and that radical solutions are premature. Some Skeptics believe that changing the terminology from “global warming” to “climate change” was a deliberate attempt to claim that any weather anomaly could be attributable to man’s burning of fossil fuels.

Some Warmists seem to argue that any harm caused by weather is attributable to carbon. Indeed, many even argue that many harms that are not directly attributable to weather are caused by climate change.  One blogger has even compiled a web page of hundreds of horrific things that have been claimed as a result of climate change.  (My favorite is an increase in major league baseball home runs.) 

Additionally, there is the problem of how one would disprove climate change by looking at weather anomalies.  If everything proves climate change, nothing can disprove climate change.  It seems that every weather event is blamed on climate change.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

If the scientific method is the ability to test the truth or falsity of a hypothesis, what evidence would you want to see that proved that carbon emissions had at best a de minimus effect on temp or weather conditions? If drought or rain, storms or lack of storms, snow or no snow, cold or hot, temp increase or no such increase, all prove the existence of climate change, then what would disprove it? Suppose that we would still have storms in 2100 but they would be only 2% more severe?  Not even the most ardent Warmist claims there will never again be weather events even if we completely weaned ourselves off carbon.

Additionally, it harms the credibility of those genuinely concerned with the scientific analysis of climate change that many of the most ardent advocates of radical carbon reduction are also harsh critics of capitalism. Is it at least possible that some are overstating the problem to further a more nefarious/hidden agenda?  Similarly, some of the most ardent Warmists have made predictions before that have turned out to be abysmally incorrect:

In 1971, John Holdren edited and contributed an essay to a book entitled Global Ecology: Readings Toward a Rational Strategy for Man. He wrote …the book’s sixth chapter, called “Overpopulation and the Potential for Ecocide.”  … In their chapter, Holdren and Ehrlich speculate about various environmental catastrophes, and on pages 76 and 77 Holdren the climate scientist speaks about the probable likelihood of a “new ice age” caused by human activity (air pollution, dust from farming, jet exhaust, desertification, etc).

John Holdren is now not only the “Science Czar” for the United States, but he’s also one of the original leaders of the “alarmist” wing of the Global Warming debate and he now promotes the notion that the current climate data points to a looming planetary overheating catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions (he helped make the charts and graphs for Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, for example).

As of July 2016, “Dr. John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).”  Dr. Holdren was one of the alarmist participants in the Ehrlich-Simon bet.  Apparently, being consistently wrong in making alarming projections does not harm one’s career.

Ok, but let’s assume that we become convinced that more bad things than good things will result from a significant increase in temp over the next century.  Then the big question is what is the right policy to address that situation?  Now the question is one of policy, not science. Broadly, there are three strategies: radically reduce carbon emissions, develop new technologies that will mitigate carbon concentration in the atmosphere, or adapt to a new reality, and there are lots of combinations in between.

What should we do?  What actions should we take?

Let me draw on an analogy from the past.  In 1949, polio was an epidemic in the US.  The consensus treatment for some polio victims was called an iron lung, which is a bulky contraption that helped polio victims breathe. (Illustration on the left.)  Scientists projected a lot more cases of polio.  The consensus policy solution might have been that we should order millions of iron lung machines for all the potential victims that would develop polio.  But then Drs. Salk and Sabin in the next several years developed a vaccine for polio.  Today, polio is nearly extinct around the globe, with less than 300 cases reported globally in 2012.  All in about 60 years...  So, what are we going to do with all those iron lungs we ordered?

Another example of how quickly things can change.  The Wright Brothers first flew about 200 feet in 1903.  Air power dominated World War II in the 1940s.  And we put a man on the moon in 1969.  All in 66 years!  Keeping in mind the pace of change in computer technology and communication, how wise is it to make policy now on uncertain predictions of what will happen a century from now?

Still, some people believe that climate change is the single most important issue facing the world and must be addressed by dramatically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and transitioning to renewables and more efficient use of energy as soon as possible, irrespective of costs or quality of life.   

Such Warmists have not been successful in convincing the Congress of their position.  Even when President Obama had a filibuster proof Democratic Senate and a majority Democratic House, they did not agree on legislation on climate change.  Needless to say, legislation that will satisfy Warmists is not likely to pass a Republican House and Senate. 

Even the American people seem skeptical.  Poll after poll ranks climate change or global warming near the bottom of the priorities that should be addressed.  Even a United Nations poll of seven million people worldwide ranked “action taken on climate change” dead last in a list of proposed priorities.

Warmists have been more successful in Departments of the Executive Branch, some States, and courts, including the Supreme Court.  Most Warmists’ preferred solution to the “problem” of climate change is radical reduction of carbon emissions.  They have been successful in convincing President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency to issue two rules that would have a dramatic effect on reducing the use of coal for electric generation.  To say these rules are controversial is an understatement.  You will see these rules referred to as the Clean Power Plan.  (The Supreme Court upheld an injunction against the Clean Power Plan pending a full review.)

Skeptics obviously oppose the Warmists’ agenda.  There are lots of criticisms made but they boil down to the belief that there is not enough evidence to support policies that would have a profoundly negative impact on our economy and quality of life for very little real impact on future temperatures.  Additionally, some are concerned that the developing countries will never achieve a higher standard of living without using fossil fuels for electricity and growth.

The Copenhagen Consensus Center has run a very interesting experiment several times over the last decade.  Every couple of years, they bring together experts, some with Nobel Prizes to their credit, who are asked to allocate $75 billion to the projects that would result in the greatest benefit to mankind (most benefits for least costs).  As the Center states:

The Expert Panel was presented with nearly 40 investment proposals designed by experts to reduce the challenges of Armed Conflict, Biodiversity Destruction, Chronic Disease, Climate Change, Education Shortages, Hunger and Malnutrition, Infectious Disease, Natural Disasters, Population Growth, and Water and Sanitation Shortages. They found that fighting malnourishment should be the top priority for policy-makers and philanthropists.

Given the budget constraints, they found 16 investments worthy of investment (in descending order of desirability):

  1. Bundled micronutrient interventions to fight hunger and improve education
  2. Expanding the Subsidy for Malaria Combination Treatment
  3. Expanded Childhood Immunization Coverage
  4. Deworming of Schoolchildren, to improve educational and health outcomes
  5. Expanding Tuberculosis Treatment
  6. R&D to Increase Yield Enhancements, to decrease hunger, fight biodiversity destruction, and lessen the effects of climate change
  7. Investing in Effective Early Warning Systems to protect populations against natural disaster
  8. Strengthening Surgical Capacity
  9. Hepatitis B Immunization
  10. Using Low Cost Drugs in the case of Acute Heart Attacks in poorer nations (these are already available in developed countries)
  11. Salt Reduction Campaign to reduce chronic disease
  12. Geo Engineering R&D into the feasibility of solar radiation management
  13. Conditional Cash Transfers for School Attendance
  14. Accelerated HIV Vaccine R&D
  15. Extended Field Trial of Information Campaigns on the Benefits From Schooling
  16. Borehole and Public Hand Pump Intervention

(emphasis added).

It turns out that the panel of experts believed the costs of trying to reduce fossil fuel use does not result in enough benefits to merit immediate attention.  (One estimate is that there is only 10 cents of benefit for each dollar spent reducing a ton of carbon.  But others have found much higher benefit to cost ratios.)  Like the polio example, if we continue to study the problem and improve our understanding of climate, fossil fuel use, mitigation, and adaptation, it is likely that we will find a solution that is far more cost effective in the future and aimed at the real magnitude of the problem.  As noted in the quote at the beginning of the Commentary, even one of the founders of Greenpeace is skeptical that radical reductions in carbon emissions will be beneficial to the earth and the economy. The concept of Geoengineering (bolded in the list above) posits that we will discover a mechanism for neutralizing carbon in the atmosphere if indeed it turns out to be as serious a problem as some believe, a “vaccine” if you will.

The solution advocated most aggressively by Warmists is to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from using fossil fuels for our energy needs.  They advocate replacing fossil fuels with renewables and more efficient use of energy (light bulbs, more miles per gallon, better windows etc.) and some (but not many) advocate greater use of nuclear energy.  Many energy experts believe this strategy is not only costly (the US average for electricity is about 11 cents per kWh and Germany’s is 33 cents), but dangerous.  Renewable energy is simply not as reliable as fossil energy.  The challenge is something called intermittency.  Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.  Regrettably, there is not yet a cost effective means for storing electricity for this intermittency problem.  Additionally, major changes to the electric grid would be necessary to accommodate renewable energy on the scale that would be required to substitute it for fossil fuels.  There is no doubt room for debate about what the right mix of renewable and fossil energy should be but the main point is that there is nothing close to a consensus on this point.

Regarding the impacts of radical carbon emission reduction, some economists make the point that a prosperous economy is the best defense against the potential challenge of climate change.  It is simply a fact that richer countries are more environmentally sensitive than poorer countries.  Given that there will always be natural disasters even if carbon is reduced, some advocate that scarce resources are better spent more broadly on contingency planning and adaptation.  Venice and Amsterdam built canals to adapt to water levels in order to improve the quality of life in those cities.  Warmists often point out that recent hurricanes have caused much more property damage than previous storms.  But this is true because more people now live and build near water than in the past.  Adaptation would ensure that buildings would be constructed to withstand the inevitable tests of natural disasters.

Lastly, we have the problem of efficacy.  If nothing I do solves the problem, then I am wasting my time and money by focusing on my response to that problem.  Flushing money down the toilet as the saying goes.  Even assuming all the worst case uncertainties, the United States would not even make a dent in the problem by zeroing out its carbon emissions.  To be efficacious, the entire world would have to cooperate by reducing carbon emissions.  To be sure, the US could “lead the way.”  But at what cost?  Surely China and Russia would be giddy to strike such a blow to the US economy, while China builds a coal plant a week to fuel competition with the US.   

Finally, let’s deal with another aspect of the issue of climate change: public discourse. There are issues on which scientists have reached a “consensus.”  But as you can see above there are many important issues on which they disagree. 

At one time there was a consensus that the earth was the center of the universe.  If your best response is that I don’t need to look and discuss new evidence because there is a consensus on the current view, then I think that undermines the essence of not only the scientific method, but critical thinking capacity.  Many consensuses have turned out to be mistaken.  (We no longer have a consensus on whether eggs and the FDA’s Food Pyramid are healthy!)  And the nub of it is that there is NOT a consensus on many of the critically important issues on climate change.  In 1949, there was a consensus that polio was caused by a virus and that it was likely to infect millions in the future.  But that consensus did not and should not dictate what the public policy response should be.

As described above, a lot of issues remain uncertain relating to climate change.  One would think that so consequential a matter should result in a vigorous, civil discussion of how to reconcile climate change actions with other priorities in society.  For example, is it a better use of funds to lower our standard of living to try and ameliorate climate change or better educate the next generation of scientists that will find a “vaccine” for carbon, if it turns out that the carbon problem is serious?  I don’t know the answer to all these questions but I certainly think we need to discuss them in a serious and civil manner.

Rather than debate the issues on which there is disagreement, some Warmists shout down debate by stating that the “argument is over,” “the science is in,” and there is a “consensus of 97% of scientists.”   Unfortunately, one side stands ready willing and able to debate the climate change issue in all its dimensions.  But many on the other side have adopted a most unscientific position, indeed an antediluvian and Luddite position, of refusing to discuss the issue, indeed trying to shut down debate.  “The debate is over.”  “All responsible scientists agree so there is nothing left to debate.”  Indeed, climate Skeptics have been begging for an open debate for years now.  But the Warmists seem to have adopted a strategy of refusing to debate. 

The “public debate” issue has recently taken an even more odious turn.  On March 13, 2015, Al Gore publically called for skeptics to be “punished.”  There has been a growing drumbeat that anyone who disagrees with the Warmists’ position should suffer dire consequences for such heresy (a very small minority have even called for the death penalty, but one would hope this is merely hyperbolic rhetoric).  Recently, there has been a particularly nasty and vindictive campaign against Dr. Willie Soon, a Harvard University solar physicist, for a study which he co-authored.  Lastly, in 2016, the US Department of Justice indicated that it was looking at the issue of whether climate change denial violated the law, as were various state attorneys general. 

Why is that?  

So there it is.  I don’t have all the answers.  I hope that this provides a reasonable explanation for why the climate debate is so contentious and confusing.  The areas of a lack of consensus do not necessarily suggest that climate change is not an important issue that merits ongoing attention and additional scientific research.  One hopes that we can return to a day and time when we can openly debate the scientific basis for projections of what climate will likely be a century from now and fashion public policies appropriate to the scientific facts.