Sunday, May 28, 2017


Apologies to readers for a longer than usual gap. This has been the result of travel commitments and the diversion of my time into writing a rather longer piece for another publisher.

The Trump caravan moves on. The recent G7 meetings are reported to have included tense conversations between Trump and other leaders on climate policies. Hitherto Trump’s lack of consistency on the subject has been encouraging, as campaign slogans promoting coal interests meet some wider global realities. And Trump’s unpredictability (to use a kind word) means that even if he eventually comes down on the anti-science side of the argument, the US position will carry less weight in the rest of the world and is less likely to undermine the Paris agreement.
However it is clear that the “refute the science” camp epitomised by climate sceptics such as Trump[1] and the UK’s own Nigel Lawson is increasingly in disarray. In recent years they have relied heavily on the cherry picking of global temperature statistics purporting to show a pause in “warming” since 1998, an unusually hot el Nino year. The statistical analysis was always laughable, but the last two years, coinciding with another el Nino, have driven the last nails into the coffin of this particular piece of sophistry and spurious argument.
The result is we now see the sceptics retreating to another line of defence, essentially that the outcome of increasing CO2 might not be as bad as predicted and therefore might not justify “expensive” action in mitigation. Jonathan Chait reports one such line in the Daily Intelligencer of 1 May, picking up a column from the New York Times in which Bret Stephens, whom he describes as “a conservative refugee from the increasingly Trumpist WSJ”, argues that the certainty of climate science is overrated, while still admitting the reality of warming and the human influence on it.
This at least is progress of a sort. Pre-election Trump treated the science as one of the great hoaxes of all time, so at least there is some recognition of the science. And it is also true that the science is anything but certain in estimating the climatic impacts and their economic and social costs. However this argument, which is developed to suggest that we cannot afford to abandon or reduce our fossil fuel consumption, ignores the reality that the uncertainties over outcomes runs in both directions.
The problem is the implicit argument that the risk is one-sided.  Climate Shock, a 2015 book by two very serious economists, Wagner and Weitzman, argues that we pay too much attention to scientists’ best estimate of the “likely” global warming outturn. What should really concern us is possible underestimation of climate change. The best estimates are both dangerous and expensive.  But the more extreme but still plausible possibilities are terrifying, threatening human civilisation in any form to which we have become accustomed and almost certainly implying a massive involuntary reduction in population.
It is also worrying that the evidence hitherto is to suggest that scientists have if anything erred on the side of not appearing to be alarmist, and that their predictions have proved right, within a range of uncertainty, or have underestimated the warming that has actually occurred.[2]
We do not accept a 10%, or even 1%, chance of a fatal outcome when we take a flight.  Nor should we collectively accept such risks in forming our energy choices. Nor is the cost of effective action impossibly high (although it might become so if we wait too long). It is broadly assumed to be of the order of 1 to 2 percent of GDP, roughly speaking the equivalent of assuming we might reach a given standard of living inn 2050 instead of 2049. It is also, for individual economies, within the boundaries of impacts (on standard of living) brought about by short term fluctuations in the oil price, or by significant changes in government fiscal policies.
We should expect more dubious arguments along these lines from conservative commentators such as Stephens, Lawson, Trump and others. The ideological objective is small government, and fact and logic are twisted to reach the desired political conclusion.

[1] Trump, like our own Daily Mail climate science specialist Melanie Phillips, has form on matters scientific, having got into deep water on the subject of vaccination and autism. This is another area where the promotion of absurd and indefensible positions has caused huge social damage, but this blog confines itself mainly to energy matters.
[2] Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama.  Brysse, Oreskes, O’Reilly, and Oppenheimer. Global Environmental Change. Volume 23, Issue 1. February 2013

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