Checking Climate-Change Alarmist’s Math Homework

Published November 20, 2016

In a recent article titled “Recalculating the climate math,” global warming activist Bill McKibben claimed the future of the planet depends on math. And by his calculations, humans cannot develop any new sources of coal, oil or natural gas without cooking the planet.

McKibben presents his argument as if it were based on simple arithmetic, mental math so easy you can do it in your head. In reality, calculating the impact of human activity on global temperature involves using advanced algebra with innumerable variables, which makes creating accurate assessments incredibly difficult.

Nearly everyone — even people who are often labeled as “deniers”—agrees that increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have some warming impact on the planet. But there is serious disagreement over how sensitive the climate is to increasing amounts of carbon dioxide.

The relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature is not linear; it is logarithmic. Each time CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere double, there is a constant, or linear, temperature change. This means, theoretically, each additional molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat less effectively than the previous molecule.

Although an imperfect analogy, this situation is somewhat similar to people who develop a tolerance for alcohol. As a person consumes increasing amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, the effect of each individual drink on his or her body lessens over time. As a result, a heavy drinker must consume much more alcohol to produce a result that someone who drinks infrequently may experience after only a drink or two.

So, how significant will the impact on warming be when the amount of CO2 in the air is doubled? Estimates by some climate scientists put the potential future increase at only 1.75 degrees Celsius, and even the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of the most prominent climate change alarmist organizations in the world, has reduced its estimates for how much warming will directly result from more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Estimates of catastrophic global warming are not based only on the impact of greenhouse gases on temperature, but also on theoretical feedback mechanisms. One example of a feedback mechanism is cloud cover. Do more clouds make Earth warmer or colder? How much do natural phenomena such as ocean currents and sunspots influence global temperature?

These are just a few of the important variables ignored by McKibben, making his “math” overly simplistic.

Furthermore, if McKibben truly believed his own math, he would be advocating for an immediate decrease in CO2 emissions in the most cost-effective way possible; more about that method below.

But he does not do that in his article. Instead, McKibben proposes to increase wind and solar energy capacity.

This proposal, however, is anything but a solution, because wind and solar, combined, account for only 2.2 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States — compared to 8.5 percent for nuclear, 18 percent for coal, 28 percent for natural gas and 35 percent for oil. And the Energy Information Administration says America’s reliance on traditional energy sources is unlikely to change anytime soon.

If McKibben and other climate alarmists truly want to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, they should advocate for a massive build out of nuclear power instead. They have not done so, a fact that calls into question the alarmists’ true motives.

McKibben is more a birthday party magician than a mathematician; he uses sleight-of-hand in an attempt to make the “Keep It in the Ground” movement relevant as it continues to obstruct crucial infrastructure projects, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

McKibben’s claims about the impending doom of the planet ignore the reality Americans and billions of other people around the world depend on fossil fuels. Phasing the fuels out in the way McKibben suggests and replacing them suddenly with wind and solar energy sources is woefully unrealistic and irresponsible.

Orr is a research fellow specializing in hydraulic fracturing at the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is “to discover, develop and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”

[Originally Published in Grand Forks Herald]