Rational Responses to Climate Change

Published November 13, 2020

I recently gave a presentation to a colloquium of students in a special honors program at the University of Texas at Dallas, at which I was asked to discuss rational versus irrational responses to climate change. I’ve thought deeply about this topic for many years.

The climate is changing, as it often has throughout history. The evidence suggests humans are playing a minor role, at most, in the present climate change. In addition, the best available evidence indicates present climate change has on net been beneficial for human societies, increasing crop yields and thus leading to a decline in hunger globally, and reducing the number of deaths due to cold conditions, which claim far more lives every year than excessive heat. Finally, there is little if any evidence to support the claim that any reasonably expected warming, even under worst-case scenarios developed by the United Nations, will cause a climate apocalypse destroying human civilization.

Still, any honest broker must acknowledge the evidence could change; new data could come in indicating climate change could cause dangerous future conditions, changes that would impose tremendous costs on people around the globe.

If the latter is the case, how ought we to respond to potentially dangerous climate change? Climate change is not expected to create new or previously nonexistent problems but instead, to the extent it has negative effects, it is expected to exacerbate already existing problems, such as adding to the natural rate of sea level rise; expanding the range of pests, primarily mosquitos, which spread various diseases; modestly increasing the strength of hurricanes; and causing increased flooding.

In their continuous quest for greater profits or power over peoples’ lives, environmental alarmists, politically connected green energy profiteers and crony capitalists, and politicians and government bureaucrats have proposed ending fossil fuel use and entirely remaking the world economy in order to avert the worst outcomes of climate change.

Yet the best evidence indicates sharply restricting the use of fossil fuels in the near or mid-term to fight climate change is likely to impose greater harms, especially on the most vulnerable, most impoverished members of society, than the harms reasonably expected to be exacerbated by climate change. In addition, such a shift may in fact be impossible.

To the latter point, in a September 30, 2019 article in Forbes, Professor Roger Pielke calculated what reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have promised to do, would require. At that time, more than a year and two months ago, Pielke wrote,

Another useful number to know is that there are 11,051 days left until January 1, 2050. To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment of [more than] >1 mtoe [million tons of oil equivalent] of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years. Achieving net-zero also requires the corresponding equivalent decommissioning of more than 1 mtoe of energy consumption from fossil fuels every single day.

That means, Pielke writes, a transition to alternative energy sources from fossil fuels would require the equivalent of opening three new large nuclear power plants every two days, to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, or, alternatively, deploying approximately 1,500 (2.5 megawatt) wind turbines, across about 300 square miles of land, every day starting now and continuing until 2050.

For the United States to reach net zero emissions, the country would have to deploy one new nuclear power plant worth of carbon-free energy about every six days, starting September 30 of 2019—whoops, missed that deadline——and continuing until 2050.

In case anyone is wondering, the world has moved farther away from the net-zero goal, not towards it, since Pielke wrote his analysis. Indeed, in China and elsewhere (to a large extent with China’s support and/or funding) dozens of coal-fueled power plants have been brought online and hundreds more are either under construction or in the planning phase. Only one nuclear power plant was completed and brought online. More nuclear plants are slated to be decommissioned in the coming decade than are being planned or currently under construction. Nor have 300 square miles of the globe been covered with new wind turbines each day since Pielke wrote. Each day we miss the million tons of oil equivalent target means even greater energy replacement is required daily to hit the 2050 net zero goal.

Striving to reach the likely impossible but certainly highly improbable goal of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 will reduce economic growth by trillions of dollars each year, leaving billions of people in abject penury for decades to come. Their collective sacrifice will have little to no impact on the climate.

Biden and Harris say their climate plan will cost the United States $2 trillion by 2050. However, conservative estimates of the Green New Deal, a plan similar to and written by the same people who assembled Biden’s plan, top $90 trillion by 2100. The amount of temperature rise avoided by Biden’s multitrillion-dollar plan is estimated to be a tenth of a degree or less. The amount of sea level rise avoided would be the height of a few sheets of paper, mere millimeters, at most. Future hurricane wind speeds might be a couple of miles per hour lower than they otherwise would be. That’s very little harm avoided, at a destructively high cost.

As Bjorn Lomborg demonstrates in his book False Alarm, rapid economic growth powered primarily by fossil fuels, especially in poor, developing countries, is the best response to climate change. Wealthier societies are better able to anticipate, respond to, and recover from natural disasters than poorer societies.

Lomborg cites reams of data demonstrating wealthier societies are healthier and better able to adapt and respond to weather emergencies, regardless of the type or cause, than poorer societies. History shows relatively wealthy societies and peoples can dramatically reduce the number of lives lost, injuries suffered, and misery experienced when natural disasters strike. They can get help to people faster than poorer countries with inadequate infrastructure and limited resources for emergency responses.

Adaptation as a response to climate change is not just desirable; it is to be expected. People and governments haven’t historically stood idly by as natural disasters repeatedly struck. They have always undertaken actions to mitigate and lessen the damage from potential future events. As wealth rises, people will probably take even more effective mitigation efforts in the future.

In addition to fostering rapid economic growth, if one is concerned about reducing damage from hurricanes, floods, and pest-borne diseases, for example, taking actions to directly limit the impacts of such problems now will produce much better, more immediate results, and at a far lower social cost than trying to reduce the future damage by a very small amount indirectly by limiting fossil fuel emissions.

For example, governments could stop subsidizing moral hazards by, for example, ending government-backed and premium-subsidized flood and hurricane insurance. People move to and build on coasts and near flood plains in part because the government makes it cheap. The National Climatic Data Center reports increased population and development of coastal areas—not climate change—is responsible for the increase in financial losses due to hurricanes. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than half of Americans lived within 50 miles of a coast, and by 2025, it’s likely that 75 percent will, all encouraged by subsidized hurricane and flood insurance. The Heinz Center determined that in the absence of government-subsidized insurance and flood control programs, development density in areas at high risk of flooding would be about 25 percent less than in low-risk areas.

In addition, the government can stop subsidizing the conversion of coastal wetlands and reduce the water withdrawals from underground reservoirs faster than they refill. The latter would reduce the incidence of land subsidence and the opening of sinkholes.

For a fraction of the cost of fossil fuel suppression, water systems could implement large-scale desalinization of seawater for drinking water and other uses, allowing underground water reservoirs to refill. Communities could also build sea walls, dikes, and levees; replenish wetlands and beaches; and improve building codes so shorelines, coastal communities, and cities and homes would be more resilient to rising seas, flooding, and hurricanes.

None of these policies would be cheap, collectively amounting to a few billion dollars each year, but combined they would cost civilization far less than prematurely ending the use of fossil fuels for energy production, industrial uses, and transportation.

Reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from insect-borne diseases would be even cheaper and easier than preventing harms from hurricanes and floods. Indur Goklany, Ph.D., has estimated that stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions at 550 ppm would reduce the population at risk from malaria by 0.4 percent, by preventing the expansion of regions (high mountains) where disease-bearing mosquitos can thrive. By contrast, investing an additional $1.5 billion per year on malaria prevention and treatment today would cut the current annual world death toll of malaria in half, from one million to 500,000 a year.

Ending the use of fossil fuels before markets discover less-expensive, more-reliable sources of energy in a vain effort to control future weather is a fool’s game. It is bad for personal freedom, bad for economic prosperity, and of no benefit to the environment. Only members of the wealthy, politically powerful elite, who care more about directing peoples’ lives and choices than about the environment or human well-being, will benefit from such policies.

—    H. Sterling Burnett

SOURCES: National Center for Policy Analysis; The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels; Apocalypse Never; False Alarm; Liberty and Ecology; The Heartland Institute; Forbes




New research published in Science Direct finds variations in ocean currents, and to a lesser extent shifts in solar cycles, were the dominate drivers of European temperatures and climate change for the years 1901 to 2015.

In particular, the team of international scientists from universities and research institutes in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States found two ocean cycles—the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO)—exert very strong control over the continent’s climate, and shifts in solar cycles were associated with some localized regional temperature changes.

The correlation between changes in ocean current cycles was so strong, tracking changes in temperatures so closely, there was no trend left to explain by other factors. In other words, the scientists found anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions were completely superfluous to explaining Europe’s wide temperature changes.

The research team reports, after examining the history of shifts in the “AMO, NAO, and sunspots compared to monthly temperature data of 39 European countries for the period 1901–2015 in order to search for ‘fingerprints’ of the natural drivers,” they found temperature and climate variability is controlled by natural processes, primarily Atlantic ocean cycles and to a lesser extent, regionally, by changes in solar activity, with volcanic eruptions, unforced internal atmospheric variability, and anthropogenic factors playing a fairly minimal role.

SOURCES: Climate Discussion Nexus; Science Direct


In early November, for the second time in recent weeks, the National Grid—the electric power grid operator in the United Kingdom—instituted emergency measures, including requesting mothballed coal-fueled generating plants to be brought back on line, to avoid blackouts across the country as offshore wind turbines were predicted to continue to deliver less electricity than is needed to keep the power on. This pattern has been repeated multiple times in recent years.

National Grid issued a “margin notice” for what it described as its most serious security-of-supply alert in four years, calling for coal-fueled power plants to “fire up to keep Britain’s lights on today after … low wind farm output increased the risk of blackouts.”

In particular, low wind speeds were expected to result in wind farms delivering just 2.5 gigawatts of electricity to the grid, a shortfall of 740 megawatts, equal to the amount of electricity delivered to the system by a mid-size to large traditional power plant on a daily basis.

National Grid says it expects to pay coal power plant operators a minimum of two billion pounds in 2020 to ramp up emergency delivery when needed, to keep the electricity supply within the margin of safety needed to avoid potential blackouts, if, as expected, insufficient wind speeds reduce offshore wind electric power production.

The U.K.’s shortfalls in electric power resemble what California and other jurisdictions are increasingly experiencing as they replace reliable, relatively inexpensive fossil fuel and nuclear power plants with ever-greater amounts of intermittent power. Will the public ever step up to demand governments stop replacing a power system that works effectively, with one that, as is becoming increasingly apparent, has a limited ability to supply on-demand power?

SOURCES: Climate Change Dispatch; The Times; Global Warming Policy Foundation

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