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25 January 2017 03:09 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The toothless climate change agenda

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

The agreement reached deep in overtime at the recent Lima climate conference was pitched as having saved the summit from disaster. But if every country agrees, you can be sure whatever they agree on is watery gruel. As the questions mount over the validity of climate models, the utility of global warming mitigation policies, and the cost of renewable energy, Lima may spell the beginning of the end of the climate change movement.

Every year, almost ten thousand professional vacationeers gather in some exotic holiday location, like Cancún, Buenos Aires, Bali, Durban or, most recently, Lima, Peru. They do so at the expense of the taxpayers and the people who donate their hard-earned income to supposedly worthy environmental lobby groups like Greenpeace, the Worldwatch Institute, 350.org, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club.

The stated intention, besides partying, sightseeing and random acts of archaeological vandalism, is to get the 195 participating countries to agree to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions, in the hope that this will limit climate warming by 2100 to less than 2°C.

The conference had to be extended in order to reach a deal, and the agreement that was ultimately reached glossed over the long-standing disputes that had pitched the rich world against their developing counterparts. The Lima Call for Climate Action essentially says, “We’ll try. Maybe.”

Under the agreement, every country gets to set its own voluntary carbon emission targets, between nothing and a lot. If they don’t meet those targets, they’ll be “named and shamed”. Judging by the casual way in which Canada withdrew from the binding Kyoto Protocol in 2011, missing some voluntary targets should not present insurmountable political obstacles.

The skeptical Global Warming Policy Foundation welcomed the deal. Its director, Dr Benny Peiser, said: “The Lima agreement is another acknowledgement of international reality. … In contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, the Lima deal opens the way for a new climate agreement in 2015 [in gay Paris] which will remove legal obligations for governments to cap or reduce CO2 emissions. A voluntary agreement would also remove the mad rush into unrealistic decarbonisation policies that are both economically and politically unsustainable.”

The lack of meaningful targets reflects a new era in which global warming simply does not make it high on the world’s priority list. Countries, especially in the developing world, attach far more importance to matters such as poverty alleviation, developing industrial infrastructure, combating the toll taken by preventable diseases and malnutrition, creating employment, and improving the quality of life of their poor population.

This agreement leaves countries free to individually address problems such as pollution caused by rapid growth in fossil-fuelled electricity generation, without committing them to compulsory, expensive and risky green energy projects.

There is important context for the new lack of urgency in global climate talks. One factor is the realisation that not even cheap oil is running out. Ten years ago, nobody would have believed that the US would be the world’s biggest oil producer by today, yet it is. Ten years ago, nobody would have believed that we’d ever see sub-$60 oil again, and yet, here we are.

The OPEC nations intend to keep the oil price low, hurting other competing producers like Nigeria and Venezuela, but also putting the squeeze on American shale oil and gas, and Canadian oil sands. Cheap oil also dramatically weakens the investment case for renewables, which make economic sense only if oil remains expensive.

However this power struggle plays out, and however bad the news is for shale or green developers, an oil price war is great news for energy consumers. It is especially good for poor countries that cannot afford expensive energy on which to build an industrial base. Even rich countries are being urged to exploit cheap energy to invest in their infrastructure.

For a hint at the desperation in renewable energy circles, witness the false claims about “[leaning] on renewables” that Greenpeace UK made when some nuclear power stations were taken offline last August. In fact, coal picked up the slack. The crowing last October about wind producing more than nuclear power in the UK was also revealing. At the time, the nuclear contribution to the grid was unusually low, and the wind was provided by Hurricane Gonzalo, which caused three deaths, much damage, flooding, and several aborted aeroplane landings.

Besides the sweeping impact of cheap and plentiful oil, another factor is the growing realisation that previous climate change predictions – like peak oil predictions – were likely much too alarmist.

Advocates of human-caused global warming claim 97% of scientists agree that global warming is happening, is caused by humans, and is dangerous. However, that number is highly misleading. The so-called “consensus” paper by Cook et al. claims to have assessed whether 12,000 papers on climate change disputed that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that human activity contributed to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1950. These are uncontroversial statements, and I’d wager at least 97% of climate skeptics would agree with both. I certainly do.

However, the Cook paper has been roundly thrashed – in a peer-reviewed journal – for bad maths and worse presumptions. It turns out that less than 1% of the papers explicitly stated agreement with the consensus, namely that global warming is mostly man-made.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that many scientists avoid politically controversial questions, given that scientific skeptics of the orthodox political view about climate are treated to what Prof Lennart Bengtsson of the University of Reading experienced as McCarthyism.

That so few explicitly agree with the consensus doesn’t mean everyone else is a skeptic. It just means that the vast majority of scientists are not alarmists who think science is a democracy and public policy is their job.

Critics often label skeptics of climate policy as “deniers”. To do so, however, they rely on insulting straw men, such as that they reject ideas a priori without objective consideration. The term “denier” is mostly an offensive rhetorical device to falsely paint those who don’t support urgent climate action with an anti-science brush.

It is not necessary to deny any scientific claims about global warming to reject the worst predictions of the climate lobby, or the policy implications proposed by the United Nations. A skeptic of climate policy can easily accept that the planet has been warming (at least until the end of the last century), that it is currently warm by historical standards, that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, that humans contribute to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and even that reducing these emissions might, in principle, help mitigate climate changes.

However, many of the underlying claims are not as strong as they appear. The predictions of climate models have proven to be terrible. Almost all models used by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have over-stated 21st century warming so far. Modelling a vastly complex, dynamic and often chaotic system to make reliable forecasts is inadvisable. Even at the highest resolutions achievable today, models rely on many assumptions about factors such as cloud formation and convection that happen on a smaller scale.

Scientists like Bengtsson who point out the inadequacy of models for climate forecasts are told, in reputable journals, that the idea that scientific observations ought to be consistent with scientific predictions, if we are to consider the predictions grounds for public policy, is “an error”. Last I checked, testing hypotheses against empirical reality was a fairly important part of the scientific method.

Recent peer-reviewed research has also revealed continued discrepancies between instrumental temperature measurements and the tree rings that are supposed to act as historical proxies for temperatures. This discrepancy for the period 1960 to 1980, when instrument readings rose but tree rings showed a decline, led to the infamous “hide the decline” incident involving Michael Mann and his “hockey stick” temperature chart. The tree ring data has finally been updated to 2005, and it now shows an even more extreme discrepancy. If temperature proxies contradict actual measurements for the periods in which they overlap one has to doubt the validity of the proxy, and the conclusions drawn from it.

Actual instrument measurements aren’t so hot either, if you’ll excuse the pun. Peer-reviewed research found that the US climate station network overestimates warming by a factor of two, because of urban expansion surrounding temperature stations and incorrect siting.

On arctic sea ice extent, the data is equally dodgy. The curious disappearance of the satellite record between 1974 and 1979 has never been explained by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, which supplies data to the IPCC. The problem with this is that sea ice extent was even lower in 1974 than it is today.

Both actual climate measurements and the validity of historical proxies are plausibly questionable.

On the policy front, even before the watered-down Lima deal, proposed actions to mitigate climate change were never going to be enough to prevent 2°C warming by the year 2100. Politicians in many countries have asked themselves whether there will be enough return on a massive investment in mitigating warming.

It seems to me unlikely that developing countries ever took global warming rhetoric seriously. However, they certainly went along with negotiations in the hope of receiving generous funding from the rich world for mitigation and adaptation measures. Our own Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, devotes a column in these pages entirely to the issue of climate funding, and concentrates strongly on resilience and adaptation.

The global warming bandwagon will trundle on for years, fuelled by vested interests in green technology and global climate change funding, not to mention the desire to protect scientific and bureaucratic reputations. However, the Lima conference demonstrates that the world is no longer trundling quietly along.

As a threat to prosperity and poverty alleviation, climate change catastrophism looks even more toothless now than the pitiful Lima “deal”. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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