Where ignorance fears to tread.
24 July 2017 18:46 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The great cost of averting climate change

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    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.

Scientists have published a road map of what needs to happen to meet the goal of restricting global average temperatures to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. For green investors and technocratic statists, it reads like a dream. For the rest of us, it spells certain economic disaster.

Modelling the climate – a massive, complex planetary system – may be the hardest problem we’ve ever tried to solve with computers. It requires collaboration between many fields of science, from meteorology and geophysics to advanced applied mathematics. There is far too little fine-grained data available even today; entire climate sub-systems are represented by “fudge factors”, and historical data for comparison is sparse and of low quality. Combining a multitude of causes and effects into reliable predictions has, to date, failed.

Most notably, these models did not predict a near two-decade “hiatus” in global warming. A few papers have tried to bust the narrative of such a pause, but the most prominent attempt, by Tom Karl et al in 2015, has turned out to be a fraud. It has come under intense fire over its methodologies, and for failing to disclose the dataset the scientists used, contravening the guidelines both of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for which Karl works, and Science, the journal in which he published. It is emblematic of some of the more controversial and politicised climate science with which the field is plagued.

Of course, one can learn from failures such as not predicting a 20-year warming pause. Scientists will adjust the models and feed ever more information into the computers. However, the dream of good long-term climate predictions remains a very long way off.

The climate establishment remains convinced that carbon dioxide, an essential atmospheric gas necessary for life on this planet, is the key driver of climate change. It has also decided, arbitrarily, that the world ought to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures by the year 2100, by curbing human emissions of carbon dioxide. Beyond this temperature rise, they say, the consequences for the climate will become dangerous.

To date, we’re less than halfway to this limit, although that doesn’t stop climate alarmists from attributing every spell of bad weather, every change in the natural environment, and even geopolitical events, to climate change.

The 2°C goal has been re-affirmed at several annual climate change jamborees held in exotic locations at taxpayer expense, where political delegates and their crony-capitalist hangers-on discuss how to influence policy to perpetuate their field and funnel funds to the green industry. However, attempts to forge a global treaty that would turn this goal into enforceable national policies have failed. So far, we only have vague and voluntary commitments from some countries to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide.

Now, a new paper published in the journal Science tries to lay out “a road map for rapid decarbonisation”. It tries to move from vague commitments that are difficult to link to real policy goals and actions, to specific targets for change by the end of every decade until 2050. This date was chosen because the paper believes that global carbon emissions need to peak no later than 2020 – only three years from now – and that “net-zero emissions around mid-century” are “necessary to limit warming to well below 2°C”.

It proposes a “carbon law”, analogous to Moore’s Law in electronics, that aims to halve carbon emissions every decade. If successful, this would return carbon dioxide levels to 0.038% of the atmosphere by 2100, from 0.040% today. (Yes, these are the tiny fractions that, apparently, ought to alarm us so greatly.)

Unlike Moore’s Law, which simply observed ongoing technological progress, a carbon law would have to be imposed by the state. It would require laws, taxes and subsidies to effect a great transformation in all industry sectors, to “[push] renewables and other zero emissions technologies up the creation and dissemination trajectory, while simultaneously pulling fossil-based value propositions from the market”.

Coal use will have to be phased out entirely in the early 2030s, and oil use by the early 2040s. In addition, net carbon emissions from land-use changes will have to fall to zero by 2050, despite continuing population growth and the desire of billions of poor people to achieve a better quality of life.

Even then, it’s not enough. The remainder of human carbon emissions by 2050 will have to be removed from the atmosphere. That means we’ll also have to build massive carbon capture systems that sequester carbon dioxide at double the rate that all plant life on the planet does today.

Unsurprisingly, the authors aren’t entirely convinced that their grand plan will work. “The gravest risk is that emerging economies, such as South Africa, are driven down the conventional growth path by sheer inertia,” they write.

Well, that’s true. But it isn’t sheer inertia that’s at work. It’s simply common sense.

All of the miracles of the modern world have been made possible by abundant, inexpensive energy. It has been the single greatest source of education, liberation and longer life. Without abundant energy, women would still be locked away at home, washing by hand and cooking over open fires that cause chronic lung diseases. Children would be unable to study at night and would still be working the fields by day instead of going to school. Our food supplies would be scanty and unhealthy without a refrigerated supply chain. Our health would be precarious and limited by what local healers could do with primitive equipment and medicines. Our life expectancy would at best be 35, as it was for wealthy English landowners in 1800. The vast majority of us would still live in grinding poverty, as peasants and serfs to a tiny class of rich people, most of whom wouldn’t even live that well themselves. Worst of all, we wouldn’t have universal access to Facebook and keyring laser pointers.

The infrastructure for this ever-expanding prosperity, which leaves a smaller share of the world’s population in poverty with every passing year, took many decades, and even centuries, to build. It consists of vast networks of cables, pipelines, refineries, power stations, mines and technology designed to use the sources of power we are able to produce.

The proposals in the decarbonisation road map would rip up most of this infrastructure, to replace it with zero-emissions energy such as nuclear power, solar plants and wind turbines. It would require a complete transition from internal combustion engines to vehicles fuelled by electricity, hydrogen fuel cells, or natural gas. A vast industry devoted to the manufacture, maintenance and refuelling of internal combustion engined vehicles would have to be rebuilt from the ground up, based on technologies that are today limited to very small niche markets. Large developing countries, like India, China, Russia and Brazil, would have to be on board with these changes, as would the world’s largest economy, the United States, which is headed in the opposite direction under its new president, Donald Trump.

And this revolutionary rip-and-replace strategy would have to be completed in a matter of 30 years or so. On a limited scale, this has been done before. After the devastation of the Second World War, Europe was rebuilt on this time scale. But it required great effort, came at a great cost, and needed the support of a wealthy benefactor that had not been destroyed – the United States.

The deliberate destruction and rebuilding on the scale contemplated in this paper is, frankly, astounding. The authors describe their proposals as “Herculean efforts”. That is an understatement.

The logical consequences are easy to anticipate. Vast amounts of wealth would have to be diverted to renewable energy sources. Even the best concentrated solar plants in the world, land-hungry as they are, produce only one 30th of the output of a single coal-fired power plant. Renewable energy is not capable of supplying more than a few measly percentage points of the world’s total electricity demand today. Solar and wind power production are impossible to synchronise with power demand, so building it out would require dramatic new developments in battery storage technology, which to date exists only on a very small scale. Even more money would have to be funnelled into creating carbon capture technologies, which so far have proven complex and expensive.

Energy would inevitably become more expensive, as it has done for residential users in Germany under its vaunted (and precarious) “energy turnaround” plan. Because the poor spend a larger share of their income on energy than the rich, this would cost people in developing countries the most. Those who invest in or are employed by green industries might become richer, but it would be at the expense of everyone else. Much of the poverty-reduction project of the last half-century could be derailed.

So, the authors of the paper are quite right. A country like South Africa, which is already mired at 0% growth under present conditions, will pose a great risk to any rapid decarbonisation strategy. We simply cannot afford the upheavals that are the pipe dreams of rich elites in their ivory towers.

Even if we accept that climate change will pose a threat to us in the future, the nature and magnitude of that threat is unpredictable. A “road map for rapid decarbonisation”, by contrast, poses an immediate and grave threat to our chances at building a prosperous future, especially in a developing world which has yet to taste the fruits of full industrialisation.

As people get richer and technology improves, there will be a natural demand for more efficient, cleaner energy. But this is an organic process that cannot be forced, and cannot even be accurately predicted. It is not rational to mitigate an uncertain long-term future risk at the cost of certain short-term economic disaster.

We should thank the authors of this paper for making it clear just how dangerous the green project really is. The technocrats of the communist project of the 20th century would have been in awe of the ambitions of the technocrats of climate change in the 21st. Like the grand state-led economic engineering projects that preceded them, the failure of the green project is inevitable. But the longer we let them peddle their seductive delusions, the more harm they will do. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    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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