Guest essay by Alberto Zaragoza Comendador
Climate scientists don’t usually propose anything specific to ‘tackle climate change’ other than, well, doing something. Because according to them nothing is being done, or at least nothing was being done until very recently.
(Apparently, in climate scientists’ minds the $4 trillion invested in renewable electricity between 2000 and 2016, and hundreds of billions invested in non-electric renewable energy, count as nothing).
While some may interpret this lack of detail as a sign that they don’t want to politicize the issue, those of us who follow the debate know many climate scientists don’t exactly make a big effort to stay apolitical. Thus in this article I put forward another hypothesis: climate scientists are clueless about energy and the economy. Knowing little to nothing on what has been and could be done, or even how to measure progress in reducing emissions, their exhortations and pontifications remain as vague as any motivational quote you may find lying around on the interwebz.
The point of climate scientists’ comments is not to spur debate on what should be done to deal with climate change, for such a debate would instantly turn to the colossal failure of climate policies over the last 20 years. The point is to ridicule the ‘skeptic’ side and portray themselves as martyrs.
Climate scientists don’t get that emissions are driven by economic growth
Let’s see, Gavin Schmidt looks at the chart, sees emissions were rising until 2008 or so, then started to decline. On this basis he concludes that pulling out of Kyoto delayed the opportunities for emissions reduction, i.e. that emissions would have started to decline earlier if not for the Kyoto pullout. But he completely ignores the role of GDP.
A decline of emissions does not mean that ‘climate policy is working’: it may simply be that the economy has collapsed (see Syria, Greece). On the other hand, an increase in emissions does not mean that climate policy has failed: it may simply be that the economy is booming. What you have to do is look at the efficiency of GDP per unit of CO2 emitted, and the rate at which this efficiency is increasing – which I call the decarbonization rate.
In fact, as I showed in this article, the US economy’s decarbonization rate did not decline after Bush pulled out of Kyoto. If anything the economy started to decarbonize faster! (The chart shows a trailing 5-year mean).
Looking at GDP it’s obvious that pulling out of Kyoto was a non-event. Logical, as Kyoto itself was a non-event too. By the way, the US decarbonization rate was a bit faster than the European Union at the same time!
The mother of all cherrypicks: the last three years prove that climate policies work, but the previous fifty don’t count!
See Jon Foley:
Or Scott Denning:
Or Victor Venema:
Or Stefan Rahmstorf:
Again, the scientists completely ignore the role of the economy. Haven’t they heard about the term confounder? Well, it turns out the global economy has grown quite a bit more slowly over the last three years than in most of the historical records, so of course emissions will grow more slowly too.
In this article I showed the decarbonization of global GDP since records start in 1965; I couldn’t be bothered to update the chart so as to include 2016, but the rate was about the same as in 2015, i.e. a bit over 2%.
While the decarbonization rate of the last 3 years is higher than the historical average, it’s not an outlier by any means. With oil and gas up strongly in 2017, and coal up in the main three markets, it’s almost a given that CO2 emissions this year will rise by at least 1% – bringing the decarbonization rate again below 2%.
Most importantly: the compound rate since climate policies started being implemented (whether one picks 1997, 2000, etc. doesn’t make much difference) is well below the historical average! From 2000 to 2017, it’s 0.7% according to my calculations – about half the pre-2000 level. Put other way: emissions today are higher than they would’ve been if they had simply kept their pre-Kyoto trend.
If the typical decarbonization rate is 1.4%, and you have 17 years averaging 0.5%, then of course you would expect the rate to bounce up again – and maybe overshoot the historical average for a few years. It happens in all kinds of time series data. For instance, after the devastation of World War II European economies grew faster than ever. Fast economic growth rates are not a surprise after a period of awful (in this case negative) rates.
Nobody who has a clue about historical emissions would say that the last three years represent a ‘turning point’, or evidence that climate policies are working. It would take several more years of faster-than-average decarbonization to conclude that policies may be working.
I’ll finish this section with another tweet from Mr Denning:
No one with any idea of emissions and the economy would use the term ‘decoupling’. The economy nearly always grows faster than CO2 emissions, and if it grows slowly then CO2 emissions may fall. There’s no ‘decoupling’ around that – it’s what has always happened, though usually Western economies grew too fast for emissions to decline.
Let’s say GDP grows 0.1% and emissions decline 0.1%. Would you say these two things have decoupled?
“No meaningful action was taken”
Okay, I mentioned this pet delusion of many scientists and activists at the beginning of the article. But I just couldn’t resist posting this deranged tweetstorm:
If no meaningful action was taken, well, what was the point of the 22 COP meetings? Are we supposed to believe Fox News and the Koch brothers blocked climate action in Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh… ?
Republicans bad, Democrats good
The supposedly apolitical scientists seem to have rather strong political preferences for one particular side. Earlier we saw how the US under Bush actually decarbonized faster than the EU at the same time, yet somehow Bush was always vilified as something of a climate anti-Christ (see the Gavin Schmidt tweets at the beginning). Please notice that I’m not saying anything Bush did caused the decarbonization rate – surely it was just a coincidence. (Though it does speak reflect badly on the sanctimonious EU).
To climate scientists, if a state is run by Democrats and claims to be doing a lot to ‘tackle climate change’, then it must obviously be doing something ‘better for the climate’. This article is getting long so one tweet will suffice.
Well, most of the cities claiming to ‘lead the fight against climate change’ are lucky in that there are no good data on city-level CO2 emissions. But there are data on state-level emissions. Here’s California, climate leader according to Mr Foley:
The chart shows a decline in GHG emissions per GDP unit of 26% between 2000 and 2014. that’s the same as 35% increase in GHG efficiency of GDP (1 / 0.74). Over 14 years, that’s a compound decarbonization rate of 2.3%… which is pretty much the same as that of the US as a whole.
So climate leader California was actually doing just as badly (or well) as the rest of the country. Ooops.
‘If only we had listened…’
If one does not know how quickly one may realistically draw down emissions, and instead relies on fantasy scenarios, then one cannot what would have happened if we had listened to climate scientists and started reducing emissions years ago. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard a version of ‘we should have listened’ or ‘we’re running out of time’. Hell, see the tweets by Jon Foley above: ‘the rest of us will pay the price for this delay’.
But just how expensive has the delay been? One never hears how much warming we could have avoided – surely that data point matters a lot! So I estimated it: if a stronger (higher) decarbonization had started way back in 1979, the difference in current temperatures would be about 0.05ºC – no kidding.
The decarbonization rate historically was about 1.4%, i.e. GDP grew about 1.4% faster than CO2 emissions on average; it’s about 1.1% when including the period after 2000. If we raise the decarbonization rate by another 1% the effect by the end of the century is less than 0.5ºC! Obviously, whether this higher level of decarbonization started in 1979, 2000, or 2030 is nearly irrelevant. The difference is a matter of 0.1 or 0.2ºC at most.
Scientists get to claim that mitigation can have a massive effect in temperatures by:
a) Relying on computer models instead of climate sensitivity calculated from historical temperature data. While equilibrium climate sensitivity remains rather uncertain, there is greater agreement on the transient climate response, which is what matters for warming this century.
b) Including a lot of ‘avoided warming’ from reductions in emissions that don’t come from fossil fuels. This is nonsense, as these emissions are unverifiable – and so are any ‘reductions’. Besides, over 80% of the man-made climate forcing in recent years comes from CO2, and 80-90% of that is from fossil fuels.
c) Assuming an absurdly high ‘baseline’ scenario which they fraudulently call ‘business as usual’. See, under business-as-usual I’d be burning heaps of coal in my backyard; since I don’t actually do that, I must have reduced emissions a lot!
If a knucklehead like me can run the math, surely so can a guy with a Ph D. But first the guy with the Ph D would need to show some curiosity about the issue, download data on economic growth, visit other website to get the data on emissions, etc. And why research an issue when you can tweet nonsense?
Please, notice that in pointing out scientists’ ignorance I’m not claiming to be an expert; the topic of energy, economy and CO2 emissions is massive and my own understanding is rudimentary. But it’s better than that of any scientist I quoted in this article.
Climate scientists, at least many of them, appear to be completely clueless about most climate things that may actually matter to the rest of us. They don’t know how much emissions are increasing or decreasing, the relationship between emissions and the economy, whether different countries and states have had success or not in reducing emissions. They never mention how much money it may cost to prevent the release of one ton of CO2. They hardly ever talk about decarbonization rates. And so on and on.
They’re ignorant. But the world shouldn’t be hostage to their ignorance.
PS: of course, the ‘but you don’t recommend anything’ accusation is often levelled against skeptics as well. So here’s a specific recommendation on tackling climate change: do nothing.