Friday, June 27, 2008

Climate policy after Kyoto

The first thing to understand about the policy implications of abandoning the Official Science of climate is that we are, indeed, living after the Kyoto era. Many don't understand this yet.

In quick succession, the seeds of the "climate change" hysteria sown in the late 80s sprouted into the 1992 Rio "Earth" summit, followed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the UN, which started issuing regular reports in 1997. A pact committing signatory nations to significant reductions in CO2 emissions (back to 1990 levels) was negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1996. Many countries ratified it. The US gave preliminary presidential approval. But a 95-0 advisory vote in the Senate rejected the treaty, and the Clinton administration didn't even bother to formally submit the treaty for Senate ratification.

The scientific case fails. The years since have seen two basic developments. One is that the case for current and recent warming, never more than ambiguous, underwent the rise and fall of the "hockey stick." For ten years, people were sent running around in circles by a manifestly wrong scientific claim. In the end, in 2007, the IPCC implicitly abandoned the "hockey stick" for the pre-1980s climate and implicitly acknowledged the long-term, four-to-five century warming trend (far too long to have anything to do with human activity), sticking to much more modest claim of post-1980 human-caused warming. Even this claim has fallen in the last decade, however, as mixed trends of the 1990s have been followed by a clear, decade-long cooling trend. The observational case for "global warming" fell apart. There was never any serious theoretical case.*

The Kyoto Accord fails. The other development is that, after a decade-plus of the Kyoto emission limits, the countries that ratified the Kyoto Accord have failed to come anywhere close to their quotas. They never will. The cost is politically unacceptable. In the last two years, the revolt against Kyoto has spread far and wide in the signatory countries, now that they're faced with "put up or shut up." The required reductions in CO2 emissions would inescapably shut down a noticeable chunk of industrial civilization. The people who devised and signed the Accord were, at least to an extent, aware of this. Always pious frauds, the Kyoto agreement and its regulatory system are dead.

Some economic comparisons. I'm fortunate in that Freeman Dyson, the last of those mid-century physics greats, has done most of the policy work for me in his recent and refreshingly honest article in the New York Review of Books. Couched as a review of two recent policy books on climate, Dyson lays out the issue with a scientific simplicity and clarity rare today. He summarizes the conclusions of economist William Nordhaus in considering the one- to two-century results of following various policies, given the IPCC's already exaggerated predictions.

Nordhaus estimates economic benefits and costs, both from climate change and policies designed to combat it and uses constant 2005 US dollars as his unit, with time discounting at 4% yearly. He estimates the absolute cost of "do nothing about CO2 emissions" at $23 trillion over a century, or about $230 billion annually. His figure of merit for comparing policies is a "net benefit," the total benefit relative to the "do nothing about CO2 emissions" baseline. (For comparison, the US annual economic output is about $15 trillion and constitutes about a quarter of the world's production.)

In rank order of "net benefit," the results are:
  • Low-cost with technological breakthrough(s) (Nordhaus), +17
  • Realistic and economically optimal policy (Nordhaus), +3
  • Kyoto Protocol with (without) the US (Kyoto Accord), +1 (+0)
  • Stern (Nicholas Sterna), -15
  • Gore (Al Gore), -21
aStern is a British science advisor and was part of Tony Blair's government.

We must take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, since the inherent unknowns in such estimates are large. (Nordhaus assumes economic growth and inflation at the overall rate of the last century.) But the rank ordering, and the strikingly close results of the second and third policies, and the fact they are close to zero (that is, close to "do nothing about CO2 emissions") are very telling. $230 billion a year is about 1/65th (1.5%) of the annual US output, or 1/260th (0.38%) of global output. It's smaller than current interest rates, which can be taken as an overall social "discounting" rate incorporating risk and uncertainty.

From such results, "climate change" looks like, not non-existent, but still quite marginal. And the policies pushed by Gore and Stern, far more restrictive than Kyoto, are clearly lunatic and should not be considered further.

Dyson's article is also one of the few, outside of narrow technical forums, I've seen that discusses the effect of plants. That alone makes it invaluable, and I strongly recommend that you read the whole thing, as they say. To Dyson's lucid discussion should be added some additional points. The time scale for noticeable climate impact from CO2 emissions is one to two centuries. When we consider the smallness of the effect, scaling the costs of "do nothing about CO2 emissions" and the benefits of "doing something about CO2 emissions" down to account for the IPCC's exaggerations (at least a factor of two, probably three, in temperature change), the case for any but minimal countermeasures vanishes. Indeed, once you step outside the media- and environmentalist-saturated Western world, you run into much stronger skepticism about both the science and policy of "climate change." The reasons are no more than those presented here and in previous postings.**

Some important quibbles. I have only two significant points of disagreement with Dyson. The first concerns his characterization of "climate change consensus" as representing the large majority view of "climate change" among climate and allied scientists. This is simply false. The IPCC's scientific annexes alone, with their broad and large differences with the summary reports, demonstrate this. Consider as well organized protests by climate and other geoscientists against the Official Science of "global warming," such as the Heidelberg Appeal and Leipzig Declarations. The media generally capture the same group of self-appointed "true believers" over and over.

My other point of disagreement is Dyson's overly sanguine view of environmentalism, which he correctly acknowledges as the great secular religion of our time and the latter-day replacement for socialism, the last big secular religion. Disconnecting the "climate change" propaganda machine, starting at the governmental level and in the schools, is an essential step. The "climate change" hysteria has needlessly frightened both adults and children, warped and darkened their view of science, technology, and industrial civilization, and corrupted how science is taught and understood. The rampant runaway bad metaphors alone represent a new level of manufactured ignorance, something our society is getting better and better at.†

Slightly more than nothing. Dyson's article is a sanity tonic in a subject that, 15+ years ago, left scientific standards and protocols behind for the status of religious belief. The smorgasbord of policy alternatives he summarizes from Nordhaus, together with the other considerations presented here, leads to some natural policy conclusions. The phenomenon should be viewed on the time scale of a couple centuries, with at least a guess of cloud enhancement, plant metabolism, and ocean absorption taken into account. The IPCC's reports don't currently do this in a serious way, because the reliable science to do it isn't there.

Based on what we know now and what we don't know, there's no justification for any active countermeasures against CO2 emissions, beyond a mild form of geoengineering, which I've previously and cheerfully denounced as crazy. Here's my one exception: the most important geoengineering scheme, the one with the least risks, is more and better plants. Dyson reaches the same conclusion. The coming century will be one of biotechnology, just as much as the last was one of electronics and information. Superplants with enhanced CO2 metabolism are not at all impossible. Genetically engineered, or simply cultivated by the selective breeding that humans have been doing for millennia, such plants, spread wide enough, put the atmosphere's CO2 level under human influence no less than CO2 emissions form burning fuels do.

If a more aggressive policy toward slowing human emissions of CO2 and CH4 should ever prove necessary, the right approach is to tax them.†† Of course, politicians hate taxes for environmental purposes, because they hate putting the cost of their pet policies up front and visible to all. Complex and obscure regulatory systems are far more attractive to environmentalists, because they hide the real costs of the regulation. In any case, CO2 is not a poison or a pollutant in the classic sense. (Is π=3? Is the Earth flat? Why are courts involved in deciding such issues?) It's a naturally occurring gas respired and metabolized by plants and absorbed by oceans. If anything, it should be treated like water. No one thinks of water as a pollutant, even though people occasionally drown in floods, and clear-air water vapor is the main infrared-active gas at the heart of "global warming." At about 30 billion metric tons (Gt) of CO2 emitted per year and using Nordhaus' estimates, the external costs run to roughly $23,000 billion/100 years/(30 Gt/yr) = (US 2005) $7.80/metric ton.‡ The US is a relatively efficient burner of fossil fuels, by comparison with China, now the world's biggest CO2 emitter, or Russia and India. Their technologies are simply not as efficient or clean as ours: here's the world's real contemporary pollution crisis.

Finally, and always, keep in mind the crucial point made so effectively by Bjørn Lomborg: wealthy and technologically advanced societies have more means and choices at their disposal. There's no problem that we face, have faced, or will ever face made harder by better technology. (Whether we make good use of it is another matter.) Whatever the future holds for humanity and Earth's climate, there's no case for shutting down civilization or significantly impairing it. On the contrary, the better science and technology we have, the better we understand both the climate and the limits of our knowledge, the better decisions we'll make and the better off we and our descendants will be in facing whatever's headed our way.
* Anyone who thinks otherwise has been fooled by fuzzy, runaway bad metaphors about "greenhouses" and a climate modeling science still in its early infancy.

** I've never met a Russian scientist who takes the "global warming" hysteria seriously or views the climate problem as anything more than marginal. And the Chinese aren't about to impoverish the next two generations of Chinese for marginal and uncertain benefits.

† It's not the natural ignorance we're all born with. We're an advanced society and have the means to "do" ignorance far better now :)

†† "Cap-and-trade" should be abandoned as soon as possible. It's easily corrupted and subject to confusing manipulation by all parties involved. Also see this by Megan McArdle. Work like that of Nordhaus provides a first answer to the question of "costing" the CO2. But there's no "natural and optimal" level of CO2; all we can do is compare scenarios and ask, "What do we want?" (BTW, it's carbon dioxide gas, not "carbon.")

‡ One gigaton (Gt) of CO2 would fill about 89 million Goodyear blimps. The CO2 emission control schemes of Gore and Stern imply costs of $300-1000/metric ton CO2, which shows in a different way how far out of line with reality their proposals are.

A metric ton of CO2 emitted in the US produces about $1850 of economic value. Compare with the Nordhaus estimate of external cost ($8) and, again, the marginality of the problem is evident. And remember, these Nordhaus numbers assume the IPPC's already exaggerated claims.

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