The Climate Alarmist Two-Step

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posted April 28, 2003
Though it’s colder than doodly up here in Canada, and people are wondering if spring is actually going to arrive anytime before June, climate change alarmists continue to beat the drum for greenhouse gas controls. A recent report on climate change in the Great Lakes, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is an excellent example of what is rapidly becoming the favourite dance of climate change alarmists: call it the global warming two-step.

In the first step, scientists pump largely unjustifiable assumptions into simplified computer models to conjure up the most extreme predictions of manmade climate change possible. In step two of the dance, policy analysts dig out all of the same failed market-hostile policy options that have been promoted for any number of other social and environmental ills, and push them as the answer to man-made global warming.

Among other dire predictions, the UCS report manages to scare up, they claim that American Great Lake states and the Canadian province of Ontario face declining lake levels; loss of lake ice; changes in fish distribution; invasions by non-native fish species; increased summer stratification; nutrient depletion; changes in runoff patterns; drought; river flooding; wetland shrinkage; depleted food for migrating birds; greater crop growth; more crop pests; increased ozone levels; and more. But how meaningful is this type of analysis?

The short answer is, “not very.” The limitations of regional climate modeling are well known. As Science journalist Richard Kerr points out in “Rising Global Temperature, Rising Uncertainty,” “Climate forecasting, after all is still in its infancy, and the models rely on a sparse database: a mere 100 years of global temperatures.” And as Michael Oppenheimer, chief scientist at Environmental Defense acknowledges, “the processes determining regional climate change can take place at too fine a scale to be captured by most climate models, which often subdivide the landscape into regions 30 or more kilometers across and use a single number for the surface features and weather within each one.”

As for estimating future greenhouse gas emissions, Australian economists Ian Castles and David Henderson, have shown the scenarios pumped into the UCS report to be deeply flawed. The UCS scenarios overstate future greenhouse gas emissions because they overstate future economic growth in developing countries. A report in The Economist neatly illustrates this, when it observes “even for the lowest emission scenarios, the average income of South Africans will have overtaken that of Americans by a very wide margin by the end of the century.” The article goes on to explain that because of this economic error, the IPCC scenarios of the future also suggest that economic wrecks such as Algeria, Argentina, Libya, Turkey, and North Korea will all surpass the United States.

The second part of the alarmist two-step is to trot out the laundry list of favored policy options that market-hostile environmentalists have been flogging since the first Earth Day. Such policies all focus on forcing down energy use, whether in your home, in your car, or in your workplace. Thus, the UCS calls for “using “technological and behavioural changes” to increase energy efficiency and conservation by industry and consumers; Increasing the amount of energy produced from “renewable” power sources such as wind, water, and organic waste; Switching from carbon-intensive energy sources such as coal to natural gas and biofuels; and so on.

But the flaws in those policy approaches are well documented. As virtually all of them result in massive economic losses, societies will find themselves less productive, and as a consequence, less safe, and with less environmental quality. As pioneering environmental analyst Aaron Wildavsky has shown, when it comes to economic development and individual incomes, richer is safer, and more environmentally clean.

And as for “renewables,” a recent report by ecologists at Cornell University showed that even if deployed as thoroughly as possible, “renewable energy” sources could replace only 50% of the fossil-fuel energy of the United States, while requiring nearly one-sixth of the entire land mass of the country.

While the threat of rapid climate change is certainly one to be taken seriously, it is equally important to be sure that we understand what is really happening with the climate, and what the causes of observed changes are before we take actions that will divert scarce resources into potentially fruitless, or even harmful policies that hurt individuals by raising the costs of energy and forcing them into less-safe technologies, while hurting societies by reducing their economic freedom and ability to compete in a global environment.

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