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The great cost of averting climate change

Public Policy
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.

Daily Maverick

63 Comments on "The great cost of averting climate change"

  1. GregT on Fri, 31st Mar 2017 7:51 pm 


    “Tech will not solve population overshoot.”

    That’s because ‘tech’ is the CAUSE of population overshoot, as well as all of the other dire predicaments that we humans find ourselves in.

    “Humans are still in charge of tomorrow’s future.”

    Therein lies the big fallacy, and the same ignorant attitude that is leading us down the path to our own extinction. Human beings are not in control of nature. Never have been, and never will be.

  2. Apneaman on Fri, 31st Mar 2017 7:56 pm 

    Boat,” Humans are still in charge of tomorrow’s future.”

    As opposed to what, yesterdays future?

    “Of course there are more examples.”

    You did not present an example of anything, just more of your incoherent babbling.

    So boat triggering over 40 unstoppable positive self reinforcing feedback loops that are going to result in a fucking slaughter was all part of the plan? I mean if the humans are in charge that must be what they wanted right? They must be suicidal masochists and sadists or not in charge of anything at all. Boat there is NO technology that can stop what is coming. It’s physics. It’s inertia. Do you know what those words mean boat? How about too late? Understand that concept boat? The humans have never been in charge of anything. Nothing but pre programmed rapacious apes.

    BTW retard, coal fired boilers are technology too. Still haven’t got a hold of that dictionary eh?

    Industrial civilisation really is a marvel to behold. Just look at all the complete fucking idiots it’s kept alive who otherwise would never have made it out of childhood if born (of just as stupid parents) at all.

  3. Boat on Fri, 31st Mar 2017 9:02 pm 


    Sex causes babies, tech is not the problem. If you for example had not fucked your family would have been smaller. I know you have trouble with math. Hope that helped.

  4. Boat on Fri, 31st Mar 2017 9:30 pm 


    Put down the pipe. I stated tech will not solve population overshoot. Then you rant on and on about how tech can’t solve anything. Well BFD, this is not new news.

  5. makati1 on Fri, 31st Mar 2017 10:13 pm 

    Tech is the major cause of our extinction. The world had a fairly steady state population of humans until tech butted in and started to change things. Murder and suicide are built into the human psyche. Now we are doing it wholesale with tech and can destroy all life on earth in an hour. Way to Go!

  6. Boat on Fri, 31st Mar 2017 10:41 pm 


    So go paint on a wall in a cave and quit burning btu’s. Climb those stairs, elevators burn btu’s. Walk, taking a taxie makes pollution, Manilla has to much already, tech boy.

  7. makati1 on Fri, 31st Mar 2017 11:19 pm 

    Boat, assholes use tech also…to flush.

    I will continue to use anything I want as long as I can, just like you. I only pointed out the reason we are going extinct. Tech made it possible. Now we are paying the price as you will soon be unable to deny. Be patient.

  8. DerHundistlos on Sat, 1st Apr 2017 4:06 pm 

    @ Davy

    Purchasing habitat in Colombia is not accomplished by telephone. It’s a particularly complicated process in developing countries. I travel to Colombia to buy land as a permanent wildlife reserve sanctuary. The thousands of hectares I have purchased and saved in perpituity offsets the carbon used for many trip many thousands of times over.

  9. Davy on Sat, 1st Apr 2017 6:19 pm 

    Der Hund, this Columbia project is admirable and a worthy cause. You miss my point though. If you really want to be forest green don’t fly or drive “PERIOD”. If you want to be florescent green then that is fine. We know people are flying for stupid reasons like trips to the beach to drink and screw. You are doing something good. But, don’t try to tell me this is saving the planet because this is how modern think today. Saving the planet is rejecting modernism and embracing poverty. That’s all there is. In descending levels of abstraction then we can jump down to those good deeds that save some of the planet like yours but are still killing the planet because of the holistic process is destructive. We get to a grey area of the means and the end. You know like destroying the village to save it type thing.

  10. Apneaman on Sat, 1st Apr 2017 6:27 pm 

    “Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March.”

    More than 150 people killed in Colombia flooding
    220 missing, 400 injured after avalanche of mud and water sweeps through city of Mocoa

  11. Apneaman on Sat, 1st Apr 2017 6:33 pm 

    China’s coal-fired generation strong despite renewables push: Citi

    “China’s coal-fired power generation as a percentage of the total energy mix is on the rise for the second year, despite the push towards renewable capacity additions in the country, Citi analysts said Friday.

    The share of thermal power in the generation mix declined to 73% in 2015 from 83% in 2011.

    Thermal has since grown to 74% of the mix in 2016 and to 78% in January-February this year, the analysts said.

    “Hydropower generation was down 5% year on year in January-February 2017 and that contributed to thermal power growing faster than overall power demand,” they said”

  12. Apneaman on Sat, 1st Apr 2017 6:35 pm 

    Record March Temperatures in Split, Hvar & Dubrovnik

    “It has been a warm start to spring for much of Croatia. The new season has just started but records have already fallen across the country.”

  13. Apneaman on Sat, 1st Apr 2017 6:45 pm 

    Understanding Sea Level Rise, p4: ice sheet dynamics and (13) melting feedbacks – a background to 21st century SLR acceleration

    “To develop a proper understanding of future sea level rise, you first have the two extremes of the story: the observational current speed (global average in the order of 2-3 millimetres/year) and the final sea level rise for a certain amount of created warming (in the order of 29 metres for +2 degrees, and going as high as 55 metres for a runaway warming scenario – see our previous article).

    Now if you want to project future sea level rise and you would extrapolate the current speed and draw a straight line until you get to 29 metres or more (well over 10,000 years) you would be a bit silly (dear politicians) – and ignoring a world of science, science about ice sheet behaviour, melting feedbacks – science about acceleration, and one word to emphasize above all: non-linearity.”

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