Response to David Appell: Is Climate-Policy Activism Merited?
[Editor note: Marlo Lewis's extensive rebuttal to Scientific American writer David Appell in the comments section to yesterday's post (Andrew Dessler Challenges Rick Perry: How Should Perry Respond?) is presented as a full post today.]
Yesterday, Rob Bradley excerpted portions of a post I wrote last Friday on whether Gov. Rick Perry’s remarks about global warming at the GOP candidates forum in California were “anti-science.” My objective was to immunize the candidates — and the public generally – against a rhetorical trick that Al Gore and other alarmists have been using to great effect for years.
Alarmists would have us believe that all they have to do is establish that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, and then everything else they say follows as night follows day. If mankind is mainly or even partly responsible for the warmth of recent decades, then, supposedly, we are in the midst of a “planetary emergency” that “threatens the survival of civilization and the habitability of the Earth” (Al Gore’s phrase). From which it follows in turn that global warming is a “moral issue” (again, Gore’s phrase). In other words, we have no moral choice but to support their agenda of cap-and-trade, renewable energy mandates, and ‘clean-tech’ subsidies.
It’s a bit weird. Earlier generations of “progressive” thinkers proclaimed that “facts” are separate from “values” and that “ought” cannot be derived from “is.” Yet today’s progressives preach moral imperatives in the name of “the science.”
In any event, alarmists have been so successful in fostering the illusion that the key question is whether mankind is having an influence on global climate that some on the political Right feel they cannot effectively challenge the Al Gore-Greenpeace-EPA climate policy agenda unless they deny that, or at least question whether, greenhouse gases actually have a greenhouse (warming) effect.
This, alas, is exactly what alarmists want their opponents to say, not only because it makes them look “anti-science,” but also because it tacitly confirms the alarmist narrative. As if all we have to do is assent to a tautology (greenhouse gas emissions have a greenhouse effect) and we are compelled to concede every important scientific, political, and moral point in a very complex debate.
In my brief post, I tried to explain in soundbite-sized chunks how candidates should challenge both the planetary emergency thesis and the alleged moral necessity for Kyoto-style eco-energy planning.
David Appell’s Comments
Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, bombards us with so many images of droughts, floods, wild fires, and storms, that you might suppose the world is becoming a more dangerous place. My post noted that the data tell a different story. Deaths and death rates related to extreme weather have declined by 93% and 98%, respectively, since the 1920s. The 93% decline in total deaths is quite remarkable, given that global population is more than three times larger than it was in the 1920s. Global warming, where is thy sting?
David Appell says “It’s easy to refute Lewis,” commenting:
Obviously our wealth, improved living conditions, and improved medical technology make the impact of extreme weather events less dangerous than the 1920s. We live in a different world than then.
Right, which means that, with respect to extreme weather, despite several decades of global warming, the world is becoming a safer place. There is no crisis, no planetary emergency. As Indur Goklany explains, moreover, these tremendous gains in safety are not in spite of mankind’s reliance on carbon-emitting fossil fuels, but in large measure because of it.
- Historically, drought was the deadliest extreme weather event. Deaths from drought are lower today than ever before in history because food production is higher. Fossil fuels are used to power farm machinery and produce fertilizers and pesticides. The CO2 aerial fertilization effect further boosts farm yields. Fossil fuels enable food to be transported affordably over long distances from food surplus areas to food deficit areas.
- Improvements in disaster preparedness and early warning systems also make us safer than earlier generations. And, as Goklany notes, the success of such capabilities “hinges on the availability of fossil fuels to move people, food, medicine and critical humanitarian supplies before and after events strike.”
- Finally, economic development creates surpluses enabling richer nations or communities to come to the aid of poorer nations or communities after a natural disaster strikes. Like it or not, fossil fuels have played, and continue to play, a central role in economic development.
The Day After Tomorrow?
Appell then says the historic decline in weather-related mortality risk is beside the point, because:
The real problems of global warming and other climate change lie in the future, which we are only now beginning to glimpse.
Well, as just noted, we are not glimpsing an impending crisis in mortality data related to extreme weather. As also mentioned in my post, heat-related mortality has been going down, there has been no long-term increase in properly adjusted hurricane-related economic damages, and the rate of sea-level rise has not changed much over the past 80 years.
How likely is it that global warming will become a “planetary emergency” in future decades? All the relevant technical disciplines that have brought down deaths and death rates — agriculture, medicine, communications, transport, weather forecasting, emergency response, architecture and engineering — are bound to keep improving. Assuming, of course, that politicians don’t sabotage the wealth creation that supports such advances.
Appell says “No reasonable person, scientist or otherwise, expects anyone to decrease their standard of living to solve global warming.” Well then, not all global warming advocates are “reasonable” when it comes to the sacrifices they think Americans should make to “save the planet.” Al Gore and others demand that we “repower America” with “zero-carbon” energy technologies “in 10 years.” I’m not making this up.
Less radical versions of the de-carbonization agenda (Waxman-Markey, Obama’s Clean Energy Standard, Kyoto-Copenhagen) would be less destructive. Nonetheless, those policies would place substantial burdens on our ailing economy, impeding progress to a better world.
Appell says that more CO2 emissions will undoubtedly lead to “more changes” — a requirement of “simple physics.” Yes, but whether those turn out to be more harmful to human health and welfare than the regulatory burdens required to avert them cannot be deduced from “simple physics.”
Only a few years ago, Al Gore issued a dire warning about “moulins” (vertical water tunnels) on the Greenland ice sheet. By lubricating the ice sheet, he claimed, moulins would accelerate its breakup and slide into the sea, potentially raising sea levels as much as 10 feet within our children’s lifetime if not ours. Gore’s scenario was implausible even then, and has only become more so in light of subsequent research (see here and here).
Now, take away the prospect of sudden, multi-meter sea-level rise, and the biggest, baddest part of the “planetary emergency” goes poof! In assessing the risks of climate change, “simple physics” is not enough.
Carbon Taxes without Tears?
Appell’s concluding comment is conflicted. On the one hand, he says: “Progress requires more energy use, not less.” But then he calls for a “carbon tax.” Since most of our energy (about 85%) comes from carbon-based fuels, how is energy production going increase under a carbon tax? And, recalling how “unreasonable” it is to expect people to support reductions in their standard of living, how could a carbon tax not penalize households and firms that buy coal- or gas-fired electricity, home heating oil, natural gas, gasoline, or any of the thousands of goods and services made or delivered with fossil energy?
In addition, as a political matter, how likely is it that if Congress enacts a carbon tax, Sierra Club will stop litigating against coal power plants and NRDC will stop campaigning against the Keystone XL Pipeline? In all likelihood, a carbon tax would just embolden opponents of affordable energy to ratchet up their demands.
Appell thinks it’s possible to tax carbon without harming the economy because Congress could enact offsetting reductions in income taxes. I’m all for cutting taxes. But seriously, Obama viewed cap-and-trade as a means of augmenting income tax revenues, not replacing them (see here). In the current fiscal crisis, Democrats from Obama on down are pushing for “revenue enhancements.” In today’s political climate, there is zero constituency for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
And no, this does not mean that in an ideal world I would favor substituting carbon taxes for income taxes. That would still be using the tax code as a tool of social engineering or industrial policy rather than for its proper purpose, which is to raise revenue. In my ideal world, we’d replace the income tax with a broad-based consumption tax. No household would ever again have to fear an IRS audit. People would pay taxes only on a ‘voluntary’ basis — when they choose to buy goods and services. Everybody’s tax rate would be the same, and it would be visible in every sales receipt. That way everybody would have the same incentive to keep it low. But I digress.
Green Tech Boondoggles
As for ‘clean tech’ subsidies, which Appell advocates along with carbon taxes, they are great at enriching special interests, poor at creating wealth. Obama once hailed Spain’s renewable energy subsidies as a model for the USA. Spain has committed to spend more than $100 billion on alternative energy subsidies. This turned out to be an unsustainable boondoggle. Each renewable energy job cost the Spanish taxpayer between $752,000 and $800,000, destroying 2.2 jobs for every job created.
Ah, but we can learn from Europe’s mistakes; we can do it better! Nope. Since July, three large U.S. solar firms filed for Chapter 11, including Obama’s clean-tech poster child, Solyndra, leaving 1,100 people out of work and taxpayers liable for $535 million in federal loans. Obama had so much egg on his face he did not even mention “green jobs” or “energy” in his Labor Day jobs speech.
The tautology that greenhouse gas emissions have a greenhouse effect does not even begin to “settle” the core scientific issue in the global warming debate, namely, the issue of climate sensitivity. The notion that one must question or reject a human contribution to global warming to challenge climate scaremongering, or to oppose regulatory assaults on affordable energy, is false. It is a rhetorical trick that activists like Al Gore use to distract the public from the real issues in the climate science and climate policy debates.
That is my thesis. David Appell has not refuted it.