[Editor note: Tomorrow’s post looks at Big Science-Big Environmental’s new plan to push climate alarmism at the public. For a look at scientific momentum away from scary climate scenarios, see Chip Knappenberger, “What Does the Last Decade Tell Us About Global Warming? (Hint: the ‘skeptics’ have the momentum).]”
It was the year that climate-change alarmism (aka anthropogenic global-warming alarmism) died, a passing all the more noteworthy because it seemed so unlikely 12–15 months ago.
Few ideas in all of history had the salience and durability that warming alarmism used to have. Higher temperatures and accumulating carbon would bring planetary catastrophe–all our fault by using the dense energy known as oil, gas, and coal.
It became a religious issue, but this time one with science on its side. A consensus of scientists would team up with a consensus of busybodies to bring us an unending stream of penitential sacrifices. For politicians, sharing the pain would be an unprecedented vote-buying opportunity. And new taxes–well, politicians always need that (if they can get away with it!).
The oh-no-say-it-ain’t-so idea developed momentum, articulated by seemingly selfless scientists who surely understood it–but nevertheless met regularly for global conferences at pleasant venues. Just before every conference would come new research findings whose message was that more research was needed.
One Englishman’s website was devoted to an interminable list of consequences, none very good, thus far suspected. They ranged from reversal of the Gulf Stream to inflation in China to slower tree growth to faster tree growth, and, of course, a desperate shortage of truffles. (Honest?)
The climate policy coalition would set in motion a tsunami of gravy that would submerge the economic landscape as we knew it. Venturers and dinosaur corporations (remember Enron? BP?) promised new technologies and greener jobs, all requiring just a bit more money before becoming viable.
At the lower end were opportunities to wallow in collective guilt, from bogus statistics on polar bears to the likely sinking of Tuvalu. Some drippings from the gravy boat would surely rain down on us, as we imagined allowance and offset markets with staggering notional volumes and zillions of clever derivatives. There were a handful of naysayers who could be bought off, and a mass of bumpkin voters who could be cajoled into submission.
Reality Seeps In
The end began November 2009 with the East Anglia e-mails. “Hide the decline” may have been ambiguous, but the “Harry Read Me” file gave the program away. The available data had been hopelessly massaged, the original observations thrown away. The scientists turned out to be a cartel trying to control access to journals that might give their critics an outlet. Footnote checkers turned the once-authoritative United Nations climate-change reports into the equivalent of poorly cribbed term papers.
And then someone discovered the great die-off of the thermometers that removed observations from frigid weather stations to skew the data in favor of warmer ones.
Even the first markets that would show us the possibilities for climate-related emissions trading started acting weirdly. The European Trading System began to sink when people started looking into the production and verification of its data. Early last year came massive tax evasions on allowance sales, and later Denmark hit the big time as the home of a $7 billion ETS scam, a consequence of rules that did not require traders to prove who they were.
This little-known story climaxed with a too-late cleanup that reduced 1,256 traders to about 150. And, of course, the Chicago Climate Exchange had just gone out of business, as the expected death of climate policy zeroed out the prices of whatever it was they were trading.
Copenhagen failed, and Cancun was farcical. Far fewer reporters turned up in Mexico, as news budgets reflected climate’s declining importance. Two memorable things happened: At the end, Japan refused to sign on to renew the Kyoto agreement, and at opening, the official invocation was directed to the Mayan goddess of “reason, creativity and weaving.”
Ain’t life grand?
Thank You Internet
The end of climate science and the fall of climate politics could never have happened in a world of typewriters, faxes and three TV networks. Cheap telecom and the Internet brought it about, as any document that mattered became available with a Google inquiry and a mouse click. The East Anglia guys were still living in a world of paper journals. Nowadays all the peer reviews that matter come quickly by dozens to anyone who posts something worth (or not worth) reading. Lots of junk turns up, but that’s the freight for information that flows so cheaply and freely.
This is really good news. It means that we will probably never see another mass hysteria that achieves the dimensions of global warming and carbon abatement policy – unless of course it’s real.
Which brings us back to markets, whose real function is to move information and make us all nicer in the process. In The Rational Optimist (Harper Collins, 2010), British science writer Matt Ridley describes some of the many recent experiments that put a new gloss on self-interest.
One was replicated in 15 small communities scattered around the world. The researchers give each subject the equivalent of an average day’s pay and allow him to keep or share it with a pre-identified individual. Subjects in huntergatherer societies shared an average of 25 percent, while those in more cosmopolitan communities shared 50 percent. The most significant determinant of the fraction shared was the volume of market activity, measured by the percentage of food purchased rather than self-supplied or shared.
The takeaway? Markets where we transact with strangers make us more rather than less moral, whether they are for goods or ideas. Exchange brings specialization, whether in thought or trade, and we seem to implicitly recognize the value of sharing them despite our self-interest.
Ridley says it’s like sex, which itself evolved not just because it’s fun, but because it mixes genes that promote diversity of attributes and long-term survival as generalist consumers and specialist producers. There is a marketplace for ideas, now on steroids thanks to telecom and the Internet. And, in Ridley’s words, when ideas meet they have sex and produce newer and more remarkable ideas. And now we can disseminate or access almost any extant idea in a matter of seconds.
The list of research findings on the effects of global warming is at http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm
Harry Read Me is available in lots of places, including http://www.anenglishmanscastle.com/HARRY_READ_ME.txt
The Denmark story, remarkably underreported here, is at http://probeinternational.org/library/site/uploads/2010/12/Hedegaard-Danish-scam.doc
For a synopsis of The Rational Optimist, see Michael Shermer’s “When Ideas Have Sex” in the June 2010 Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=when-ideas-have-sex