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The U.N.'s Doomsday Climate Clock
By: The Editorial Board
Maybe predicting the apocalypse isn't the best political strategy.
A press conference of the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is held in South Korea’s western port city of Incheon, Oct. 8.PHOTO: WANG JINGQIANG/ZUMA PRESS
Have we reached peak alarmism on climate change? The question occurs after the muted reaction last week to the latest forecast from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In case you hadn’t heard we’re all doomed, yet the world mostly yawned. This is less complacency than creeping scientific and political realism.
The U.N. panel says the apocalypse is nigh—literally. According to its calculations, global carbon emissions must fall 45% by 2030—twice as much as its earlier forecasts—and the world must wean itself entirely off fossil fuels over three decades to prevent a climate catastrophe that will include underwater coastlines and widespread drought and disease.
These reductions are “possible within the laws of chemistry and physics,” said the report’s co-author Jim Skea, and that’s a relief. But he added: “Doing so would require unprecedented changes,” and the report said some methods “are at different stages of development and some are more conceptual than others, as they have not been tested at scale.”
Also not tested over time are the panel’s climate models, which are sensitive to forecasts of population growth, ocean currents and radiative forcing, among myriad scientific variables that are not well understood. The IPCC’s forecasts keep changing because climate models are still in an early stage of development.
Amid the Paris climate conclave of 2015 the IPCC predicted that two degrees of warming over pre-industrial levels would prevent Armageddon. Now after further study the IPCC has lowered its safety line to 1.5 degrees.
According to the IPCC, two degrees of warming would destroy all coral reefs while a 1.5 degree temperature increase would wipe out around 90%. About 80 million people could be affected by rising sea levels if temperatures rise by two degrees versus 70 million with 1.5 degrees of warming. Some 350 million city dwellers could experience a water shortage if temperatures increase by 1.5 degrees and 411 million if they rise by two.
In other words, humanity is doomed under the IPCC’s models no matter what we do. Nonetheless, the IPCC is urging immediate, drastic and large-scale economic changes that would affect everything from the kinds of cars people drive to foods they eat. Millions of acres of farmland would have to be converted into forests or plastered over with solar panels.
Some $2.4 trillion in annual investment in climate mitigation and adaptation—about 2.5% of world GDP—would also be needed over the next two decades. Yet as economist Bjorn Lomborg noted in these pages last week, the IPCC estimated a few years ago that unmitigated global warming in 60 years would cost between 0.2% and 2% annually of world GDP. So we’re supposed to spend more as a share of GDP now than the problem will cost in 60 years when the world would have far more resources to cope with it?
Perhaps the sheer implausibility of these remedies helps to explain why the reaction to the U.N. report was so muted. Why turn the entire global economic system upside down if we’re all doomed anyway?
The IPCC also recommends a carbon tax to spur more investment in renewables and embryonic and expensive technologies to capture carbon from the atmosphere. On cue, Exxon Mobil last week pledged $1 million as political penance to promote a carbon tax, which the company knows would be passed onto consumers.
A carbon tax is in theory the best way to combat the climate externalities of fossil fuels. And we might support a carbon levy if it were offset by the elimination of other taxes—such as the income tax. But the left wants a carbon tax in addition to all current taxes to control more of the private economy.
This explains the frequent political backlash to carbon taxes where they’ve been tried. After Australia’s Labor Party implemented a $23 per ton carbon tax in 2012, conservatives rode to power on a campaign of repeal as electricity and gasoline prices soared. Canadian provincial governments including Alberta’s New Democratic Party Premier Rachel Notley are protesting Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax proposal.
Not that these carbon taxes would make an iota of a difference according to the IPCC’s models. Most carbon taxes are around $20 per ton. Yet the panel estimates a global carbon price of between $135 to $5,500 per ton—which would increase the cost of gas by between $1.20 to $49 per gallon—would be required to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Europe is also proving the limits of its carbon sacrifices, as renewables fail to meet expectations and even the green believers in Germany increase their use of coal.
President Trump has been chastised far and wide for withdrawing from the Paris climate pact. But U.S. carbon emissions have declined by 14% since 2005 thanks to the boom in shale fracking as cheap natural gas has replaced coal as the top fuel source for electricity generation. This is the result of market forces and private innovation, not the political control of global investment and consumption that the U.N. says is necessary.
If the U.N.’s catastrophists are right, then the only real salvation will come from technological breakthroughs such as better batteries or carbon capture or nuclear power. Meantime, governments should focus on growing their economies and bolstering living standards so we can better afford to cope with whatever challenge the world brings.
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By: Brian Wm. Schulte PG and Henry Lyatsky Prelude The interpretation and opinions expressed here are the authors' ideas on related science that interests us and affects us. Some members have quite different interpretations of this science and the editorial committee actively welcomes other articles from other perspectives on this and other interesting topics “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways.” George H.W. Bush “To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it.” Henry Kissinger Many feel passionate about climate change, and they may feel that the climate concerns discussed in this paper are either overblown or understated. Some may feel that climate change due to man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) is not a valid scientific hypothesis at all, while others may think the world is facing an existential and imminent climate catastrophe. We find no scientifi
Executive Summary The world is currently facing simultaneous energy and climate crises. There is considerable scientific consensus that the impacts of a changing climate are having significant human costs as well as adverse impacts on biodiversity. And broad agreement exists that we must put in place strong measures to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. At the same time, some climate policy responses have had significant negative effects on energy security, threatening the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and putting out future economic security at risk. Sadly, the pace, logistics, and costs of the transition from fossil fuels to low or zero carbon sources of energy are still hotly debated. This is because reliable and affordable energy is fundamental to our modern economic, political, and social systems, as well as to human well-being, and fossil fuels are still the most reliable and affordable sources of that energy. Energy transitions take