Electricity Policy

Tue03282017

Last updateThu, 16 Mar 2017 7pm

ISSN 2331-1223  Twitter

Should we strive to halt climate change? Can we adapt to it? What are risks?

Ridley

Lord Matthew White Ridley, known as Matt Ridley or even Lord Ridley, is a 58 year-old British journalist, businessman and author of popular science books. Since 2013 he has been a Conservative hereditary peer in the House of Lords. Earlier he was chairman of Northern Rock Bank that led to the first run on a British bank in 150 years. On Oct 17, he delivered the 2016 Annual Global Warming Policy Forum lecture at the Royal Society in London, which he titled “Global Warming Versus Global Greening.” Filled with data and graphics, it attracted attention, as his utterances have been known to do.

An admirer of science, Ridley says plausibly that what keeps science honest is that it is decentralized, allowing one scientist, one faction, to challenge another. Truth is arrived at by scientists disputing each other’s theories. Given that there is still much that we do not know about climate systems, he says, it is a disservice to subscribe to a false hegemony and suppress the work and opinions of outliers. Yet, Ridley is not a climate change denier. Indeed, here are things on which he agrees with the scientific majority:

—Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing.

—The main cause of that increase is the burning of fossil fuels.

—The atmosphere is warmer today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.

—Carbon dioxide emissions probably caused more than half of the warming since 1950.

He agrees with the consensus on all these points. But he is convinced that, while climate change is real, it is not dangerous.

Indeed, he notes that there has been a huge global greening occurring as a result of an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere that is beneficial—the equivalent of an entire continent’s worth of new terrestrial vegetation. He notes that increasing CO2 makes plants more drought resistant, a phenomenon largely ignored in climate change orthodoxy.

Ridley calls the warming phenomenon that’s occurring “lukewarming.” This—on the basis of data cited in his London presentation far too numerous to cite here—leads him to the conclusion that “the risk of dangerous global warming, now and in the future, has been greatly exaggerated, while the policies enacted to mitigate the risk have done more harm than good, both economically and environmentally.”

To support this view, he notes that environmental predictions of doom always are exaggerated; that “climate models have been consistently wrong for more than 30 years”; and that the climate science establishment has a vested interest in alarm.

As to the latter point, Ridley fairly admits that he has “a commercial interest in coal,” the extent of which he does not disclose.

Ridley says “climate models have failed to get global warming right.” If there is a consensus, he adds, it is “that the models are exaggerating the rate of global warming.”

Audaciously, he asserts, “Nobody has ever shown anything like a consensus among scientists for the proposition that climate change is going to be dangerous.” Perhaps I am deluded in believing that I have seen reports of just such studies? Or perhaps Lord Ridley simply claims too much.

Moving toward a conclusion that would warm a coal baron’s heart, Ridley recites the abundant ways fossil fuels have helped mankind: in cooking without harvesting and burning wood; in pumping water; in lighting the nighttime and aiding literacy; in refrigeration, and transportation.

No one fails to appreciate that burning coal has been incredibly beneficial as part of our past and continues to supply the grid today, although to a diminishing degree. But Ridley overlooks the role that evolving clean energy technology is playing in lightening our burden still more. In spite of the onset of economically affordable wind and solar energy, Ridley reduces these sources to beggars, saying they would be uneconomic except for government support—backing that every form of energy production, including coal, has received in equal or greater measure. Of course the support helps

He ignores the continuing downward trajectory of the cost of solar and wind, and of advanced storage, that are making them mainstream resources. He ignores the ways that a cleaner electricity infrastructure will advance electricity into the transportation and heating sectors, making the air still cleaner and saving millions of lives.

In short, Lord Ridley is fighting the last war—and ignoring its risks. He does not disagree that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are causing warming—only saying that the extent of the warming and its dangers to terrestrial life are overstated.

But just as he asks us to assume that the consensus view about climate change is wrong and that his view of benign warming is correct, suppose the opposite is true. There is risk in both propositions. Our climate models yield both lower and higher projections of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and their effects on ocean acidification, sea rise, and more.

Different outcomes can be can be projected and defended, but what are the risks? What are the risks of gambling that we are overreacting—or that we need not act to curb climate change, as Lord Ridley seems to advocate? “If climate change is not dangerous,” he says, “then there’s no justification for renewable energy subsidies.”

Subsidies be damned! Every form of energy receives subsidies. Ridley says “Our current policy [of investing in and subsidizing renewables] carries not just huge economic costs, which hit the poorest people hardest, but huge environmental costs too.” Really? What are the economic and environmental costs of China and India investing in solar and wind, as they are doing, compared to the alternatives?

Today the cost differential of investing in new, cleaner technologies as compared with fossil fuels and nuclear power is small or negative. The costs of failing to act on climate change has produced wildly varying estimates in the trillions of dollars, while the cost of investing in renewables and leaving Lord Ridley’s coal in the ground until it can be used more cleanly and effectively is small or negative. His neglect of this vital new information makes his otherwise informative presentation misleading and irreelevant and causes his entire argument to collapse like a neglected soufflé. 

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