How solid is the foundation underlying green energy policies?

How solid is the foundation underlying green energy policies?
© getty: John Kerry

President BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia  Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE and his climate czar, John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space 12 top U.S. officials to join Biden at major climate conference MORE, claim the planet faces a climate emergency. They intend to commit hundreds of billions of dollars each year to fight it. But our resources are limited, so committing money to fight climate change means there will be less money to address other worthy causes, including pandemics such as COVID-19.

Developing sound policies requires good information. Doomsayers claim that climate change will cause the seas to rise and inundate our cities, decimate agriculture, cause mass extinctions  and lead to war. Some researchers have even speculated that space aliens may fly across the galaxy and destroy the planet if we don’t address climate change — yes, really.

None of these horrors has happened. Seas are rising in some areas, but only by a few millimeters per year. Agricultural yields around the world have been increasing, not decreasing. And if space aliens are lurking somewhere, they haven’t blasted the Earth out of existence.

ADVERTISEMENT

Instead, all of the feared future horrors are based on predictions of climate models. Thus, before we commit trillions of dollars to fight these end-is-nigh outcomes, we should first evaluate these models’ assumptions and the accuracy of their predictions. 

Twenty-thousand years ago, a blink in geologic time, New York City was under a mile-thick ice sheet. Ten thousand years later, the ice was gone. But in the 1970s, based on the predictions of models, the media went wild with scare stories that the world was entering a new ice age that would devastate the world. Only by abandoning fossil fuels could the crisis be averted. 

Sound familiar?

So, before we commit to huge expenditures based on the assumptions and predictions underlying climate models, here are a few questions that should be answered.

Start with global temperature itself. Green advocates point to rising temperatures since pre-industrial times as clear evidence of global warming and the new climate emergency. But what constitutes “pre-industrial times”? It depends on whom you ask; there is no unique definition of the pre-industrial period.  

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, defines the period 1850-1900 as the pre-industrial age. But industrialization began in earnest around 1800. So why not use an earlier period? And why use a 50-year period? Why not 100 years, or 200 years? 

Moreover, what is the basis for claims that pre-industrial temperatures were, like Goldilocks, “just right.” The Little Ice Age, for example, extended for some 400-500 years, ending in the mid-1800s. During that period, there was mass starvation. In contrast, the Roman Empire thrived 2,000 years ago when temperatures were warmer than today, but carbon dioxide levels were lower. So why are average temperatures for an arbitrarily brief period before 1850 considered “optimal”? What does an “optimal” temperature for Earth even mean?

Or, consider the models used to predict increases in future global temperature decades and centuries from now, and the resulting horrors. The most basic requirement of any forecasting model — and I began my professional career forecasting electric utility loads — is an ability to predict the past accurately. It’s called “backcasting.” If a forecasting model cannot reproduce what’s already been observed, if it consistently over- or under-predicts the past, then the model is worthless for predicting the future. 

Existing climate models all have failed this backcasting test, consistently over-predicting observed temperatures. Yet, despite this obvious failure, advocates claim the models can still predict temperatures accurately a century or two from now. That’s not science; it’s denial.

Or, consider estimates of the costs and benefits of different climate policies, which are based on the “social cost of carbon (SCC).” The SCC is estimated using still other models, called “integrated planning models,” which incorporate assumptions about the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and global temperatures, and the relationship between global temperatures and global well-being. There’s no scientific basis for the former and no economic basis for the latter.

ADVERTISEMENT

Of course, many politicians and policymakers don’t concern themselves with costs and benefits, nor who might bear those costs. Will the benefits of green energy policies exceed the costs?  How will policies affect electricity rates and the economy? How will they affect lower-income consumers? 

For many, even to ask such questions is to be a “climate change denier.” But to not ask these questions, and many more like them, with so many issues competing for resources, is just willful ignorance. And ignorance is the last thing our society needs.

Jonathan A. Lesser, Ph.D., is the president of Continental Economics, an energy and economic consulting firm in New Mexico. In the past, he has advised and/or served as an expert witness for subsidiaries of Exxon, Chevron, Shell and Conoco in rate cases before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, though not in matters concerning climate change.