Quelle Surprise: Nick Stern wrong again

We’ve yet another attempt from Nicholas Stern to persuade us all that beating climate change would actually be good for the economy. Fortunately we’ve also got Richard Tol around to tell us what’s really going on here:

The original Stern Review argued that it would cost about 1% of global GDP to stabilise the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases around 525ppm CO2e. In its report last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put the costs twice as high. The latest Stern report advocates a more stringent target of 450 ppm and finds that achieving this target would accelerate economic growth.

This is implausible. Renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, and their rapid expansion is because they are heavily subsidised rather than because they are commercially attractive. The renewables industry collapsed in countries where subsidies were withdrawn, as in Spain and Portugal. Raising the price of energy does not make people better off and higher taxes, to pay for subsidies, are a drag on the economy.

Just not impressed there is he?

There are some eminently sensible things that could be done, things that would have the effect of reducing climate change into the future. Poor and oil producing nations throw $600 billion a year in subsidies at fossil fuel use for example. Stopping that would be a sensible thing to do: but it would be a sensible thing to do simply because it’s a sensible thing to do. The effect on climate change is just an added benefit.

But the most important part of this latest report is this:

“Well-designed policies … can make growth and climate objectives mutually reinforcing,” the report claims.

Yes, that’s entirely true. But as Tol also points out:

But low-cost climate policy is far from guaranteed – it can also be very, very expensive. Europe has adopted a jumble of regulations that pose real costs for companies and households without doing much to reduce emissions. What is the point of the UK carbon price floor, for instance? Emissions are not affected because they are capped by the EU Emissions Trading Systems, but the price of electricity has gone up.

There’s an awful lot of weight resting on that “well-designed” there. In fact, absolutely every report, yea every single one, that has concluded that we’d be better off trying to avert climate change than to go through it has been running the numbers on the politicians using sensible methods of aversion rather than not sensible ones. And yet when we see what those same politicians actually enact on that evidence base they’re not sensible policies. Thus the justification they’re relying upon doesn’t in fact exist.

Friends of the Earth takes a baby step forward: when will they take the big one?

Tears in heaven etc as Friends of the Earth finally agrees with scientific opinion on nuclear power. Yes, they’ve admitted that actually it’s rather safe. Which it is: deaths caused by power generation per terrawatt produced are lower than any other method of electricity generation. Yes, really, more people fall of roofs installing solar than die from radiation from power plants.

Which is good, that’s a baby step forward. Even George Monbiot changed his mind on this when Fukushima showed that no one at all is killed by radiation even when three plants meltdown after a very large earthquake indeed and the associated tsunami (which in itself killed tens of thousands).

So, what’s the remaining problem?

When the presenter asked him to explain the group’s opposition to nuclear power stations he got this reply: “The biggest risk of nuclear power is that it takes far too long to build, it’s far too costly, and distorts the national grid by creating an old model of centralised power generation.”

Well, certain of us think that centralised power generation is just fine: we might even say that we’re rather fond of the idea of being able to turn the lights on without having to check our watch to see if we’re able to.

But the next, and larger, step in this is that we need to examine why nuclear is so expensive, takes so long to build?

That would be because the hippies have been screaming blue bloody murder about the radiation problem all these decades. So, now that we can all agree that the radiation isn’t a problem the hippies will, at least we can hope they will, stop that screaming and we can dial back the public inquiries, the planning appeals and the monstrously overdone safety regulations so that we can have cheap, as well as that safe, nuclear power generation.

Well, in a rational world we would but that ain’t our one, is it?

When science tells you something you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth

We’ve a lovely little example today of where so many environmentalists go wrong on this climate change thing. As always around here we’ll take the IPCC seriously as a matter of exposition of logic. So, The Guardian’s running a column in which sure, the IPCC is right about the dangers of climate change, about the way that they prove that something ought to be done. However, they’re entirely wrong about what should be done (ie, get markets and private money involved in changing the world) because, well, you know, that’s just neoliberal economics and that can’t be right, can it?

The IPCC report has done a wonderful job at alerting the global public opinion about the urgency to prevent, or at least limit, climate change. Also, it has correctly identified the growing pressure climate change will put on public finances, thus worsening the crisis of the state. But when it comes to finding solutions, it has not escaped the neoliberal zeitgeist, and especially the tendency to see in financial markets an answer, rather than a source of social problems.

This is indeed a small example of a larger problem. People taking the IPCC seriously on climate change, the need to do something, but then insisting that this means the IPCC supports their own plan for whatever should be done. As, for example, we note around here often enough the Greenpeace and the like plan to move forward into the Middle Ages in response to it all.

Here’s the problem with these projections. The very proof that the IPCC uses that something is worth doing, that doing something will be, in the end, less costly than doing nothing, is entirely based on that neoliberal economics. More specifically, that we use the most efficient methods of mitigating climate change (ie, a carbon tax, not any of this regulatory rubbish and most certainly not a retreat to feudalism).

Both William Nordhaus and Richard Tol have done a lot of work on this. Leaving out their differing numbers the logic is: it’s worth spending $x to avoid damages of $x or more than $x. If $y is greater than $x then it’s not worth spending $y to avoid damages of $x. They both go on to point out, at various times, that the most efficient method of spending to avoid damages is that carbon tax. Thus spending $x in a carbony tax sorta manner can be justified if we’re reducing future damages by $x or more. However, because other methods (regulation, law, targets, micromanagement) are less efficient then that is akin to trying to insist that spending $y is worth avoiding damages of $x (where y is still larger than x).

Note that none of this depends upon whether the IPCC is correct in its science about climate change at all. This logic is internal to the system. The IPCC has only, using neoliberal economics, shown that responding to climate change in the most efficient manner possible (ie, using neoliberal economics) is worthwhile. This means that you cannot then project your own desired, less efficient, solutions onto the world using the IPCC as your justification.

So ideas like the one quoted above just don’t fly. You can’t reject the neoliberalism of the IPCC solutions because they are integral to the argument that anything at all should be done.

Rowan Williams falls into the old climate change logical trap

For someone who trained as a theologian and philosopher this is rather sad: Rowan Williams has, in his retirement, fallen into an all too common logical trap in discussing climate change and what we ought to do about it. His piece is here and that trap is that while it’s entirely possible to prove that climate change is a problem that we should do something about (a view largely held here at the ASI) that is not the same thing as saying that because climate change is a problem we should do anything about it. Anything here meaning not that we should do nothing, but that we end up giving credence to the more ludicrous suggestions about what we should do.

This is an extremely important point and it’s one that is desperately misunderstood too.

OK, so climate change is a problem and we should do something about it. Please, no, let’s just take that as a starting assumption for the rest of this discussion. Excellent, does that mean we should follow Greenpeace and abolish industrial capitalism? That would be to embrace the “do anything” option and it would be ludicrous. The costs in human tragedy of starving a few billion of us as we return to an agrarian feudalism would be worse than anything that climate change could possibly foist upon us.

That is, the merits of doing whatever to deal with climate change depend not upon the merits of beating climate change but upon the merits of doing that particular thing.

And that’s where this pernicious logical error comes in. That some things might or should be done to deal with climate change is, in our opinion, entirely true. But this does not then mean that every brainspasm that issues from a politician or environmentalist is worth doing due to the threat of climate change. We have to go through each and every suggested action to see whether it does make sense, or not, given the costs and benefits of that action.

The past year has seen the obstacles blocking action on climate change beginning to crumble. Opposition on scientific grounds looks pretty unpersuasive in the light of what has come from the experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their seven-year study states that they are now 95% certain that human activity is a significant and avoidable element in driving climate change around the world. Predicted changes in the climate are now being observed in the most vulnerable countries, confirming the predictive models that have been used.

The suggestion that action on this would have too great an economic cost is likewise looking increasingly shaky.

No, absolutely not. Proof that some action is required, proof even that some actions would be justifiable, is not proof that all actions are desirable or justified. It depends upon the economic cost of each action itself to determine that.

Or, to put it in a shorter and simpler manner. Just because climate change might be real it doesn’t mean that the world of Caroline Lucas, George Monbiot or Bob Ward makes any sense. We’re not entirely sure that a world that contains Bob Ward makes sense come to that.

David Attenborough has decided to nationalise your garden

Isn’t this nice of David Attenborough? He has decided that your garden is no longer your property, for you to do as you wish with, he has decided that your garden, the one that you bought, you maintain and you pay the taxes upon, is now to be used as he wishes:

Nature reserves and national parks are not enough to prevent a catastrophic decline in nature, David Attenborough has told politicians, business leaders and conservationists, saying that every space in Britain from suburban gardens to road verges must be used to help wildlife.

Britain’s leading commentator on wildlife called for a radical new approach to conservation which did not bemoan the past but embraced the changes brought by climate change and a rapidly growing human population.

“Where in 1945 it was thought that the way to solve the problem was to create wildlife parks and nature reserves, that is no longer an option. They are not enough now. The whole countryside should be available for wildlife. The suburban garden, roadside verges … all must be used”.

In other walks of life we call this theft.

If a wealthy octogenarian wishes to improve the life opportunities of hedgehogs then he can donate some portion of his substantial fortune to St. Tiggywinkles. This naked grab to nationalise (or Attenboroughize) our property for his purposes should not and cannot be allowed to stand.

The entire point of private property is that we get to use it and dispose of it as we wish. You do so with yours Sir David and we’ll do so with ours.