Climate Doom Ahead? Think Twice.

Climate Doom Ahead? Think Twice.
AP Photo/Luca Bruno

It’s one word – but it could change the course of the world for decades to come.

Discussion at the UN climate change talks held in Katowice, Poland recently reached a stalemate. The issue? A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this year, entitled “Special Report 15” (SR-15). Most of the nations at the conference want to “welcome“ this report, but the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait want simply to “note” its publication.

It might sound like a silly squabble over semantics, but it’s far from that. SR-15 claims that we have only twelve years to avert climate catastrophe and calls for a fundamental transformation of society and end to the use of fossil fuels. Endorsing it is a critical step towards adopting it, and adopting it would change virtually every element of civil society as we know it today.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. has taken a good deal of heat in the press for its refusal to endorse the report. Critics characterize the move as political and motivated by willful ignorance. But the fact of the matter is there’s good reason for skepticism. Environmentalists have been known to hastily embrace faulty data in the name of a political agenda – and SR15 is no exception.

To put it bluntly, there’s a lot less here than meets the eye. The report argues that the Paris Accord target of a 1.5C increase is better than a 2C target.  But the farther one reads, the more it appears the IPCC’s report is not really about climate change. It’s less a scientific report and more a political platform, driven by ideology, not science.

This would seem a wild accusation, but for two things. First, SR15 doesn’t actually attempt to quantify either the possible costs of warming or how much it would cost to avert warming. In fact, there’s no serious attempt even to show the likely consequences of proposed actions; it’s simply assumed they will work and be desirable. 

Second, SR15 clearly proposes radical, global transformation of society. It calls for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems…,” “unprecedented in terms of scale…,” “fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations….” These are direct quotes from IPCC.  What do they mean?

Looking closer, these fundamental transformations are less about global warming and more about promoting “social justice,” as embodied in the UN’s “Sustainable development Goals.” The report makes no attempt to conceal this; in the summary, it argues “Social justice and equity are core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways for transformational social change.”

It goes on to contend that we must “eradicate poverty” and reduce inequality across nations. As part of these efforts, governments must impose draconian carbon taxes and other measures to effectively shut down existing energy production, re-direct finance to alternative energy, and transfer wealth from developed countries to less developed countries. Individuals must change their diets and “lifestyle choices” to become “sustainable.”  All of this in a decade or so.  It’s a call for global central planning and income redistribution – a sort of “socialism lite” dressed up as sustainable development.

But the fact of the matter is that the IPCC, the UN, and national governments are not capable of eliminating poverty. They don’t know how. People are poor when they cannot produce wealth. Shutting down economic activity, subsidizing alternatives that can’t create enough value to succeed on their own, and transferring income will not make the world wealthier. And governments cannot effectively manage the economy.  A century of consistent failures of socialism shows this.

And, as the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom report demonstrates, there is a systematic positive relationship between economic freedom and human prosperity around the world. A free market system, not central planning, does much more to reduce poverty and generate economic well-being.  IPCC’s proposals are driven by green ideology, not scientific economic analysis.

Does report offer any solutions for the problem it ostensibly addresses, that is, man-made global warming? Not really. Even if one accepts the IPCC’s estimates of the extent of global warming, careful economic analysis suggests that drastic action is not required. The report’s proposed remedies for climate change fail cost-benefit analyses. 

For example, the report endorses biofuel programs – even though biofuel programs such as corn ethanol may equal or even increase carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels. The report also proposes greatly increased carbon taxes – but a 2017 paper in American Economic Review by economists Derek Lemoine and Ivan Rudik shows that previous research has overestimated the carbon tax necessary to address climate change by at least 10 times, and possibly as much as 100 times.  

A  recently released study of climate change Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels (I’m a co-author) by the NIPCC (Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change) tells a far different story. It demonstrates that climate damages have been exaggerated and current proposals for addressing climate change impose costs on people that far outweigh benefits – that is, they are wasteful of resources and make people worse off, on net.  Our study also shows that fossil fuels are, on net, positive and make humans better off.

The IPCC report should be read, and then rejected. It claims to be about climate but slips quickly into calls for radical global economic and political change, all in the name of “social justice” and egalitarianism. It contains no serious economic analysis. It’s primarily a partisan political document, not a work of science.

Conversely, scientific economic analysis suggests radical responses are unnecessary, even if we accept the basic models of global warming. Economics also shows that attempts by government planners to redirect the economy will result in unsustainable catastrophe, not sustainable development.  We ought to view IPCC’s report – and indeed any reports with such catastrophic claims – with great skepticism. We must insist that any changes to our systems and lives in the name of sustainability be based on fact, not ideology.

Charles N. Steele is the Herman A. and Suzanne S. Dettwiler Chair in Economics at Hillsdale College.

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