President Trump’s proposed budget includes, among its many cutbacks, substantial cuts to the EPA’s budget and plans to zero out global warming research. Naturally, leftists are agog, agape, and apoplectic. Dogmatic faith in the catastrophic version of anthropogenic global warming theory is, nowadays, as mandatory a requirement for acceptance into the sustainably-lined halls of modern liberalism as belief in socialized medicine, free-abortion-on-demand, and punitive taxation of the wealthy are. Indeed, the language of global warming, with its “science is settled” mantra and its final-solution-esque labeling of all dissidents as “deniers” make it abundantly clear that not only must one believe that human carbon emissions are affecting the planet, but that the effect will end in catastrophe.

Lets talk about all that.

First off, and this is absolutely vital to understand: This is not a binary choice. Some would have us believe that there are only two ways we can look at global warming: either it’s happening and will be our doom unless we do something to stop it, or it’s not happening and the whole story is a hoax/conspiracy/pile of echo-chamber nonsense. This is a false choice – one can accept that human carbon emissions are affecting the climate but not conclude that it’s certifiably and unequivocally the end of civilization.

In order to more fully understand this third choice, we need to break matters down. Consider a series of questions, each of which requires a high-confidence “yes” answer in order to move on to the next:

1 – Are human carbon emissions affecting the Earth’s climate (temperature, etc)?
2 – If so, how much?
3 – If it’s “a lot,” is this a Bad Thing, or will it be a Bad Thing in the future?
4 – If so, is the Bad Thing bad enough to worry us?
5 – If so, what should we do about it?
6 – Can we do what we should do?
7 – If we can, what are the costs of doing so, and are those costs worth incurring to resolve the Bad we expect to happen? If we cannot, what are our other options? What’s actually doable?

There are people who assert that the answer to #1 is “no.” Our current scientific understanding, however, doesn’t even remotely support the claim that there is no anthropogenic effect on our climate. While the science (despite what Al Gore says) is not “settled,” the current state of understanding is that humans are having an effect on climate.

This is the question that the infamous “97% of scientists” agree on. Here, it is vital to note that this is the extent to which we can apply that 97% statistic. While the 97% figure itself is rife with problems, I’m not going to delve into them, because doing so would be a distraction. Consensus is not proof, but we don’t need consensus. The basic science of global warming supports the conclusion that humans are having an effect. The Greenhouse Effect is a simple and well-understood phenomenon, its multiplicative effect via water vapor is also understood (though not as clear-cut), and there isn’t a lot of science to support the conclusion that human carbon emissions have no effect.

It is in question 2 that we start to run into some problems. We have a historical record of warming, dating back a bit over a century (perhaps coincidentally, accurate temperature records date back to the 1880s when the Krakatoa volcanic eruption spewed enough particulates into the atmosphere to cool the Earth for a decade), that shows a significant increase in global temps (although a big chunk of that increase happened in the first half of the 20th Century, before human carbon emissions truly cranked up). We also have a theory that assigns that warming, or at least the bulk of it, to human activity rather than natural variability. The problematic question is: how much of the measured warming is due to human activity?

The alarmists (Bill Nye is among the more famous) would have us believe that all or just about all the warming is due to human activity. But, if that’s the case, why didn’t the warming happen concurrently with increases in atmospheric carbon concentration? Why was the bulk of the 20th century warming in the first half? Why has there been no warming (the so-called “pause”) in the past 20-25 years? If we are certain that all this warming is due to human carbon emissions, why has the climate’s actual history and behavior not matched the predictive models? If we step back from dogmatic belief and simply look at the state of things, we must conclude that climate scientists haven’t figured it all out yet. And, that being the case, we can’t declare with certainty that all or most of the recent stretch of warming is human-caused. So, we’ve hit a bit of a wall in our question chain, and we’re only at #2.

Nevertheless, lets move forward. Lets presume that we can conclude that the bulk of warming to date is human-caused. While it seems natural to assume that, when humans upset the natural order, Bad Things happen, that’s not remotely the truth, and the old adage about assuming things should be heeded. In fact, all sorts of Bad Things that have been predicted as inevitable products of global warming, including stronger and more frequent extreme weather events, the demise of polar bears, the disappearance of ice caps, et al, have not come to pass. Instead, we’ve seen a string of below-average hurricane seasons, the polar bear population is growing, and the Antarctic ice cap is thickening. Do any of these obviate the premise of anthropogenic global warming? Not in the least. They merely tell us that the conclusions, the forecasted impacts of global warming, are suspect.

It is a mistake to consider the Earth’s ecosystem as some delicate, teetering-on-knife’s-edge, frail and unstable system that, if bumped, will spiral into disaster for us and for life itself. The Earth, and life on Earth, have survived things that are FAR, FAR worse than anything humanity could do, including giant asteroid strikes and volcanic eruptions. It has also survived large variations in the Sun’s energy output (and, lest we forget, it is the energy of the Sun that makes life on Earth possible). The Sun’s output has grown substantially since the Earth was formed, yet the Earth – obviously via self-regulating mechanisms – has remained in the temperature “sweet spot” where water is liquid and life can exist. There’s no reason, other than baseless bias and unfounded guilt, to think that the Earth’s ecosystem is fragile and easily disrupted. So, we need to have some more specific and concrete reasons to conclude that human-caused warming is a Bad Thing.

The biggest Bad Thing concern about global warming is sea-level rise, with the high-end estimates running about 2-3 feet by the year 2100, and some long-term projections suggesting as much as 50 feet by the year 2500. Sounds scary, no? Sounds like a risk we should move heaven and earth to avoid or resolve, no? Lets take a moment and talk about that word, “risk.”

“Risk” is, both in this context and in general, a very important concept to understand and apply in a rigorous fashion. In the world of safety engineering (yes, there is such a thing), “risk” is the product of probability and consequences. It is also something that we, in our daily lives, understand and process almost continually. The consequences of getting into an auto accident at 60 mph are FAR greater than those of getting into one at 20 mph, yet our highway speed limits don’t reflect those consequences. Why? Because the probability of accident is acceptably low. Similarly, the consequences of a “dinosaur-killer” asteroid hitting the Earth are near-infinite as far as humanity goes, yet we’re not spending every spare dollar we have to guard against it. Why? Because the probability is really low. Probability is as inextricable an aspect of risk as consequences are.

The second aspect of risk that we must consider is mitigation cost: Direct, indirect, and opportunity; financial, societal, and human. Making cars safer in the event of accident is a more cost-effective response to the greater risk in driving faster, because slow driving costs us the precious commodity known as “time.” If we take longer to drive places, we lose out on the ability to produce wealth and to enjoy other aspects of our lives. We’d incur substantial costs as the price of that extra bit of safety that slow driving produces. Obviously, we’ve balanced out the costs we’re willing to pay to mitigate that risk against the benefits we receive from taking that risk.

There’s no reason to treat global warming any differently. It should be subject to the same rigorous definition of risk as probability x consequence, and it should be subject to the same cost-benefit analysis. In addition, since its biggest consequences are not expected for many decades, other factors, such as actuarial/time-value-of-money discounting and technological advancement, must be considered.

Complicating things further is the fact that there are positive effects to increased carbon dioxide concentrations and warmer temps. Some science suggests that agricultural output will benefit, that more arable land will become available, and that quality-of-life improvements will result from a modest increase in global temperatures.

So, if we want to contemplate the answer to #3, we need to know many things. We need to know temperature predictions in the future and the probabilities associated with those temps. We need to know the good that will come from those temps, the bad that will come from those temps, and the “quantities” of good and bad. And, we need to know the costs, today and going forward, of the actions we might take that will change those predictions, and how much those actions will change the predictions.

Consider the first of these: knowing temperature predictions in the future. There are literally dozens of climate models that predict global temps, and the VAST majority of them have proven inaccurate when compared to actual temperature measurements. And, all the models that are wrong are wrong in the same direction – they over-predicted warming.

This is the first of two “inconvenient” and core truths I want you to take from this essay: Simply put, the models don’t work.

How, then, are we to make informed decisions about global warming mitigation or remediation? How can we effectively assess risk – even before delving into the balance of the risk calculations – if we don’t have accurate probabilities of temperature trends and outcomes?

We cannot. Thus, our chain of questions runs into a wall at #3. We cannot answer #4 if we don’t have enough data to answer #3. And, while it’s tempting to engage in a Pascal’s Wager-esque line of reasoning – that the consequences of ignoring the catastrophic predictions are too high so we might as well assume they’re true, the fact is that the costs of what’s being proposed to remediate warming are not remotely as benign as those Pascal contemplated incurring.

However, none of this means that global warming theory is false, nor does it mean we should shut down the discussion. We can contemplate matters further. We can find useful information and conclusions by contemplating the rest of the questions. And, we can draw some generalized conclusions based on what we do know. We can tentatively conclude that, given the fact that the models universally overstate warming in comparison to empirical data, that the risk predictions are also overstated. We might nevertheless still pursue mitigation strategies, provided that the costs are commensurate with our level of confidence (or lack thereof) regarding the true risk of human carbon emissions.

We can still consider #5, #6 and #7, despite hitting the uncertainty wall at #3. We can consider them both from a “what if” perspective, and, more germanely, from the perspective of the current focus of mitigation i.e. carbon caps and taxes.

It is a fact that human living standards rely tremendously on energy. It is a fact that most of our energy comes from carbon-based sources (coal, oil, natural gas). As of 2012, 91.6% of the world’s energy came from carbon sources (oil, gas, coal, biofuels), with 4.8% deriving from nuclear, 2.4% from hydropower, and the last 1.2 % from “alternative/renewable” e.g. solar, wind, geothermal, etc. It is a fact that our living standards are driven by energy. It is a fact that improvements in those living standards, especially and most markedly of the poor, will derive in large part from expanded access to cheap energy. Nearly half the world’s population lives in poverty, and over a billion people alive today live without electricity. As the developing world industrializes, those numbers will shrink, and those people’s lives will improve. In short, energy is life, and life is made better by energy.

Consider the countless ways energy powers your life. The food you eat is grown with motorized farm equipment, fertilized with products created in factories, transported in vehicles, moved about with warehouse equipment, packaged in containers made by industry, and stored in climate-controlled environs. Your clothes are made by machines that require energy. Your home and workplace are heated and cooled. Lights allow you to read and your children to study. Communication – radio, television, print, the Internet – all driven by energy. All these things used to be done manually, with commensurate efficiency. Now, consider how there are over a billion in the world who still live that way. Who don’t have electric lights. Who don’t have refrigeration. Who grow food without mechanized farm equipment. Who make and wash clothing by hand. Who have limited or no access to powered transportation. And, consider that there are another billion or more who have some bits and pieces of that which energy provides. All these people are no less deserving of the life improvements that energy provides than you or I. Mere accident of birth puts you in a chair to read this on the Internet and puts them knee-deep in a rice paddy, bent over to grow enough food to survive. If we want to consider ourselves moral humans, we must not deny these people the rise out of poverty that energy will provide if we simply get out of the way.

While some may believe that this new power can be provided by “alternative” sources, the facts strongly suggest otherwise. Solar and wind, apart from being intermittent sources that require backup (typically in the form of gas turbine power generation), haven’t proven their broad economic viability apart from massive government-created market distortions, even as the technology matures from development to mass-production. While they certainly should be part of the overall energy picture (and there are places where they make sense), they should a – stand on their own economically and b – not be shoehorned into uses that don’t make sense. Complicating the economic viability are the vast (and growing, thanks to technology) reserves of oil, coal and gas energy will remain cheap for decades to come (and, if non-carbon energy becomes more prevalent, will become even cheaper as the supply/demand balance shifts).

These market forces can be overcome, some believe, with taxes on carbon, with caps on carbon emissions, with tradable carbon credits, and so forth. Human nature strongly suggests that such schemes, no matter how nobly intended, will be corrupted for personal enrichment and competitive advantage, but lets hold that thought a moment. No matter how such are applied, if they change the resultant mix of energy sources away from the free-market equilibrium state, they’ll be introducing inefficiency. Inefficiency is a rather dry way of saying that energy will be more expensive. And, when energy is more expensive, people will use less of it.

Who will that hurt the most? Those three billion living in poverty. They won’t get to rise up out of their poverty as quickly as they otherwise would. They’d live more difficult and shorter lives, denied access to the tiniest fraction of what we in the first world take for granted. Let me emphasize this: Making energy more expensive will shorten the lives of millions of people. This cannot be ignored, dismissed or pretended away. There will be a death toll that may very well exceed that of the horrific DDT ban, which has claimed the lives of tens of millions. Carbon caps are thus both inhuman and an exercise in futility. No bureaucrat, no politician, no dictator, and no international treaty, no matter the lofty goal, will halt the industrialization of the developing world and keep those people from gaining greater access to electricity and other forms of energy in the coming decades. No leader with a shred of caring for his citizens would do so, and anyone who would will lose favorability and power in short order. And, since energy is intimately tied to economic productivity, no leader with a shred of caring for his nation’s economy will hamstring it on the world stage by doing so. We can take it as a certainty that the BRICS nations will not decarbonize their emerging economies, not to the degree that some insist is necessary.

Thus, the current approach to mitigating global warming’s effects (restrictions on carbon emissions), has two major problems.

First, there’s the human toll that would be incurred should energy be made less available and/or more expensive. It must be considered in any rational analysis of global warming mitigation, as must all the secondary and opportunity-cost effects. If we had high confidence that the seas were to rise 100 feet in the next 20 years should we not act thus, we could quickly conclude that the human cost-benefit balance warranted such action. But, as we shrink the magnitude of the expected effect and as our confidence in the probability of that effect shrinks, the cost we can legitimately impose on today’s people also shrinks. In other words, the less we can quantify the risk, the less we can justify the cost. Given that the models don’t work, it becomes very difficult to justify, morally, making energy more expensive.

Second, there’s the compliance problem. For carbon caps to work, most of the world needs to adhere to them. Not. Going. To. Happen. The various treaties and agreements aren’t particularly potent, nor are they binding, nor do they impose the sorts of caps on the developing world that would be necessary to make a real dent in global temps. In fact, the recent Paris accord, one that no one’s going to stick to in any case, would only have a couple tenths of a degree impact on the climate 100 years from now. What good is that going to do, even if the catastrophic predictions are correct?

Thus, even before we get into the economic destruction that carbon caps and taxes would wreak, we know that they will be futile even while costing millions of lives.

This is the second of two inconvenient and core truths I want you to take from this essay: Carbon caps and taxes will murder millions, but won’t accomplish anything.

So, where does that leave us? We don’t have working models and we have the reality that the one “solution” being touted is not a solution that has any chance of working.

What should we believe and what should we do?

Lets go back to the beginning (of this essay). Remember that we are not faced with a binary choice of certain catastrophe vs giant hoax/delusion? We’ve seen that the worst predictions haven’t come to pass and that the models are almost universally wrong on the high side. Based on what we know, we’d certainly be justified in concluding that, while human emissions are warming the planet, that warming isn’t all that big a deal.

Welcome to the world of lukewarmism.

Lukewarmism acknowledges and accepts the strong scientific evidence that human emissions are having an effect on the climate, but also recognizes that, to the best of our understanding today, this warming has not been shown to be catastrophic. Lukewarmism does not support taking the incredibly costly and murderous action of making carbon energy more expensive and/or less available. Lukewarmism calls for continued research and for exploring actions that aren’t costly or murderous.

Lukewarmism outrages the dogmatists because it defangs their favorite argument: the ad hominem “denialist” attack. It precludes them from making accusations of “anti-science,” because, frankly, the science is on the side of lukewarmism. The evidence that our carbon emissions are leading to catastrophe simply isn’t there. Sure, the models say so, but the models did not predict the last 20+ years. Revising the models (or the historical record) to fit what happened may teach the modelers a lot, but that’s not the way to instill confidence in forward-looking predictions.

Any scientist worth his salt must acknowledge the models’ failure, and “science” demands that harmful actions based on the models’ predictions be suspended while science improves the models. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, of course – lukewarmism is no more a “science is settled” conclusion than the catastrophic view is.

So, what should a lukewarmist advocate?

Continued research, for one thing. We know today that the models written over the past few decades don’t work, but that failure doesn’t invalidate the theory. There may indeed be reasons for the “pause,” and we may very well see warming to the degree forecast by the catastrophists. We should not halt in our efforts to better understand the impact of human carbon emissions on the Earth’s climate.

We should, however, recognize the destructive futility of carbon caps and taxes, and stop looking to go down that road. Instead, we should advocate for the continued improvement of the human condition by embracing cheap energy – in all forms, without the favoritism of subsidies, mandates or other government interventions. And, as a hedge against the possibility that we will need to decarbonize, we should do two things:

1 – Research into technological strategies for mitigation. If it comes to pass that we need to “cool” the Earth, the only hope for doing so, given the aforementioned realities of carbon caps, will come from some form of active intervention. That might include removing or sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide, it might include altering the Earth’s albedo, it might include putting something between the Earth and the Sun to reduce the Sun’s total flux on the Earth, and it might include other approaches. The beauty of such is that they don’t require total compliance from the world – they can be effected by one or a few nations even as the world continues to lift people out of poverty via cheap carbon energy.

2 – Renew interest in nuclear power. Of all the non-carbon forms of energy production, only nuclear power has, as of today, the potential to significantly displace carbon energy production. Wind and solar suffer from intermittence and inefficiency, and require some form of backup production capability. Hydro and geothermal are options, but they are limited by geography and other factors as well. Nuclear, on the other hand, is truly the power source of the future. I strongly recommend the documentary Pandora’s Promise to both believers and skeptics, both of nuclear power and of global warming, for insight and understanding about the realities of nuclear power (as opposed to the hype, ignorance, falsehoods, and hysteria that is rampant). We know how to do nuclear well and safely, we have all the answers to concerns about waste and accidents, and if we could just get past the irrational fears born out of ignorance and deceit, we have a wonderful future of reliable and abundant carbon-free energy ahead. All it will take is for governments to get out of the way. Without the market distortions that governments impose, nuclear power’s share of global energy production will grow, and we’ll all be better for it.

In fact, when I hear a global warming alarmist speak and he doesn’t mention nuclear power first as a solution, I know that he has either not thought things through or is driven by other, baser, less noble and more selfish agendas.

An honest assessment of the current state of affairs regarding anthropogenic global warming produces a few conclusions: The models don’t work. Carbon caps are murderous and futile. The path forward is rooted in these conclusions, and starts with letting go of the dogmatic belief that our carbon emissions are leading to certain catastrophe. The time, resources, and effort that the latter viewpoint consumes could be helping the people of the world in countless other ways. Cheap energy is what makes our lives better, and we should embrace it, in all its forms, not condemn it.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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