Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The BBC's Climate Change Programme - Some Facts, But Mostly Fiction

At the weekend I watched the BBC’s Climate Change: The Facts, narrated by the usually laudable David Attenborough. Alas, it gave us a very ‘biased’ version of the facts - so much so that I don’t recall ever seeing a BBC programme with quite so much of an obvious agenda for manipulation as this one. It was short-sighted, unbalanced, alarmism of the worst kind - which will no doubt bypass many brains and head straight into their pliable emotions, but a more careful assessment of the programme would soon expose it for what it is - state-sponsored propaganda.

I would to offer a more balanced, and hopefully more interesting analysis of the situation. Thanks to the ideas of economist Arthur Cecil Pigou, we are probably already doing about as much as we can to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. Here's why. Pigou noted that market activity can impose negative externalities on other citizens (such as pollution through carbon emissions), so it might be a good idea to tax pollution at a rate commensurate with the costs they impose. If your factory causes £500 worth of pollution, you pay £500 worth of tax. But this is insufficient by itself, because another economist, Ronald Coase, gave insight into how Pigouvian taxes can backfire. Pigouvian taxes do lead to fewer carbon emissions, but with fewer carbon emissions, energy prices rise, resources are misallocated, innovation is impeded, including innovation that helps us solve climate problems, which then goes on to hinder the solutions the greens are seeking.

Several of the commentators in the BBC programme said that because climate change is an emergency, we should be risk-averse, and risk-aversion here means spending more money and resources on tackling climate change in the here and now. But this is faulty reasoning, because risk-aversion should primarily focus on the world’s biggest risks - and the biggest risk of all is not that future (richer) generations will be born into a warmer climate, it is that present (poorer) people are going to be born in a poverty-stricken state where they can’t afford access to cheap, necessary, dependable energy. The way to be rationally risk-averse is to help poorer people become more prosperous - not adopt short-sighted climate change policies that make energy unaffordable for those that need it most.

Rising tides sinking some boats?
Let’s now focus on the main message of the programme - that even small increases in temperature in the next 100 years are going to be disastrous for people living in coastal regions (and there are at least 650 million of them, according to narrator David Attenborough). Alas, this prophecy of doom is a presumption they never attempt to justify. As I discussed much more extensively in my 4 part climate change series (see the sidebar on the right) - whatever science tells us about the changing climate, the future is far too complex for anyone to know the magnitude of the effect of those changes, how future humans will be equipped to deal with them, and who will be better and worse off. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either mistaken or lying (or perhaps a bit of both).

Suppose the world gets a little warmer in the next 100 years, as predicted. Through today’s lens of analysis, it’s expected to have a net negative effect on places like Ethiopia, Uganda, Bangladesh and Ecuador. But no one talks about the net positive effect it could have in regions of Russia, Mongolia, Norway and Canada, where inhabitants are subjected to harsh winters. But even that’s too simplistic, because you then have the unenviable task of considering what future Norway or future Bangladesh will be like compared to now, and undertake a separate measurement of forecasted temperature increase alongside perceived impact at any given time.

Not only is that complex, it’s almost certain to be short-sighted and hasty. China in 1965 would be very poorly-equipped to deal with a metre of rising tide compared with the China of now or future China, who could pay for it with loose change. This is all obvious stuff if you’re objective with no personal agenda. Just as in every decade that has passed recently, global warming has produced both negative externalities and positive externalities, and future global temperatures are too hard to predict in terms of whether or not longer growing seasons and milder winters produce a net cost on the world.

All that said, let’s be generous to the BBC commentators and declare that their spectre is wholly accurate (against what my own reasoning says) - that increases in temperature in the next 100 years are going to be disastrous for people living in coastal regions. What might they have forgotten? Currently we live in a world in which about 71% of our world’s surface area is ocean, where it could rise by half a percent if the ice caps melt very much in the next few decades. Humans have done pretty well in the past few hundred years adapting their industry in a world in which 71% of our world is ocean - why is it so hard to believe that people in the future with more money, greater knowledge and better technology will find it so hard to adapt to a world in which 71.5% of the world’s surface is ocean?

Not convinced? Ok, let’s take a worst case scenario - that all of the 650 million people living in coastal regions are going to be affected by rising sea levels in the next hundred years. A few key facts: firstly, almost all of those 650 million people won’t be alive in 100 years, and during that time they and future descendants will have had the capacity to move inland in response to the very gradual increase in sea levels. 100 years is a long time to make adjustments, especially in a future in which everyone is richer than now and more technologically astute.

The world is going to change so much in the next 100 years that you’re not going to believe the progress. To give you an idea, think about how much it has changed from 1850 to 1950, then from 1950 to 1980, then from 1980 to the present day - technological increase follows an approximate increasing exponential curve - which is roughly y= 2^x (i.e. y equals 2 to the power of x - which is to say that every time x goes up by 1, unit y doubles). In the next few decades the world will be so different that its progress will shock you beyond belief - and there is every reason to be optimistic about our ability to adapt to climate change, especially given how jolly clever and innovative we humans are when we all work together to solve problems (if you need elaboration, read some of my 45 articles on 'Human Progression' also located on the side bar to the right).

Some people struggle with this line of reasoning - probably because its truths are counter-intuitive - but it goes something like this: we are not sure how many of the 650 million people (and more, factoring in population increase and migration to cities) will be affected by rising sea levels, but here's what we do know. If moving inland would be costly, not moving inland will be a lot more costly. It's one thing to discuss the costs of moving inland and weigh up that against all the benefits and the future capabilities of dealing such things - but it's quite another thing to warn about staying in coastal areas and getting washed away, because that's just not going to happen.

If rising oceans and moving inland are the price that future unborns have to pay for living in such a prosperous world (and it's still a big IF) then it is certain that those future unborns will pay those costs, and almost certainly a lot more easily than we can pay them. If rising oceans and moving inland are not the price that future unborns have to pay, either because we are burning almost no fossil fuels in the future (which is highly likely to be the case) or because climate alarmists have got their predictions wrong, or because future humans have technology that easily helps them adapt to the gradual changes (which is almost certainly going to be the case), then the alarmism has been largely unnecessary, because the combination of global market innovation and Pigouvian taxes is already doing about as much as it can..

Greens are also telling us in this ‘climate emergency’ that we need to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Such a commitment, they vow, would “drive innovation, grow jobs, build prosperity and secure a better world.” Nice idea, but alas, it’s rare to read so much nonsense packed into one sentence. Fossil fuels are the substratum of a thriving economy and the world’s biggest progression-explosion that humanity has ever seen. Markets drive innovation, providing billions of people with affordable energy and improved standards of living that our forebears wouldn’t have had the first clue how to obtain. Weaning our way off fossil fuels is a noble goal when it can be replaced with something more efficient, but the greens are getting it backwards - it is more market freedom and competition that will advance this innovation the quickest, not their absurd ideas.

Some might say, alright fair point, but we can at least try to sort out some of the obvious damage to the planet that climate change is causing. To which I say, ok, demonstrate this ‘obvious damage’ is net damage when traded off against the progression-explosion and how it lifts masses of people out of poverty, and then show your work (see my four point challenge that no one to my knowledge have ever answered satisfactorily):

1) Give us a proper, comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the present relationship between industrialised human progress and its effects on the environment, showing why the resultant analysis yields a net cost against the industrialised human progress in favour of a radical interventionist alternative.

2) Given the efficacy of number 1, propose a practical, realistic method of implementation of a series of mitigating actions within the current technological capacities, stating timescales, expected empirical results, and why this series of actions won't knock on to have a net detrimental effect on the positive elements of human progress we are trying to sustain.

3) Given the combined efficacy of 1 and 2, present an empirically demonstrable, fully costed plan of action, explaining how this allocates the required resources more efficiently than the market, and how the leading two dozen world economies can best come together to achieve this without it having a net negative economic impact on their citizens.

4) Given the combined efficacy of 1, 2 and 3, justify why all these impediments to market growth won't have a net detrimental effect on the developing world - on the planet's poorest billion people, who most urgently need a global, industrial market in which to participate, to help them climb the ladder of prosperity.

And that is the most important part of the story - it's that climate change alarmists really do not have a single, credible solution to the problems they think need solving. It's fatuous to declare a climate emergency and pay no regard to whether there are actually any problems that need solving, and if so, how to solve them - they have no clue, and no clue about how to have a clue. If they did, they'd be delighted to produce a detailed analysis based on those 4 assessments - yet no one ever does.
Being unable to answer these questions, and always failing to even understand the importance of them, why, then, do environmentalists fail to apply the proper humility to the proceedings and take ownership of their own failings? I think the main reason is that they always appear to be confused by a base rate fallacy regarding what they are doing. Even if we ignore the fact that this level of uncertainty is not an obvious call to action (and we shouldn’t ignore that, but we will for simplicity’s sake), and the fact that these guys have no real clue of the appropriate measure of range of possible outcomes against range of possible actions, they are utterly confused by the concept of ‘doing’. They peddle the narrative along the lines of ‘What we should be doing’ when really they mean ‘What we should be doing now’. But doing things now for projected future scenarios is hasty and presumptuous because time is inevitably going to reduce the cost of dealing with the problem (because we’ll be richer, and with better technology, and have more information and understanding).

The fact that uncertainty will decrease over time, and our knowledge, resources and richness will increase over time is an argument that, relative to our abilities, the problem will get smaller not larger, and our ability to manage it will get better not worse. If you don’t believe me, and still think we need immediate action otherwise it’ll be too late, you only need remember that this has been said for every decade for at least the past five, and with every passing decade we have gained in understanding, reduced our uncertainty, made humanity better off, reduced poverty, increased global trade and prosperity, become greener, and enhanced our technology, and this in spite of the greens not because of them. And on that point, I'll leave you with something I once said in this ASI article:

"I don't have much of a problem with most green taxes - taxing extra on car emissions because it incentivises people to care about cleaner air by caring more about their car tax bill does, in effect, resemble the market. Alas, there are lots of people who think it is only politicians who can engender this change to make us greener. I think this assumption needs correcting.

Although Pigouvian taxes bring in revenue for politicians short-term (for a few decades maybe), the long-term indicators are that the market left to run by itself will naturally make us greener anyway. The reason being: businesses are already looking for the most efficient means of supplying customers using as little energy as possible, because in a highly competitive market it is in their interest to do so to remain profitable. The goal to reduce energy output can, and has, come in various ways: replacement of human energy for machines, replacement of metal-based technology for higher intensity resources or carbon-cased materials, replacement of paper for digital devices, and so forth - and these are improvements in production that naturally improve business's cost-effectiveness.

Consequently, compared with how the market engenders continually increased efficiency, emission taxes probably will turn out to have had only a much more negligible effect on lower energy output and more efficient use of resources than the free market, because the market is driven by efficiency far more than politicians with political interest. If there is a race to make us greener, politicians are more like the tortoise and the market is more like the hare."
* Photo courtesy of the BBC