Climate change: Color us skeptical
Climate change is the cause of everything, even crime, prostitution and terrorism.
Those are among claims studies have made in recent years. With world leaders meeting in Paris this week to discuss a new global climate treaty, we’ll hear more of these stories.
The terrorism connection, which blames the rise of ISIS (or the Islamic State) on climate change in Syria, is particularly noteworthy because President Obama said earlier this year that climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. We’re guessing that will encounter some skepticism in Paris right now.
But we have a beef with climate change fanatics on a more fundamental level. Their entire justification for radically altering society and destroying individual liberty and market freedom is founded not on actual empirical evidence, but on hypothetical computer models. Sure, activists will insist “the science is settled” and there can be no more debate, but that Stalinist attitude is decidedly unscientific.
As economists, we both have professional experience building and using complex computer models. So, we know the outcomes depend greatly on the data one chooses to use and the rules one sets for how different data should interact in a simulation. Model results may not be borne out in reality for many reasons: One may insert errors, incorrect assumptions, or not even be aware of some key variables and how important they are.
These problems plague even the simplest models developed by adept professionals. So it’s fantastic to think there’s a select set of human beings who can correctly code every single determinant of a system as massive, complex and interdependent as the global climate.
After all, the most consequential determinants are celestial events like the Earth’s elliptical orbit or changes in solar cycles or flare activity, much of which physicists don’t yet fully understand. Then there are a myriad of Earth-based factors such as magma flows, heat circulation by oceans and air, effects of clouds and water vapor, degree of vegetation, and, yes, the composition of atmospheric gases.
So, one can be sure there’s not a computer model that accurately simulates how all these millions of moving parts interact. Our skepticism is supported by the predictions of past models. For 25 years, we’ve heard dire pronouncements about these predictions, all while the actual record showed mild mid-20th Century warming has slowed down despite rapid growth in carbon-dioxide emissions. According to computer models, that shouldn’t happen, so human understanding of this topic is clearly not perfect.
In fact, much of the hard, empirical evidence tells a vastly different story than the computer models behind which activists hide. Temperature records taken from ice cores, tree rings and other sources indicate that the Earth was warmer 1,000 years ago than it is today. They also indicate that higher carbon dioxide levels have historically followed rising temperatures instead of leading them. There’s debate as to why this is, but there are clearly disconnects between climate reality and virtual reality.
This hasn’t stopped fanatics from demanding that governments of all nations immediately tax and regulate us all into oblivion or move toward Soviet-style command-and-control tactics. Even if there were a clear scientific consensus that human activity is contributing significantly to climate change and the experts’ simulations did match reality – and neither is the case – it wouldn’t mean we should all become socialists.
Bjorn Lomborg is an environmentalist who believes human activity is changing the climate but has made enemies for himself by pointing out some truths inconvenient for fanatics. First, some warming might not be a bad thing, he notes, because longer growing seasons and less harsh winters are beneficial for human beings. Second, even if warming is a problem, there are far more cost-effective and humanly beneficial ways to address its impact than through destructive carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes – for example improving sanitation in the Third World to prevent malaria.
Finally, the best way to deal with warming is through capitalism. The most carbon intensive countries aren’t wealthy Western nations, but socialist places such as China and India. As market institutions develop, nations become more efficient and less carbon intensive.
If climate change is really the bogeyman they say, the fanatics are nonetheless promoting very bad policy ideas.
Ron Knecht is Nevada’s elected controller and Geoffrey Lawrence is assistant controller.