Misleading Certitude on Climate Change

by Bill O’Keefe

The Richmond Times-Dispatch meteorologist, Sean Sublett, recently wrote an article, “What to make of the National Climate Assessment.” He makes little of it in terms of analysis, and he reposts as if the assessment is primarily fact and not scientific speculation.

He provides almost nothing on the uncertainties that drive the National Assessment. The report treats uncertainties as scientific facts, and substantive information about the climate system is limited because uncertainties are not explicit. The long-range projections about temperature, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events are all the result of assumed emission scenarios and climate models that have proven to be too pessimistic. Since the climate is accepted as a chaotic system, it is virtually impossible to make accurate predictions absent actual knowledge of “initial conditions” which are unknown.

Over the past 30 years, climate activists and advocates have predicted catastrophic futures, that are always attributed to human activities using fossil energy. These futures  include much higher temperatures, more floods, more droughts, and more damaging hurricanes. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents the gold standard on climate science, has important caveats in its most recent report — the 6th scientific assessment — that ought to be given serious consideration. These include the fact that climate science still cannot distinguish natural variability from human causation for heat extremes, heavy precipitation, frequency of droughts, and tropical hurricanes.   

Furthermore, while the National Assessment claims that extreme weather events are causing over $1 billon in damages annually, it conveniently ignores the effects of population growth, rising coastal asset values, and inflation.

If you are looking for an objective source of climate information, I suggest that you consult The Honest Broker, published by Professor Roger Pielke.

There is no denying that our climate is changing, that humans are responsible for some portion of that change, and actions to mitigate and adapt are called for. What is not called for are actions that are premised on an impending environmental catastrophe. The federal government and states have been subsidizing and promoting alternative energy sources for decades but are still falling short of emission goals and wasting resources in the process. In the meantime, we are witnessing the offshore-wind industry collapsing while electric cars are facing an uncertain future because of lagging demand. 

Wealthier consumers may not object to paying higher electricity prices or higher costs for EVs but they do not represent most American consumers. For example, Tesla dominates the electric car market, but Tesla owners have average household incomes of $130,ooo, while the average household income is about $75,000. And, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a recent article, “Americans Fall Out of Love with EVs,” electric vehicles cost more to produce than they sell for. Losing money without government largess is not the solution to addressing climate change or any other public policy challenge.

Industry executives have been warning that the renewables industry could face an Enron-type collapse because of its subsidy dependence. Unmanageable costs, technical problems, and a limit to subsidies are causing offshore developers to conclude that their industry is broken. EVs that politicians have claimed as virtuous and revolutionary trend-setters represent the magical thinking of politicians who forgot to check with the majority of car buyers, who are just saying “no.”

Sooner or later, hopefully sooner, decision making policymakers will recognize the enormous difficulty of predicting a future that is decades ahead of us, as well as the difficulty of mandating new technologies. Instead, they should turn to solutions and approaches that recognize that long-term problems always have their share of surprises and unknowns. That is especially true of the climate change challenge and the technologies and policies that will prove cost-effective and sustainable. Simple actions — like coastal zoning, sea walls, continued improvements in energy efficiency, improved agricultural practices, extending the life of natural gas and nuclear power, and transferring energy technologies to developing countries — may not be exotic but they will put us on a path of genuine progress that is sustainable.  

There is a great deal of research underway on new technologies and approaches to climate change. Those should be not only strongly encouraged but more broadly supported with money now being wasted on solar, wind, heat pumps and EVs. Obstacles to their development and implementation should be removed. In addition, climate system research should focus on reducing uncertainties, validating assumptions like those about plant uptake, and improving data quality.  Small steps that are better focused and based on incremental learning will pay dividends, as will finding ways for other countries to shift from higher to lower carbon fuels.

Bill O’Keefe is a former executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute and the founder of Solutions Consulting.