A Nuanced View On Climate Skepticism

Over the past few decades, discourse on climate change has pervaded political and scientific spheres. It, generally speaking, has split commentators into two camps. On one hand are the “believers,” generally portrayed in the media as the intellectual elite. On the other hand are the “deniers,” generally envisioned as scientifically illiterate. Many Americans fall in the latter category.

A major review of the academic literature published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in October 2014 noted:

“Two decades of polling suggest that about two-thirds of U.S. residents believe that climate change is occurring; of these about two-thirds (or about 40 percent of the total) believe humans cause it. About half (or about 1 in 3 overall) believe it will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes.”

The current discussion centers on the global ramifications of climate change. JAMA’s conclusions paint a bleak picture for the future of the world. Diseases exacerbated by air pollution such as waterborne disorders and asthma will be increasingly common. The frequency of mega heat waves will rise by a factor of five to ten over the next 40 years. Climate change will drive down food production worldwide by two percent per decade, the effect of which is especially acute considering that the global demand for food will rise by 14 percent per decade. And the list goes on.

Climate skepticism generally comes in three flavors.

The first flavor denies that the Earth’s climate is changing at all. This view ignores the fact that each of the last three decades has been the warmest since 1850. It does not mention that the Arctic has lost half of its average summer thickness since 1950 (Overheated: the Human Costs of Climate Change), despite an anomalous short-term reversal in that trend due to a slightly colder winter. In its latest report, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a collection of climate experts organized by the United Nations (UN), called the evidence supporting climate change “unequivocal.”

The second flavor argues that the Earth is warming; humans are not the cause. This view neglects the fact that changes in temperature over the past 400,000 years map almost perfectly to changes in atmospheric CO2 levels.

Temperature change (blue) and carbon dioxide change (red) observed in ice core records National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/globalwarming/temperature-change.html
Temperature change (blue) and carbon dioxide change (red) observed in ice core records
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/globalwarming/temperature-change.html

Moreover, carbon emissions have skyrocketed since the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide and methane have reached levels unseen on Earth in the last 800,000 years, according to the IPCC.

The near consensus among climate scientists, 97 percent of whom believe that humans drive the rapidly warming climate, speaks volumes about the mountain of evidence in support of human-inflicted climate change.

The third flavor of climate skepticism concedes that the Earth is warming and that human action certainly contributes to it but rejects the most common and direct prescription — reducing carbon emissions. Professor Bjørn Lomborg of the University of Copenhagen argues most prominently and persuasively from this perspective. While the other avenues of climate skepticism lack any support in evidence, Lomborg’s analysis has some merit that is mostly ignored. The latest analysis published by his think-tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC), gathered some of the best contemporary thinkers, including World Bank economists, professors and researchers including Nobel Laureates Finn E. Kydland and Thomas Schelling. Members of this think-tank argue over the most rigorous and comprehensive analyses in academic literature that evaluate solutions to global issues.

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/page4.php
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/page4.php

They debate their own academic works and those of others to decide which solutions best represent the effectiveness of global initiatives. Hundreds of experts have participated in this discourse, including economics Professor Anthony Venables of the University of Oxford, international nutrition Professor Reynaldo Martorell of Emory and seven Nobel Laureates. The goal is to answer a single question: How can the world best spend its money to achieve the greatest possible outcomes?

Therein lies the central tenet of the third flavor of climate skepticism. The implementation of carbon reducing policies, such as modernized filtration in factories and effective monitoring of corporate emissions, places immense costs on governments and pulls money away from better causes.

For example, reducing emissions enough to achieve an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm), which is necessary to keep the increase in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution below two degrees Celsius (35.6° F), would produce less than one dollar of social good for every dollar spent.

By contrast, increasing preschool enrollment in Sub-Saharan Africa from the current 18 percent to 59 percent would create $33 of social good for each dollar spent. Increasing agricultural research and development by 160 percent would create $34 of social good for each dollar spent. Ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and meeting needs for contraception would generate $120 of social good for each dollar by 2030.

Why is prioritization important? Simply put, global development funds are limited, while the necessities for funds are unlimited. While the UN creates its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to guide the international agenda for the next 15 years, it should realize that adding too many goals would dilute the investment into each one. The previous set of international goals had eight goals and 18 verifiable targets; the agenda up for negotiation has 17 goals and 169 targets. The world cannot do it all. The global share of developmental assistance as a percentage of gross national income stands at less than half of what the developed world has pledged. As President Obama and other world leaders focus on the global impacts of climate change and as the UN enumerates the goals that dominate the worldwide agenda for the next 15 years, hard choices must be made on how to allocate a limited pool of funds to accomplish the most good.

Again, in a perfect world, the international community would do it all, from reducing emissions to providing universal contraception. But in today’s world, the international community does neither because it has not focused on specific tasks as it needs to. Prioritization of global funds, despite being a messy and unpopular task, is a necessary one in order to do the most good for the world.

Professor Lomborg has long argued that the world should place climate change at the bottom of its priority list. His book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, drew backlash from many thinkers and scientists when it was published in 2001. His later book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, drew similar criticism for appearing to be very similar to other climate skepticism arguments. The first report made public by the CCC included the following chart of which initiatives to prioritize, with climate change literally at the bottom of the list.

chart3

Thinking about climate change in a vacuum is simple. Given a choice between reducing emissions and doing nothing, the former is a superior one. However, a choice between reducing emissions and helping women in the developing world receive contraceptives in not nearly as clear-cut.

Climate change has been, is and will continue reshaping the world, but the argumentative burden on action needs to be higher. Rather than prioritizing the biggest problems, the world should prioritize the best solutions. This kind of argumentation certainly differs from the rationales of climate skeptics in American politics and should play a greater role in today’s discourse.

While the CCC’s analysis of social good is open to criticism, it represents a significant departure from previous literature by directly comparing development initiatives and recognizing that some are better than others. If another analysis finds reducing carbon emissions a more worthy initiative than any other using a superior methodology, then a much higher level of debate than that which occurs today would be necessary.

To date, no such competing analysis has been published. An in depth discussion of the CCC’s methodology is welcome, but this type of analysis needs to be at the center of today’s debate, rather than being an idealized mantra that neglects real world trade offs. In 2004, The Economist applauded Lomborg’s efforts in pioneering necessary cost-benefit analysis of many initiatives, arguing that he be “congratulated for his intellectual entrepreneurship.”

If the international community had unlimited funds, resources and political will to improve the world, it would take every action that would provide any benefit. Reducing carbon emissions is one of those actions. The evidence in support of it is overwhelming.

But in the world we live in, all policies have trade-offs. The CCC advocated that the UN and other development agencies invest their efforts in 19 goals, including halving malaria infections, increasing girls’ education by two years and increasing immunization by 25 percent. Reducing emissions was not one of them. In pursuing these 19, rather than any other goal, “each dollar of development spending would do four times more good.” If the world can effectively double or quadruple its development budget to maximize its effect throughout the world, it has an obligation to do so. Even if that plan for optimization skips reducing emissions, it is still a valid plan worthy of debate.

While Lomborg denounces carbon reduction policies similar to those endorsed by the Kyoto Protocol, he notes some actions that would mitigate the effects of climate change in a cost effective way. For example, eliminating energy subsidies in the developing world, which waste $550 billion annually, would be a step in the right direction.

The prioritization of climate policies based on realism and cost effectiveness should play a prominent role in the agreements of the Paris Climate Conference taking place in late November and early December. Yet, if past conferences are any indication, this will not be the case. Only smarter goals can guide the world to a greener and more prosperous future.

Varoon Pazhyanur is a College freshman from Eagan, Minnesota.

9 comments

  1. Avatar
    mikehaseler 4 years ago

    Most sceptics have a degree in science or engineering and around 50% have some form of post graduate qualification. That means most sceptics are fully qualified to talk about the issues of energy and climate physics.

    In contrast, I checked the credentials of the environmental journalists who constantly tell us sceptics that we don’t know anything about climate – and 90% had no science qualification at all.

    And according to a study in Australia, sceptics tend to base their views on the data – whereas global warming believers (used to) base their views on what they were told the data showed. And after more than 10 years as a sceptic, I see that everyday. Sceptics will argue from the data, whereas climate extremists just keep telling us that “everyone important” (i.e. the environmental journalists with no science degree) believes in global warming.

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      freerovingbovine 4 years ago

      Mike, Are you one of those post graduate engineers or scientist skeptic? Which kind? #1, #2, or #3? I am closest to #3 above as Varoon has outlined. Since the early 19th century we’ve known that work eventually devolves into heat, and that burning and blowing stuff up puts out a lot of work and therefore heat, but we only cared when the temperature difference got so low the work stopped. Then we were forced to build radiators, like the one on your car, to keep the machine running. If you view the earth as a machine, infrared radiation is our natural radiator. Yes we need to first stop burning and blowing stuff (like nuclear and fossil fuel) up and use more radiation from the sun to run things. But mainly we need to improve the earth’s natural radiator by heating certain areas to very high temperatures since radiation goes up by the 4th power. Every square meter we can raise 225C will lower the temperature of 10 square meters 1 degree Centigrade. In low humidity regions this ratio could go up. So, maybe our cars will have roof-top radiators that actually radiate rather than move the heat to the air and eventually melt ice at the poles. Maybe cities will compress CO2 to heat up vast areas of desert areas to cool itself and run energy dependent businesses as a utility. The point is there are other methods besides removing CO2, which is not very feasible or effective. Further we better do something fast since 40% of the arctic ice thickness is already gone.

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        mikehaseler 4 years ago

        I am a sceptic or as they used to be called “scientists” – that is people who base their views on what the evidence tells us and not some idiotic pathetic “consensus” or worse people who’ve no idea what they are talking about who are complete failures as academics preaching to the rest of us about what we MUST believe.

        And the simple fact is that the only non-human adjusted and global temperature shows no warming for 18 years.

        And not only that, but every single bit of change whether cooling or warming within the 20th century was always and is always within the limits of natural variation.

        And even though a rise of CO2 should cause a small amount of warming, that may just be detectable this century BUT CERTAINLY CANNOT BE DETECTED YET IN THE TEMPERATURE, the interglacials show a very stubborn reluctance to increase showing that the climate is very stable for warming influences so it is almost certain that we will not see any substantial rise in temperatures.

        And to be frank, all this is already in the public domain and those pushing this climate crap are either incompetent fools or are those with their snouts so deep in the public money that they don’t want to see the truth.

        So which are you? Gullible or in it for the money?

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          freerovingbovine 4 years ago

          Mike, in spite of the rhetoric you appear to be a skeptic with the capacity to change strongly held beliefs on the force of a clear, relevant and acceptable argument. If so, perhaps you could open your mind to some important information I’d like to share. I teach college engineering, worked in both petroleum and defense industries, wrote patents in information processing algorithms and presented several studies to peer reviewed audiences; earned a doctorate in engineering and a masters in geophysics, I could be wrong and am just seeking a solution rather than trying to pick a fight so take the following as my most recent observations. Most of the CO2 emissions occur in the Northern hemisphere, and generally stays in the northern hemisphere. Between 2003 and 2011 4.3 trillion tons of ice has melted in the arctic and last summer measured the least extent of summer ice ever recorded. I use http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/ as a current review of published arctic data. While ice remains in a beaker on a hot plate the water temperature does not rise. The heat from the stove goes into what is called latent energy. Once the ice is melted, the temperature rises quickly till again at boiling the temperature again stays constant until all the water is gone. Latent energy, is why I believe your temperature observations are not particularly relevant. IMHO, if energy users would practice proper radiation management we might not need to raise the ambient temperature 15-20 degrees and kill off most of humanity. Like reducing the number of traffic deaths , cigarette deaths, and lead related illnesses- it will take regulation, enforcement and engineering since like you’ve proved, education is pretty much a waste of time.

          1. Avatar
            mikehaseler 4 years ago

            The global sea ice level is back to its normal.

            Moreover there are plenty of accounts of it melting after the little ice-age.

            Moreover, the little ice-age is well within the normal variation of the climate, and if you wanted to have seen pronounced global warming, the time to have looked would have been from the 1690s to the 1730s when we saw more warming than was present in the late 20th century (1970-2000).

            And even within the 20th century the post global cooling warming of 0.48C in 30 years happens to be exactly the same as the 1910 to 1940 warming (before CO2 was measured rising).

            There are no trends in extreme weather – except a REDUCTION IN hurricane activity. There are no increases in floods, droughts, snow, etc. Sea level which has been rising since the little ice-age, has continued to rise at the same rate with no acceleration as predicted by the global warming racketeers.

            In short, there is not the slightest piece of evidence that stands up to scrutiny supporting the utter claptrap and blatant profiteering of the global warming scammers.

          2. Avatar
            freerovingbovine 4 years ago

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_Warm_Period
            Sorry Mike, you’ve been misled. Someone is feeding you bull-shit. Don’t eat it.

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    freerovingbovine 4 years ago

    Nicely written, Varoon, I wish someone in my freshman engineering class could have put together such a piece. I also think that public funding of climate remedies is not feasible. It would cause higher taxes which would cause greater non-compliance. There is just so much the taxpayer can do under current economic theory of money. Since Hobbes’ Leviathan taxpayers have had a contract to fund certain government functions: 1) care for their own citizens who can’t care for themselves, 2) provide jobs for their own citizens and 3) provide their own citizens law and order. Contributions to foreign governments (many who cannot or will not to tax their own citizens) only if those funds help in the providing for their own citizens. It’s hard for people who live in poor countries to understand, but “rich” countries like the US abide by the moral principle of enlightened self interest, and utilitarianism as it applies to their own citizens, not others. There are other ways of balancing the books on climate though; A proposal offered by Former Sec. of State George Shultz and others in an organization called Citizens Climate Lobby would charge a carbon fee at the well, mine or at port of entry and pass 100% of those fees to citizens in monthly checks to citizens to cover the added cost, avoiding the tax system all together. Countries that implemented this strategy would be paying their citizens to not use carbon dioxide generating products. But there are other problems with CO2 reduction which I’ll discuss in another post.

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    William_Teach 4 years ago

    If you’re mentioning the utterly debunked 97% consensus meme, you’ve already lost the debate. Consensus is not science, for one thing. For a second, that Cook et all paper is a load of mule fritters.

    Yet again I’ll ask, if this is such a crisis, if “carbon emission” are so dangerous, why do so few who tell us it’s a crisis act like it’s a crisis and change their own lives? Why aren’t Warmists giving up their own use of fossil fuels and going carbon neutral? Why are all their policy prescriptions about making Someone Else pay the price for the Warmist’s beliefs?

    Will Varoon explain how he has made his own life carbon neutral?

  4. Avatar
    Cris Cassity 4 years ago

    Exactly. When I see the old 97% deployed it’s time to change the channel.75 scientists. 97%.

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