Global Warming 101

In Steven Pinker’s brilliant new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he demonstrates that peace has actually increased over the course of human history, even over the past few centuries, and particularly the last few decades. In this excerpt, Pinker discusses the myth that resource scarcity increases violent conflict, and that climate change could contribute to more war, terrorism, and violence.

A 2007 New York Times op-ed warned, “Climate stress may well represent a challenge to international security just as dangerous–and more intractable–than the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or the proliferation of nuclear weapons among rogue states today.” That same year Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their call to action against global warming because, according to the citation, climate change is a threat to international security. A rising fear lifts all the boats. Calling global warming “a force multiplier for instability,” a group of military officers wrote that “climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.”

Once again it seems to me that the appropriate response is “maybe, but maybe not.” Though climate change can cause plenty of misery… it will not necessarily lead to armed conflict. The political scientists who track war and peace, such as Halvard Buhaug, Idean Salehyan, Ole Theisen, and Nils Gleditsch, are skeptical of the popular idea that people fight wars over scarce resources. Hunger and resource shortages are tragically common in sub-Saharan countries such as Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania, but wars involving them are not. Hurricanes, floods, droughts, and tsunamis (such as the disastrous one in the Indian Ocean in 2004) do not generally lead to conflict. The American dust bowl in the 1930s, to take another example, caused plenty of deprivation but no civil war. And while temperatures have been rising steadily in Africa during the past fifteen years, civil wars and war deaths have been falling.

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Global warming may or may not be a problem.  Man may or may not be driving it.  Given the uncertainties, a significant amount of global regret may apply if we divert too much of our global wealth to solving what may be a non-existent or trivial problem, especially if that diversion mires billions in poverty.  On the other hand, we may also regret not doing anything if man-made global warming does turn out to be a problem.  It is therefore prudent to examine what steps we can take that would prove beneficial whether or not anthropogenic global warming turns out to be a problem.  These steps can be termed “no regrets” policies.

What makes a No Regrets Global Warming Policy?  A global warming policy can be termed “no regrets” as long as it:

  • Reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, or
  • Mitigates, prevents or reduces a harm associated with global warming, or
  • Provides greater capacity for dealing with problems associated with global warming
  • Without imposing significant cost or diverting economic activity.

Top Five “No Regrets” Policies

1.)  Eliminate all subsidies to fuel use.
Subsidies to energy R&D cost taxpayers millions of dollars while producing minimal benefits. While these programs may be relatively small given the size of domestic energy markets, they serve little, if any, useful purpose while subsidizing large corporations at taxpayer expense. The potential threat of global warming, whether it is real or not, is simply one more reason to eliminate these subsidy programs. An international agreement aimed at ending energy subsidy with binding targets would be a significant victory for emissions reduction.  Unlike Kyoto, which forces an energy starvation diet on its participants, such a treaty would be a move to combat energy obesity.

2.)  Repeal the Federal Flood Insurance Program.
Much of the concern over global warming’s potential for harm in the US relates to sea level rise and the flooding that will result.  However, much of the investment in potentially vulnerable areas is a result of the Federal flood Insurance Program.  This program encourages building in vulnerable areas by acting as a moral hazard: people take greater risks because the government has said it will help bear that risk. Reform would reduce the moral hazard connected with building on vulnerable land, transferring the risk from the taxpayer to the private sector, which is likely to take a more realistic view of the issue.

3.)  Reform Air Traffic Control Systems.
Greater demand for air travel means more flights, which means greater fuel use and increased emissions. Yet, the current government-operated system of air traffic control, based on a 1920s-era system of beacons, may hinder innovations that could reduce fuel use and emissions. As a general rule, the shorter the flight, the less fuel will be consumed. Yet neither airlines nor pilots have the freedom to choose the most direct and economical route. Giving pilots freedom to map their own course is an attractive and desirable change in the eyes of the industry, and the impact on the environment would be tremendous. As well as saving considerable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, the policy will deliver significant benefits in terms of time and expense to the US economy.  By obviating significant reductions in service levels associated with more routine applications of emissions reduction policy, it is to be preferred to that approach.

4.)  Facilitate Electricity Competition.
By rejecting the model of central regulation and allowing suppliers to meet their customers’ needs more exactly while relying on distributed generation, energy waste and the associated emissions will reduce considerably.  This reduction in waste will prove economically beneficial even if emissions themselves do not cause problems.

5.) Reduce Regulatory Barriers to New Nuclear Build.
There is no other technology than nuclear that is proven to be capable of providing emissions-free energy at the scale required to make significant reductions in carbon emissions.  The problem is that thanks to anti-nuclear activism by environmentalists in the 1970s, it takes a very long time to build a nuclear plant.  This pushes development and construction costs up to the level where it is not economically competitive with higher-emitting forms of electricity generation like coal and natural gas.  According to the nuclear energy institute, it takes 10 years from concept to operation to build a nuclear plant, and only four of those are construction, the rest is permit application development (2 years) and decision-making by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (4 years).

Energy Needs v. Global Warming Goals

Leading climate alarmists claim that global greenhouse gas emissions need to decrease to 60 percent below present levels by 2050 if humans are to avoid catastrophic climate change. But such a drastic emissions reduction is at odds with the world’s energy needs. Economists predict that an 80 percent increase in global energy demand will cause global greenhouse gas emissions to grow by 70 percent by mid-century.

CO2 Emissions by Region

CO2 Emissions by Region

Almost all the increase in energy demand and emissions will come from developing countries, where a quarter of the global population lacks any access to electricity. Indeed, almost half of the world’s people have to rely on traditional biomass, agricultural residues, and dung for cooking and heating. These countries will require tremendous amounts of energy if they are to grow their economies and escape poverty.

Given the reality of increasing energy demand in the developing world, the only way to reduce emissions is de-carbonize energy production. Yet fossil fuels account for 85 percent of the world’s primary energy for a very simple reason: They are the world’s least expensive source of energy. Therefore, a carbon-free energy future is an expensive energy future.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, annual global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by 30.3 gigatons a year by 2050 to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2050. To get an idea of the costs of de-carbonizing energy production, consider the chart below, which depicts actions that would “save” 1 gigaton of CO2-equivalent per year:

Actions that Provide One Gigaton CO2 per Year of Mitigation or Offsets

Actions that Provide One Gigaton CO2 per Year of Mitigation or Offsets

Someone would have to pay for all those new nuclear power plants and wind turbines. The International Energy Agency estimates that halving global emissions by 2050 would cost $45 trillion. That is $45 trillion above the cost of fossil fuel energy that would not be spent to create wealth. That would take a big bite out of global prosperity. Much is said about the so-called “consensus” on climate science, but the economic consensus is that reducing emissions reduces economic growth.

Making energy more expensive would be catastrophic for the developing world, for which access to affordable energy is a precondition for economic growth, the most important driver of human well-being. Costly emissions reductions policies would rob the world’s poorest people of opportunities to escape poverty.

Alarmists claim that rising temperatures threaten human welfare—but reducing emissions from energy production also threatens human welfare, especially in the developing world, since doing so limits economic growth. So what is worse, the warming or the policy?

The question we have to ask is, “What’s Worse? Climate change or climate policy?”

In a Cato Institute study, Indur Goklany suggests that climate change is unlikely to be the world’s most important environmental problem during the 21st century, because a richer but warmer world is better for human welfare than a colder but poorer world would be.

The Cost of Global Warming

The Cost of Global Warming

In his book Cool It, Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg applies a cost/benefit analysis to climate change mitigation measures like the Kyoto Protocol, and finds that they are a tragic waste of money. According to his research, we could spend a fraction of the cost of climate policies on immediate problems, like HIV or malaria, and save millions more lives than global warming would take.

Dr. William Nordhaus of Yale University estimates that 3°C of global warming would cost the world $22 trillion this century. Al Gore’s package of measures, which calls on the U.S. to “join an international treaty within the next two years that cuts global warming pollution by 90 percent in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy Earth,” would reduce warming costs to $10 trillion, at a cost of $34 trillion.

Climate change might harm human welfare, but so would climate change policy. Policy makers should assess and weigh both sets of risks before deciding on a course of action.

A “planetary emergency—a crisis that threatens the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth”—that is how former Vice President Al Gore describes global warming. Most environmental groups preach the same message. So do many journalists. So do some scientists.

In fact, at the 2008 annual meeting of Nobel Prize winners in Lindau, Germany, half the laureates on the climate change panel disputed the so-called consensus on global warming.


The Greenhouse Effect

You have probably heard the dire warnings many times. Carbon dioxide (CO2) from mankind’s use of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas is building up in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas—it traps heat that would otherwise escape into outer space. Al Gore warns that global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions could increase sea levels by 20 feet, spin up deadly hurricanes. It could even plunge Europe into an ice age.

Science does not support these and other scary predictions, which Gore and his allies repeatedly tout as a “scientific consensus.” Global warming is real and carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to it, but it is not a crisis. Global warming in the 21 st century is likely to be modest, and the net impacts may well be beneficial in some places. Even in the worst case, humanity will be much better off in 2100 than it is today.

The following is a summary of key points:

  • Average Annual Heat-Related Mortality: People will not drop like flies from heat waves in a warming world. Heat-related mortality will continue to decline as the world warms.


    Average Annual Heat-Related Mortality

  • Far more people die each year from excess cold than from excess heat.
  • Global warming will not make air pollution worse.
  • Global warming will not lead to malaria epidemics in Northern Hemisphere countries.
  • Contrary to Gore, no “strong, new scientific consensus is emerging” that global warming is making hurricanes stronger.
  • Global Death & Death Rates Due to Extreme Events, 1900-2004: Since the 1920s, death rates related to extreme weather declined by more than 98 percent globally. The impression conveyed by An Inconvenient Truth—that global warming is making the world a more dangerous place—is false.


    Global Death & Death Rates Due to Extreme Events, 1900-2004

  • Gore’s warning that global warming could shut down the Atlantic branch of the oceanic thermohaline circulation (THC) and plunge Europe into an ice age is science fiction.
  • Gore’s warning that sea levels could rise by 20 feet is science fiction. Sea level rise in the 21 st century is likely to be measured in inches, not in feet.
  • The world warmed at a rate of 0.17°C per decade since 1978, according to the temperature record compiled by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since most climate models predict that warming will occur at a constant—that is, non-accelerating—rate, it is reasonable to expect that global warming in the 21 st century will be close to the low end of the IPCC’s forecast range, of 1.4°C to 5.8°C.
  • Temperature Measuring Station on Aspault Parking Lot: The actual warming rate may be only half the 0.17°C per decade rate implied in the IPCC temperature record, because the IPCC has not adequately filtered out the warming biases from local factors like urbanization and improper management of monitoring equipment.


    Temperature Measuring Station on Aspault Parking Lot

  • A warming near the low end of the IPCC range would produce both benefits—longer growing seasons, more rainfall, fewer cold deaths—and harms—more heat waves, more drought, some acceleration of sea level rise—but nothing resembling catastrophe.
  • Even in the IPCC high-end warming forecasts, human welfare would improve dramatically over the next 100 years. In the IPCC fossil-fuel-intensive development scenario, per capita GDP in developing countries increases from $875 per year in 1990 to $43,000 per year in 2100—even after taking into account an additional 110 years of global warming. Even in the IPCC worst-case scenario, global warming is not the civilization-ending catastrophe Al Gore purports it to be.