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September 22nd 2014 print

Steven Kates

What if the Planet is Cooling?

The climate-change industry is prepared to accept no thesis but that of a planet warming at a dangerous, nay, catastrophic clip. But what if temperatures are about to fall, as history and the current hiatus suggest? That would be a genuine catastrophe

Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century will be Nasty, Brutish and Short
by David Archibald
Regnery, 2014, 208 pages, US$27.95

ice ageIn the climate-change debate, the essential question has been whether or not the planet is actually warming, and on that score many of us have seen little to worry about. But I have just come across a book that presents a thesis different from any I have seen before. The book is Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century will be Nasty, Brutish and Short by David Archibald. If he is even remotely right about our future, “nasty, brutish and short” will be the least of it.

What makes the book extraordinary is that, aside from one element, he endorses everything said by the green movement, based on evidence I am prepared to accept as a reasonable conjecture about the future. But if he is right, there is a changing world that we have to start preparing for now.

I thought elements of his argument on the foreign policy side were excessive, since he mixes climate change with foreign policy. Were I not as interested in his discussion on climate, I would have found it hard going, short though the book may be.

Because global-warming advocates have so dominated the debate, other possibilities, possibilities more dire than anything they have been suggested, have disappeared from view.

Start with this. Suppose the planet is not warming, but cooling. Suppose we are in the midst of a major change in climate, one not caused by human interaction with the ecosphere, but instead the result of age-old natural processes. Suppose instead of the planet heating, we are on the cusp of another minor ice age similar to the cooling that occurred during separate episodes between 1550 and 1850. Suppose this prospect is about to face us, in a world that has added something like five billion to our numbers over the last hundred years.

Further suppose, as we enter this period of cooling, that the carbon-based fuels we have been dependent on since the start of the industrial revolution begin to give out. As stocks begin to dwindle, suppose the price of such resources begins to mount so that the kind of energy self-sufficiency we have been used to disappears. Suppose all of that.

We thus have every catastrophist meme—the population bomb, resource depletion, energy shortages—even mixed in with climate change, but this time climate change of a different kind but one looking more plausible with each passing year. Suppose we did find all that, then the solution would be a more market-oriented economic base and the adoption of nuclear power, which is the one proven technology available and affordable.

And in the meantime, the potential for starvation really would be in Paul Ehrlich territory with billions of lives at risk. The combination of a much shorter growing season and less-energy-intensive agricultural techniques would be devastating.

As for global warming, it’s not that I am unwilling to accept that a greenhouse effect might have planetary effects, but I was always economist enough to know that fixing such problems by giving up on carbon-based fuels would be more costly than any war in history. To rid ourselves of carbon-based forms of energy would mean re-tooling the entire planetary system of energy generation with a much more expensive and less productive technology, slashing living standards and potentially risking not just the livelihoods of millions, but their lives as well.

The theory behind global warming, at least at the political level, is quite simple. The planet in most of its regions is kept at temperatures within a range in which life can be allowed to thrive. Part of the incredible processes involved in keeping temperatures just right is the greenhouse effect. Heat from the sun remains trapped rather than dissipating into space. Temperatures a little lower, and we would be back to an ice age; much higher, and we would find conditions too hot. Instead, we have thermostatic control provided by natural forces.

Global warming is said to be occurring because the outpouring of carbon into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels increases the greenhouse effect. The result over time, we are told, will be a rise in temperatures which will have a series of harmful effects, the most persistently stated being the melting of the ice caps with a consequent rising of sea levels. Other changes in the climate, such as the number of hurricanes and typhoons, are also listed as potential problems. But the disappearance of the ice caps has remained the most significant issue, as exemplified by the frequent references to drowning polar bears.

The questions that have therefore always asked themselves were whether such forecasts are likely, and then, if they are, whether the problems created are actually as dire as predicted.

I first came across the argument about greenhouse gases and global warming in the late 1970s through an article in the New York Review of Books. It was a very long article, as I recall, but I read it through because it was interesting, and quite novel. Such articles were being published at the time because the threat of a new ice age had just ended. Global temperatures had been falling for a while but the descent had stopped. Instead, temperatures were rising.

A well-known piece of science was grafted onto a set of data. Planetary temperatures, it was argued, were about to ascend. If steps were not taken the human race would face catastrophes of one kind or another.

And there was evidence. Global temperatures were rising. Since no one can tell this for themselves, there are various agencies and techniques that were taken on board to keep these matters under review. Meanwhile an immense amount of money was being sent in the direction of those with expertise in this area. An industry to examine, report on and provide advice on global warming sprang up with nothing else on its agenda other than to investigate whether the planet is heating and the effects such heating would have.

This industry is now centred on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who have made it their business to heighten everyone’s concern, assisted by otherwise obscure scientists, in part looking for the truth, but also not incidentally looking for government grants which have totalled in the hundreds of millions.

But then, just as the millennium came to an end, temperatures stopped rising. Indeed, the one absolutely certain fact in this debate at the present time is that even while greenhouse gases have continued to pour out into the atmosphere, temperatures are no longer going up.

But then there’s the question of just how bad would it be? Even if it were accepted that the temperature is rising—even though at the moment it is not—would the consequences be so bad? There is, on the face of it, no reason to think the problems are anything other than manageable. The one central issue raised as a potential problem is that the polar ice caps will melt and the seas will rise. Other problems have also been associated with the rise in temperatures but that is generally the one that commands attention.

Global warming is not, however, similar to finding a meteor heading towards the planet and expected to hit in six months. The time scale is long, with the end of the century being the kind of due date for whatever catastrophe might occur. And whatever changes there may be will take place at a relatively sedate pace over decades. No sudden or immediate changes are expected.

Adding to the uncertainty, there have been many dates suggested as the point of no return, that from that moment on there would be no reversing this process. These dates have regularly been posted and regularly been left behind with new dates still further into the future replacing these older dates. But the actual arrival of actual damage is always so far into the future that you cannot prove the claim to be untrue.

But also, given the time scale, human ingenuity can be harnessed to deal with whatever might be the problem. If it’s the shoreline moving inland, or weather patterns becoming more erratic, we can deal with them as we adjust. The kinds of costs of mitigation added to the time scales, in say building a series of dikes to hold back the water, as in Holland, would be cheaper than ripping up our entire energy supply network, doubling the costs of production and lowering our living standards.

It’s not even as if we have never been through such warming before. There are so many paintings of skating on the Thames, or of markets conducted on its frozen surface, that there can be no rational questioning that temperatures have been much colder in the recent past. And these periods were not moments, but lasted for centuries. These freezing temperatures, in what is described as the Little Ice Age, are recent enough to have been established with certainty. That actual ice ages have also occurred and ended, not within recorded history but within the history of human habitation of the planet, should similarly make it clear that temperatures just change for reasons of their own.

But we have lived through warmer periods as well. There were periods within the past thousand years when grapes were grown in the north of England. I recall quite distinctly being taught that Greenland was given its name by the Vikings because when they arrived in the tenth or eleventh century, Greenland actually was green.

Human beings have lived with warmer and cooler. Even if the temperature were about to rise, we would cope. Indeed, there are many reasons to believe that in such conditions we would thrive.

But we are dealing with the future—and there are no facts about the future. We humans have devised many techniques to peer into the unknown with a recognised lack of success. Because of the complexity of the world, for example, no economic model can be expected to be accurate beyond a year.

Every model of global warming has been inaccurate. No model of temperature projections has been able to forecast the present from as recently as a decade ago. Every model has projected temperatures higher than have eventuated.

This is more than just a matter of numbers. Enormous resources have been poured into attempting to predict this one variable, but every model, based on an expectation that greenhouse gases would lead to warming, has overestimated future temperatures.

And when this imprecision is combined with the attempts to falsify the record and “hide the decline” as shown by the Climategate e-mails, there is little reason to believe the planet is warming, even if the data could be trusted.

And yet, stuck in the middle of this issue is the need to recognise that this is a debate only on one side. On the other is an emotionally intense experience in which the core issue is something psychologically complex. The evidence of global warming has receded. Yet the intensity of belief continues. It is closer to being a belief system in and of itself.

Concern for the environment is universal. Reducing pollution, conservation, preservation of the land, concern for threatened species are values shared by everyone. Drilling for oil on the Great Barrier Reef would never be permitted by anyone. None of this is up for debate.

Global warming is somehow different. Compare AGW with Y2K. Before the first of January 2000 the possibility of various computer-based problems as we passed from a year beginning with “19” to a year beginning with “20” was a conjecture worth considering. By January 2 it was an historic moment that had passed without incident. No one worries about Y3K or the embedded problems of old computer programs. But whether one took the potential problem seriously or not, it was a technical question. With global warming it is something much deeper.

If temperatures had continued to rise after 1999 the concerns about global warming would have intensified. Action would almost certainly have been taken. But since the evidence has all but disappeared, so too has much of the concern. And yet, even then, for a proportion of the population the desire that this conjecture be true will not fade. Doing something about climate change remains a major factor in politics. It is almost certain political death for someone seeking public office to express scepticism about global warming. Yet the politics of climate change are driven by what, for the most part, has the look of a concern with a phantom problem.

Which brings me back to David Archibald’s Twilight of Abundance. This is a volume on ecological disaster of a different sort, but one I find not only plausible but more worthy of concern than AGW, even if I thought global warming was occurring. It is a projection worth examining in part because it might actually represent a possible human future, but also because of the opportunity it gives to widen public debate about the future. It is a mix of climate change catastrophism, resource depletion, food shortages and environmental concerns so potent that it makes concerns over global warming seem a potential minor irritant.

Let me emphasise that no one can know if anything in this book represents a future we will ever have to endure. Even for arguments I am in sympathy with, there are no facts about the future. Soothsayers are abundant in every direction and on all sides.

I should also caution that the book brings together a wide range of issues well outside the issues of climate, with a particular emphasis on foreign policy. I am not entirely sure how any of that ended up in the book, and I do not accept many of the arguments Archibald raises. But a book is an agenda. Bits that are clear in one’s own mind as part of the story do not necessarily seem all that relevant to others.

And I will add one further warning about the book. For no reason I can think of, each of the chapters is headed by a quote from the Book of Revelation. There is no evidence in the text that Archibald is writing from a Christian perspective, so these headings appear to me a needless distraction.

At the core of the book is the possibility of global cooling. No one who has paid even cursory attention to the weather (which we are constantly reminded is not climate) knows that if temperatures have been moving over recent years, they have been moving downwards. Official data show not much change, but the lower temperatures in the United States and Europe have been striking. We still hear about threats to polar bears even though their numbers are surging, but how many people were aware that Lake Superior still had pack ice at the start of June?

The alternative theory to greenhouse gases is climate change driven by solar activity. I was aware of correlations of temperatures with sunspot activity but that’s not the relationship pointed to here. It’s not the number of sunspots that matters but the length of the cycle.

Although there is a correlation between solar cycle amplitude and the Earth’s average temperature over the cycle, in 1991 Danish researchers Eigil Friis-Christensen and Knud Lassen demonstrated that global temperature is better correlated with the length of the previous solar cycle than with the amplitude of the coincident cycle. The longer the cycle, the cooler Earth’s temperature during the next solar cycle.

Archibald notes that there is no consensus on why this correlation exists, although it may be related to the sun’s ultraviolet output. But correlation there apparently is:

In 1996, two researchers at the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, C.J. Butler and D.J. Johnson, applied that theory to the two-hundred-year temperature record of the observatory and produced a graph showing a very strong correlation. A climate-prediction tool was born—the most accurate we have available to us.

Here is a means to forecast temperatures that has had success with past data. The question therefore is: What do the data predict based on this past correlation?

The magnitude of that cooling will take temperatures back to the levels of the coldest part of the Little Ice Age in the seventeenth century … and could continue until late in the twenty-first century.

More specifically, these are actual temperature forecasts based on the theory:

Projecting into the future, the European locations mentioned have a 1.5ºC decline in prospect on average over Solar Cycle 24. And the US locations can expect even steeper drops in temperature, with an average fall of about 2.1ºC.

Aside from the future direction of global temperatures, every other part of Archibald’s story parallels arguments regularly addressed by the environmental movement. At its core is the potential for the planet to run out of cheap sources of energy over the next half-century or so. A tightening of supply will cause sharp increases in the price of energy and put an end to its current widespread use.

Is this true? We seem to be finding new energy sources at every turn and new techniques for extracting known deposits from existing sources. Yet our resources may prove to be finite after all and sooner than we think. This happens to be Archibald’s area of expertise, as he teaches a course in strategic energy policy in Washington. What does he say?

The logistic decline plot of world oil production shows that the year of peak output arrived in 2005. The oil market began tightening slightly earlier, in June 2004. The oil price today is three times what it was in that year, but oil output has not increased in response to that price signal. The reason it has not is because it cannot. Almost all of the world’s oilfields are producing as fast as their owners can make them. There is only a little spare capacity on the planet. Global production of conventional oil has been flat since 2005. The logistic decline plot tells us that the world’s supply of conventional oil will fall away soon, and rapidly.

An economist can point out that the price mechanism will signal that some resource is running out which will encourage its more economical use. What it cannot do is say much about future supply in a dozen years or so.

Suppose carbon-based fuels are dwindling. Suppose shortages will begin to affect our ability to produce. Since every form of renewable energy can become economical only where there is a fantastically higher price per kilowatt hour, imagine what kind of a world we would be in if wind technologies actually were competitive.

The combination of a warmer planet with increased atmospheric carbon is an actual positive for food production. Carbon dioxide is plant food. With planetary temperatures on an upwards trajectory since the end of the eighteenth century, food production has continued to grow. With the green revolution to stimulate the growing of grains, mass starvation has disappeared other than in times of war.

Archibald, however, brings it back. In a time of global cooling, feeding a world with seven billion people and rising—up from the two or three billion or so only half a century ago—becomes a problem. Population numbers have increased with the rise in production, food production in particular. What then happens in a world of global cooling when the growing season contracts and food production falls?

I think our ability to deal with such problems is greater than Archibald allows, but what do I (or you) know? Unlikely is not a synonym for impossible. This is about an IPCC report published just this year:

In particular, the report cites the effects increased temperatures and heat waves have on essential food crops—in most cases lowering productivity—and warns of food availability and price swings that could lead to civil unrest in countries that are already having problems meeting the basic needs of their citizens. Climate change has already begun to hold back wheat and maize yields, the report found.

If anything is exaggerated it is that global warming is already cutting into food supplies. With temperatures not having risen on a global scale, we have not experienced a problem, yet food production is already slowing. Substitute as Archibald does a diminishing supply of energy, and see what you get then, which may fully account for the IPCC observations:

Wheat and corn prices had been in decline since the Second World War and bottomed in about 2000. They have since rebounded because of higher fuel and fertilizer costs, reversing the sixty-year price decline. Oil at $200 per barrel will take grain prices 50 percent higher than they are now.

That’s just the effect of energy supply. Then add in falling temperatures. This is an example from Europe, admittedly in a less high-tech era:

The last decade of the seventeenth century was very cold across northern Europe because of a collapse in solar activity. Crop failures killed 10 per cent of the French population, 20 per cent of the Swedes, and 30 per cent of the population of Finland.

Many Third World countries now import around half the calories they need just to survive. Their populations are well above the self-sustaining carrying capacity of these nations. Shorten the growing season in a world of higher energy costs (which means a diminished availability of energy) and the problem becomes potentially intractable.

What is striking about Archibald’s book is its emotional distance. Whatever deficiencies the alarmists of the past might have had, they were not writing technical studies about mega-deaths in such clinical ways. The disconnect between what he describes as a possible future for humankind and any sign of concern over such a possibility gives the book an eerie emptiness. I think he has described an all-too-possible future looking a few decades ahead: a world in which fossil fuels are near exhaustion, the growing season has been reduced, food production can no longer keep up with human populations, and mass starvation is common across the planet. It is a scenario that is at least as likely as the futures pictured by those who see a heating planet devastated by rising seas and cataclysmic weather patterns.

Never going to happen, you say? So give it a probability statement. Five per cent? Ten per cent? Suppose there is a one in ten chance that something like a billion people may have their lives cut short as a result of food shortages within the lifetime of most people alive today. If you thought this were possible, wouldn’t you want to see that it never happened? Paul Ehrlich thought it was true but he thought it would happen forty years ago. The sentence that sold his 1968 book also almost immediately discredited its very premise because of the date he chose:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Switch the date to the 2030s and you have Archibald’s thesis in a world in which populations have nearly doubled since the 1960s.

I am old enough to remember every scare from Silent Spring and the threat of DDT, through population growth and mass starvation, to oil depletion along with the rising scarcity of productive resources, and now global warming. None have come to pass. The main reason global warming has not gone the way of the others is that the effects of whatever might happen are cast into a relatively distant future.

What then about global cooling mixed in with energy depletion and food shortages? This is a story more plausible and equally scientifically based as global warming. Does it matter, will anyone care?

With global warming there is someone to blame. It is the anti-market agenda dressed in one of its many disguises. Whatever may be the actual scientific basis for global warming, what keeps it alive is the support it gives to a wider belief system. There is little wonder that what is supposed to be an evidence-based perspective based purely on science has a very clear Left-Right divide. It is just one element in the range of issues pursued by those on the Left. That Obama intends to bring further ruin to the American economy through additional limits to carbon-based energy surprises no one, since that is what his constituency expects.

With global cooling, you have an outcome determined by natural forces with no one to blame, least of all the market economy. If anything, as Archibald shows, to deal with global cooling—and I might add to deal with global warming as well—a market-based system, underpinned by a determined protection of property rights, would be the best strategic approach. And irrespective of whether the aim is to prevent the planet from warming because of greenhouse gases, or to deal with a cooling environment combined with a shrinking supply of carbon-based fuels, a turn to nuclear energy would be an important part of the answer, if it is practical solutions we are looking for.

The technology proposed by Archibald, thorium molten-salt reactors, is an answer about which I have no judgments to make. But as safe as this technology is said to be, and even given the work being undertaken in China, the certainty is that the same people who fight tooth and nail about the need to rid ourselves of carbon-based forms of energy would fight tooth and nail against the introduction of thorium reactors as well.

Global warming has from the beginning been about politics. How long it will take for a change in the political consensus if it turns out the planet is cooling rather than heating is hard to say. But unless this fall in temperatures can be attached to some anti-market agenda, it is difficult to imagine it happening soon, no matter what is actually happening to the climate. Efforts to reduce global warming are what they have always been, a vehicle and not a destination. The planet might well be cooling, but who is ever going to care even if it is?

Dr Steven Kates is Associate Professor of Economics at RMIT University in Melbourne.