In 1841 Charles Mackay published his notable work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which included discussion of three economic bubbles: the South Sea Company bubble of 1711; the Mississippi Company bubble of 1719-20; and the Dutch tulip mania in which some tulip bulb varieties became the most expensive objects in the world in 1637.
Should we think that bubbles are a vestige of the distant past, when communications were poor and critical scrutiny less well-embedded in our institutions of inquiry, we need only look to the Global Financial Crisis, triggered by an enthusiasm for mortgage-backed derivatives that soared to dizzy heights before crashing to earth.
Steven Koonin’s recent book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters suggests that we are in the midst of another popular delusion: catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. And the financial sector has joined this enthusiasm with gusto.
I have long been sceptical of the worst reports of climate change. I once simply accepted the received wisdom that we were all going to hell in a fossil-fuel-assisted handcart. I concluded a book on the politics of electricity planning in 1996 by pondering what kinds of institutions might be needed to respond to the threat of climate change.
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I became more sceptical with time. I began to see some problems in the way climate science was constructed and defended on the basis of fallacious arguments like argumentum ad populum (“97 per cent of scientists agree”), argumentum ad verecundiam (arguing from authority: “the IPCC holds that”), argumentum ad hominem (likening anyone who raised a questioning voice to Holocaust deniers) and the genetic fallacy (finding some link to a “denier” organisation or fossil-fuel producer). Throw in endless false dichotomising: one either considered there was dangerous warming in store or one was a denier.
The fact that the public narrative of climate change relied so heavily on fallacious arguments began to ring alarm bells. As an Expert Reviewer for the Fourth Assessment Report for Working Group II of the IPCC, I was struck by the fact that the chapter I was reviewing—supposedly a risk assessment—failed to weigh any positive impacts of climate change. In my comments, I remarked that it seemed that while a warmer world was going to be a wetter world, none of the additional rainfall was going to fall in such a way as to be useful: no extending agriculture to land in milder climes with better rainfall; none in the catchments of water storages (as Tim Flannery would have had us believe as he encouraged the construction of several billion dollars’ worth of largely unused desalination plants).
Koonin’s book exposes why the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming pudding—now variously an “existential threat” or a “climate emergency”—is wildly over-egged. It is not supported by the underlying science. As Koonin demonstrates in detail, we have known in the past climate change equal to anything seen in the contemporary era, and human influences on climate—while still a cause for modest concern—are dwarfed by those of nature.
Unlike most hedge-fund operators and government officials, elected and unelected, Koonin has sufficient scientific expertise to read the scientific papers critically. He shows in detail where the public discourse is wrong and not even supported on many points by the conclusions of the IPCC. He also shows where the IPCC itself incorrectly interprets the published science, but is at his most powerful in showing that those who invoke “The Science” are often not supported by the conclusions of the IPCC.
He is not the first to demonstrate these things. University of Colorado scholar Roger Pielke Jr, one of the leading researchers on the costs and frequency of extreme weather events, was in 2013 bullied into silence by Obama’s science adviser John Holdren (an erstwhile co-author with the neo-Malthusian prince of catastrophists Paul Ehrlich) for his testimony to Congress that was based entirely on the IPCC conclusions, but undermined the alarmist discourse underpinning the basis for climate action.
This disjuncture between climate scientific knowledge as revealed in the laws of physics and the published literature is not inadvertent. It has been spun by green political actors, those who have invested in assets the value of which will be enhanced by regulatory action in response to climate alarmism, and by news media that continue to operate on the principle of “if it bleeds, it leads”, and staffed by journalists who seem to lack basic scientific knowledge and scepticism.
The current “climate emergency” is a good example. This was not driven by science, but by Greens members of the Darebin City Council in metropolitan Melbourne in December 2016, and subsequently spread globally through green networks. It was then picked up by that merry band of millenarians, the Club of Rome, who presented their “Climate Emergency Plan” in December 2018.
Only on November 5, 2019, did scientists get in on the act, when the biology (not climate science) journal BioScience published an article endorsed by 11,000 scientists from 153 nations, declaring that Planet Earth was facing a climate emergency. Then, pushed by Extinction Rebellion and Greta’s Fridays for the Future, it was picked up by some national governments and then by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in December 2020. All this despite data such as that presented by Bjorn Lomborg that shows clearly that the risk of death from extreme weather events in 2020 is a mere 1 per cent of what it was in 1920.
The false narrative of “climate emergency” (ridiculously called an “existential threat” by President Biden, as if humanity will cease to exist if there is a slight increase on the 1.2°C—mostly beneficial—warming since the Industrial Revolution) has not spread spontaneously. It has been deliberately disseminated by the efforts of an enterprise called “Covering Climate Now”, a journalism project designed to increase news coverage of climate alarmism co-founded in the US by the Columbia Journalism Review and left-leaning opinion magazine the Nation, and later joined by the British left-wing perennial worrywart newspaper the Guardian.
Covering Climate Now essentially feeds catastrophic copy to subscribers. It began in April 2019, and by September 2019 the project had more than 300 media outlets committed to devoting a week to extensive alarmist environmentalist coverage surrounding a United Nations Climate Action Summit organised by Secretary-General Guterres that ran from September 16 to 23.
Numerous mainstream media organizations joined in, including CBS News, PBS News Hour, Bloomberg and Agence France Presse, plus magazines such as Newsweek and major newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle. Public radio stations and left-leaning online media outlets such as Huff Post, Vox and Slate naturally joined, but perhaps more surprising was that scientific journals such as Nature and Scientific American along with InsideClimate News and Harvard Business Review piled on. That a leading scientific journal like Nature would sign up for this says much about the extent to which academic journals have been debased. It is also worth noting that when Scientific American published a hatchet job on Koonin’s book, it refused to publish a rejoinder from him.
Other subscribers to this “churnalism” project, a co-ordinated attempt to manufacture consensus around the non-existent “climate emergency’”, include Reuters, the Independent, Al Jazeera, Channel 4 News and New Scientist. To the shame of the Australian universities that support it financially, the list includes the Conversation, which has an explicit policy of excluding views contrary to the false consensus it helps create.
It is perhaps appropriate that Bloomberg is among this posse, because its founder, Michael Bloomberg, has increased his net worth substantially by pouring millions into anti-coal campaigns by environment groups in the US while going long on natural gas. He recently poured $250 million into campaigns to prevent the developing world doing what the global North did and developing using fossil fuels. Bloomberg is not alone. Tom Steyer, having made a fortune in coal (including Whitehaven in Australia) now invests in renewables while supporting those who campaign for them. Bloomberg and Steyer each contested the Democratic presidential nomination—unsuccessfully, but this undoubtedly helped drag Biden towards his position in the issue.
In the United Kingdom, Sir Christopher Hohn is another successful hedge-fund operator, with reportedly the highest annual salary in the country, paying himself $479 million in the year ending March 2020. With his fund, The Children’s Investment Fund (TCI Fund Management) Hohn launched the “Say on Climate” campaign to require companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and their management and give shareholders an advisory vote on the plans and their results. The initiative is backed by Hohn’s charity, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, a $6 billion philanthropic foundation funded by TCI profits.
In 2019 it was reported that Hohn had personally donated £50,000 to Extinction Rebellion, with a further £150,000 donated by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. Also in 2019, it was reported in October that Hohn had built a £630 million stake in Heathrow Airport, which was curious, because Extinction Rebellion had several activists arrested in September for planning to disrupt Heathrow with drones, calling plans to expand the airport a crime against humanity. Such is the tangled web of hedge funds, philanthropy and climate activisim.
This points to another factor in the current enthusiasm: many have invested in the “climate emergency”, and cognitive dissonance will make them reluctant to see their error; even when they do, they will push for their bad investments to be protected.
There is already abundant evidence that the climate models used by the IPCC run hot, but many of their users are reluctant to admit it. Fed with extreme, unrealistic emissions scenarios like Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 that Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Hank Paulson in their Risky Business think-tank ensured were incorporated into first the US national assessments and then the IPCC reports, they run so hot that even some modellers have disowned RCP 8.5. Steyer was behind the excoriation of Roger Pielke Jr, who reciprocated by exposing their role in pushing the wildly unrealistic RCP 8.5 as “business as usual” in an article in Forbes.
To think that the models of a complex, non-linear coupled ocean-atmosphere system are accurate because they can produce a reasonable approximation of the past records used to construct them is hubristic. In other areas of science, this sort of reasoning is regarded with suspicion. As Duke University medical scientist Michael Babyak put it, “If you use a sample to construct a model, or to choose a hypothesis to test, you cannot make a rigorous scientific test of the model or the hypothesis using that same sample data.” Accurate predictive capability is the true test, and the climate models do not fare too well on that test.
Yet we think we can dial in emissions scenarios and get precise future mean global temperatures within 0.1°C or so—probably less than the error term that Koonin points out is central to any science, but conspicuous by its absence from the public climate discourse.
It will be hard to shake the Teals on the tennis courts of Toorak and Double Bay from their firmly held belief in the coming apocalypse. Apocalypse has its appeal. As Mackay put it:
We go out of our course to make ourselves uncomfortable; the cup of life is not bitter enough to our palate, and we distill superfluous poison to put into it, or conjure up hideous things to frighten ourselves at, which would never exist if we did not make them.
What might end the enthusiasm is the pursuit of costly policies to avoid the Apocalypse. The Liberal-National Coalition, especially under Turnbull and Morrison, did its best to adopt policies that would inevitably bring higher energy prices, Morrison surprising his support base by committing the country to “Net Zero by 2050”. Promises made by the incoming Albanese government will exacerbate this.
Koonin is a bit of a party pooper, because he points out the technical and economic barriers to Net Zero, especially because there is so much inertia in present energy systems. Koonin would know. In addition to being Chief Scientist in Obama’s Department of Energy, he played a similar role with BP, and before critics employ the genetic fallacy against him, it must be pointed out that his job was to evaluate renewable energy as part of BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” move. Koonin suggests that a “realistic view of the longer term is that the world is very unlikely to zero out its net emissions by 2075, let alone by 2050, and so society will largely respond by adapting”.
I guess Anthony Albanese didn’t get the memo, because he has gone further and promised Net Zero by 2030, with renewables to climb to 82 per cent of generation (about four times their current share) by that time. As Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle would say, “Tell him he’s dreaming.” Even with a friendly Senate, he won’t be able to overturn the Laws of Thermodynamics.
Renewables typically have capacity factors of 25 to 30 per cent, so generating capacity three to four times average load is required to meet that load. Then transmission capacity is needed that can either carry that load to consumers, with typically 5 per cent loss, or excess generation must be shed and wasted. Then there is the time at which generation occurs. Solar farms, like rooftop solar, produce by day, when the sun is shining, and at maximum output only when cloud cover is not heavy. Wind power is intermittent. Solar farms, rooftop solar and wind all producing at the same time represents an embarrassment of riches.
Absent reliable, dispatchable generators (a fate about to befall us in Australia, with only six coal-fired stations remaining), the surplus must be stored until a time when there is a shortfall in generation. Pumped-storage hydro is one possibility, but there are limited sites and drought can affect them. Batteries are a chimera, and both consume about 15 per cent in a full cycle, so with transmission losses the capacity needed is actually four to five times average load once there are no reliable baseload generators left.
That batteries are a chimera has been shown by Michael Shellenberger, who calculated that it would take 15,280 battery arrays the size of that at Escondido in California (then the largest in the US) to back up the US grid for four hours at an estimated cost of $764 billion. Similarly, it would take 696 power reserve storage centres the size of Hornsdale in South Australia to provide just four hours of backup power for the Australian grid—at a cost of $50 billion. Batteries, in other words, are largely useful for regulating voltage and frequency, but are a very expensive means of providing storage on any extended basis.
That is leaving aside the fire risk associated with batteries, demonstrated dramatically by the fire at the new battery installation near Geelong, or the spontaneous combustion of a second RATP bus in Paris in April—a couple of days after Anthony Albanese announced his policy for electric buses in Perth.
Electric vehicles will, of course, increase electricity demand, which reminds us that—while the focus is mostly on the electricity sector—CSIRO estimates that greenhouse gas emissions also come from transport (about 18 per cent in Australia), stationary energy use manufacturing, mining, commercial and residential sectors (about 20 per cent), agriculture (about 15 per cent), fugitive emissions (1 per cent), industrial processes (6 per cent) and waste (3 per cent). The use of fossil fuels for electricity generation contributes only about 34 per cent to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
So a further 60 per cent of electricity generation from renewables will reduce Australia’s emissions by only about 20 per cent. That is not taking into account the increase in electric vehicles the Albanese government will actively encourage. Albanese’s statement on March 31, 2021, that the future will see PV panels on your roof charging your car overnight can be accepted as a slip of the tongue—although he did not seem to correct himself. And if he really meant that one could store daytime generation in home batteries, he will have to consider the efficiency loss in converting to storage and then cycling out again. And don’t count on sufficient energy being available on a cloudy day! The key question is then from where will come the remaining 23 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030? The total emissions from the transport sector will not do it, so it will have to come from gas in commercial and domestic operations and from agriculture, although a touch of deindustrialisation might help.
The new government has promised to spend $20 billion on improving the transmission system to allow the numerous solar and wind farms to feed into the grid, and that will apparently be off-budget, so that debt will have to be serviced by consumers, not taxpayers. By the time we factor in storage, back-up costs (for system voltage and frequency stability), and extra transmission costs, Australia is looking at substantial increases in generation and transmission costs as the concentrated coal-fired generators are replaced by dispersed, low-density generation sources that have thus far been parasitic on the dispatchable system, but have been cannibalising it.
System stability becomes a significant issue once the inertia of large generators is removed, as they currently provide the “spinning reserve” to adjust to any sudden changes in demand or supply. Renewables lack this inertia and are in fact a source of instability as wind and cloud cover vary.
Numerous economic analyses of the effects of growing renewables shares on prices in places like Germany point to rapidly rising prices from here on. The problem is that advocates, including the new government, have been focused on the levellised cost of energy for renewables (which has come down) when the policy-relevant metric is the system levellised cost of energy, which is set to rise markedly as renewables destroy the dispatchable capacity on which they rely for back-up.
The poor quality of the climate models means they are a poor basis upon which to build public policy. They are unreliable, and there is no guarantee that emissions reductions will produce the desired result in terms of global temperature. In the shorter term, if temperatures fail to increase, which as Koonin demonstrates is highly likely, how long will a public that has swallowed the public alarmist construction of climate science tolerate substantial increases in the cost of their energy and the inflation that is already accompanying it?
People are quite able to ignore information contrary to their deeply held beliefs. Leon Festinger called this “cognitive dissonance” after studying (appropriately) cults that believed in a looming apocalypse, observing that they usually managed to find some rationalisation when the predicted date came and passed. I passed a copy of Koonin’s book to a warmist friend who commenced reading, but told me he stopped because it challenged his views on the subject. Pure cognitive dissonance in action! He is not alone.
It is not just the Teals who are convinced there is a “climate emergency” despite a lack of evidence to support that belief, and who demand Australia take “real climate action” when we have performed better than Canada or New Zealand, when the US has reduced its emissions thanks mostly to the shale gas revolution, and Europe is counting its reductions resulting from the convenient selection of a 1990 base year in Kyoto. Thatcher’s victory over the miners and post-communist economic collapse in the East made 1990 a good year for Europe.
It helps that they exhausted most of their cheap, readily accessible coal by using it to industrialise more than a century ago, and have failed to develop their shale gas resources in the face of opposition from campaigns funded (as the NATO Secretary-General warned in 2014) by Russia, upon whose gas Western Europe thus came to depend. It should be remembered that Putin positioned Russia as the key ratification state for Kyoto in 2003 and extracted numerous concessions from the UK government under pressure from a City of London keen to start carbon trading, including promises of investment in the Russian oil and gas sector and support for WTO accession.
It should be remembered that carbon dioxide has a residence time in the atmosphere of about a century, so Western Europe has done most to cause the problem—especially given the logarithmic effect that sees every subsequent molecule of the gas warm a little less. Brazil proposed during the Kyoto negotiations that targets be set according to past emissions—unsuccessfully, of course, because it did not suit Europe and the climate NGOs, and the support of the developing countries was secured by exemptions from burdens and promises of aid.
Mackay suggested that rather than abandoning beliefs in a particular enthusiasm, people tend simply to be distracted by something else:
We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.
Long before Festinger, Mackay suggested that the process of losing the climate change faith might be a slow process: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Steven Koonin’s scathing critique of climate science suggests that Net Zero is neither necessary nor possible, and certainly not affordable. If he is correct, the false promise by the Albanese government of cheaper renewable electricity might increasingly begin to split individuals off from the herd.
Aynsley Kellow is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Tasmania. A former member of the ALP Minerals and Energy Committee in Tasmania and an Expert Reviewer for the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, he is the author of Transforming Power: The Politics of Electricity Planning (Cambridge University Press) and Negotiating Climate Change: A Forensic Analysis (Edward Elgar)