Public anxiety about climate change does not arise from scientific study of the Earth’s centuries-long cycles of ice ages and global warming. Rather, that anxiety arises because so many people assume that the rate of climate change predicted by some computer models shows an imminent planetary crisis, caused entirely by human emissions of CO2, requiring complete decarbonization to net-zero by 2050. They believe that climate change is the sole cause of extreme weather, which is becoming more frequent and more destructive.
However, as a recent example, catastrophic flooding in Abbotsford, British Columbia was, predictably, caused by decades of ignoring repeated engineering warnings, in both that province and Washington State. Abbotsford’s dikes had been built too low and had become eroded. But the politicians who didn’t do what was necessary are not being held accountable because the terrible losses are blamed on climate change. Conveniently, all damage from extreme weather can be blamed on CO2.
The Apocalypse Myths
The imminent Apocalypse is a recurring myth throughout history. In recent years many of the apocalyptic predictions have been made by scientists assuming the role of prophets. When large segments of the public believe these apocalyptic warnings, they press their political leaders to make panicky decisions which can create serious harm.
As always, when the apocalypse doesn’t arrive at the predicted time it is kicked into the future, until it is finally abandoned. Some examples of this, in recent memory:
- In the first half of the 20th century, there was great fear that criminals and people with intellectual disabilities would have too many children, to whom they would pass on their genes, and thus weaken the gene pool. This led governments, including Canada’s to adopt eugenics policies of mandatory sterilization (e.g., the Sexual Sterilization Act in Alberta, in force from 1928 right up to 1972, and in British Columbia from 1933 to 1973.
- Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich’s influential book “The Population Bomb” (published 1968) prophesied worldwide famine within just 15 years, due to overpopulation. Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions of people were soon going to starve to death on a dying planet. He advocated immediate state action to limit population growth, strongly supported compulsory measures like sterilization, and argued that the United States should pressure other governments to launch vasectomy campaigns. Today, globally, food is more abundant than ever and there are far fewer deaths from starvation. However, the current climate apocalypse stories still talk about a dying planet and droughts that will cause starvation.
- In 1970 James P. Lodge, a scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, prophesied a new ice age by 2000. His prediction was confirmed in 1971 by NASA’s S.I Rasool, forecasting crop failures and mass starvation [ Predictions of Ice Age Apocalypse]. We are still waiting for that ice age.
- Just a few years later NASA did a U-turn. It warned of the terrifying consequences of man-made global warming. Around 1989 NASA’s James Hansen reportedly told a journalist at Salon that within 20-30 years (i.e., by 2009-2019) “The West Side Highway [which runs along the Hudson River in New York] will be under water” from ocean level rise caused by climate change. He also predicted droughts, so that “you’ll have signs in restaurants saying ‘Water by request only.’” Today, Google Maps shows this highway is still above water and carrying traffic, and restaurants in New York aren’t yet offering water by request only.
The War on ‘Climate Emergency’ Heretics
In his 2021 book Unsettled (“what climate science tells us, what it doesn’t, and why it matters”), renowned physicist Steve Koonin, the former Undersecretary for Science at the US Department of Energy under the Obama Administration, challenged the climate emergency apocalypse. He compared what official government scientists are saying with what the media are saying that “the science” tells us. He showed that the media accounts of climate change greatly exaggerate the findings of reputable scientists. The scientific evidence is that extreme weather events today show no trend of increased severity compared to decades or even centuries ago, despite the popular misconception that extreme weather events are escalating. Deaths from such events have been reduced from 524,000 in 1922 to 45,000 by 2010, and 15,000 by 2020 [ourworldindata]. This was due to improved weather forecasting, improved communications and evacuation, and other adaptations, not by accelerated decarbonization.
What’s shocking is how Koonin – and others authors like Michael Shellenberger (the author of Apocalypse Never) and Bjorn Lomborg (the author of False Alarm), who also question whether climate change is really an ‘existential crisis’ – are being personally attacked and smeared. Yet none of these authors disputes that climate change is real and has some potentially negative consequences, so none of them can fairly be called a “climate denier”. Then why are the attacks on them and others who agree with them so nasty? Climate extremists attack anyone who they see as being a climate heretic, someone who departs from climate crisis orthodoxy.
David Suzuki has suggested that political leaders like former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper should be put in jail for failure to take what Suzuki considers adequate steps on climate change[huffpost]. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Courier published Professor Catriona McKinnon’s article headlined “Climate crimes must be brought to justice”. Really? Should elected government leaders with policies that Suzuki or McKinnon dislike be put on trial for such newly invented climate crimes?
Climate warriors can feel morally connected to the health of the planet and find it comforting to believe that “We are all in this together” in fighting the ‘existential climate crisis’. That illusion of global solidarity avoids the discomfort of recognizing the competition for economic and political leadership between the major powers, some of which are in no hurry reduce their emissions.
Most of us would agree that our governments should protect and even improve the quality of the natural environment. We might also agree that future climate trends require sensible, but not destructively expensive measures to reduce emissions and adapt to extreme weather. However, the net-zero ideology goes far beyond these reasonable positions. Democratic countries that have accepted that ideology will necessarily grant greater authoritarian powers to their governments to coerce rapid emissions reductions, even though most governments have failed for decades to keep their heroic promises. Ironically, governments of totalitarian countries already have these powers, but may be disinclined to use them to force rapid emissions reductions, which are likely to cause unpopular hardships.
A common joke in the old Soviet Union was that “The government pretends to pay the workers, and workers pretend to work.” A current version in western countries might be “The government pretends to set emission reduction targets and the citizens pretend to believe that the government will actually achieve them.”
The Political Benefit of “Fighting” Climate Change
There is nothing like a good war to make politicians popular. When Argentina invaded Britain’s Falkland Islands in 1982 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was lagging in the polls. She dispatched the British Navy, which quickly repelled the invaders and her popularity rose. The US started its (initially) popular wars: on drugs, on poverty, on terrorism; fighting in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, yet all of these pointless “wars” ended in failure. It took decades (20 years in Afghanistan) before the failure was admitted. The politically popular war on climate change, thus far unsuccessful for three decades, will probably have the same outcome.
If you break the energy system that powers everything else you break everything else. Eliminating fossil fuels and nuclear generation before affordable alternatives have been developed, financed and constructed will definitely break the energy system. Fossil fuels have been powering economies for over 150 years, and currently supply about 80 percent of the world’s energy [eesi.org]. The forced transition from 80% to zero by 2050, using technologies that don’t work when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, is far too rapid. No country can solve the global climate crisis by creating a domestic energy crisis.
This winter, much of Europe is suffering a self-inflicted energy crisis. They are discovering that rapidly replacing all hydrocarbons with weather dependent wind and solar generation can’t work. In the major European countries wholesale electricity prices since January 2020 have skyrocketed. In the luckiest country, Norway they have only doubled; for most of the rest they have quadrupled [statista]. And the winter isn’t over yet. That’s why the EU is now considering (temporarily) re-labelling nuclear generation and natural gas as “renewable” or “green”. As Shakespeare’s Romeo asked, “what’s in a name?” If you can’t solve the climate crisis with “green energy”, use whatever energy you want and just call it as green.
Just to keep the lights on, Europe is now burning more natural gas, mostly from Russia. But Russia is not increasing its supply enough to meet the demand, escalating European energy prices and creating energy dependency on Russia. Meanwhile, even as US President Biden was attending the international COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021, he was publicly begging OPEC to increase oil supply to the US to help reduce rising US gasoline prices. Not surprisingly, OPEC refused.
When entire nations are gripped by any apocalyptic panic they will not give it up quickly. Regrettably, government decisions made in that state of panic will usually backfire. It is only after countries have suffered for years with panic-driven harm that they will they begin to ask “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” Why should the West persistently inflict unaffordable energy prices, power blackouts, higher taxes and growing middle class poverty, while China, Russia and other countries that don’t suffer from the apocalyptic panic, prosper at the West’s expense? As I explained in a previous blog post, the main beneficiary of Canada’s climate policy is not the climate, it is China. And extreme weather events, for which we are inadequately prepared, will continue to occur as they always have, and always will. Our current priority should be to shift much of our spending on unreliable “green” technologies to greater spending on supporting R&D for more reliable, affordable energy technologies and for upgrading infrastructure to reduce the impact of extreme weather events.
The “net-zero by 2050” war on the climate apocalypse will prove self-defeating. Isn’t going to happen by 2050 on the planet because most countries with the most people don’t want it and won’t work towards it. The few countries that do want it can’t do it alone. So they won’t change the outcome with current technology.
There are no emissions, low emissions and high emissions technologies. If we shift prematurely and excessively to wind and solar by eliminating lower emissions like natural gas then the fuel shortages and price of energy will force increased use of higher emissions like coal. That is happening now in much of Europe. Overzealous climate change fighting policies with the wrong “green” technology, compelled by governments picking politically favoured technology, will have perverse results, causing higher rather than lower emissions.
Given the unreliability of currently available “green” technologies the panic-driven transition to 100 percent electricity, to be generated by “renewables”, is far too rapid. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine that energy doesn’t exist. Something else must take its place, and today that is still mostly coal and natural gas in the two thirds of the global population living in developing countries.
The energy situation is especially acute in the U.K., where wind this year has been providing only 7% of the country’s electricity —a huge drop from the 25% it generated on average across 2020 [Fortune]. Trying to replace all hydrocarbons with wind and solar generation by 2050 has also caused severe energy price spikes in most of Europe, which is further along the path to renewables than Canada. If Canada can’t see the writing on the European wall, we, too, will crash into that wall.
The ‘zero’ in net-zero is a mathematical concept that is difficult, if not impossible to achieve in the real world. The net-zero target will have to be abandoned, but probably not before today’s climate warrior politicians have left office, leaving our children and grandchildren to pay for the damage their hubris has caused.