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Meanwhile, back at climate change…

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 30 October 2020


I keep seeing suggestions that now we know how to deal with Covid-19 (do we?) it's time to deal with the biggest threat of all, climate change. Greenpeace and other climate-action voices are arguing, for example, that since New Zealand's Jacinta Ardern no longer needs populist support to govern, there are no more excuses for inaction on climate change in that nation. The same source alleges that New Zealand's agricultural sector is its main source of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), 'as large sheep and cattle herds belch methane…' I've visited the land of the long white cloud many times, but I've never heard these belches.

Much the same is being said about the US Presidential election. When Joe Biden wins, the Democrats say, it will be time to ratchet up the US attack on fossil fuels, which Kamala Harris has called 'an existential threat'. Mr Biden says that climate change will 'bake the planet'. It's his number one priority. He does use an awful lot of fossil fuels himself, but maybe there'll be an exception for leading climate activists, and he is one.

Indeed, throughout the pandemic there have been strong suggestions from the climate warriors that we are all missing the really important threat, that of climate change. I don't know how much of this rhetoric is sensible. In the first place, the coronavirus has been a difficult issue for all governments everywhere. The possibility that we might have a global epidemic of the kind the world experienced just after the end of the Great War brought out medical, political and economic responses from government that have had no real counterparts in the last fifty years. The threat of death was not just in the future. It was right now, and people were dying, lots of them. They still are. Yes, some of them were elderly, and some of them may have lost their lives from some other cause anyway. The jury is still out on this one. But Covid-19 was an unmistakeable threat across the globe, and governments generally have abandoned their interest in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions to be able to concentrate their energies on something they can deal with, a health issue.

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In the second place, no one has yet died from climate change, and the day of reckoning, so to speak, has been pushed well into the future. When the climate scare first erupted we were told we only had a few years to deal with the problem. The wiser heads no doubt meant 'a few years' to get policies in place that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but there can be little doubt that the mass audience heard we would all die from something, and the context would be hot. The seas would evaporate, and so on. More sober talk these days is pointing to 2050 as the tipping point, or even the end of the century. It is hard to get people worried about what might happen in thirty years' time, let alone in eighty years.

Nonetheless, climate action has not gone away, though some of its recent manifestations, like Extreme Rebellion, seem much wider in their purpose than simply reducing GGE. Climate action often seems to be associated with a move towards socialism, or to be opposed to capitalism (not quite the same thing), or simply to be opposed to the existing order. I don't remember its being quite like that twenty years ago, when we started to be told authoritatively that in the climate domain things were grim.

What has happened, anyway, in the climate domain? Assertions fly around. The fires in western USA have been caused by it. Storms are caused by it. Droughts and floods in Australia have climate change as their cause. There are climate refugees. Various animals and insects have found that their usual habitats have been threatened by climate change, or will be threatened or might be threatened. Hot summers and cold winters are caused by it. The seas are rising and acidifying because of it. And so on. None of these assertions is well supported by data. In contrast, this year's global wheat harvest are said to be the biggest ever, and we will know how accurate that forecast will be quite soon.

Which points to another conundrum in the whole debate. It is rare to find anyone suggesting that a bit more heat for the planet wouldn't be such a bad thing. Climate activists move quickly past the well-supported argument that the planet is greener than it used to be, that the Sahara and Sahel have shrunk, that growing seasons are longer and that harvests, to return to that point, are more plentiful. Why is a warmer Earth a bad thing? Well, so the argument goes, we'll get a tipping point and a runaway heating that will burn everything up, as Mr Biden said. The evidence for such a possible catastrophe is slight, just like the proposition that 'climate sensitivity' is the key to it all. After forty years of talk and argument, climate sensitivity is still where it was in the 1980s - a notion that is necessary to support the central CAGW argument, but not one that is verifiable or validated. If it exists at all, its range in increased air temperature could be somewhere from 1.5 to 4.5 in terms of doubling the amount of CO2 in the air.

I don't write much about global warming or climate change any more. It is clear that governments, the media and the global NGOs are trapped in the belief that it is a real problem. They don't have to explain themselves because they have the whip hand. Those like me who are sceptical are in the minority, and there's not much we can do about it. However, carbon taxes and a full-scale assault on fossil fuels don't seem any closer than they used to be, and because nothing much is changing in the climate domain, industries and electorates feeling threatened by such policies are becoming more vocal, especially in the EU. In Australia Labor has the problem that coal is a key export from Queensland. Coal and minerals generally are much more important in the Queensland economy than agriculture. Those who cry out against mining and export do not live in the regions where coal is mined, but in the inner-city electorates a long way away.

Much the same can be said about electric vehicles, hydrogen power, and the other current fads about how we must move forward on the back of a new green economy. Electric vehicles make a good deal of sense in urban areas, but they don't do anything to reduce GGE. Isn't that what the goal is? Sooner or later we all have to grapple with the reality of increasing atmospheric CO2. To what extent is it beneficial, to what extent harmful? Is a stable, reliable and relatively cheap electricity grid of great importance? If it is, shouldn't we be ensuring that we continue to have one? Isn't that more important than chasing after 'alternative energy' sources, which presently can't do the job?

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These are the questions we should be asking ourselves, it seems to me. I've been waiting quite a time, and will have to wait longer, I think. I'll have another essay on a related subject next week.

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This article was first published at Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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