Almost everyone who has ever commented on climate change policy issues from a skeptical perspective has experienced being attacked personally as a ‘climate denier’. The insult is intended as a way to immediately shut down discussion by portraying the skeptic as not only wrong but beneath contempt because he or she has done something that can be compared in its evil and despicability with denying the Nazi holocaust. Far too often, the insult works, even in discussions before regulatory bodies where the level of debate should be based on facts, credible arguments, and mutual respect.
Rarely does anyone stop to analyse why the insult is completely misplaced as well as misinformed.
Let’s start at the beginning. The advocates of government action to virtually eliminate human-related greenhouse gas emissions generally believe that such emissions are harmful and, unless sharply reduced, will cause catastrophic global warming sometime over the next century and beyond. They further claim that this emissions reduction can be achieved by all the countries of the world given current and likely-to-be-available technologies at a moderate cost. Within OECD countries that represent a 32% (and declining) share of global GHG emissions, a further claim is that citizens should take extraordinarily expensive measures to reduce their emissions even if the rest of the world does not.
To believe this, one would have to accept a long series of related arguments.
I will divide the arguments, posed as questions, broadly into two parts: the ‘science’ series (and sub-series) and the economics/technology series.
The Science Series
Is it true that current global trends indicate global warming and other related environmental changes?
How much have ‘average global temperatures’ changed during the period since the industrial revolution?
- Is there such a thing as ‘average global temperatures’?
- How does one measure global temperatures in history and are these accurate?
- How does one measure average global temperatures today, by surface instruments on land and sea, or by satellites, or some combination of the two?
Do the changes in global temperatures show any strong connection/causation with increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?
- Have the changes in temperatures observed to date preceded or followed the changes in GHG concentrations?
- Historically, when GHG concentrations were higher than today, were temperatures higher or lower?
- Is there any clear connection in physics and chemistry between increased carbon dioxide concentrations and higher temperatures?
- Is there any way clearly to distinguish between the effects of increased GHG concentrations and other global factors including solar trends, ocean cycles, and cloud chemistry?
Do other global environmental trends show a connection/causation relationship with increased GHG concentrations?
- Are sea levels rising faster than they have over the last few centuries?
- Is the amount of polar ice declining?
- Are the glaciers melting faster than they have for several centuries?
- Is the ocean PH level (degree of acidity or baseness) changing at a level that should cause concern?
- Are extreme weather events increasing in number and intensity?
- Is there any way, with respect to any of these questions, clearly to distinguish between the effects of increased GHG concentrations and other global factors such as solar trends, ocean cycles, and retreat from the last Ice Age?
Can we predict with any confidence what will be the effect of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations over the long term?
- How good are the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models that attempt to predict future climate changes?
- If we use these models, do they adequately explain even the changes that have occurred in the past?
- Do the predictions of the models since 1990 come close to replicating what has actually happened?
- Is there any evidence that the models, and the data fed into them, are being manipulated to make a more alarming case?
- Is it possible independently to replicate the results of the methodologies that some climate scientists use to show there is a problem?
The Economic/Technology Series
How large a share do fossil fuels now have of global energy use, especially as compared to non-fossil energy sources such as nuclear energy, hydro power, biomass (wood and dried animal dung), and ‘renewable’ energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal?
- How does that share differ by area, especially between the industrialized countries and the less developed countries?
What is the potential, under current economic, technological and political conditions to replace fossil fuels over the next 30 years?
- What evidence is there, based on more than 30 years of climate conferences and commitments to reduce emissions, that the countries of the world are actually reducing emissions?
- What do the most authoritative sources of projections of future global energy supply, demand and projections, say about the likely levels of GHG emissions by 2050?
- Will countries be prepared to significantly increase electricity generation by nuclear reactors?
- Will countries like China, India, those in Southeast Asia, and eventually Africa be prepared to forego using coal, the cheapest and most secure source of energy for large scale electricity generation?
- Does the history of energy transitions provide evidence that complete transitions can be accomplished within 30 years, the timeframe within which climate activists insist the changes must occur?
- Will the price of fossils fuels, and especially coal and natural gas, continue to fall because of the high supply, thus giving consumers far less incentive to switch to other fuels?
- What will be the rate of turnover in the capital stock (of buildings, factories, infrastructure, vehicles, etc.) that will determine the rate of long-term change?
- Is it likely that there will be technology breakthroughs to lower the cost of non-carbon energy sources (e.g. grid-level energy storage technologies)? If so, how long will it take to commercialize and mass market those technologies?
- As complete decarbonization of the economy of a country or of the world depends on completely electrifying every economic sector and eliminating the use of hydrocarbons in electricity generation, is this feasible in technological or economic terms?
- How willing will governments and taxpayers be to continue paying immense subsidies to non-fossil fuel energy sources to increase their rate of use?
- For each OECD country, will the costs of climate action exceed the benefits in terms of global emissions levels and temperature/climate changes?
The ‘denier’ insult effectively boils all these questions (and more) down to the single issue of whether one believes that human GHG emissions are harmful and should be reduced. In other words, it represents a gross over-simplification of an extremely important public policy issue.
It demonstrates the ignorance of the person hurling the insult and appeals to those who share this ignorance.
Finally, it represents an attempt to shut down discussion before it proceeds to cover the many issues listed above. One can only speculate as to why the advocates of complete transformation of the energy system are so unwilling to engage in rational discussion and debate. Are they fearful that the merits of their arguments will be shown through debate to be so weak as to be non-credible? Do they favour propaganda over information and analysis? If so, of which political movement does that remind us?
Robert Lyman is an economist with 35 years’ experience as an analyst, policy advisor and manager in the Canadian federal government, primarily in the areas of energy, transportation and environmental policy.