Your complete guide to false propaganda masquerading as serious commentary about climate change
With the United Nations climate change summit now underway in Paris, those opposed to tackling greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels are engaged in a last-ditch desperate attempt to prevent a new international agreement.
It is little surprise then that ‘The Wall Street Journal’ has published a long and rambling polemic by two of the UK’s most prominent campaigners against the regulation of the pollution from fossil fuels.
The article by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which lobbies against policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, recycles a series of ‘sceptic’ talking points, to create a false impression of the science and economics of climate change.
They start with the standard ploy of misrepresenting the scientific evidence for climate change.
First they claim that global mean surface temperature has “gone up only very slowly”. They add that “the world is barely half a degree Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it was about 25 years ago”. In fact, the World Meteorological Organisation has warned that the last five years are the warmest such period since instrumental records began in the 19th century, and that the average global temperature for 2015 is likely to be about 1 centigrade degree higher than the average during the pre-industrial era, before the burning of fossil fuels started to dump large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser downplay the significance of this rise in global mean surface temperature, which may seem small compared to local daily fluctuations. But it should be remembered that the global mean surface temperature during the last Ice Age was only about 5 centigrade degrees lower than today. During the last major interglacial period, which ended about 116,000 years ago, global mean surface temperature was no more than 2 centigrade degrees higher than today, but the polar land-based ice sheets on West Antarctica and Greenland were much smaller, and global mean sea level was between 5 and 10 metres higher than today. This shows the profound consequences of what may appear to be relatively small changes in global mean surface temperature.
Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser next seek to obscure the impacts of the rise in global mean surface temperature that has already occurred, falsely claiming that “on a global scale, as scientists keep confirming, there has been no increase in frequency or intensity of storms, floods or droughts”. This is blatantly misleading.
The most authoritative assessment of the scientific evidence, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013, concluded: “Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950”, including a likely rise in the frequency of heatwaves in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia, and an increase in the number or intensity of heavy precipitation events in North America and Europe.
Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser try to hide the true picture on floods and droughts by ignoring the fact that the impact of climate change varies between regions, which means some parts of the world are becoming drier while other parts are becoming wetter.
Hence the IPCC noted that “although the most evident flood trends appear to be in northern high latitudes, where observed warming trends have been largest, in some regions no evidence of a trend in extreme flooding has been found”.
And on drought, the IPCC found that “it is likely that the frequency and intensity of drought has increased in the Mediterranean and West Africa and decreased in central North America and north-west Australia since 1950”.
Similarly the data for storms across the world also presents a complex picture, but the IPCC noted that it is “virtually certain” there has been an “increase in the frequency and intensity of the strongest tropical cyclones since the 1970s” in the North Atlantic basin.
Hence, the attempt by Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser to focus only on global trends is really an obfuscation of the evidence of regional changes.
They also turn a blind eye to the growing number of studies that have analysed how climate change has increased the probability of different types of extreme weather. Recent research by scientists around the world found that climate change influenced the probability of the frequency and severity of many extreme weather events in 2014.
While it is true that the world is becoming better at reducing the death toll from natural disasters, such as extreme weather events, Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser fail to acknowledge that the lives and livelihoods of millions of people are being exposed to greater risks because of climate change, as the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction pointed out earlier this year.
The authors next move on to the hoary old chestnut of polar sea ice. They state that “Arctic sea ice has recently melted more in summer than it used to in the 1980s”. Again, this is misleading. In fact, sea ice extent in the Arctic has been reducing through all seasons. This year, the peak winter extent was the lowest on record, and the summer extent has been decreasing at a rate of about 13 per cent per decade, according to the United States National Snow and Ice Data Center. On current trends, the Arctic could become entirely ice free during summer months over the course of this century.
Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser try to muddy the water further by referring to Antarctic sea ice, which has been increasing in extent. The reasons for this are unclear, although scientists are confident that it does not disprove global warming.
They also refer to one recent study that suggests the land-based ice in East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica is increasing, although other scientists have questioned its significance compared with many other studies that have found strong overall decreases. In addition, recent research has suggested that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet may already have become destabilised.
Next Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser claim that “sea level rise continues its centuries-long slow rise – about a foot a century- with no sign of recent acceleration”. This is simply wrong. The IPCC concluded: “The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia”. Research published in May 2015 found evidence for a further acceleration in global sea level rise during the last decade. The IPCC’s projections indicate that if atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases continue to rise at a steep rate, global sea level could be between about 1.5 and 2.5 feet higher by the end of this century compared with the start, with further big rises over the decades and centuries to follow.
Not content with their false portrayal of the scientific evidence, the authors move on to a misrepresentation of the IPCC’s report itself, suggesting it projected a potential rise in global mean surface temperature by the end of this century of 1.5 to 4.5 centigrade degrees. This is not true. The IPCC report provides four main scenarios. One shows that global mean surface temperature might be 0.3 to 1.7 centigrade degrees higher by the end of this century compared with the end of the 20th century, if annual emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced significantly. However, if annual emissions rise steeply during this century, global mean surface temperature could be 2.6 to 4.8 centigrade degrees higher after 100 years.
Next, the authors draw on the controversial work of Professor Richard Tol, who, like Viscount Ridley, is a member of the 26-man (and all the members are male) ‘Academic Advisory Council’ of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. This was a brave move as the last time Viscount Ridley cited Professor Tol’s work, it turned out to contain serious errors that nullified his conclusions.
In this case, Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser refer to a working paper by Professor Tol, which also required correction earlier this year after I pointed out that the first published version contained errors.
But even the corrected version contains serious mistakes. For instance, it claims that among 11 previous estimates of the worldwide economic impacts of global warming by 2.5 centigrade degrees, three found net benefits. Yet the data table shows just one positive value. In fact, of the 26 estimates of the economic impact of warming collected by Professor Tol, only two are positive, and in both cases omitted important consequences, such as changes in extreme weather.
Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser quote from Professor Tol’s paper about the likely economic impacts that might be expected during this century: “The welfare change caused by climate change is equivalent to the welfare change caused by an income change of a few percent”. However, Professor Tol’s confident conclusion is undermined by the shortcomings and limitations highlighted by the IPCC in its assessment of the economic impacts:
“Global economic impacts from climate change are difficult to estimate. Economic impact estimates completed over the past 20 years vary in their coverage of subsets of economic sectors and depend on a large number of assumptions, many of which are disputable, and many estimates do not account for catastrophic changes, tipping points, and many other factors. With these recognized limitations, the incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for additional temperature increases of ~2°C are between 0.2 and 2.0% of income (±1 standard deviation around the mean) (medium evidence, medium agreement). Losses are more likely than not to be greater, rather than smaller, than this range (limited evidence, high agreement). Additionally, there are large differences between and within countries. Losses accelerate with greater warming (limited evidence, high agreement), but few quantitative estimates have been completed for additional warming around 3°C or above.”
Indeed, the integrated assessment models used to estimate the economic impacts of climate change are considered by many researchers to be extremely inadequate, with Professor Robert Pindyck declaring in a recent paper: “These models have crucial flaws that make them close to useless as tools for policy analysis”.
As a result of these crucial flaws, these estimates of the economic impacts represent a stark contrast to the scientific evidence of the risks from climate change. For instance, the IPCC report concluded:
“Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence). In most scenarios without additional mitigation efforts (those with 2100 atmospheric concentrations >1000 ppm CO2-eq), warming is more likely than not to exceed 4°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. The risks associated with temperatures at or above 4°C include substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, consequential constraints on common human activities and limited potential for adaptation in some cases (high confidence). Some risks of climate change, such as risks to unique and threatened systems and risks associated with extreme weather events, are moderate to high at temperatures 1°C to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”
Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser go on to assert that upper end of the IPCC’s estimates of the value of climate sensitivity, defined as the warming resulting from a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, “is looking even more implausible in theory and practice”.
However, the IPCC report noted that the values of equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), the long-term warming due to a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration, and the transient climate response (TCR), the short-term warming resulting from a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration over 70 years, can be estimated using a number of methods, including by being diagnosed from climate models, constrained by analysis of feedbacks in climate models, patterns of mean climate and variability in models compared to observations, temperature fluctuations as reconstructed from paleoclimate archives, observed and modelled short-term perturbations of the energy balance like those caused by volcanic eruptions, and the observed surface and ocean temperature trends since pre-industrial times. Based on an assessment of studies using the full range of methods, the IPCC concluded that there is a 66 per cent probability that the value of the TCR lies in the range 1°C to 2.5°C, and a 66 per cent probability that the ECS value lies between 1.5°C and 4.5°C.
But the authors justify their contrary conclusion by cherry-picking recent studies that support their assertion that climate sensitivity must have a low value. They refer to a 2013 study by Alexander Otto and co-authors, but this was taken into account by the IPCC report. They also refer to a more recent study by Bjorn Stevens published this year. But they ignore all of the other recent papers on climate sensitivity, such as studies by Miguel Martinez-Boti and co-authors, Steven Sherwood and co-authors, and Thomas Frölicher and co-authors. The final report of an international workshop for researchers held in Ringberg, Germany, earlier this year revealed that there is no consensus that the value climate sensitivity lies towards the bottom of the IPCC range. So the authors’ assertion about climate sensitivity is simply not supported by a consideration of the full range of recent research.
Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser next attempt to cast doubt on the development of low-carbon energy, claiming “the experience of the last three decades is that there is no energy technology remotely ready to take over from fossil fuels on the scale needed and at a price the public is willing to pay”. But they ignore the analysis published by the International Energy Agency last month which pointed out that “renewables contributed almost half of the world’s new power generation capacity in 2014”. They also fail to acknowledge that 19 per cent of the world’s primary energy was supplied by sources other than fossil fuels in 2013, and could grow to 40 per cent by 2040, according to the Agency’s projections for a pathway that results in a reasonable chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2 centigrade degrees.
On costs, the authors also ignore the Agency’s revelation that fossil fuels received direct subsidies of US$490 billion in 2014, compared with just US$135 billion for renewables, including bioenergy. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund points out that when one takes into account the fact that the prices of fossil fuels do not reflect the costs they impose through climate change, local air pollution and other damage, the total subsidies received by oil, coal and natural gas worldwide will be more than US$5 trillion this year alone. So Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser are in denial about the fact that low-carbon alternatives in many parts of the world would already be cost-competitive if the massive subsidies for fossil fuels were removed.
The article by Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser goes on to suggest that “climate policy is hurting the poor” because about a billion people worldwide have no access to “the concentrated power of coal, gas or oil” for electricity generation. But they make no mention of the fact that India, where 300 billion poor people are without electricity, has worked out that solar technology is the best way to provide power to rural communities. The authors also fail to admit that the burning of fossil fuels in many developing countries, particularly China and India, is causing harm to millions of people through air pollution.
So when the authors conclude that “climate change and its likely impact are proving slower and less harmful than we feared, while decarbonization of the economy is proving more painful and costly than we hoped”, they are ignoring the overwhelming weight of evidence which indicates the opposite.
In the second half of the article, Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser make assertions about climate change policies that are as erroneous as their statements about the science and economics.
They claim that the commitment made by rich countries in 2009 and 2010 to mobilise US$100 billion per year by 2020 in public and private funding to help countries make the transition to low-carbon growth and to become more climate-resilient, is “never going to materialize”. In fact, a recent survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Climate Policy Initiative concluded that climate finance from the rich countries reached $52 billion in 2013 and US$62 billion in 2014, more than half way towards the target. Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser describe the US$100 billion as “an astronomical wealth transfer”, but fail to admit that it represents only about 0.2 per cent of the projected total GDP of US$47.5 trillion of member countries of the OECD in 2020.
They state that the European Union’s commitment to reduce its emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 is “conditional on all nations represented at the Paris summit adopting legally binding carbon-emissions targets similar to and as a carry-over of the Kyoto Protocol”. This is false. The European Union’s ‘intended nationally determined contribution’, submitted to the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ahead of the Paris summit, is not conditional on leggaly-binding targets for others, and is based on a decision by the European Council in October 2014.
In their final miserable conclusion, Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser make a cynical wish for the Paris summit to produce “a toothless agreement that will satisfy most governments yet allow them to pay lip-service to action”. But they have already been confounded by the fact that more than 180 countries have submitted ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ ahead of the summit, outlining their plans for making the transition to low-carbon growth, and more than 150 heads of states and governments attended the opening, the largest ever gathering of world leaders in history.
In short, the polemic about the Paris summit by Viscount Ridley and Dr Peiser is little more than false propaganda masquerading as serious commentary.
Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.