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Synthesize This

In the news earlier this week was the release of the IPCC Synthesis Report. The newsworthiness of the release is rather hilarious given that it is simply a synthesis of reports that the IPCC has been releasing over the past year. This is a great boon to the news industry – since they get to stir up the emotions not just once when the “real” reports are released (or in ht case of the IPCC three times) but then they get to do it all over again when this synthesis report is released. And don’t forget that in addition to this “synthesis” report the IPCC also releases a report that is called a “Summary for Policymakers.”

Pause for moment. They are releasing this synthesis report this week because:

The Synthesis Report (SYR) of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) provides an overview of the state of knowledge concerning the science of climate change, emphasizing new results since the publication of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 (AR4). The SYR synthesizes the main findings of the AR5 (IPCC) based on contributions from Working Group I (The Physical Science Basis), Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), and Working Group III (Mitigation of Climate Change), plus two additional IPCC reports (Special Report on Renewable Energy and Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation).

But earlier they released a Summary for Policymakers:

The Working Group I contribution to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) considers new evidence of climate change based on many independent scientific analyses from observations of the climate system, paleoclimate archives, theoretical studies of climate processes and simulations using climate models. It builds upon the Working Group I contribution to the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), and incorporates subsequent new findings of research. As a component of the fifth assessment cycle, the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) is an important basis for information on changing weather and climate extremes.

This Summary for Policymakers (SPM) follows the structure of the Working Group I report. The narrative is supported by a series of overarching highlighted conclusions which, taken together, provide a concise summary. Main sections are introduced
with a brief paragraph in italics which outlines the methodological basis of the assessment.

So, the summary for policymakers seems only to summarize the “science” of working group 1’s efforts while the recent release covers the same science plus some much more uncertain stuff regarding adaptation and mitigation? I’m a slight bit confused, and certainly a perusal of the Summary for Policymakers in comparison to what is in the actual reports and what outside observers say about the report would make for a very entertaining few days of your life.

In any case, the point of today’s post is to point out what I thought was obvious but seems not to be. The news releases and interviews and the scientists who are putting together this most recent synthesis report seem to be arguing that “we are doomed” unless we end CO2 emissions by the end of the century. This view on its face is baloney particularly if you care to read not only the IPCC reports but the thousands of other papers that did not seem to make their way into the document. But let’s take the view seriously. The argument seems to be that once we get 4 degrees Celsius of warming (over pre-industrial levels) that the earth is cooked, we are done, we will all die horrible deaths. Note that earlier reports seemed to indicate that doom and destruction were likely to happen only at MUCH higher temperatures, so it’s rather startling to see that now an increase of only about 8 degrees Fahrenheit, or about another 6 degrees total from where we started, is going to kill us all. Remember that the daily variation in temperatures in most places is close to 30 degrees and “moving to higher ground” or to “wetter ground” or “drier ground” or whatever ground we need over the course of a century does not seem to be too much of a challenge for human beings. After all, they were able to migrate over thousands of miles long before civilizations were started and they were thought to do so almost exclusively for climate related conditions (I enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel). But now, with all of our information and transportation and mobility, now we are doomed. That’s wholly laughable, but of course that is the “consensus.” The oceans are not going to boil. Life on earth isn’t going extinct. Farming isn’t going to be radically more difficult. Oceans are not turning into pools of acid. Sorry.

And I write this for several reasons. First, the “consensus” in the literature seems to be that we are going to get net BENEFITS from warming if temperatures increase by 2 to 3 degrees celsius over pre-industrial levels. And what this recent news release is suggesting is that despite this, the next 1 to 2 degrees of warming beyond that which is beneficial is not only going to be costly, but will totally wipe out all of the benefits that we enjoy from moderate warming? Again, that is what THEY are saying, and my baloney sandwich detector is going off.

But even taking that as a given, the media and policy response to the latest “news” is simply incredible. ALL of the things I am reading from the climate scientists themselves to the media and everyone in between seems to be arguing that “we need to end fossil fuels and  CO2 emissions by the end of the century.” That makes as much sense as arguing we need to end cupcakes by the end of this century to avoid the obesity problem. Well, if that’s the case, then there is no point in discussing policy. There is no point in seeking to institute a carbon tax. There is no point in even trying to “put a price on carbon.” Why? The reason to do that is to ensure that when we do emit carbon and possibly damage the planet we end up emitting only that carbon that is socially beneficial.  I will repeat that, the entire point of the exercise, if we were to be serious about it, is not to eliminate carbon, but to make sure that we produce only that “pollution” that is worth pollution. But of course, this is NOT at all what the IPCC seems to be saying now and certainly not at all what the commentators seem to be saying now. So in fact this is not at all a scientific discussion and it is entirely stupid of me or you or anyone to try to believe that it is such a thing.

A second insight that emerges from this non-debate is the following. If you DO happen to think the carbon tax is a reasonable idea – because by pricing carbon accurately we can ensure that the value of the activities that generate carbon exceeds the damages imposed by carbon, and no more – then you’d be happy to suggest that “we get the global warming that is worth it” is the right way to frame the question. Should someone say, “yes this is all well and good, but when we get the global warming that is worth it, the distributional effects are going to be unfair. Some places will benefit more than others and some places will bear lots of the costs.” To which orthodox policymakers and economists would say, “hey, that’s easy! Let’s make sure we make the pie as big as possible, and then we can handle the distributional problems with ex post transfers!”

And to that last comment I am sure people would argue, “that’s all well and good in theory but in practice do we ever see the government making the transfers at all, and if so, to the right people? No!”

And I tend to agree.

But if people are against carbon taxes because they do not believe the proceeds from the taxes will be used to mitigate the “efficient” damages that are being incurred, then we seem to be entering a quantum world when we move beyond carbon taxes and ask that very same government to start imposing more stringent policies to reduce CO2 and to come up with alternatives. In what world are we living when we argue that governments are totally incapable of designing and collecting and distributing tax revenues but in the next breath we suggest that they can be trusted in ANY way to remake the entire energy sector, farming sector, transportation sector and more. That doesn’t just smack of hubris, but to be quite honest, and to be quite uncharitable, that smacks of utter dishonesty and perhaps worse.

But you all know, I think, that none of this is about appreciating the complexity of climate or of the related economic policy. This is almost wholly a political game, a disgusting one in my view, not only because the politics itself is dirty but because the very act of spending billions producing models and doing research and holding conferences about this problem, with no intention of actually dealing with it in the right way, we are wasting enormous time and resources that could have been used to actually help the planet and poor people. But as I’ve said, that’s not what any of this is all about.

3 Responses to “Synthesize This”

  1. Harry says:

    I’m against new taxes in general because never in my experience do they ever replace old taxes. It is never “Tax ’em for the mice, tax ’em for the lice/ And we’ll stop taxing ’em for looking in the mirror twice.” Thus, while WC’s ideas may be so well-formed to defeat all reasonable attack, in practice it will just add more krill to the growing leviathan’s continuous meal.

    I am especially opposed to any and all world government taxation, which Kyoto and subsequent proposals are.

    Now, I do not want to get into how government taxes gasoline, including whether gas and diesel taxes should be refunded to the nation’s hard-working dairy farmers; that is the same category as whether a “real” “small” dairy farmer should be allowed to use accelerated depreciation for new manure spreaders, or whether they have to capitalize vaccinations that last more than a year.
    But WC is in fine form in today’s post, and I look forward to the posts of the big government people.

  2. Harry says:

    Since WC filed his post under central planning, may I draw readers attention to the drama going on with the TUW ClustrMap, which provides amusement along with the Sound Money graphs. Click on it and you will get the history of the site crash and heroic steps to retrieve and restore the data through a big electronic pipe.

    I thought of how Lois Lerner must have when her computer and other electronic devices failed. Or, how about the frustration United Nations climate scientists must feel when data never available is suddenly missing?

  3. Harry says:

    …must have felt…

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