How can you tell if someone is a genuine skeptic or a denier/delayist masquerading as a skeptic?
(aka - Response to Coilín ÓhAiseadha about his paper “Energy and Climate Policy—An Evaluation of Global Climate Change Expenditure 2011–2018”)
Coilín ÓhAiseadha said recently:
"Please read my research paper “Energy and Climate Policy—An Evaluation of Global Climate Change Expenditure 2011–2018”
It can be accessed, on an open access publishing site, here:
Right off the bat, I notice the authors are:
According to wikipedia:
"[Willie] Soon is a climate change denier, disputing the scientific understanding of climate change, and contends that most global warming is caused by solar variation rather than by human activity. He co-wrote a paper whose methodology was widely criticised by the scientific community. Climate scientists such as Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies have refuted Soon's arguments, and the Smithsonian does not support his conclusions. He is nonetheless frequently cited by politicians opposed to climate-change legislation."
That doesn't mean, of itself, that there is anything wrong with the contents of the paper. However, it doesn't augur well for it being correct, supported by credible evidence, and impartial ...
I’m not doing a comprehensive academic review of the paper here (time and the reader’s attention are limited), and I’m sure there are many people with expertise in the relevant disciplines who could do a much better job of such an academic review in any case.
However, I’m going to critically appraise what I think are the main themes within it and make some observations.
I’ll start with a few positives.
I think there is genuine and ongoing debate about policy priorities for expenditures on climate change mitigation and on climate change adaptation, although, as I’ll explain more later, I don’t think these two types of expenditure are as mutually exclusive as Coilín ÓhAiseadha seems to imply.
Coilín ÓhAiseadha points out that the efforts so far to stabilise GHG concentrations in the atmosphere have had little (or indiscernible) impact, as the concentrations are still rising:
“Despite this [global climate change] expenditure totaling US$3660 billion over 8 years, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have continued rising throughout this period … This gives occasion to scrutinize expenditures to consider whether the current path holds promise of success.”
That is, indeed, of some concern. However, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Because of the large cumulative historical GHG emissions and the long timeframes involved in some aspects of the Earth’s carbon cycles, it’s going to take quite some time for GHG emission reduction efforts so far, globally, which have only really started in earnest in the last decade or so (ie not much longer than the time-span Coilín ÓhAiseadha uses expenditure data for) , to start to “bend the curve”. I’m sure lots of people are hoping that the curve will start to bend soon. (as an aside, does Coilín ÓhAiseadha hope for this too, I wonder?)
Rather than use the lack of visible impact on GHG concentrations as a reason to doubt the feasibility of the current direction of travel to decarbonise the global economy, I think the more positive way to respond is to review, revise and strengthen our understandings of the challenges and opportunities the transition to Global Net Zero will present. We know that the direction of travel is clear. The science of AGW is telling us that we need to decarbonise. The main remaining questions are ones such as “how fast should we decarbonise the global economy?” and “how do we achieve international equity, given that the industrialised nations caused most of the historical emissions?”
Next, I’ll address some of the areas in the paper where I have very different views from Coilín ÓhAiseadha’s.
Firstly, a matter of omission.
Nowhere in his paper does Coilín ÓhAiseadha specifically acknowledge the importance of the role of human activities in Anthropogenic Global Warming (“AGW”), which is expressed by the IPCC in their latest assessment report (AR6, 2021) as follows:
“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened”
What he does do is quote a 2014 IPCC report as follows:
“… continued emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) will cause “further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” (p8, IPCC Synthesis Report (2014))”.
However, he immediately goes on to criticise efforts to reduce GHG emissions that were prompted by that report (with my emboldening of a significant phrasing used by Coilín ÓhAiseadha):
“A key underlying problem is that most of the rise in greenhouse gas emissions (chiefly carbon dioxide, CO2) since the 19th century is due to the use of fossil fuel-generated energy (coal, oil, natural gas, and peat), which has driven the Industrial Revolution. This cheap and abundant energy has facilitated unprecedented increases in standards of living, average lifespan, technological advances, agriculture, and world population along with economic growth. It is clear that, historically, it was a key factor in enabling the development of the current high-income nations … raises a debate as to whether international treaties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are implicitly hindering the development of developing nations”
He introduces “net zero” thus (with my emboldening to emphasise the immediate counter Coilín ÓhAiseadha adds):
“On the other hand, several researchers and opinion-makers have argued that a “zero-carbon” alternative post-industrial revolution, involving a transition towards wind- and solar-generated electricity, along with the widespread electrification of transport systems and improvements in energy efficiency (possibly also including bioenergy) is not only feasible, but desirable, e.g., Gore (2006, 2017) [11,12], Jacobson et al. (2011, 2015, 2017, 2018) [13–16], Klein (2015) , and Goodall (2016) . Although these claims have been disputed in the scientific literature [19–24], they are eagerly promoted by environmental advocacy groups …””
He then adds to his countering of the “zero carbon” idea by suggesting:
“… much of the opposition [to net zero] is voiced by environmentalists and researchers who are concerned about environmental and societal problems associated with these policies as well as the lack of critical discussion of the engineering and economic feasibility of these policies.”
He provides some references to support that paragraph. Reviewing the references (which are almost exactly the same list of references as I look at in more detail later in this blog post) I would consider it rather disingenuous of him to describe them in the way he has, ie the way he implies a level of dissent within the ranks of “environmentalists”. But I’ll let the reader decide for themselves on that point after reading that later section.
His main objection to decarbonisation of the global economy appears to be a financial one:
“US$3.66 trillion which has been spent on global climate change expenditure over the period 2011–2018, … we saw that 55% was allocated to solar and wind energy projects. This is a very large allocation for two energy sources which have many disadvantages... Meanwhile, only 5% has been spent on climate adaptation, even though investing in climate adaptation can dramatically improve the ability of societies to deal with climate change and weather extremes. This suggests that global climate change expenditure is not being allocated using a critical assessment of the pros and cons of the key policies. We hope that the analysis in this review can remedy this in time.”
He makes two interlinked claims, one being implicit and the other explicit:
In another section he says:
“… suppose a government considers reducing CO2 emissions one of its top priorities.
… we suggested seven different approaches for this, but noted that each conflicts with
Because of the characteristics of the seven approaches he suggests, it becomes clear that he is using a form of straw-man argument, and a reading of the text where he gives more details of his argument reveals that it is based on highlighting the disadvantages of Renewable Energies (“RE”) with little or no mention of the advantages of RE or the disadvantages of Fossil Fuels (“FF”).
For example, he says:
“one of the main reasons why 85% of the world’s energy use still comes from fossil fuels is because they have so many advantages in terms of minimizing the engineering problems [of RE], as well as dealing with many of the socioeconomic problems …”
This is a form of the argument that “FF has delivered so much development historically to date …”, which gives a false impression of the impacts of relying on FFs in significant volumes into the future, and also a false impression of the advantages and disadvantages of decarbonisation. This matter is discussed and countered here:
He also says:
“We find that the literature raises many concerns about the engineering feasibility as well as environmental impacts of wind and solar. However, none of the current or proposed energy sources is a “panacea”. Rather, each technology has pros and cons, and policy-makers should be aware of the cons as well as the pros when making energy policy decisions. We urge policy-makers to identify which priorities are most important to them, and which priorities they are prepared to compromise on.”
While apparently presenting a reasonable point in the above excerpt, he also says:
“… an energy transition towards generating 100% of electricity from wind, water, and sunlight (WWS). The simplicity of this narrative seems to be emotionally compelling among many researchers and writers and environmental advocacy groups. As a result, the idea that intermittent forms of electricity generation, supplemented with hydro or energy storage systems, could offer a viable alternative to the current systems has become very popular in the public. However, this idea has been heavily criticized as being physically implausible.”
He goes on to give an “example” of a policy compromise, which is clearly intended to demonstrate non-feasibility and influence policy holders against RE (except nuclear), and which understates the potential for technical and engineering solutions to intermittency (with or without nuclear):
He says (with my emboldening to indicate a significant phrasing):
“… if having a stable and reliable electricity supply is also a top priority, then the use of any
of the intermittent sources (wind, solar, or tidal) should be minimized, and governments may want to prioritize the use of nuclear, or transition from coal or oil to gas, or invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology”
His exhortation, in this scenario, to minimise any use of RE, is telling.
One wonders how much effort he put into trying to find approaches for which the main policy priorities could be reconciled or dealt with at minimal or no cost , alongside the seven he settled on and included in his paper. I’ll leave that for the reader to ponder.
At this point I decided to look up a few of the relevant references in the report (there being little practical way of following them all in a reasonable time, because there are 255 references included in the paper). This was not a comprehensive analysis, obviously, but a near-random test to see whether the references are from credible sources, and likely to provide relevant substantiated evidence to support the claims in the paper.
The example I chose to follow through in this way was the 100%-RE straw man (in his paragraph quoted above that starts with “an energy transition …”). The references he cites to support his anti-RE stance (or at least anti-near-100%-RE straw-man) are as follows, with the results of my enquiries below each one:
Epstein, A. Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
According to wikipedia:
“Jason Wilson of The Guardian alleged that Epstein has a close association with conservative advocacy groups and receives funding from the Koch brothers and that "Epstein's work has been popular and influential on the right because it is a particularly fluent, elaborate form of climate denialism."”
Clack, C.T.M.; Qvist, S.A.; Apt, J.; Bazilian, M.; Brandt, A.R.; Caldeira, K.; Davis, S.J.; Diakov, V.; Handschy, M.A.; Hines, P.D.H.; et al. Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2017, 114, 6722–6727.
Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, and Bethany A. Frew -(2015) “Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes”
But supports the IPCC’s position – eg by saying in the abstract:
“A number of analyses, meta-analyses, and assessments, including those performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the International Energy Agency, have concluded that deployment of a diverse portfolio of clean energy technologies makes a transition to a low-carbon-emission energy system both more feasible and less costly than other pathways.”
Kelly, M.J. Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability. MRS Energy Sustain. 2016, 3.
An article which outlines some genuine challenges to what it calls “rapid decarbonisation pathways”, but which is also incorrect in some basic aspects of AGW. Eg it claimed
”17 years of real world data now show no increase in the globally averaged surface temperature”
That is debunked here:
Heard, B.P.; Brook, B.W.;Wigley, T.M.L.; Bradshaw, C.J.A. Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 2017, 76, 1122–1133. Energies 2020, 13, 4839 40 of 49
This paper is a serious contribution to planning for net zero, highlighting some of the challenges in achieving net zero, if that was done with “100% renewable-electricity Systems” (ie “(mainly hydroelectricity, biomass, wind, solar, wave and geothermal), often with the explicit exclusion of nuclear power and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage”). However, it uses the premise that we should not start out on such a journey until its “technical feasibility” has been determined in advance of starting. It also has a high threshold for success and very limited consideration of what happens if we don’t decarbonise sufficiently earnestly in the sorts of timescales talked about in net zero (eg 2050). It therefore has a bias towards delaying decarbonisation actions, and focuses on non-feasibility of solutions that exclude nuclear energy and FF with CCS.
Shaner, M.R.; Davis, S.J.; Lewis, N.S.; Caldeira, K. Geophysical constraints on the reliability of solar and wind power in the United States. Energy Environ. Sci. 2018, 11, 914–925.
This paper says things like:
“To obtain 80% reliability, solar-heavy wind/solar generation mixes require sufficient energy storage to overcome the daily solar cycle, whereas wind-heavy wind/solar generation mixes require continental-scale transmission to exploit the geographic diversity of wind. Policy and planning aimed at providing a reliable electricity supply must therefore rigorously consider constraints associated with the geophysical variability of the solar and wind resource—even over continental scales”
Hardly a damning rebuttal of the scenario of approaching 100% RE, but food for thought in meeting some of the challenges of the transition of the global energy systems.
Brook, B.W.; Blees, T.;Wigley, T.M.L.; Hong, S. Silver Buckshot or Bullet: Is a Future “Energy Mix” Necessary? Sustainability 2018, 10, 302.
This paper agrees with the urgency of decarbonisation, but presents a case for an all-nuclear energy future in order to achieve it in time.
Van Kooten, G.C.;Withey, P.; Duan, J. How big a battery? Renew. Energy 2020, 146, 196–204
According to desmog:
“Van Kooten is a climate change skeptic affiliated with a number of groups that actively dispute the existence of man-made climate change. He has been an “Expert” at the Heartland Institute and is currently a senior fellow of both the Fraser Institute and the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.”
Connolly, M.; Connolly, R.; Soon, W.; Moore, P.; Connolly, I. Analysis of Greenpeace Business Model; Heartland Institute
According to Wikipedia:
“[Willie] Soon is a climate change denier, disputing the scientific understanding of climate change, and contends that most global warming is caused by solar variation rather than by human activity. He co-wrote a paper whose methodology was widely criticised by the scientific community. Climate scientists such as Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies have refuted Soon's arguments, and the Smithsonian does not support his conclusions. He is nonetheless frequently cited by politicians opposed to climate-change legislation.”
“The Heartland Institute is an American conservative and libertarian public policy think tank known for its rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and the negative health impacts of smoking”
Prins, G.; Galiana, I.; Green, C.; Grundmann, R.; Korhola, A.; Laird, F.; Nordhaus, T. The Hartwell Paper: A New Direction for Climate Policy after the Crash of 2009. LSE, 2010. Available online: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/27939/ (accessed on 14 September 2020).
The report concludes:
“To attain this goal [ie decarbonisation of the global economy] we recommend an innovation-focused strategy funded by an hypothecated carbon tax, priced as high as is politically acceptable, which will certainly be rather low (bearing in mind most recently the lessons of the March 2010 jettisoning of its proposed carbon tax by the French government). We believe that such a framing offers the greatest potential for securing sustainable and effective action on any – and hence on all – these issues.”
So, they express similar views, in summary, to those of Dieter Helm (see below).
Moore, P.A. Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist
According to Wikipedia:
“[Patrick] Moore has … denied the consensus of the scientific community on climate change, for example by claiming that increased carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere is beneficial, that there is no proof that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for global warming, and that even if true, increased temperature would be beneficial to life on Earth. These views are contradicted by the scientific consensus on the effects of global warming, which expects climate change to have a significant and irreversible negative impact on climate and weather events around the world, posing severe risks like ocean acidification and sea level rise to human society and to other organisms.”
Helm, D. “Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels”; Revised edition; Yale University Press: London, UK, 2018; ISBN 978-0-300-23448-0.
Dieter Helm is a legitimate, credible, independent source.
Helm, for example, in “Burn Out” (and reinforced in his later book “Net Zero”) suggests that FFs will be in the mix for quite some time, as a pragmatic statement. But, to my knowledge, he doesn’t anywhere suggest that a decarbonised energy system, or one that approaches 100% RE, isn’t feasible. So, the reference to his work does not support the text in the Coilín ÓhAiseadha paper that it is claimed to support.
Helm is a stern critic of the achievability of the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree goal. However, he advocates for and supports leading countries who are “Going it alone” in tackling climate change (which is one of the chapter titles in his book “Net Zero”) – ie establishing appropriate carbon pricing, carbon taxes and border carbon adjustments. These mechanisms, applied unilaterally, in turn incentivise other countries to do the same (to maintain international competitiveness and obtain the tax revenues for their own country rather than pay them over to a country they are exporting to).
Helm therefore proposes a different solution for getting to Net Zero – one that is not mutually exclusive set alongside net zero goals – he does not dispute the need to get to net zero, nor the feasibility of a near-100% RE global economy. He just suggests it might take some time to get there – perhaps more than we have available to avert the worst environmental consequences. He is critical of net zero targets, not because they are inherently wrong, but because, as currently expressed (on a “production” basis) they do not go far enough. In “Net Zero” he concludes:
“We can choose … that we at least … no longer cause further climate change, but only if we do it on a consumption basis… If we choose to wait another 30 years, there will be damage. We will regret it, limping on with poor infrastructures, poor health and well-being, and low productivity, but not as much as the next generation will.”
Harjanne, A.; Korhonen, J.M. Abandoning the concept of renewable energy. Energy Policy 2019, 127, 330–340.
According to Wikipedia:
“Atte Erik Harjanne … is a Finnish politician currently serving in the Parliament of Finland for the Green League at the Helsinki constituency.”
Note that the referenced paper itself says, in its abstract:
“[This] paper does not intend to criticize or promote any specific form of energy production, but instead discusses the role of institutional conceptualization in energy policy.”
Shellenberger, M. Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All; Harper: New York, NY, USA, 2020.
Heavily criticised here:
“Two prominent ‘lukewarmers’ take climate science denial to another level, offering tepid manifestos at best”
“Both books contain many pages of endnotes and references to academic publications, conveying the initial impression that their arguments are supported by reason and evidence. But the well-informed reader will recognise that they rely on sources that are outdated, cherry-picked or just wrong.”
According to Wikipedia:
“Michael Shellenberger is a journalist and author. He has co-edited and written a number of books, including Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007), An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), and Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All (2020). A former public relations professional, Shellenberger's writing has focused on the intersection of climate change, nuclear energy, and politics. … A controversial and polarizing figure, Shellenberger sharply disagrees with other environmentalists over the impacts of environmental threats and policies for addressing them. Shellenberger's positions have been called "bad science" and "inaccurate" by environmental scientists and academics.”
Lomborg, B. False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet; Basic Books: New York, NY, USA, 2020.
Heavily criticised here:
“Two prominent ‘lukewarmers’ take climate science denial to another level, offering tepid manifestos at best”
“a different form of climate change denial is emerging from the polemical columns of rightwing newspapers. They paint a Panglossian picture of manmade climate crisis that will never be catastrophic as long as the world grows rich by using fossil fuels. The “lukewarmers” are on the march and coming to a bookshop near you.”
According to Wikipedia:
“The Lomborg Deception, a 2010 Yale University Press book by Howard Friel, analyzed the ways in which Lomborg has "selectively used (and sometimes distorted) the available evidence", and alleged that the sources Lomborg provided in the footnotes did not support—and, in some cases directly contradicted, Lomborg's assertions in the text of the book”
Mills, M.P. Green Energy Reality Check: It’s not as Clean as You Think; Manhattan Institute: New York, NY, USA, 2020; p. 20.
(this is an article on the Manhattan Institute website)
According to Wikipedia:
“In 2005, [Manhattan] Institute senior fellows Peter Huber and Mark Mills released the book The Bottomless Well, which disputes several popular beliefs about energy … Published amid concern about "peak oil", the book argues that expanding energy supplies mean higher productivity, more jobs, and a growing GDP. In a 2016 report, Mills argued that there has "never been a more opportune time for America to capture the geopolitical 'soft power' benefits from greater oil production and exports". Further, Mills makes the case that the U.S. is poised for a boom in the shale oil industry, driven by technological advancements—specifically big-data analytics.”
About the Manhattan Institute, Wikipedia says:
"the organization does not take a formal position on climate change science."
It’s significant that a number of the references Coilín ÓhAiseadha cites (but by no means all of them – see my comments about Dieter Helm) are from well-known anti-AGW sources that disseminate disinformation or misinformation about climate change.
There is a discussion that paints a much more optimistic view than that, eg about RE and baseload, here:
I think the above excerpts from the paper comprise a form of trojan horse argument, based on having built up some facts that are at least partially true and, on the face of it, some of them seem quite reasonable points to make. But then, when presenting the facts and discussion, he creates a false dichotomy premise that there has to be a compromise that leaves a significant FF element in the energy mix, in effect, in perpetuity (in all countries). ie unless I’m mistaken, he is, in effect, advocating a pro-FF, anti- Net Global Zero approach (unless he puts tremendous faith in CCS)?
I find the approach in his paper to costs and benefits to be either financially extraordinarily naïve or extraordinarily selective/ one-sided (and therefore misleading in the context of the challenges presented by AGW in the context of overall unsustainability of current human systems).
In relation to the paper by Coilín ÓhAiseadha which is the subject of this blog entry, I’m left with the distinct impression that it is highly likely that it:
“contain[s] many pages of references to academic publications, conveying the initial impression that their arguments are supported by reason and evidence. But the well-informed reader will recognise that they rely on sources that are outdated, cherry-picked or just wrong.”
Like Shellenberger and Lomborg before him, not everything that Coilín ÓhAiseadha says is wrong.
“Not everything that Lomborg and Shellenberger write is wrong. They are both correct in saying that the world should be investing far more in making populations, particularly in poor countries, more resilient to our changing climate. Even if the world is successful in its implementation of the Paris Agreement and limits global warming to well below 2C by the end of the century, the impacts will continue to grow over the coming decades, threatening lives and livelihoods across the globe. But their argument that adaptation to climate crisis impacts is easier and cheaper than emissions cuts is undermined by their admission that the economic costs of extreme weather are rising because ever-more-vulnerable businesses and homes are being built in high-risk areas.”
Coilín ÓhAiseadha’s paper is published in MDPI, an open access publishing organisation. There are concerns about how robust and credible the peer review process is for such organisations.
For example, from Wikipedia:
“MDPI's business practices have resulted in significant growth but have attracted criticism, with controversies related to the quality of its peer reviews and accusations of subordination of academic functions to business interests…. In 2013, one of MDPI's journals was targeted in the Who's Afraid of Peer Review? sting operation and rejected the fake paper.”
These concerns raise doubts about whether the peer review process undertaken before papers are published in such sources always rejects papers that don’t meet an adequate threshold for accuracy of information presented and proper substantiation of any claims that are made within them.
My experience of reading Coilín ÓhAiseadha’s paper makes me inclined to think that such concerns might well be justified.
Finally, I'd just like to signpost one study that suggests quite the opposite of many of the suggested solutions in Coilín ÓhAiseadha’s paper, and this seems a fitting way to round off this blog post - with some measured optimism.
Ekins and Zenghelis, (2021) in "The costs and benefits of environmental sustainability" say:
"Recent evidence suggests the short-term GDP impacts of well-designed environmental action could be positive, crowding-in rather than ‘crowding out’ the drivers of future growth... A cost effective low-carbon, resource-efficient transition can generate a cleaner, quieter, more secure, innovative, and productive economy for all countries at all stages of development."
Ekins and Zenghelis look not only at the costs of transitioning to decarbonised energy systems (as part of a transition to global sustainability), but also the benefits, eg the gains (including from a climate change perspective) from avoiding costs (including externalities) associated with the existing energy infrastructures and FF use.
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