The Climate's Alright

The Climate's Alright

June 05, 2013
Originally published in National Review

“Progressive” politicians, pundits, and organizations continue to wage political warfare on affordable energy, and their team still controls the Senate and the EPA. Their worldview, however, is crumbling.

Think back to the mid-2000s, when Congress last enacted major energy bills. The period of 2005 through 2007 was a high-water mark of U.S. oil-import dependence. The expert consensus at the time held that America was fated to become ever more dependent on increasingly costly energy imports unless policymakers could tax and regulate America “beyond petroleum.”

During those same years, the Kyoto Protocol’s entry into force, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the UK government’s Stern Review (famous for warning that climate change could decrease global GDP by 5 to 20 percent annually “now and forever”), and the UN IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report set the terms of debate on global warming.

Alarm was the ideological fashion du jour. Fear of peak oil merged with fear of climatic disruption to make fuel-economy mandates, biofuel mandates, wind and solar mandates, “green jobs” programs, and even cap-and-trade seem like ideas whose time had come. A lot has happened since then.

In recent years, advances in unconventional oil and gas production have transformed North America into a major hydrocarbon-producing region. Imports as a share of U.S. petroleum consumption declined from 60 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2012.

By 2011, more than half those imports came from the Western hemisphere, with Canada’s share more than twice that of Saudi Arabia. Petroleum products became America’s leading export for the first time in 2011, and again topped the list in 2012.

As Mark Mills detailed earlier this week, the shale boom has already created hundreds of thousands of jobs and attracted $150 billion in foreign direct investment. If policymakers allow U.S. producers to compete in the global marketplace, the oil-and-gas industry could create millions of new jobs, generate hundreds of billions in cumulative tax revenues, and eliminate much of the U.S. trade deficit.

The potential geopolitical benefits are also considerable. U.S. hydrocarbon exports could undermine Russia’s leverage over Europe, weaken OPEC, strengthen alliances with friendly nations, and improve America’s bargaining position vis-à-vis our top creditor — China.

The narrative of inexorable depletion, dependence, and decline is obsolete. The narrative of climate doom is not faring much better.

A constant refrain of alarmist rhetoric is that climate change is “even worse” than scientists previously believed. That is hard to square with a 15-year period of no net warming — an outcome that “consensus” scientists did not predict and still struggle to explain. Whatever the causes, the observed warming rate over the past 15 years is lower than the UN IPCC’s best estimate, as NASA scientist Roy Spencer has clearly demonstrated.

A plausible explanation, based on several 2011-2012 studies summarized by Cato Institute climatologist Chip Knappenberger, is that the IPCC overestimated climate sensitivity (the amount of warming from a doubling of pre-industrial greenhouse-gas concentrations).

Otto et al. (2013), a study published last month in Nature, also indicates that the climate system is less sensitive than the IPCC’s best estimate. Lower climate sensitivity means less warming, hence less damaging climate change impacts. That’s good news.

There is much more. In 2006-2007, commentators like Al Gore, Joseph Romm, and Fred Pearce popularized scary climate-change impact scenarios, such as ice-sheet disintegration and catastrophic sea-level rise, dramatic increases in extreme weather, and climate-destabilizing releases of methane from melting permafrost. Recent studies undercut the credibility of such predictions. Here’s a short list:

King et al. (2012): The rate of Antarctic ice loss is not accelerating and translates to less than one inch of sea-level rise per century.

Faezeh et al. (2013): Greenland’s four main outlet glaciers are projected to contribute 0.7 to 1.1 inches to sea-level rise by 2200 under a mid-range warming scenario (2.8°C by 2100) and 1.1 to 1.9 inches under a high-end warming scenario (4.5°C by 2100).

Weinkle et al. (2012): There is no trend in the strength or frequency of land-falling hurricanes in the world’s five main hurricane basins during the past 50 to 70 years.

Bouwer (2011): There is no trend in hurricane-related damages since 1900 once economic-loss data are adjusted for changes in population, wealth, and the consumer-price index.

NOAA: There is no trend since 1950 in the frequency of strong (F3 to F5) U.S. tornadoes.

National Climate Data Center: There is no trend since 1900 in U.S. soil moisture as measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index.

Hirsch and Ryberg (2011): There is no trend in U.S. flood magnitudes over the past 85 years.

Schultz (2011): Even under the most extreme climatic scenario tested, permafrost thaw in the Siberian shelf will not exceed 10 meters in depth by 2100 or 50 meters by the turn of the next millennium, whereas the bulk of methane stores are trapped roughly 200 meters below the sea floor.

Kessler et al. (2011): Microbes digested the methane released during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, indicating that any warming-induced “large-scale releases of methane from hydrate in the deep ocean are likely to be met by a similarly rapid methanotrophic response.”

Goklany (2009): Global deaths and death rates related to extreme weather have declined by 93 percent and 98 percent, respectively, since the 1920s.

Granted, climate-alarm persists. The main reason is that climate risk is easily confused with climate-change risk. Due to their sheer magnitude and terror, natural catastrophes have an almost supernatural aspect. People are innately prone to imagine that natural disasters have non-natural causes. Thus, each time disaster strikes, pundits — especially those with scientific credentials — can plausibly blame fossil fuels and declare “it’s worse than we thought.”

But the best available science does not support such claims. Far from being worse than predicted, the climate outlook is better than we have long been told. For this reason, too, policymakers should remove self-inflicted constraints on the development and export of North American energy.