Matt Ridley’s Tenth And Final Test For Climate Policy-Makers

Matthew Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist and newly appointed member of the UK House of Lords, has written an essay (found here: Ridley-Lukewarmer-Ten-Tests) which has 10 tests he says must be passed before he will consider current climate policy to be fit for purpose, or even sane.

His tenth and final test is this:

“Finally, you might make the argument that even a very small probability of a very large and dangerous change in the climate justifies drastic action. But I would reply that a very small probability of a very large and dangerous effect from the adoption of large-scale renewable energy, reduced economic growth through carbon taxes or geo-engineering also justifies extreme caution. Pascal’s wager cuts both ways.  At the moment, it seems highly likely that the cure is worse than disease. We are taking chemotherapy for a cold.”

My response to this is: Lord Ridley, I at least do not argue that a small probability of a large and dangerous change in the climate justifies drastic action.

Instead I argue that an easily foreseeable and preventable problem of medium scope will be stacked on top of the other challenges facing the planet, in large part because we refuse to take the ‘no regrets’ actions that would be beneficial to us even if the problem turned out not to exist.

Easily foreseeable? In 2075 there will be 9.1 billion people on the planet. Apart from the Bottom Billion, most will be striving to live a Western lifestyle and most will have the money to do so. The Western lifestyle is characterized by energy consumption–308 mbtus per person per year for Americans, 427 mbtus for Canadians, a more modest 250 mbtus for Germans. Pick your preferred trajectory and perform the multiplication.

If in 2075 we are in fact burning 3,000 quads annually, even at a very low sensitivity global warming due to human emissions of CO2 becomes a problem. Remember that we only consumed 523 quads worldwide in 2010.

We most likely won’t be blessed by ENSO neutral years and other cycles will be on the upswing by that time as well. A confluence of upward moving cycles could make one of the final decades of this century truly dramatic–even with low sensitivity and without overstepping the more modest predictions of potential warming that we Lukewarmers prefer to use.

Preventable? We could be safeguarding coast lines and flood plains now, using insurance as an incentive and vast armies of the unemployed in the U.S. as the workforce. How long will New York and New Jersey have to wait for a breakwater?

These are things we should be doing even in the complete absence of global warming.

We could be supporting energy efficiency and establishing benchmarks for buildings and factories–the amount of variation in energy efficiency in buildings with the highest LEEDS certification is huge. We’re not taking it seriously.

We will eventually wish to preserve remaining fossil fuels for specialty uses, with or without global warming. Energy efficiency saves money and gives us fuel to use for the future.

We could be supporting Rural Electrification Programs throughout the developing world, giving them solar power and saving them the huge cost of building a transmission grid.

Even without an iota of anthropogenic climate change, helping them cease to burn dung saves lives–giving them electricity brings them closer to us in all the right ways–avoiding the construction of a transmission grid preserves important parts of threatened ecosystems.

We could increase our investment in research on battery (5 x in 5 years is a good start) technology and storage.

We could write off failed projects like support for converting American corn into ethanol and help people eat and turn our attention to fourth generation biofuels–Get ADM off our backs and out of the fuel business.

There are a hundred things that we should do even if the planet is turning into an icebox. We could eliminate holdover no-fly zones established for World War II and the Cold War, saving millions of gallons of jet fuel. We could go to staged landing that reduces the millions of hours planes spend circling airports. We could mandate uprating of existing hydroelectric facilities. We could promote ground source heat pumps in northern lands instead of insisting that solar and wind will somehow work where in fact they will not.

We could actually start putting up nuclear power plants. France went nuclear over a period of 20 years, ending up with 85% of their power provided by nukes–and it happened to be the period of greatest prosperity the country has ever experienced.

What global warming threatens us with is not cancer and adaptation and mitigation efforts are not chemotherapy.

The more apt analogy is that we have been diagnosed as obese and are being asked to consider a sane regimen that avoids over-consumption, adopting a slightly different lifestyle that involves more exercise and healthier foods.


Being asked to put away the things of childhood–the endless procession of Big Macs and gallon-sized Slurpees–may not sound as romantic as fighting the Big C and heroically charting your own course.

But that’s what it comes down to.


24 responses to “Matt Ridley’s Tenth And Final Test For Climate Policy-Makers

  1. “Instead I argue that an easily foreseeable and preventable problem of medium scope will be stacked on top of the other challenges facing the planet…”

    As I’ve pointed out before, we don’t even know if the benefits are positive or negative. Positive benefits are generally assumed in the economic literature up to 2C of warming. So based on the best guesswork we have, I’d say Ridley’s position is supported by the evidence and yours is not…

    • Hiya Will–I believe it is phrased as there will be net economic benefits up through 2030 or 2040 if sensitivity is as claimed.

      But really–what do you think the effects will be of burning 3,000 quads a year, 70% from fossil fuel, mostly coal?

      • That’s the question I’m asking you. What does that scary number actually mean in terms of impacts?

        If you look at one particular area that has received a lot of publicity – the melting of sea ice and general warming in the Arctic – then you will note that in IPCC AR4, Working Group II, chapter on the cryosphere, the areas of concern that the chapter authors choose to highlight are threats to tourism, skiing, ice climbing and ‘scenic activities’. (I always thought ‘scenic activities’ were covered under the umbrella of tourism, but I guess they ran out of concerns and had to double dip. 😉 )

        The question I’m posing is, using this as an example, does changes to tourist patterns, the ski industry or ice climbing, require an international billion or trillion dollar global response?

        Perhaps you could be more specific on what your concerns relate to and what evidence you have for justifying that concern.

      • My concerns are that, for example, occurrences such as Pick-a-Category Storm Sandy might become more common. That would be more costly if it happened in the developed world. I am equally concerned about possibly more intense storms in the developing world.

        I am concerned that continued depletion of aquifers might cause further subsidence along coastal shores with high urban concentrations, making them more vulnerable to storm surges.

        I am concerned that precipitation patterns might change, with more rain falling in some areas and other areas more susceptible to drought. Again, if it happens in the developed world it will be expensive, if in the developing world fatal to many. I am particularly concerned about flooding in low lying tropical countries.

        In short, I think that the absurd claims for Xtreme Weather in the present day may actually be fairly prescient regarding future conditions. I think the monetary savings from present actions are sufficient to warrant them. I think the potential savings of life in the developing world make them compelling.

      • Hmmm…. so now this boils down to extreme weather events? But we have no data on changes in long term trends here. I.e., no evidence.

        Stronger storms? Maybe. We could also end up with weaker storms. Storms are the product of clashes between warm and cold fronts. Additional warming, particularly related to polar amplification, should reduce differentials resulting in more stable climate… i.e., less storms. At lest overall… that is one argument, anyway.

        The other claim I’ve seen floating around is that “acceleration” of the hydrological cycle will lead to more chaotic weather. Is there any particular research that I should be looking at in support of your claim?

        I’m now trying to be adversarial for the sake of it. I’m just looking for reasons why I should champion your position rather than be sceptical of it.

      • This may turn into a post and I may elevate your comments. No. It’s more than weather. I also fear weird combinations of factors, like subsidence due to aquifer depletion combined with steric sea level rise combined with a higher intensity storm. Or threats to biodiversity such as spread of livestock diseases combined with new limits on territorial escape for species. Things like that that I could never put a number on–so you could call it smoke. But it worries me.

      • ‘now’ should read ‘not’.

    • I suspect you could put forward a strong Prima facie case for biodiversity concerns. (AGW being just one factor…)

      I’m struggling to find anything convincing in the other areas you mention, though.

  2. That’s a very lyrical, passionate and rousing essay you wrote, Thomas.

    I still don’t see how it justifies windmills and carbon taxes.

    Higher energy consumption in the future is inevitable. We need more energy, clean energy. That means new and improved technologies.

    Wind and solar have been tried, and failed horribly. The money withdrawn from the economies of the US and the Eurozone to pay for them might as well have been poured in the gutter.

    Wind and solar are not the new and improved technologies we need. They pretend to be the solution, but they patently are not. They are the reason why we call it “the global warming hoax.”

    Hydro — an ecologist’s nightmare. Let’s not go there.

    Thomas, your argument seems to be that fossil fuels are a major polluter; that coal is the worst polluter of all; that as energy consumption increases, if we stick to coal then the earth will become intolerably polluted; therefore we must embrace any alternative no matter how impractical or how ruinous the cost.

    Kind of like the guy lost in the desert for three days who would pay a thousand bucks for a cup of water.

    In the long run, nuclear energy may be the best solution, but because the scare stories have been so successfully propagated, elected leaders are afraid to touch it lest they be voted out again.

    In the meantime, we’re going to be stuck with coal.

    In addition to carbon dioxide, coal-fired thermal power plants emit sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter and trace elements.

    If we’re agreed that climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide is far lower than claimed, then we can focus on the other emissions, which are unarguably serious pollutants.

    Now I’m not saying this as if I know the answer and it will prove my point: I’m asking a question. What is the cost of cleaning the emissions of coal-fired power stations to tolerable levels, and how does it compare with the cost of alternative energy?

    If we had some numbers, we could evaluate my hypothesis: that carbon taxes and the green surcharge on electricity would better be applied to cleaning coal emissions, and to building nuclear power plants.

    • Hi Old Fossil,

      My understanding is that Carbon Capture and Storage, the only mechanism proposed to date to deal with the CO2 emissions of coal plants, is far more expensive than replacing coal with nukes, and has the further disadvantage of not having been shown to work in the ‘wild’. But I admit I haven’t seen side by side comparisons of the relative costs.

    • @oldfossil:

      I suspect that you’re judging solar and wind’s future on where these technologies were 10 or 20 years ago, rather than where they are now or will be in 10 years. Did you see this chart from twfuller’s last post?

      Of course, you can’t judge a product’s future viability by how widespread it is. A technology that is 20% too expensive will have a similar market share as a technology 2000% too expensive: In either case, ~0%. But as the price drops, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the new technology is adopted once its price crosses over and becomes cheaper than the old tech.

      By 2020-2030, solar will be cheap enough in the southern US to be putting some rather reasonable pressure on the utilities. In some places without the benefit of cheap coal power (Spain, Italy, Hawai’i), solar is already becoming competitive without subsidies. For example:

      The people who are saying “it will never happen” because it hasn’t happened yet.. well, they’ll be left in the dust, like the buggy-whip makers who saw no threat from the early, slow, unsafe automobiles. How quickly a technology is advancing is much more important than just where it is right now.

      • Hi Windchaser,

        Wind and solar are sending in a boy to do a man’s job.

        I hear your technology argument, but speak as someone who has recently been exposed to the bidding process for green energy established by NERSA, the National Energy Regulator of South Africa.

        After the first round of bidding, wind energy comes in at nearly eight times the cost of coal. The comparative factor for nuclear is four and for solar, six.

        Presumably the very latest technology was used as the basis of calculation.

        I was also involved in a feasibility study for one of the bidders, who planned to establish a wind park in the Coega district of Eastern Cape.

        I was kicked off the project when in spite of every financial structuring I could devise, I couldn’t reduce the payback period below 50 years. Subsequently the Japanese client withdrew from the bidding anyway, so I don’t think my successor had any better luck.

        Back then I was still pro-AGW, by the way.

        Purely in a spirit of banter I mention that last night I read again Richard Feynman’s famous commencement address at Caltech in 1974, titled “Cargo Cult Science.” He said,

        During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land.

        And I couldn’t help thinking of wind turbines with their propellor-like blades spinning in futility. So far, no planes have landed.

  3. Loved the picture of the slightly overweight gentleman. On the energy and new buildings front I noticed that the UC Davis Westlake Village project “largest planned zero-net energy community in the nation.” is having some issues retaining tenants.

    I was a bit surprised that detailed data on energy use isn’t available yet given the advent of smart meters and hopefully useful databases. It will be interesting to see how the Westlake Village projects zero-net energy efforts pan out over the next few years.

  4. I don’t think Matt Ridley is going to appreciate that picture you put of him in this post.

  5. It all comes down to risk assessment and a cost trade-off. NY and NJ should better protect against future storms. Unfortunately NY and NJ are a couple of states with the most dire finances in the US. And the future is grim due to the built in public pension costs that are unsustainable, among other issues. Something is going to break here eventually.

    And this all leads to a common mistake about what governments really do. Governments attempt to efficiently allocate scarce resources (taxpayer money). They don’t decide if climate change mitigation is worthy of funding. They decide if climate change mitigation is more worthy than paying pensions.

    You can construct your own strawman here, but in the end it is about how much it costs, a judgment on what the benefits are, and a judgment on whether this has *** more value *** than other competing interests.

    And there are a lot of “here and now” competing interests. Education, health care, infrastructure, to name a few.

    The merits of the argument just don’t favor big funding for uncertain problems far into the future. Maybe we will regret it later. Not funding education and health care completely is something we will regret now for sure.

    You need some pretty good salesman to make this case.

    • Were I installed in public office in either state I would be looking for federal assistance quite eagerly. We didn’t expect New Orleans to pick up the tab for Katrina–and I’m not talking about the repair and rescue. They’ve done quite a bit of work in future-proofing their levee system and I do believe it was done on the federal dime.

      You have correctly identified the components of the argument–err, discussion—umm, debate we need to have about what we expect government to do. And I believe we do need better salesmen than Gore, McKibben and the blog hyenas. Maybe one will turn up here in the comments section.

      • If all the blue states come to the feds looking for a handout because they can’t pay their pension obligations, you can expect a full fledged riot to breakout. IL is the worst off by far. TX will probably secede, and then I’ll move over there.

      • I’m not an expert on pension reform, but in-country immigration does interest me. I think the eventual solution will be the offering of discounted services in lieu of cash payments and it will be quite painful. I certainly doubt that Texas will secede, but I’m curious as to why you think things will be better there than in Illinois, if you have the desire to explain. (And why you don’t make the move now, if you’re sure about it.)

      • IL has the lowest funding rate for public pensions of any state and the worst credit rating. Healthy funding for a pension is 80%, IL funding rate is 39%. This system will collapse, it is a done deal. Ultimately people will simply get less than they expected maybe 50% to 75% of their expected pensions.

        The reason is simple, IL has chosen over decades to not fund their pensions and instead pay their current bills. Essentially rading the penions fund on a regular basis. Asking other states to pay for this mistake (fiscal incompetence) is not going to fly.,0,7223844.story

  6. What global warming threatens us with is not cancer and adaptation and mitigation efforts are not chemotherapy.

    Actually…in the developed world, depending on the pace of mitigation it is very close to the analogy of chemotherapy….I.E…We end up killing perfectly good energy generation assets in order to ‘save the body’.

    The Levy County nuclear project in Florida isn’t on hold due to lack of adequate subsidy…or inability to attract financing….or natural gas….or public opposition to nuclear…it’s on hold due to demand risk.

    It’s not expected that 2+ GW of additional baseload generation will be needed in Florida for at least a decade.

    In order for the developed world to accelerate their roll out of ‘clean energy’ pretty much requires prematurely ‘killing’ perfectly good generating assets.

    If I look at the UK case…the ‘political class’ has been attempting to make the case that the useful life of ‘fossil fuel’ generating plants is 30 years. This is a ridiculously short period of time. 60 years is closer to the ‘norm’.

    Obviously…the owners of 30 year old generating assets..having just managed to pay off the mortgage on their plants are going to object strenuously to their assets being declared ‘useless’ when they have a good 30 years of life left.

    Once the precedent of ‘regulatory taking’ is established then the cost of finance for any new generating capacity will be prohibitive as the owners of the new generating capacity will invest knowing that there is no reasonable expectation of being allowed to run the asset for it’s full life.

    Nobody would buy a house if they believed the government would deliberately burn down the house without compensation at the 30 year mark.

    Yet…this is what advocates for action on climate change are demanding the government do in relation to electric generating capacity.

    Then the advocates don’t understand why no one is interested in building new capacity without massive subsidy.

    In the US the ‘target date’ for Gen IV nuclear is the early to mid 2020’s as that is when the ‘useful life’ of the bulk of the US’s coal fired fleet reaches 60.

    Demanding a faster pace will just result in a complete lack of interest by the private sector in investing in generating capacity.

    • I think you have pointed to one of the many issues that are routinely overlooked by advocates of any position. You can not “make a switch” with out leaving something behind that is currently working and making money for the current owners operators and investors. This same group of people will be the ones who replace their own capacity at the appropriate time. Not when some people feel they should make a switch. The only ones who make out from premature abandonment are suppliers and construction groups.

      There will never be an incentive to switch early that is economical for the consumers/taxpayers period your options are screw the consumers as the costs are recouped with higher charges, pay off the capital investment directly with tax money (still some of the consumers but not seen monthly in bills) or let the natural economic limit dates determine replacement.

      Unless somebody knows of some other way to fun multi-million dollar construction projects that actually have a decent ROR and ROI after operating expenses. Ohh I guess the 4th option is to have it be government run so the economics don’t matter and the tax payer still gets to pay for it but then nobody makes money.

    • Well, Harry, you’re making sense and I guess it’s my fault for stretching the metaphor past its rated elasticity point. (Though I still think my analogy is more useful than competing ‘medical’ stories. And thank you for bringing investment decisions back into the discussion.

      In a somewhat lukewarm support of some of Matt Ridley’s points, insofar as he was influenced by the performance of the UK government in writing his essay, I can sympathize with him–it’s hard to identify one thing they’ve done correctly so far.

  7. fund multi milion dollar projects….

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