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The no-scenario scenario

19 Jun 2024 | OP ED Watch

One part of the climate debate that is highly unrealistic is… well, there are a lot. But these modeling scenarios that do both climate and the economy, including the infamous zombie RCP8.5, suffer from one particular defect we’d like to zero in on here: They try to model policy and its impacts. But policy in a democratic country is very changeable depending on how citizens view the impact of “climate change” and of climate change policies. To suggest that it can be modeled for decades using linear algebra is fatuous. For instance there’s this famous “backlash” going on now because energy costs are skyrocketing and industry is collapsing while the weather is not getting worse. Which means emissions are likely to rise more than they would if, say, solar and wind suddenly flooded the market with affordable energy and firestorms swept through every third neighbourhood with a label saying “Made in CO2”. Put that in your model and run it.

As the Manhattan Contrarian recently expressed it:

“people in positions of authority, who have no idea what they are doing, in their zeal to eliminate ‘carbon emissions,’ have set up mandates and goals that are completely irreconcilable. As a matter of physics or economics or both, the things that have been mandated to occur cannot all be accomplished at the same time, let alone within the time frames specified, or at anything close to affordable cost. Some time soon, a reckoning is inevitable.”

Try feeding that into your model, then telling us what coal consumption will be in 2025 and the temperature in 2100. It can’t be done. It can’t even be attempted.

In our view both the climate and the economy are “transcomputable”. They are just too complex, with intricate interlinked feedback mechanisms, to use linear algebra as in some Isaac Asimov fantasy about mathematically rigorous “psychohistory”. And certainly you’d look a bit of a fool trying to program a computer to predict late 19th-century American populism or the 1930s New Deal, or see World War I coming or any number of other things. (For that matter, try to model how close the Germans came to winning in the fall of 1914 and what the impact would have been on the global economy in the 20th century. We’ll wait.)

On a less cosmic scale, it’s still hopeless. The effort to predict what climate policy will be like over 30 years politically and economically is for chumps even without then trying to figure out what that policy will do to the weather. Consider that the elections for the European Parliament from June 6 to 9 famously just returned a lot of “right-wing and far-right” members. And we won’t get distracted here by the question of how there can be so many “far right” parties saying pretty normal stuff, and no “far left” parties despite the frequent lunacy of progressive pronouncements. We just want to ask: Who saw that coming? And who, even now that it has, can predict what impact it will have on European energy policy even a year from now, let alone a decade?

It probably depends considerably in the short run on the outcome of the snap French election called by President Emmanuel Macron in the wake of the European Parliamentary debacle for those of his persuasion. And nobody thinks they even know what that outcome will be, let alone who will be President of France in 2030. But in the long run, we fearlessly predict, the course of climate policy depends on how well energy policy works in real life, and how well the doomsters’ predictions of climate catastrophe turn out.

For instance, in a recent discussion on our first-ever live webinar, one point Roger Pielke Jr. stressed for those who worry about the potential impacts of climate change is that any successful policy response must involve lower energy prices. And here we’d like to add that they actually have to be lower. Not just apparently lower due to subsidies, because subsidies have to be paid for by the same citizens who use energy. And when the Canadian government budgets $750 million to bribe homeowners to switch to heat pumps, and suddenly finds itself staring at a $2.7 billion price tag, they can’t just go “Yeah, whatever, the planet is worth it.” They have to pay their bills, in cash or through more borrowing that costs even more when it comes due.

A classic “gosh, ya think?” email from the New York Times back in January said “Missing profits may be a problem for the green transition”. May be? Heatmap Daily was actually excited last October that:

“The Biden administration has begun the gargantuan work of spending down the more than $110 billion in grant funding in the new climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act. It is in a race to spend as much of the money as it can in the next year – before a potential change of administration in 2025 and before climate change gets any worse.”

They should have been horrified. We won’t get into that drivel about “before climate change gets any worse” since no sane person believes any policy change today will have measurable effects in the next 30 years, and nobody seems very sure what this thing called “climate change” is that supposedly causes weather to get worse rather than being the worse weather we’re not even having. And given the size of the American government’s spending and borrowing and the evident insouciance of the political class and citizens, $100 billion might seem like chump change. But really if the green energy transition is working, it means non-carbon-based fuels are now economically competitive with the traditional stuff so a race to spend a fortune on like whatever man shouldn’t be necessary.

Thus the fact that there are so many subsidies may sound like an achievement. But it’s actually a massive and growing problem. The International Energy Agency is apparently all excited that with total energy investment poised to surpass $3 trillion in 2024, some $2 trillion will be in “clean” energy. But what if it’s a bad deal? Then the scale just makes it worse.

Canary Media may hallucinate via email that “Renewables are moving faster than ever” and boast in the related story that:

“An estimated 507 gigawatts of renewable electricity were added to grids around the world in 2023 – a new record, and an almost 50 percent year-over-year increase from 2022. That’s the fastest growth rate renewable additions have seen in over two decades.”

But if they’re doing it on the basis of massive public financing, and failing to lower energy bills, the result will be that famous backlash again.

As Bjorn Lomborg wrote in April:

“Despite us constantly being told that solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of electricity, governments around the world needed to spend $1.8 trillion on the green transition last year. In fact, a study that shows the real cost of solar is 11-42 times higher than what we’re being told.”

And the irony here is that you can successfully hide such costs, including from yourself, if and only if renewables are not moving fast. Once they become a big part of your infrastructure plan, and your grid, these costs burst loose like, well, a firestorm.

It’s not a counsel of despair. On the contrary, while it’s a warning that as Aristotle said we should not expect more precision from any field of study than it can deliver, it’s also a vote of confidence in the messy, tortuous process of self-government, and an admonition to the proponents of this fabled green energy transition that if it’s going to happen, it has to work for other people in their actual lives, not just for you in your ivory towers.

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