Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel has attacked former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for questioning the existence of a scientific consensus on global warming and for promoting a documentary called Climate Hustle, whose aim is to expose the myths about global warming. Climatologist Judith Curry has written a review of the film, which she found to be “pretty entertaining and even interesting, especially the narratives developed around silly alarmist statements made by scientists and politicians.” Dr. Curry vouched that “there were no goofy or incredible statements about the science” in the movie, but she went on to add: “The perspective in Climate Hustle is arguably a minority perspective, at least in terms of world governments and a select group of scientists.”
Jimmy Kimmel has not watched the movie, but he quotes NASA to support his claim that there’s a 97 percent consensus among climate scientists who are active in the field, that human activities are responsible for global warming over the past century. Kimmel has even put together a 7-minute video explaining why we should trust scientists’ warnings about its potentially dire consequences.
The 97% figure has been severely critiqued on the Internet, for reasons which are summarized in a 2014 article on Popular Technology.net, titled, 97 Articles Refuting The “97% Consensus”. However, the latest research (see also here and here) appears to establish beyond reasonable doubt that 90 to 100% of climate experts do, in fact, agree that the global warming in recent years is man-made – although I should point out that the exact definition of “recent” varies from survey to survey. Additionally, the greater the level of climate expertise among the various kinds of scientists surveyed, the higher their level of agreement that global warming is indeed caused by human beings. So I think we can award one point to Jimmy Kimmel, and against Sarah Palin, regarding the existence of a scientific consensus on climate change.
On the other hand, the consensus that Kimmel appeals to is a relatively modest one: most of the warming we have experienced in recent years (especially since the mid-20th century) is man-made. And that’s all. Currently, there’s no scientific consensus that global warming is likely to be catastrophic. And if it’s not going to be catastrophic, then Kimmel’s worries about the dangers of global warming are misplaced.
Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. While it’s reasonably certain that the rise in global temperatures since the late 1970s has been largely man-made, what’s not certain is how much temperatures will eventually rise in the future, as a result of further greenhouse gas emissions – in other words, the equilibrium climate sensitivity (or ECS), which is defined as the equilibrium change in global mean air temperatures near the Earth’s surface that would result from a sustained doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. The scientific disagreement on this subject relates not to the effects of carbon dioxide but to the feedback effects of water vapor, which the IPCC claims will magnify the effects of carbon dioxide increases by a factor of two, three or four, or perhaps even six. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) states that “there is high confidence that ECS is extremely unlikely [to be] less than 1°C and medium confidence that the ECS is likely between 1.5°C and 4.5°C and very unlikely [to be] greater than 6°C.” That’s quite a range of uncertainty.
I might add that Jimmy Kimmel’s assertion that “we’ve had 15 of the 16 hottest years ever since 2001” was a bad slip: in fact, during the previous interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, temperatures were 1 or 2°C hotter than they are now, due to changes in the Earth’s orbit. What Kimmel should have said was that according to NASA, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. (To be fair, he did say earlier on in the video that you can know that global warming is real when the hottest year “on record” is the current year.) And as climatologist and former NASA scientist Dr. Roy Spencer points out, “even if 2015 is the warmest on record, and NOAA has exactly the right answer, it is still well below the average forecast of the IPCC’s climate models, and something very close to that average forms the basis for global warming policy. In other words, even if every successive year is a new record, it matters quite a lot just how much warming we are talking about.” Dr. Spencer has also queried NASA’s figures, which rely heavily on land and sea measurements of temperature and are prone to distortion from bad datasets, urban heat island effects and El Nino. Satellite measurements, which are more rigorous and which generally agree with (1) radiosondes and (2) most global reanalysis datasets, paint a less alarming picture than the NASA figures.
Perhaps Jimmy Kimmel will respond by appealing to the Precautionary Principle: if there’s a small but significant likelihood that global warming will prove to be catastrophic, then we should do something about it. Better safe than sorry. What this reasoning overlooks, however, is that combating global warming will be very, very costly: $44 trillion on a very optimistic estimate (which will more than double if technology for capturing and storing carbon dioxide can’t be deployed), and $100 trillion on a more detailed and realistic estimate, making it 1,000 times more expensive than the Apollo program, in today’s dollars.
When a project costs that much, we need to ask ourselves three questions: can we afford it, is there any way we can do it a lot more cheaply, and finally, if we decided to financially commit ourselves to the project, what other important projects would we have to give up?
Let’s take affordability first. Media claims that fighting global warming will have a negligible impact on GDP growth are based on economically flawed reasoning, and reports claiming that combating global warming will actually save us money have been criticized for their over-optimistic assumptions. One oft-cited IPCC estimate that fighting global warming will shave a mere 0.06% off GDP growth turns out to be pure poppycock. As David Roberts convincingly argues over at Grist, we do not, and cannot, know how much it will cost to tackle climate change. Roberts cites three academic papers to support his arguments – a 2015 report by Richard Rosen of the Tellus Institute and Edeltraud Guenther of the Technische Universitaet Dresden, an earlier report by Frank Ackerman (Stockholm Environment Institute-US Center, Tufts University) and his colleagues, and a 2013 report by Serban Scrieciu, Terry Barker and Frank Ackerman. In their 2015 report, Rosen and Guenther conclude that “not only do we not know the approximate magnitude of the net benefits or costs of mitigating climate change to any specific level of future global temperature increase over the next 50–100 years, but we also cannot even claim to know the sign of the mitigation impacts on GWP, or national GDPs, or any other economic metric commonly computed.” The authors recommend that “the IPCC and other scientific bodies should no longer report attempts at calculating the net economic impacts of mitigating climate change to the public in their reports.” Some economists have also claimed that replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power and/or renewable energy will actually increase countries’ GDP, but the truth is that we really don’t know. What we do know is that investing in clean energy and related technologies from 2011 to 2050 in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will cost over $2 trillion a year (which is about 2.7% of the current Gross World Product), if the total cost of fighting global warming comes to $100 trillion. An outlay of that magnitude is a huge financial undertaking. I should add that the detailed $100 trillion plan put forward by Dr. Mark Jacobson (see here and here) for fighting global warming probably won’t work, anyway. Back in 2013, Jacobson announced plans for the full-scale conversion of the state of New York to wind, water and solar [WWS] technology. Jacobson’s plans were widely panned, and a devastating review of them was published in an article titled, Critique of the 100% Renewable Energy for New York Plan (The Energy Collective, November 17, 2013) by energy and technology writer Edward Dodge. To make matters worse, as Professor John Morgan explains in an online article titled, The Catch-22 of Energy Storage, the ratio of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for solar and wind power plants is far too low for them to be viable as power sources in Western countries. In short: not only are current plans to fight global warming astronomically expensive, but they may not even work, anyway.
So, is there a way we can fight global warming a lot more cheaply and effectively? That’s a question we need to ask. Bill Gates has candidly acknowledged that it will take “clean-energy miracles” to solve the problem of global warming. “Today’s technologies,” he writes, “are a good start, but not good enough.” He argues that “we need a massive amount of innovation in research and development on clean energy,” and he criticizes the United States for “severely underinvesting in clean-energy R & D”: only 2% of the federal government’s R & D spending goes on energy, while 60% goes on defense. Gates also calls for more investment in next-generation nuclear power, and contends that China is the best place for such research. Gates has personally invested a large amount of money in a company called TerraPower, which is making a “fourth-generation nuclear reactor technology.” According to Gates, there are currently a dozen promising technology paths for clean sources of energy, and he believes that “in the next 15 years we have a high probability of achieving” energy which is “measurably less expensive than hydrocarbons, completely clean and providing the same reliability.”
In a similar vein, environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, whose work has been praised by Bill Gates, argues that we should invest in future technologies, instead of subsidizing existing technologies, which are uneconomical. To illustrate his case, Lomborg cites the example of Germany, which has spent a massive 100 billion euros (or about $130 billion) on subsidies on solar panels, whose net effect will be to postpone global warming by the end of the century by a mere 23 hours, or less than one day. Gates agrees: developing countries, he writes, “can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions,” and he highly commends two recent videos by Lomborg which highlight the link between energy and poverty, and which call for more research to make clean energy “so cheap that everyone … will want to buy it” – including people in poor countries.
Finally, before we hop on the global warming bandwagon, as Jimmy Kimmel would have us do, we need to ask: are there any other important projects that would be jeopardized if we were devote ourselves to the fight against global warming? Let us bear in mind that we live in a world where 2.4 billion people lack basic sanitation, where 800 million people go hungry, where 6 million children die before their fifth birthday every year, and where only half of all women in developing countries receive adequate maternal care. The world currently spends about $135 billion per annum on overseas aid. That’s a commitment we must continue to keep, no matter how serious the global warming crisis gets. It is therefore absolutely vital that the countries of the world do their utmost to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the more ambitious post-2015 development agenda. (For more information on the Millennium Development Goals, see here.)
I would contend that even if the direst prognostications of the IPCC forecasters turn out to be correct, it would be morally wrong to withhold money from children who are dying now, in order to save generations of as-yet-unconceived children. Starvation, malnutrition and disease are clear and present dangers which kill millions. Future dangers can never take precedence over these crises. For this reason, I believe that citizens should actively resist proposals to spend tens of trillions of dollars fighting a long-term menace (global warming), at a time when children are dying of malnutrition. The course of action proposed by Kimmel is too hasty: if we are going to fight global warming, we need to fight it intelligently.
In his video, Kimmel claims that sea levels are rising rapidly as a result of global warming – which, he says, is good news only if you want to be swallowed up by water. Kimmel is being melodramatic here. In reality, the latest AR5 IPCC report estimates (Chapter 13, p. 1180) the rise by the end of the 21st century at just 0.40 meters [with a 95% likelihood range of 0.26 to 0.55 meters) on the best future global warming scenario (RCP2.6) and 0.63 meters [with a 95% likelihood range of 0.45 to 0.82 meters] on the worst scenario (RCP8.5), relative to the average global sea level for the 20-year period from 1986–2005. 0.63 meters is about 2 feet. That’s hardly catastrophic.
The cost of building hundreds of kilometers of dykes along the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta region (which will be one of the worst-affected areas) has been estimated at more than 20 billion euros. But that’s a drop in the ocean, when compared to the $100 trillion that it’ll take to combat global warming worldwide, on current estimates.
Kimmel also suggests in his video that former Governor Sarah Palin contests the reality of the greenhouse effect. That claim is simply nonsensical: what Sarah Palin contests is the degree to which man-made increases in CO2 levels amplify the greenhouse effect.
During the last two minutes of his 7-minute video, Jimmy Kimmel asks his viewers to watch a parade of climate scientists promising their audience that they are not “f***ing with you” when it comes to catastrophic climate change. I have to say that for me, this shock tactic proved to be counter-productive: far from enhancing the credibility of Kimmel’s message, it caused me to lose respect for the scientists who would demean themselves by behaving in such an unprofessional manner. And I was even less impressed when a young child dropped F-bombs at the very end of the video. “Who put him up to that?” I wondered.
So here’s my take on Jimmy Kimmel’s attack on Sarah Palin: her understanding of global warming is not as deep as Kimmel’s, but she does appreciate the uncertainties involved in long-range forecasting. But I haven’t seen the movie, Climate Hustle, so I’d very much appreciate comments from anyone who has seen it.
What do readers think?