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What Happens If the Social Costs of Carbon Goes Negative?

June 30, 2016

Climate Change Weekly #217 For Climate Change Weekly readers who aren’t skeptical of the claim humans are causing a climate catastrophe by burning fossil fuels, new studies have emerged that should temper your fears.

Climate Change Weekly #217

For Climate Change Weekly readers who aren’t skeptical of the claim humans are causing a climate catastrophe by burning fossil fuels, new studies have emerged that should temper your fears. The studies come in two areas of research, one of which feeds into the other.

Governments use “social cost of carbon (SCC)” as the metric for determining the benefits of actions that may be taken to prevent or reduce climate change or its impacts. SCC is the estimated economic damage that would be caused by emitting into the atmosphere one additional metric ton of carbon dioxide in a given year. SCC estimates depend in part on estimates of “climate sensitivity” – how sensitive is the climate to atmospheric carbon dioxide.

It’s commonly assumed, based on mathematical model calculations, that a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations from 275 parts per million (ppm), approximately pre-industrial levels, to 550 ppm, not including the estimated warming effects of various purported feedback mechanisms, will result in a global warming of approximately 1.2°C. This is the assumption upon which the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bases its projections.

In recent years enough data have been collected over a sufficient time period to supplant model-driven estimates of the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide with empirically based climate sensitivity estimates. The No Tricks Zone website has collected 50 papers supporting the conclusion that doubling carbon dioxide concentrations to 550 ppm results in a much lower temperature increase than 1.2°C. Some of the papers estimate a doubling would result in just 0.02° to 0.7°C of warming. Others find increasing carbon dioxide concentrations, because of various feedbacks, could result in net cooling of the Earth rather than a warming.

If in fact Earth’s climate is less sensitive to carbon dioxide levels than previously estimated, that could be good news for the planet and its people. According to a new study by researchers at The Heritage Foundation and the University of Guelph, incorporating recent observational estimates of climate sensitivity results in much lower SCC estimates than results from models based on simulated parameters. Lower SCC means two things: less harm results from greenhouse gas emissions than previously estimated, and mitigating any harm that does result should cost less than previously thought.

Using two popular Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) incorporating both economic and climatic processes to project future climate conditions, the study shows under one model SCC falls by 30 percent to 50 percent, depending on the discount rate. Using the second model, the average SCC falls by more than 80 percent. Depending upon the model, SCC could fall to as low as $3.33 per metric ton of carbon added. In addition, the probability of a negative SCC – meaning increased carbon dioxide levels produce net positive results for the planet – jumps dramatically. As the authors write, “replacing simulated climate sensitivity values with an empirical distribution calls into question whether CO2 is even a negative externality.”

Of course, skeptics of the human-caused catastrophic climate change theory have long noted the benefits of increased carbon dioxide levels and the overstated and underinformed nature of climate sensitivity estimates. They have disputed, early and often, the most alarming claims of harm from human greenhouse gas use. This research confirms their positions. Government officials should consider these new findings carefully before committing the United States to harmful restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.

-- H. Sterling Burnett

SOURCES: Social Science Research Network; Watts Up With That; and No Tricks Zone


Carbon dioxide cuts will impoverish worldHouse wrong, biomass not carbon-neutralEU’s biofuel push increases greenhouse gas emissionsScientist censured for exposing scientific misconduct

According to research by M.J. Kelly, a University of Cambridge engineering professor, the world’s effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is likely to be a costly endeavor, one possibly resulting in millions of unnecessary deaths.

Kelly’s study shows only fossil fuels and nuclear power have the ability to power megacities in 2050. At the same time, he notes the more severe predictions of climate change over the past 25 years have simply not occurred, and it makes little sense to make drastic carbon dioxide reductions based on predictions made by the same models that have failed to accurately predict past and present climate conditions.

The scale and variety of specific engineering challenges to decarbonizing the world is without precedent in human history, meaning the world should be skeptical of its success. Kelly argues the world needs a more sophisticated public debate that “(i) considers the full range of threats to humanity, and (ii) weighs more carefully both the upsides and downsides of taking any action, and of not taking that action.”

A proper analysis of the world’s energy needs and the threats facing humanity would conclude carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the “immense benefits” of a technologically advanced society. According to Kelly, massive decarbonization is “only possible if we wish to see large parts of the population die from starvation, destitution or violence in the absence of enough low-carbon energy to sustain society.”

Kelly concludes, “Everyone assumes that every change is for the worse, but we are starting to find upsides” in carbon dioxide. “The recent science is casting doubt on whether more CO2 is necessarily a bad thing.”

SOURCES: CNBC and MRS Energy & Sustainability

Scientists are speaking out against a provision in the House appropriations bill for fiscal year 2017 directing the Environmental Protection Agency to treat the burning of biomass (typically wood and other plant material) for energy as carbon-neutral, meaning the agency would assume the practice does not contribute any extra greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Biomass is a renewable energy source, since more trees can be grown after the old ones have been harvested. However, burning biomass for energy releases substantial amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, with some research suggesting it may be worse for the climate than burning coal.

Oregon State University Professor Beverly Law says, “It takes decades to centuries for carbon to accumulate in what I call the forest carbon bank.” By contrast, she notes, burning trees for energy releases all their carbon into the atmosphere immediately. This means burning biomass for energy has an immediate effect on greenhouse gas concentrations, one that would take years of tree-growing to reverse.

In addition, the House bill would treat the burning of biomass from residual matter left over from mills, harvests, or other forest management activities – in other words, dead biomass considered waste – as carbon-neutral. While this plant matter would decompose over a number of years emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, burning it for fuel releases all of its carbon immediately.

Similar to the biomass provisions in the House appropriations bill, earlier this year the Senate passed a sweeping energy bill including provisions treating biomass burned for fuel as carbon-neutral. Environmentalists largely decried an aspect of the bill involving biomass energy and dozens of scientists signed a letter objecting to the provision. The letter stated, “This amendment puts forest carbon in the atmosphere contributing to climate change instead of keeping it in living, productive forests that provide multiple benefits of water and wetland protection, flood control, soils protection, wildlife habitat, improved air quality and recreational benefits for hunters and all who enjoy being in the great out-of-doors. Legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect.”

SOURCE: Washington Post

New research from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) demonstrates the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive pushing the use of biofuels to fight global warming is likely increasing greenhouse gas emissions overall while doing damage to the environment. VTT found EU biofuel regulations “ignore uncertainties related to greenhouse gas calculation” and may even double-count the environmental benefits of the regulations.

The VTT study largely confirms the findings of a study published in late April by the European environmental group Transport & Environment, which found Europe’s biofuel regulations created 80 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than the conventional oil they replaced. The report estimates biofuels create new emissions equivalent to putting an extra 12 million cars on the road. The report notes environmental damage resulting from the EU’s push for biofuels includes increased tropical deforestation and damage to peatlands.

SOURCES: Daily Caller; Transport & Environment; and

In a perversion of the idea of research ethics, James Cook University (JCU) in Australia acted to undermine the process of scientific discovery and progress by censuring marine scientist Paul Ridd for “failing to act in a collegial way and in the academic spirit of the institution,” because he discovered and disclosed the fact the Centre of Excellence for Coral Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority were using misleading photographs to make the case global warming was causing a mass coral reef die-off.

Ridd should have been praised and rewarded for checking the facts and blowing the whistle on misleading science. Instead he was censured and warned by JCU if he does this again, he’ll be tried for “serious misconduct.”

The Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch points out, “Ridd [was] not alone in criticizing some institutions and environmental groups for over-hyping the impacts global warming will have on coral reefs. In fact, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s own chairman [Russell Reichelt] had to come out to dispel notions the reef was almost completely gone. ‘We’ve seen headlines stating that 93 percent of the reef is practically dead. We’ve also seen reports that 35 percent, or even 50 percent, of the entire reef is now gone. However, based on our combined results so far, the overall mortality rate is 22 percent’” with 75 percent of that amount expected to recover within the next few months.

Judith Curry’s extended discussion of the diminishment of the standard of academic misconduct is instructive and worth reading in full. She notes scientists face multiple potential ethical conflicts in carrying out their work. Scientists must conscientiously adhere to the norms of science, but they have a perceived duty to the public, and they have a sense of loyalty to colleagues and the institutions that employ them. Curry is concerned that in academic science, loyalty to one’s colleagues and institutions and respect for their opinions has become regarded as the paramount consideration, even if it comes at the expense of integrity in science and professional conduct.

JCU’s shabby treatment of Ridd would seem to confirm Curry’s concern.

SOURCES: Climate Etc. and Daily Caller

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

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