Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

As economic heavyweights assembled for their annual summit held by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, they were greeted by a call for $700 billion/yr of increased spending out to the year 2030 to “to close the green investment gap worldwide, leading to sustainable economic growth that attains global climate change goals.” They were told that this goal can be reached through an additional $36 billion/yr investment from the world’s governments (on top of the $96 billion/yr currently spent) that will “spur up to US$ 570 billion in private capital needed to avoid devastating climate impacts on economy.”

This call was made by the WEF’s own Green Growth Action Alliance as it released its first Green Investment Report at the outset of the Davos conference.

The Green Growth Action Alliance justified the call for the extra spending this way:

Such investments are urgently needed to avoid the potentially devastating impacts of climate change and extreme weather events as witnessed in many parts of the world in 2012. Scientists agree that extreme weather has become the “new norm” and comes at a huge, and rising, cost to the global economic system. Without further action, the world could see a rise in average global temperatures by 4ºC by the end of the century. According to scientists, this could lead to further devastating impacts, including extreme heat waves, more intense tropical storms, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Using a poor excuse to call for a bad idea doesn’t seem much like progress.

The science of global warming re extreme events is hardly compelling.  The data noise, generated from both natural processes and from other human influences, largely overwhelms any anthropogenic greenhouse effect signal in most cases.

However, compelling evidence is emerging that the magnitude of the climate sensitivity—that is, how much warming we should expect from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration—has been overestimated. Even if there was good scientific evidence that higher temperatures lead to a more “extreme” climate (there’s just about as much evidence for the opposite), an overestimate of the sensitivity would lead to an overestimate of extremes.

And these overestimates are being used by the Green Growth Action Alliance to oversell the need to do something about climate change.

In fact, there are much more pressing needs.

For example, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are currently 1.3 billion people globally without access to electricity. The IEA recognizes that getting these folks hooked up is imperative for economic growth:

Energy alone is not sufficient for creating the conditions for economic growth, but it is certainly necessary. It is impossible to operate a factory, run a shop, grow crops or deliver goods to consumers without using some form of energy. Access to electricity is particularly crucial to human development as electricity is, in practice, indispensable for certain basic activities, such as lighting, refrigeration and the running of household appliances, and cannot easily be replaced by other forms of energy. Individuals’ access to electricity is one of the most clear and un-distorted indication of a country’s energy poverty status.

It would seem to us, that getting electricity to those without is a better way to achieve the Green Growth Action Alliance’s goal of “driving development and well-being” than is “reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

And the best way to get (cheap, reliable) electricity to large numbers of people is through electricity systems that are powered by greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. This is not to say that there are not instances where boutique energy sources such as solar may provide a better solution, but just that those instances are minor compared to the magnitude of the task—which makes doubly bad Green Growth Action Alliance advice to shift substantial capital from fossil fuel projects to help fund its green solutions.

The bottom line is this: Fossil-fuel energy leads to more people with electricity which leads to more economic growth which leads to richer, more stable, more resilient and more environmentally-friendly societies with greater wellbeing.

Don’t get us wrong, we are all for market-driven innovation, but in Davos, the urgency for such innovation is being overhyped, and the situation is made worse by the urging for public sector spending in order to fuel it.