You Ought to Have a Look: Use and Abuse of the Social Cost of Carbon, Taking Down the Precautionary Principle, and the Rebound Effect from Energy Efficiency

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

Here we highlight a couple of things that we’ve been paying attention to as the new year unfolds.

First is an on-the-ground example of the extensive and invasive power of the federal government’s social cost of carbon. David Roberts, writing for Vox, describes the ongoing situation in a Colorado coal mining region which pits local, near-term coal mining interests (i.e., economic activity) against the federal government’s desire to mitigate potential damages that may result from climate change sometime in the future some place on the globe. So far, the present inhabitants of Colorado are losing out to the yet unborn future inhabitants of some faraway Pacific Island—a loss happily facilitated by the federal government.

Specifically, a federal judge has told the U.S. forest Service (USFS) that it did not adequately consider climate change when granting a special exception for coal mining activities on a protected tract of federal forest around Paonia, Colorado. The judge cited the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as grounds for his decision.  When the USFS came back with its new analysis, it reported a huge, negative net impact of coal mining in the region.

How so? Because under the new federal guidelines for interpreting NEPA, the USFS had to consider not only the local environmental impacts of mining activities when compiling its Environmental Impact Statement, but also the impact that burning the mined coal to produce electricity would engender via the carbon dioxide emitted in the process.

If this sounds absolutely ludicrous, it is. And as you might imagine the locals are a bit flummoxed. “Who would have thought that they would have had to analyze the burning of coal in a power plant somewhere?” says Kathy Welt, a mineworker potentially impacted by the decision.

What’s even more ludicrous is that although the USFS admits that it is “problematic - likely impossible - to link emissions associated with this project to a specific increase in temperature, or changes in precipitation,” it can nevertheless estimate that the future cost of those unquantifiable climate changes may approach $13 billion, which of course swamps any local economic benefits.

This is precisely the kind of thing that we have been warning about, not only through our multitude of comments on the federal government’s development of the social cost of carbon, but on its mandated use and abuse.

David Roberts’ full article is well-worth a read to get into the details, but, it’ll leave you shaking your head, if not your fist.

Next up is commentary from Judy Curry on the argument that the existence of the potential (no matter how small) for calamitous outcomes from climate change makes it worth pursuing climate change mitigation measures. Those that are most risk averse are the ones pushing for a carbon tax or other mitigation measures.

But Judy takes them to task in her commentary on a recent essay “Climate models and precautionary measures”  by noted risk analyst Nassim Taleb.

Judy effectively counters Taleb’s contention that “we should build down CO2 emissions, even regardless of what climate-models tell us,pointing out that Taleb’s application of the precautionary principle isn’t well-suited to address “wicked” problems like climate change.

Judy writes:

While these issues [ozone, sulphur emissions and nuclear bombs] may share some superficial similarities with the climate change problems, they are ‘tame’ problems (complicated, but with defined and achievable end-states), whereas climate change is ‘wicked’ (comprising open, complex and imperfectly understood systems). For wicked problems, effective policy requires profound integration of technical knowledge with understanding of social and natural systems. In a wicked problem, there is no end to causal chains in interacting open systems, and every wicked problem can be considered as a symptom of another problem; if we attempt to simplify the problem, we become risk becoming prisoners of our own assumptions.

Simply put, the current focus on CO2 emissions reductions risks having a massively expensive global solution that is more damaging to societies than the problem of climate change.

Her blog post is rich with links to posts from her large archive of articles on the issue of climate change and risk, countering virtually all of the typical its-too-risky-not-to-act  talking points.  It is well worth a visit and a bookmark.

We close this issue of You Ought to Have Look with a suggestion to check out a tweet storm from energy analyst Jesse Jenkins explaining why energy efficiency measures are not a particularly effective way at reducing carbon dioxide emissions (contrary to the aspirations of many of the INDCs approved at the U.N.’s Paris Conference). Hint: the Rebound Effect.

It’s a quick, easy, and effective read. You can find it here.

You really ought to have a look.