March 18, 2016 5:11PM

You Ought to Have a Look: Carbon Taxes, Democracy’s Failure, and the “Astronomical” Warmth of February

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.


Welcome to this issue of You Ought to Have a Look, our round-up of under-appreciated and overlooked articles from around the web.  Here’s a trio from this week.

First up is an article in the American Spectator (online) by the Center for the Study of Science’s newest addition, adjunct scholar and University of Virginia Law Professor Jason Johnston. Jason takes a look at why decarbonizing the US economy is a bad idea, paying particular attention to Germany’s burdensome system of green subsidies that are leading to much higher energy prices and perhaps even future subsidies for fossil fuel-powered power generation. Jason’s bottom line:

Whether one is considering carbon taxes or renewable energy subsidies, the impact of such a policy is almost surely to increase prices for the basic energy and transportation necessities of life, harming especially the poor and middle class. If, as in Germany, renewables subsidies require subsidies for coal-burning power plants, and if, as economics predicts, expectations of a permanent and rising carbon tax generate increases in present day CO2 emissions, then where will be the environmental benefits to justify the enormous burden put on poor and middle class households? It would seem that the case for carbon taxes and renewables subsidies is not so simple after all.

“It would seem that the case for carbon taxes and renewables subsidies is not so simple after all.” You can say that again (we just did!).  Jason’s whole analysis is worth digging in to.

Next up is an extended piece by Nico Stehr, Karl-Mannheim Chair of Cultural Studies at Germany’s Zeppelin University, that appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Issues in Science and Technology titled “Exceptional Circumstances: Does Climate Change Trump Democracy?” His answer is a resounding “No!”—but one that he thinks is in danger of becoming a minority opinion, at least among climate enthusiasts.

Stehr sets the stage with:

Climate scientists, social scientists concerned with climate change, and the media refer to a future of “exceptional circumstances.” However, the same groups also assert that no one is listening to their diagnosis of potential incomparable dangers. An elite of climate scientists believes they are reading the evidence that others fail to acknowledge and know truths that others lack the courage to fully confront. In light of the extraordinary dangers to human civilization posed by climate change, democracy quickly becomes in their eyes an inconvenient form of governing.

He then sets about drawing and quartering this preposterous notion. Here’s an excerpt:

[T]he idea that science and scientific leadership offer some sort of alternative to democracy has, to put it mildly, major weaknesses. To begin with, scientific knowledge does not and cannot dictate what to do…

The pessimistic assessment of the ability of democratic governance to cope with and control exceptional circumstances seems to bring with it an optimistic assessment of the potential of large-scale social planning. Yet all evidence suggests that the capacity not only of governments, but societies, to plan their future is rather limited, perhaps non-existent. The problem is not one of democracy, but of the complexity of social change. From this perspective, the claims that the key uncertainties about the behavior of the natural climate processes have been eliminated does nothing whatsoever to address the uncertainties associated with the social and political processes for taking effective action. Consensus on the evidence of natural science, it is argued, should motivate a consensus on political action. The uncertainties of social, political, and economic events, the difficulty of anticipating the future, are treated as minor obstacles that can be managed by the experts. But contemporary societies show no evidence that these uncertainties are even comprehensible, let alone manageable.

Stehr closes strongly:

Now is the time to commit to democratic complexification that fosters creativity and experimentation in the pursuit of multiple desired goals. For those who think that there can be only one global pathway to addressing climate change, the erosion of democracy might seem to be “convenient.” History, of both recent decades and centuries, tells us that suppression of social complexity undermines the capacity of societies to solve problems. Friedrich Hayek points out a paradoxical development: As science advances, it tends to strengthen the observation shared by many scientists that we should “aim at more deliberate and comprehensive control of all human activities.” Hayek pessimistically adds, “It is for this reason that those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom.”

His entire piece is a must-read.

And finally, on a lighter note, a reminder that weather is not climate…except when it’s bad (to hear it told by the “mainstream” press/science consortium).

Anthony Watts’ dedicates his Friday Funny this week to the over-the-top media attention piled upon the announcement that February’s global average temperatures were record-setting, record-shattering, “beyond record hot,” “astronomical,” “jaw-dropping.”  Anthony opines “I’ve come to think that climate alarmists are little more than garden variety hypochondriacs. Almost anything weather or climate related seems to scare them.”

We pushed back on this ourselves a bit this week, explaining that without the strong El Niño, (a potent form of natural variability), February’s temperatures wouldn’t have been so warm as to draw out such (feigned) astonishment. And even with the strong El Niño event, February temperatures were hardly newsworthy when set against the backdrop of climate model expectations. We noted that had global warming been going as predicted (i.e., warming at the rate projected by climate models), February’s temperatures wouldn’t be that remarkable. The fact that they seemed to be is an indication that climate change is progressing at a rate much more sluggishly than expected.  We anticipate that a pokey rate of warming may resume, once this El Niño event has run its course and temperatures drop back to near pre-event conditions, or we could go back into a “pause,” perhaps at a higher base level that the recent one.  

Of course, then, as Anthony points out, folks will be singing different tune:

In a couple of months, El Niño and the temperature spike will be gone and then we won’t see crazy pronunciations like this. Instead, we’ll see a shift in dialog that this cooling is just “weather, not climate.”