You Ought to Have a Look: Lukewarming, Carbon Taxes, and the HFC Agreement

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  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.

One of our favorite lukewarmers, Matt Ridley, was invited by the Global Warming Policy Foundation to give its 2016 Annual Lecture. He certainly did not disappoint. While Matt titled his speech “Global Warming Versus Global Greening” that title only suggested part of what he had to say. We offer “The Hows and Whys of Lukewarming” to be a more apt descriptor:

These days there is a legion of well paid climate spin doctors. Their job is to keep the debate binary: either you believe climate change is real and dangerous or you’re a denier who thinks it’s a hoax.

But there’s a third possibility they refuse to acknowledge: that it’s real but not dangerous. That’s what I mean by lukewarming, and I think it is by far the most likely prognosis.

I am not claiming that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas; it is.

I am not saying that its concentration in the atmosphere is not increasing; it is.

I am not saying the main cause of that increase is not the burning of fossil fuels; it is.

I am not saying the climate does not change; it does.

I am not saying that the atmosphere is not warmer today than it was 50 or 100 years ago; it is.

And I am not saying that carbon dioxide emissions are not likely to have caused some (probably more than half) of the warming since 1950.

I agree with the consensus on all these points.

I am not in any sense a “denier”, that unpleasant, modern term of abuse for blasphemers against the climate dogma…. I am a lukewarmer.

And from there, Ridley goes on to do a laudable job of laying out the case that future climate change from human activities will prove to be towards the low end of climate model projections—but squarely within the bounds of consensus expectations. As Matt puts it:

…I am not disagreeing with the consensus on climate change.

There is no consensus that climate change is going to be dangerous. Even the IPCC says there is a range of possible outcomes, from harmless to catastrophic. I’m in that range: I think the top of that range is very unlikely. But the IPCC also thinks the top of its range is very unlikely.

Be sure to check out the whole thing for a great review of why carbon dioxide emissions are not the civilization-ending monster that many climate activists would have you believe (plus there are a few surprises in there that you won’t want to miss).

If Matt’s arguments are not enough to convince you that urgent actions to mitigate carbon dioxide-induced climate change are not required, then, perhaps, Dave Roberts’ piece for Vox should at least illustrate to you why they are not working.

In his in-depth article “The Left vs. a Carbon Tax,” Roberts describes the goings-on in Washington state where Initiative 732, a revenue neutral carbon tax (of the type featured by many pitches to conservatives), is on the ballot this year, but is garnering very little support from environmental organizations. Roberts illuminates the many alliances and allegiances among the various climate activist groups operating in the state and the complicated reasons why, by and large, they oppose I-732. Probably the biggest reason is that it is revenue neutral—a feature that was supposed to be its main selling point. It seems rather than give the money collected through a carbon tax back through a combination of corporate tax cuts, a reduction of the state sales tax, and tax rebates for low income households, most activist organizations want to spend the money on their particular pet projects—green energy initiatives, climate justice, clean water, healthy forests, etc. (however they define those things). Consequently, they have pulled (or never even offered) their support.

Here’s a teaser:

Here’s the situation. There’s a carbon tax on the ballot in Washington this November, meant not just to put the state on the path to its climate targets but to serve as an example to other states.

The measure, called Initiative 732, isn’t just any carbon tax, either. It’s a big one. It would be the first carbon tax in the US, the biggest in North America, and one of the most ambitious in the world.

And yet the left opposes it. The Democratic Party, community-of-color groups, organized labor, big liberal donors, and even most big environmental groups have come out against it.

Why on Earth would the left oppose the first and biggest carbon tax in the country? How has the climate community in Washington ended up in what one participant calls a “train wreck”? (Others have described it in more, er, “adult” terms.)

That turns out to be a complex and ill-fated story, revealing divisions among climate hawks — over who pays, who benefits, and who decides — that will not long stay confined to the West Coast. The future of climate politics is playing out in Washington state, and it is not pretty.

The full article is a remarkable story and provides further evidence for our view that a carbon tax is a bad idea, both in theory and in practice.

Restricting carbon? No. But what about restricting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)?

An amendment to the Montreal Protocol (which phased out ozone destroying chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs) was agreed to at a U.N. meeting in Kigali, Rwanda last week. Under the agreement, HFCs—manmade chemicals primarily used in refrigeration systems and air-conditioners, and which are safe for the ozone layer but which are powerful greenhouse gases—are to be phased down over the next several decades.

Some future projections suggest rapid growth in HFC use in developing countries as air conditioning systems become more affordable, and cheap, reliable energy becomes more available. Recent estimates of the amount of global warming that will result from the projected expansion of HFC use range from near 0.0°C up to about 0.5°C by 2100.  Unsurprisingly, the 0.5°C number is the one touted by the amendment’s supporters—but the closer we look, the more this figure is a bald-faced exaggeration. It basically assumes that HFCs come to dominate the refrigerant market in developing countries by 2050, and continue to do so to 2100. It also assumes the sensitivity of temperature to a doubling of carbon dioxide is about 3.0°C.

More recent analyses (as we have described in this series) indicate that the sensitivity is perhaps half of that value, which drops the top temperature change to around 0.25°C. And the assumption that HFCs will be everyone’s go-to refrigerant through 2100 is ludicrous.

There are already a number of refrigerants available that can do many of the jobs that HFCs do; several are cheaper, more efficient and simple. Ammonia, for example, used to be the refrigerant of choice but it was replaced by chlorofluorocarbons because of occasional leaks and fires. Use of these ozone-damaging chemicals was cheaper and easier than making a disaster-safe cooler, which nonetheless is certainly possible. Good old carbon dioxide is another viable replacement for some applications and can provide a double benefit.  It requires a much higher pressure which makes the compressor quite hot—and those clever Norwegians are already selling combined units where that heat is then used to provide hot water. What’s not to like? And there are others (see here for a rundown).

So the 0.25°C maximum temperature reduction is itself high, depending on what comes along to replace HFCs with or without the Kigali amendment.     

What we’re saying here is pretty much in agreement with a recent post by Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute:

Here, the chosen baseline appears to be a 2013 study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics that rejected previous forecasts for HFC growth and introduced a much higher one. The authors acknowledged this and explained their scenario was “not necessarily a more accurate forecast of future HFC emissions than other scenarios, but a projection of what can happen if developed countries continue current practices in [adopting] HFCs and if developing countries follow this path as well.” Generally, their model discounted “technological and economic developments,” which are already leading to adoption of HFC alternatives in the developed world. It assumed HFC use, still in its infancy today, would be ubiquitous and still growing alongside GDP by the end of the twenty-first century.

Now, all of our analyses could be wrong and the world is just going to opt in to HFC-only refrigeration.  But given the behavior of technological development over the past 100 years, we doubt it.

Having said all that, there’s one reason to support the largely  irrelevant  Kigali amendment:  It has to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate.  And when that comes up, how about the House and the Senate declare last December’s Paris agreement on climate change to be precisely what it is—another treaty requiring the same treatment in order to have the force of law.

If that sounds like faint praise, it is!