Paul Krugman and other climate change alarmists have to walk a very fine line: On the one hand, they need to scare the heck out of Americans, warning them that utter disaster awaits if we don’t support policies to make energy more expensive.
On the other hand, the climate alarmists have to be really optimistic, promising Americans that if they would just let the government get more power and more money, then all of a sudden the climate catastrophe disappears with surprisingly little pain. The alarmists need to coat their pill with sugar like this, otherwise regular Joes would listen to their apocalyptic rhetoric and just throw up their hands saying, “We’re all doomed!” Americans don’t want to hear the message that the Europeans are now getting, where a leaked European commission document says they need to undergo “profound lifestyle changes” in order to comply with their Paris commitments.
Krugman’s Alarmism Is Juuuust Right
Krugman’s recent NYT article, “Wind, Sun, and Fire,” epitomizes this Goldilocks approach to climate alarmism. Here’s the opening:
So what’s really at stake in this year’s election? Well, among other things, the fate of the planet.
Last year was the hottest on record, by a wide margin, which should — but won’t — put an end to climate deniers’ claims that global warming has stopped. The truth is that climate change just keeps getting scarier; it is, by far, the most important policy issue facing America and the world. Still, this election wouldn’t have much bearing on the issue if there were no prospect of effective action against the looming catastrophe.
But the situation on that front has changed drastically for the better in recent years, because we’re now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution. What’s more, getting that energy revolution wouldn’t require a political revolution. All it would take are fairly modest policy changes, some of which have already happened and others of which are already underway. But those changes won’t happen if the wrong people end up in power.
Do you see the rhetorical balancing act that Krugman’s position entails? He opens up by saying that the fate of the planet hangs on the next election. And yet, saving the planet won’t require anything major from the next president. In fact, “green” technologies are just around the corner from being self-sufficient, capable of holding their own against coal, oil, and natural gas. They just need a tiny little assist from the next administration, to make sure the planet isn’t doomed.
Regardless of one’s views on climate science and the politics of intervention, how plausible is Krugman’s narrative? Doesn’t it seem awfully convenient that we need to support his candidate in the next election, who is going to give us something that won’t cost much at all…or else everybody dies?
The Graveyard of Previous Doomsayers
Rob Bradley (the founder of the Institute for Energy Research) had an excellent piece in Forbes earlier this year, showing the problem with being a bit too specific with one’s high-pressure alarmist sales pitches. First Bradley explains the technique:
The Better Business Bureau warns consumers against high-pressure sales tactics, such as “today only” or “last one in stock.” According to the BBB, “Deadlines are designed to force you into a sale before you’ve had time to think.”
Now-or-never climate warnings, both before and after last month’s United Nations Climate Summit in Paris, would make a hyperactive used-car salesman blush. The message? Act now, act big. Replace the carbon-based energy economy. Get rid of not only coal, but also petrol for cars and natural gas for generating electricity. The future of the planet, as Obama stated in his final state of the union address, is “at stake.”
Unfortunately for the alarmists, Bradley then begins documenting those unwise members from their camp who made falsifiable predictions (in order to goad the public into accepting new government programs). After reviewing the infamous predictions of massive famine, Bradley moves on to the more recent examples involving climate change:
When the climate scare first arose in the late 1980s, the director of the UN Environment Program’s New York office stated that we had only a “10-year window of opportunity to solve” global warming.
Seventeen years later, in 2006, scientist James Hansen said the same thing: “We have at most ten years — not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.” In the same year, upon the release of his book/movie An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, Al Gore pronounced a ten-year deadline to drastically reduce manmade greenhouse gas emissions to avert a “true planetary emergency.”
Perhaps learning from his predecessors, Krugman is wise enough to not put a specific timetable onto his warnings. He just tells us that if too many people vote for the Republican next year, Earth is a goner.
Specific Mistakes In Krugman’s Analysis
In his NYT column, Krugman claims that the “truth is that climate change just keeps getting scarier.” He implies that the recent temperature record is evidence of this increasing scariness.
Yet on the contrary, the most recent (2013) IPCC report had to mark down the lower range of its estimate of how much warming occurs from a doubling of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, a December 2015 working paper from Cato climate scientists shows how much less warming we are actually observing, compared to the projections from climate models.
Consider next Krugman’s views on wind and solar:
The numbers are really stunning. According to a recent report by the investment firm Lazard, the cost of electricity generation using wind power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the cost of solar power fell 82 percent. These numbers — which are in line with other estimates — show progress at rates we normally only expect to see for information technology. And they put the cost of renewable energy into a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels.
Now, there are still some issues special to renewables, in particular problems of intermittency: consumers may want power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But this issue seems to be of diminishing significance…
Krugman’s head-fake on “intermittency” gives away the whole game. A previous IER post summarizes a study that finds “on average, electricity from new wind resources is nearly four times more expensive than from existing nuclear and nearly three times more expensive than from existing coal.” This is the relevant comparison, because Krugman favors policies from the EPA that would shut down existing coal-fired power plants and their ability to generate electricity.
Again I point to the tightrope Krugman is walking here: He wants his readers to get on board, cheerleading these “green” power sources because they keep getting so efficient. Yet on the other hand, if the government doesn’t support them, everybody dies. How does that make any sense? If they’re really like information technology, it doesn’t take government favors to lift off. Nobody ever said we needed a “calculator tax” to get people to start using computers.
Krugman Forgets to “Think Like an Economist”
Beyond the specific problems noted above, Krugman—as usual—isn’t thinking like an economist when it comes to matters of climate change. The issue must be decided on the margin. For a traditional example that economists use to illustrate the concept, consider: Diamonds have a higher market price than water, even though diamonds are mostly valued because they look pretty whereas water is essential to life. The explanation is that on the margin an extra diamond brings far more satisfaction than an extra gallon of water.
In our present context, let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that left to its own devices, the market economy would allow for a humanity-destroying amount of greenhouse gases to reach the atmosphere. Still, does that mean this next election will decide our fate?
Of course not. As I’ve pointed out on these pages (here for example), the most recent IPCC report has a nice table showing that even if governments “do nothing” until the year 2030, that this would simply increase the economic cost of achieving a given climate goal by around 40 percent. And since Krugman is telling us that the cost of fixing the problem is now vanishingly small—perhaps even zero, per his column from 2014—then there is no sense in which the results of this election will have any long-term bearing on “the planet.”
This is yet another example in a long line of assertions from Krugman and others that do not follow from their own worldview, even if we stipulate the catastrophic projections from computer climate models for the sake of argument.
Another Way of Framing the Issue
If Krugman wants to argue that just slight nudges in favor of wind power and electric cars by a Clinton Administration starting in 2017 are enough to rescue humanity, then even a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz Administration would at most push back this really cheap solution until the year 2025.
Look at the charts in this post to see the small role that the United States will play in total global emissions through 2100, according to two standard “business as usual” projections taken from the scholarly community. Does Krugman really think he can come up with a more precise argument, showing that a four- or even eight-year delay in implementing his desired tiny little nudge is going to mean the difference between bliss and planetary catastrophe?
At this point, it’s hard to believe this is the kind of argument coming from a Nobel laureate economist. Then again, the Nobel was also given to the inventor of the lobotomy.