On the trade-offs, real costs and human consequences of fighting climate change

There is an incredibly common misperception about the fight against climate change that I find intensely frustrating. The misperception is that fighting climate change has to be seen as easy to be sold to the public and is inherently good for everyone involved. This misperception is so acute that it has its own meme. This meme really took off with the famous Joel Pett cartoon that had a lecturer at a “climate summit” who says:

“what if it’s just a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

The meme died down for a while but since 2016 is a COP year (COP22) it is making the rounds again. I saw it first last week with another tweet making the rounds that said

there aren’t really any downsides – even if climate change wasn’t real – acting as though it is can’t hurt us

And this morning I saw it again this time Dr. Kate Marvel a respected climate scientist who tweeted:

If you hate climate scientists, try aggressively cutting CO2 emissions. We’ll feel so silly when climate change isn’t that bad, trust me!”

All these comments have one thing in common, they appear to completely miss the fact that fighting climate change involves trade-offs, lost opportunity costs and negative consequences for a lot of people.

Part of the process of building a consensus to fight climate change involves dealing with people who may be more skeptical about the topic. Some of these people are less informed, while others are far more qualified than myself and have legitimate scientific doubt about the science of climate change. Some disagree with the way the GCMs model the planet, noting the discrepancy between model outputs and actual observations; while others feel that natural feedbacks will buffer, not enhance, warming in the system. These are legitimate concerns. As a result, we need to make a good case for reducing our emissions and to put it simply, the argument that reducing global carbon dioxide concentrations is good, for its own sake, is not one that should be used because it does not hold any water.

Let me say this again because I know that I will get flack on both sides for this post. It is my personal belief that fighting climate change is a necessary endeavour, but the fight to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions is not going to be cheap, it is not going to be easy and the transition to a global, fossil fuel-free energy system will hurt a lot of people. Specifically, the transition to a fossil fuel-free future will cost a lot of people their livelihoods; will suppress economic growth in many parts of the world; and will result in the premature death and continued misery for millions worldwide. From a pragmatic perspective, I can only believe that those millions of premature deaths will be offset by reduced suffering and death for billions of others, but to pretend that this pain will not happen can make climate activists appear both out of touch and insincere.

So you ask what going to cause all these deaths? Energy poverty and increased costs for food and energy. Let’s start with a simple truth: energy poverty is a killer. There are 1.1 billion people in the world living in energy poverty and each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution directly resulting from that energy poverty. Absent the risk of climate change the world would be building those people energy systems based on clean coal and natural gas technologies. These are established technologies that are readily available and both cheap and easy to build. Absent climate change the World Bank wouldn’t think twice about providing financial aid to build coal power plants, but in our real world, with climate change, it pretty much refuses to support such projects except in “rare circumstances”. Putting coal aside, clean burning natural gas plants would be an obvious solution to global energy poverty in a non-climate change world. Realistically, for some countries low-GHG LNG actually represents a pretty reasonable compromise to reduce energy poverty even in a world with climate change. But because of climate change concerns in BC the government has to mediate battles over whether we should supply some of the planet’s lowest-GHG LNG to the world.

In order to fight climate change, hundreds of millions of people who could be pulled out of energy poverty using fossil fuels, will not be; and they will suffer the health consequences. It is clear, from reading their reports that the various world financing organizations have agonized over the decision to leave millions behind in the fight against climate change but behind they are leaving them. Recognize, the face of the fight against climate change is not some well-fed, well-clothed university graduate blockading a pipeline. It is a young girl living in a house heated by burning cow dung; coughing out her lungs and unable to get to a hospital while living in a community where they can’t even guarantee that the hospital will have enough electricity to treat her effectively.

Besides energy poverty, the fight against climate change has also resulted in some horrible policy decisions that have had global human health and ecosystem effects. I can’t think of one that is worse than the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) otherwise known as the ethanol mandate which has resulted in increased food prices and as a consequence has left many hungry. Frankly, the entire field of biofuels (one I have covered quite thoroughly) serves as an object lesson about how the best of intentions can have the worst end results. Our drive for biofuels has left human and ecological devastation in its wake and it still continues to this day. Absent the threat of climate change those policies would never have been put in place and those negative consequences would not have happened.

From a domestic perspective, absent the threat of climate change do you think there would be a chance Quebec refineries would be importing oil from such human rights hotspots as Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria? Would the transportation of ethical Canadian oil not be happening today if not for the threat of climate change? Absent the threat of climate change Canada would be supplying developing countries with LNG, which I believe we should be doing anyways because by my climate math having Malaysians burning low-carbon Canadian LNG is much better than their burning higher GHG LNG from elsewhere or even worse, using coal to lift their population out of poverty.

Besides the human health and ecological costs associated with fighting climate change there are also the opportunity costs. Alberta is completely right to shut down its coal plants as quickly as possible, but those closures are going to cost a lot of money. That is money that would not otherwise have been spent and could have been spent on anything from basic research at universities to finding homeless families a place to call home. Instead those resources are going to shutter otherwise fully functional power plants. Good for the fight against climate change? Yes. Good for reducing the number of homeless in Calgary? Not so much.

Going back to the point of this post. In order to create good policy you need to consider the benefits and consequences of the policy action. In the climate change debate the activists keep trying to pretend that there are only benefits while disguising or ignoring the consequences and costs. Fighting climate change is a good cause and one worthy of our attention but the only way to fight it effectively is to lay out the case for it as honestly as possible. If the election of Donald Trump has taught us one thing, it is that telling our population that all is good, when you know otherwise in your heart, is the best way to lose the hearts and minds of the public. We need to have a serious discussion about climate change; one that lays out the challenges and the consequences of our actions. Only by doing so can we win a mandate for change.

Now I ask myself: have I seen a serious case made for a reasonable approach to fight climate change? one that considers and highlights the good and the bad? As a policy wonk my answer is yes. They did it in Alberta not too long ago with their Climate Leadership Plan. But what about in the rest of Canada? There my answer is less positive. To date the only approaches I have seen from the climate activists in BC involve hectoring people on one side, and pretending it will be easy on the other. The Council of Canadians assure me that a “100% clean economy is 100% possible by 2050” and it will be both easy and will make us money while creating jobs. My response is simply that we will not be getting to 100% wind, water and sunlight by 2050 while creating millions of jobs and creating no economic hardship.

I will close this post by reiterating a simple point. The fight against climate change is going to be long, slow, hard and expensive. It is going to take honest discussion and not trite statements of hope from high-flying celebrities who demand we do one thing while they do another. It is going to take political will and politicians willing to spend political capital to make it happen. The only way to convince those politicians to spend that political capital is to look at all the data and then to make a case that demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the costs and the projected future benefits far outweigh the real human and ecological costs. Trying to argue that it will be cheap and easy with no downside is both intellectually wrong and self-defeating. Trying to claim that we would do it anyways “even if climate change wasn’t real” is simply silly.

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11 Responses to On the trade-offs, real costs and human consequences of fighting climate change

  1. Chester Draws says:

    You leave out the Green’s extreme refusal to countenance nuclear as the clear option to move past fossil fuels. We could be post-oil quite fast if we took the full nuclear option.

    The refusal of the Greens to accept nuclear is a clear sign to many people, me included, that they are actually fighting modernity, not CO2. That they continue to fight nuclear means that they aren’t that worried about CO2 either.

    Many Greens even have the cheek to fight hydro development on environmental grounds too.

    When the Greens get serious and accept that they will have to comprise, then perhaps the other side might accept the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Climate Otter says:

    Sir, your permission please to repost a portion of your essay over to Deviantart, where I argue the skeptic-somewhat-lukewarmer side of climate change. I would of course provide a link back to your essay and site.


  3. Helen Warn says:

    I hold a PhD in meteorology (specialized in atmospheric modeling) from McGill University. I am very skeptical about AGW. Here is what I have started to ask the believers:

    Before we commit to spending billions upon billions of dollars to solve this problem, how about we define it scientifically? You know, in a way that can be measured.

    So what, exactly, is being *measured*? And how accurate are those measurements, both now and over time? And how do you know what the contribution of human activity is to whatever you are measuring?

    I’ll make it even easier for you. Since AGW believers frequently bring up surface temperature, let’s look at it. After all, it’s about the simplest thing involved, isn’t it?

    So show me a map of the earth’s surface temperature, and a companion map of the margin of error.

    Then do the same thing in (say) 1900.

    If you prefer another atmospheric parameter than surfact temperature, suggest it and provide reasons for your choice, and then answer the same questions.

    Finally, tell me what part of the differences is due to human activity, how you know, and how accurately you know it.

    I have not had ONE meaningful response.


    • Ikemeister says:

      One question for you Helen: Have you read Hanson’s book on the subject of climate change? I’d be interested to know just how his assessment of sensitivity is wrong.


    • Mick says:

      I am a Chemist and “believe” climate changes on its own very slowly and that any insignificant warming is completely natural. I am from Vancouver and have not experienced so called climate change in my 50 years here. We still have 4 distinct seasons and still get snow in the winter occasionally. We still get hot dry summers just as I remember them as a kid. I think that this whole thing is political and very unscientific. When I was studying back in the mid 90s, my Env. Chem prof told the class that if we continue on our current path, we may not make it past 2005 as a species. They keep moving the goal posts and are now projecting 50 years into the future. Sorry, they are either morons, or just cant admit that CO2 is actually insignificant in affecting the global climate. The only people pushing this pseudo science are politicians, those who make a living promoting it, and the media.


  4. Obama was against the Dakota oil field exploitation plans. Do you have any views on whether it makes sense to keep the opposition going?


  5. Andrew Kennett says:

    I think the point is well argued and as an example of the costs of the move to renewables have a look at the recent (Wednesday Sept 28) blackout of the whole state of South Australia:
    View at Medium.com


  6. Ikemeister says:

    Blair have you read Hanson’s book? Perhaps you’ve already reviewed it but I’d be interested in your perspective or anyone responding here.


  7. rckkrgrdRick says:

    the transition to a fossil fuel-free future will cost a lot of people their livelihoods; will suppress economic growth in many parts of the world; and will result in the premature death and continued misery for millions worldwide. From a pragmatic perspective, I can only believe that those millions of premature deaths will be offset by reduced suffering and death for billions of others,


  8. rckkrgrdRick says:

    “the transition to a fossil fuel-free future will cost a lot of people their livelihoods; will suppress economic growth in many parts of the world; and will result in the premature death and continued misery for millions worldwide. From a pragmatic perspective, I can only believe that those millions of premature deaths will be offset by reduced suffering and death for billions of others,”
    Shaky moral ground here, you are saying it is okay to kill people now because it might save lives in the future. You are using a presumption to support a fact. Something like killing off the American natives to prevent future white deaths


  9. Pingback: Environmental Absolutists are going BANANAs and it will hurt, not help, the environment | A Chemist in Langley

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