The ghosts of global warming

Hat tip to Terje. A slighted edited version of this post was published in the weekly “ideas@centre” e-mail sent out by the Centre for Independent Studies. If you haven’t signed up, you should.


In just over a month, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to work out a plan of action to tackle climate change. But something spooky is happening in America that may get in the way of an agreement.

According to the latest Pew poll on climate, only 36% of Americans agree that the earth is warming and that humans are responsible.

By comparison, a Gallup poll has found that 37% of Americans believe that houses can be haunted.

At first the two issues don’t seem linked – but there are some similarities between global warming and ghost stories. Both are dangerous. Both are hard to see. Both are used to frighten children and simple-minded people.

Stephen King has made a fortune writing about haunted houses (and won many awards in the process), while Al Gore has made a fortune talking about global warming (and won a Nobel Encouragement Award Peace Prize).

But there is a very important difference.

Belief in ghosts is silly, but harmless. There is no Copenhagen ghost conference, with over 15,000 officials discussing ways to introduce a ghost trading system and arranging multi-trillion dollar compensation for ghost victims.

I shouldn’t be too flippant. Climate change is a real threat.

The IPCC paint a realistic picture which suggests that higher concentrations of greenhouse gases are going to warm up the world. Temperatures haven’t changed much in recent years, but many climate-watchers expect the upward trend to continue eventually.

When that happens, there will be costs and benefits. William Nordhaus and Joseph Boyer estimated that 2.5 degrees of warming may cost America 0.5% of GDP. Richard Tol has a higher estimate of 1.5% of GDP, while Robert Mendelsohn and James Newmann predict a net benefit from warming of 0.1% of GDP, primarily due to benefits to agriculture.

So climate change is a potential threat. But the bigger threat comes from what politicians are going to do to “save” us.

The movies tell us that if a meteor is going to hit earth, all we need to do is shoot Hollywood actors at the inbound rock while we listen to emotional music. In the same vane, when the earth is threatened with climate change, all we need to do is to send our politicians to a conference and have them agree to global treaties.

But the Copenhagen conference is almost guaranteed to fail. The developing world is not going to agree to give up cheap energy, and the developed countries are going to find ways to look busy while not doing too much. The Copenhagen agreement will be as useful as the United Nations in Somalia.

Unfortunately, while a global treaty may not achieve much, it will still be costly. If an emissions trading system (ETS) wasn’t bad enough, we’re also facing suggestions of massive compensation payments and even a global tax.

In contrast, belief in ghosts is much less costly.

33 thoughts on “The ghosts of global warming

  1. The developing world could cut CO2 emissions and still potentially have cheap electricity if nuclear power was at the centre of the agenda.

  2. Bring on nuclear power, they can have my backyard, and let’s get on with our lives.

    To extend your metaphor, at least in the movies usually all but one of the actors die in the process of saving the world…we can but live in hope for Copenhagen

  3. “and even a global tax”

    That is the original intentions and the philosophy of the crew that launched this ‘scientific’ crusade.

    The fact is that there is no climate issue that somehow politically (surprise surprise) legitimizes more tax, tax eaters and central authoritarian control evolving into a global corporatist power orgy.

    Joseph Goebbels is amature compared to the ABC.

  4. John, You don’t want to be cornered but you lose credibility by adopting this position. You ridicule supporters of AGM by comparing Al Gore with Stephen King but then say ‘Climate change is a real threat’. What are you saying?

    That belief in ‘fictitious ghosts’ is less costly that believing the accepted science of climate change. Is this being cute or serious?

    I guess you are having doubts about endorsing the loonies at Heartland, the IPA etc and sense that the science is in fact compelling.

    But still you don’t have clarity in your outlook. You can throw your lot in with the scientific account that climate change is a threat or listen to the crazy views of junk science (and [beep]) who dismiss AGW on the territorial grounds that dealing with climate change involves government interventions in the economy and must ‘therefore’ be wrong.

    Just claiming – as you have done – that you want to keep an open mind is smug nonsense. We all want to keep an open mind. The science with 0.5% probability might be wrong but as it stands is a mile ahead of alternative views

  5. [beep]

    1. I don’t dismiss AGW, at all. In fact I have argued for a long time now that AGW is potentially a very big problem longer term, despite some very obvious limitations with what we know.

    However what I don’t support is the character assassinations of people that don’t hold extreme views like yours. It disgusts me the things you say about people that don’t agree with you, particularly for an academic, as I believe it basically bullying.

    2. I have supported John’s idea of a carbon tax with an income tax off-set. I don’t support the ETS because it is unworkable crap.

    3. I have also supported Book’s brave advocacy for nuclear energy and perhaps even introducing a tax-free holiday for nuclear energy operators if it means a quicker move to emissions free energy

    4. I don’t support extremist views and in my opinion your views are extremist and badly thought out. In fact I think you understand very little about the science and simply pinned your tail on the most politically expedient donkey.

    Having said all that, the science is pretty well settled in terms of C02 means greater warming, however what isn’t settled is the rate of change and unlike you I won’t accept the most extreme opinions to scare people.


  6. hc — credibility is a funny game. I suspect that some green credibility could be hurt long term from the AGW scare campaign. And I also worry that a threat of “loss of credibility” stops some people from speaking their mind or asking awkward questions.

    When I ridicule Al Gore, I am not ridiculing mainstream AGW science. The science and the scare campaign are different things. Unfortunately, this is often missed by both sides… and so some people who follow the science automatically sign up to the scare and some people who reject the scare also reject the science.

    I think there is a sensible middle position of accepting most of the mainstream science, but recognising that it’s not scary.

    The AGW fear is certainly out of proportion to the science. And I really do believe that exaggerated fear is the main driver of bad public policy.

    I am not “having doubts” about endorsing the Heartland or IPA conference. Both include a range of speakers, some of whom I agree with and some I disagree with. The Heartland conference included Pat Michaels, who has roughly the same position as I do. And the IPA conference includes Richard Tol, who estimates the cost of AGW at 1.5% of GDP for America. Both have made important contributions to the mainstream debate.

    Of course I don’t agree with everybody on the “non-activist” side or everybody who speaks at a conference… just as I’m sure you don’t believe every shrill warning of doom coming from Greenpeace & friends. I think it is inappropriate to try and bundle views together, and then dismissing them all because one of them is wrong. Both sides have done this.

    The point of my article is (1) there is too much fear surrounding AGW; (2) effective action at Copenhagen is unlikely; and (3) whether the AGW policies work or not, they will come at a cost.

  7. hc & jc — I know you guys like to kick each other… but please don’t do it on the ALS blog. I want this blog to have a friendly atmosphere where new people can feel comfortable contributing without fear of abuse or insults.

  8. John:

    Mrs. Scardy Cat started it. As usual he made the comment late at night which means he was well past his third bottle of cheap wine.

    [JOHN: Yes, I know. But as my mum used to tell me, it takes two to argue. It doesn’t take much restraint to just ignore the personal jibes… but it makes a much better environment for the rest of the commentators & readers.]

  9. Harry,

    Are you for mitigation and against nuclear energy? Now that would be ridiculous.

    We all know there is a lot of junk science that the pro mitigation crowd (i.e Greenpeace, also opposition to GM etc) believes in, like opposition to nuclear power. There are exceptions though, like the extremely sensible Barry Brook.

    To say that being worried about AGW, natural variation and the accuracy of any modeling and the intentions of various sides is not ridiculous. Nor is being worried about inefficient, unfeasible or unworkable solutions, or the lack of effort by civil society to do something, or the Government to find no losers or low cost solutions.

    To say that is ridiculous is like trying to bully someone into a personal preference with hell to the consequences.

    I don’t have a preference for nuclear, I just find it mind bogglingly absurd that we export yellowcake but can’t use it ourselves.

    I think we should open up the energy market and create incentives etc if the mitigation they impose passes a cost benefits analysis.

    Truly I reckon this is what you, John and JC actually all believe in when you dig down deep enough.

  10. HC has mischaracterised John’s position which has been very central for years.

    Also, “The science with 0.5% probability might be wrong”
    What the hell are you talking about HC?

  11. I think he is saying that the IPCC climate forcast has a 99.5% probability of being correct. However not even the IPCC ventured that high.

    Seriously though I think he was using a throw away figure just as a way of saying the AGW story is unlikely to be wrong.

  12. Mark, I am a strong supporter of nuclear power. It is the best known way of addressing electricity sector needs.

    John, Being aware of the prospects of dramatic climate change induced changes is not being part of a ‘scare campaign’. It is part of the science as in AR4 and the subsequent literature.

  13. Harry:

    To be perfectly honest your support for nuclear power has been tepid at best and only come out of the closet on that one when you think it’s safe to do so.

    However here’s the thing… How you can support the ETS without supporting nuclear power in the suite of options is not only stupid it’s also dangerously moronic as Barry Brook has shown (of course you wouldn’t believe me):

    1. There simply isn’t enough energy output in renewables and never will be. Period.
    2. There simply isn’t the technology available right now to convert coal fired plants to “clean energy”, as the technology is STILL commercially unviable although it’s being tested.

    You have referred to people like Stern (as Garnaut by default) with corny and stomach churning complements such “as good lad” when Stern hasn’t used an effective discounting methodology (see Tol), while Garnaut didn’t have the knackers or was simply too anti-science to argue nuclear should be included in the suite of alternatives.

    In other words, Harry you haven’t yet demonstrated any semblance of thinking this through, or being honest about it.

    Lastly you have turned probability studies in this area upside down, ignoring the belly of the probability distribution and advocating that the tail should be much fatter. You’ve done this by citing the most pessimistic scenarios and talking yourself into a frightened frenzy when most decent, scientifically based studies show that AGW is a long term problem.

    And here’s the rub, Harold… and why I have very little time for you and offer little to no respect to you or your views.

    If you were truly intellectually honest, in that you believed the tail end of the probability scenario ought to be on the radar far more than it is, you wouldn’t be supporting the current ETS without strongly and unflinchingly supporting nuclear in the loudest possible way.

    Unlike you, Harold, the reason I think the current ETS is an absolute dog’s breakfast of a policy is that I don’t believe moving money around and creating an entire new class of rent seekers will be able to turn the thermostat down in any material way and see the policy as a hair-shirt worn by people like you. My view is further solidified by the fact that nuclear isn’t allowed.

    Lastly Harry, you have yet to publicly demonstrate what you’re doing to help the environment if you indeed think things are as dire as they are. You still have two cars, commute to work by car, presumably do the shopping by car and take planes around the world without telling people if you have abated. Lastly, you’re still eating meat unless your diet has changed. These are all points I have obtained from your discussions on blogs or elsewhere.

    Here’s the difference between you and me when it comes to this issue. I have from the outset always supported the introduction of nuclear energy although I think the problem is a longer term one and dire warnings are less than helpful.

  14. hc — I find it hard to believe that you are unaware of the exaggerated fears held (and promoted) by some segments of society.

    You are using the (in my opinion dishonest) tactic of allowing exaggerated fear to scare people into doing what they are told, while pretending that you aren’t aware of the exaggerated fear.

    Children think their pets are going to drown. Many adults believe that there will be mass deaths and a lower standard of living. Lots of people, following the lead of Al Gore, believe that the seas are going to rush into New York, Shanghai and Sydney some time soon. Others insist that every second rainstorm, heat wave, hurricane or infectious disease outbreak is due to climate change. Others are claiming that it has already lead to wars. Some of the claims I hear from people in pubs (who don’t follow the debate and aren’t interested in politics) go beyond absurd and are just plain funny.

    Are you really going to claim that you are totally unaware of the exaggerated fears?

  15. Are you really going to claim that you are totally unaware of the exaggerated fears?

    He seems to actually believe most of them and berate those that don’t in the most abusive ways.

  16. Whether or no AGW is real is largely irrelevent IMO.
    The real issue is whether or not government should increasingly regulate entire industries and further restrict human trade and free interactions between consenting adults – as governments around the world are doing.
    Science can identify many things as threats to nature and/or to humanity but where’s the logic in leaping towards government initiating force on the public?
    It’s blatantly obvious that the freer a country, the more innovation, technological development etc.

    Where’s the logic in enacting legislation that even by flawed computer modelling will not impact global temps to a measurable degree? eg/ Even if all countries enacted the Kyoto treaty, the supposed drop in average global temp would have been unverifiable by modern scientific equipment.

    Here’s an article some of you may be interested in, an acquaintance emailed it to me just today:

    “Next Thursday marks the first anniversary of one of the most remarkable events ever to take place in the House of Commons. For six hours MPs debated what was far and away the most expensive piece of legislation ever put before Parliament.”

    “Even the Government had to concede that the expense of doing this – which it now admits will cost us £18 billion a year for the next 40 years – would be twice the value of its supposed benefits. Yet, astonishingly, although dozens of MPs queued up to speak in favour of the Bill, only two dared to question the need for it. It passed by 463 votes to just three.”

    How there can be any “supposed benefits” in destroying human life necessitating productivity is beyond me – but I suspect many greenies don’t actually care too much about human life.

  17. How there can be any “supposed benefits” in destroying human life necessitating productivity is beyond me – but I suspect many greenies don’t actually care too much about human life.

    And here’s another great piece in the OZ today by Alan Moran:,25197,26295835-7583,00.html

    Just think of the idiocy of this piece of legislation (ETS). Alan suggests that not one more steel works smelter will ever be built in this country after the implementation of the ETS. Not one. He’s right.

    Meanwhile, Rudd suggests he is a “big Australia” man suggesting he’s in favor of our population growing to 35 million by 2035 after recent Treasury projections.

    The extension of that obviously begs the question of where is the steel etc. going to come from for that population increase.

    Obviously it will come from overseas and the net effect is zero on global emissions , or actually they could be worse as the steel production will focus on places that don’t have strict emissions controls and are fired up by dirty grades of coal.

  18. jc, I can’t really be bothered with prattle. I posted on this in April 2006 when I started my own blog. I have made many posts supporting nuclear power over the years. It works and it is CO2 free and Australia has 40% of the world’s reserves of uranium. Smart Republicans in the US suggest building 100 extra nuclear power stations and electrifying half the US car fleet as a solution to climate change.


    John, Much of AR4 and certainly of the early parts of the Stern Review are taken up with the prospects of catastrophe. There is strong evidence that the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than AR4 expected. With reduced albedo effects this could be catastrophic for sea level change. There are many other catastrophic possibilities.

    Don’t use pub-level conversations to detract from this reality. We face the real prospect of catastrophic climate change unless substantial efforts are made to prevent humans from driving the climate as it is being driven.


  19. I really don’t want to get into a trading insults slam-fest with you Harold, despite that being your modis. As John has asked me to abstain I’ll respect his request (unlike you, I notice).

    Harry, to be perfectly frank, the reason I’m interested in your views is that you make it fun and I always like to go for the low hanging fruit.

    Here’s a question you need to answer despite your bad attempt to evade the issue.

    How can you support an ETS when nuclear power is not part of the mix of alternatives, renewables have no shot of ever making up the difference and clean coal is nowhere near (possibly 20 years) from being commercially viable?

  20. There is strong evidence that the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than AR4 expected.

    Harry the present melt rate is 14,000 years. That’s the present melt rate at the given CO2 in the atmosphere.

    This begs the question even further if you believe it’s a quick melt. How on earth do you support an ETS that doesn’t include nuclear?

  21. hc — I agree that the IPCC isn’t perfect. There are various reasons to believe that they have been too positive and too negative in various places in the past. I certainly don’t insist that somebody take the IPCC position on everything, and insult those who have disagreements.

    I note, with only mock surprise, that you seem interested only in the new information that is more alarmist than the IPCC. Regarding new evidence I will suggest to you the same thing I suggest to my denialist friends… don’t get too excited about just a few years of data.

    I’m uninterested in the Stern report. It is economic “delusionalism” (to use JQ’s phrase) of the worst sort.

    You seem to have totally dismissed the fact that many people believe in an exaggerated AGW story. This is worrying. I believe that exaggerated fear leads to bad public policy. The approach of some AGW-activists (and you seem to be endorsing this approach) is to hope that an exaggerated fear leads to better public policy.

    (Also, please try to avoid personal insults.)

  22. The IPCC is likely to be conservative – it needs intergovernmental agreements. It is still pretty good and better than sleazy self-interested pressure groups.

    If you get new info that is alarming then you should pay attention too it. The costs of alarming information are alarming.

    I think the Stern Review is very good. It takes a pessimistic view but see my previous sentence.

    I think rational fears of disaster should influence the debate. So do many I respect – e.g. Weitzman.

  23. Oh, your question jc. How could I ever ignore a question from you?

    It is simple jc. The alternatives are an ETS (no nuclear) versus no ETS. The choices are not an ETS (nuclear), an ETS (no nuclear), no ETS.

    My hope is that an ETS will generate a carbon price that makes plausible substitutes to coal look good. My guess is that one of the things that will look good is nuclear. I am sceptical that CCS or renewables will do the trick but if they did I would not lose sleep.

    If I insisted on an ETS with nuclear, I would probably end up with SF-All given ALP sillyness.

  24. Harry:

    I read Weitman’s paper after you breathlessly presented it on your site.

    Weitzman is an economist not a scientist and his probabilistic determination is simply playing footsie with numerical values to make the distribution curve wider than any normal person would think is reasonable.

    In order to reach his conclusion about fattening the probability tail he’s ascribed probabilistic value to the possibility of global temps reaching above 10 degrees on average. The effect of that would be that temperate zones such as where you live would have to experience over 43 degrees temps all year round. In other words there would be no differences between summer and winter. He’s actually included such a scenario in his study. This is clearly bullshit from a reasonable persons perspective as that is simply not going to happen, or rather we should not be building policy on such an unlikely event occurring.

    If you fatten the tails of a distribution curve you will clearly end up with scary scenarios. However you should also do the right thing and explain to people that what you are doing is giving time to the old precautionary principle restated in Weitzman’s terms.

    This study clearly stands out of the possible bounds of the IPPC report. However you seem to give this credence whereas people that stand on the other side of the IPCC receive scorn.

    If we based life’s existence on the precautionary principle we shouldn’t get out of bed in be morning and those that do ought to be building more than one a thermo nuclear device that we could send into space to kill meteors heading our way.

    Harry, we cannot exist if we implemented the precautionary principle to run our lives.

    Me, I’ll rely on the IPCC report’s probability distribution and strongly support nuclear power to eliminate, not reduce but entirely eliminate emissions.


    My hope is that an ETS will generate a carbon price that makes plausible substitutes to coal look good.

    Harry, we DON’T have any substitutes to coal with the current suite of alternatives. Gas is a possibility but it is too expensive to burn for power. Secondly, you really don’t want a carbon price so high or it will devastate the economy making the US version of the Depression feel like a boom. Secondly we don’t need a carbon price to be too high as nuclear is functional and if realistically introduced (without cumbersome greenie demands anti-science) could actually be the cheaper alternative to coal. The capital intensity of nuclear power with only 10% of the cost being the fuel charges it is truly a miracle in so many ways. You could run these plants with a little as 300 trained staff and scientists (of course not including security personnel). Unions of course don’t like nuclear because its human resource needs are so few compared to coal. Nuke power also aligns itself to a first world economy such as ours as its capital intensity is a distinguishing feature.

    My guess is that one of the things that will look good is nuclear.

    Harry that’s all we have without jacking up the price for carbon so high that it will destroy our economy.

  25. hc — people who object to the IPCC findings are sometimes referred to as “denialist” or “conspiracy theorists”. I’m glad you accept that the IPCC might be wrong, though I wonder if you think they can only be wrong in one direction?

    Unfortunately, you once again dodge the blatantly obvious fact that many people are living with an exaggerated fear of AGW. Indeed, it seems as though you are happy that many people are living with an exaggerated fear. This seems to undermine your claims to be on the side of impartial truth.

    The problem with Stern wasn’t so much the science. He did take an alarmist position on the science, but he was always going to do that given his political agenda. The reason the Stern report has sub-zero credibility is the quality of the economics. The man clearly doesn’t understand the rationale behind discounting for the time-value of money. It’s a rookie error, and one that was well pointed out by Richard Tol, who has himself done much better work on the economics of climate change.

    (Though I think Tol also over-estimates the costs of climate change, for reasons well explained by Nordhaus. Incidentally, Nordhaus does include the expected value from a catastrophic outcome, and still comes up with a manageably small cost. Don’t be scared.)

  26. Some items of news from ‘The Australian’ paper. Janet mentions some interesting facts, such as avaeage world sea levels being higher before the 70es, just 40 years ago! But there is also a report about Kilimanjaro, blaming it’s vanishing snow to global warming. A mixed bag, but worth reading.

  27. Well John, I’d be more scared of the politicians than the ghosts..

    Obviously there is a lot of debate not just about global warming,
    and not just about the relevance of lowering CO2 emissions,
    but whether efforts themselves to lower CO2 have any real impact.
    The Copenhagen talks
    – like the Kyoto talks before them, and like Australian and EU (and proposed US) internal measures –
    are all based around emission trading systems (ETS as you mention).

    Emission trading is wrong whether or not one believes that action is needed to specifically to reduce CO2 emissions
    Emission Trading (Cap and Trade)
    Basic Idea — Offsets — Tree Planting —
    International Trade: Manufacture Shift — Fair Trade — Surreal Market
    — Allowances: Auctions + Hand-Outs — Allowance Trading —
    Companies: Business Stability + Cost — In Conclusion

    As it happens,
    if there is to be an emission policy,
    Electricity and Transport sectors alone (80% of CO2 emissions) are sufficient to meet emission reduction targets,
    with measures advantageous in themselves
    (including energy renewability, and that emissions contain much else, whatever about CO2),
    long term funded for reduced consumer price impact,
    without efficiency regulation, without industrial carbon taxes and without emission trading schemes

  28. Australia isn’t really the place to discuss climate change as there are too many ignorant people around. At least you ALS guys realise how deep the problem is and this manifests as denial or hiding behind economics/neocon article links (also rendered as a logical fallacy below).

    Probably the best nuclear climate policy for Australia would be to wipe out the major cities and mining/power interests with neutron bombs launched from your blind imperial overlord Gordon Brown’s submarines..

    Here is the critique of the various positions presented here and elsewhere:
    1. The Australian Greens : the least environmental, most carbon intensive party as they currently stand..
    a. The policy of making it easier for ominvore refugees and migrants from lower carbon economies (which is every other country on earth) to live in Australia,
    b. Encouraging the local omnivore genocidal convicts (and subsequent groups who aspire to be genocidal convicts) to breed thru maternity and paternity payments, medicare, sanctioning private hospitals etc..

    The impact of increasing the Australian population in this manner is the worst thing on Earth for the environment. Australia has the highest carbon and methane emissions per capita in the world and this is increasing. To increase the population under this per capita calculation is creating the greatest increase in emissions anywhere. The Greens are the guiltiest party thru their social policy.

    2. Quiggin, Lambert, Flannery etc so called leftist omnivores..
    Their position that reducing carbon emissions is necessary but will cost the economy money, along with the ALS/Liberal Party/ALP position that a renewable energy economy will be a poorer/impossible economy is basically stupid but not wilfully so due to the ignorance of the political typs in this country..
    Running on 80% renewable energy in some countries, (such as many provinces of Austria do) whilst maintaining a GDP per capita that is higher than Australia is basic proof that renewable energy, not exporting fossil fuels and giving only lip-service to oil wars is the way to generate greater financial wealth.

  29. “I shouldn’t be too flippant. Climate change is a real threat.”

    What do you mean by this Humphreys? You don’t even know what you mean any more do you?

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