TCS Daily

Safety's Wellspring

By Kenneth Green - August 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Increasingly, the debate over climate change is moving from alarmist global climate predictions, to alarmist regional climate predictions -- reports purporting to predict the future climate impacts of rising greenhouse gas concentration on specific regions of the Earth, and calling for a laundry list of regulations long-favoured by old-school environmentalists. One of the latest alarmist reports of this nature, Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Ecological Society of America, and bearing the imprint of the David Suzuki Foundation, offers an example of the new "local thrust" in climate change activism.


Among other dire predictions, the UCS report warns the American Great Lake states and the province of Ontario of a host of environmental threats including: declining lake levels; loss of lake ice; changes in fish distribution; invasions by non-native fish species; increased summer stratification; nutrient depletion; changes in run-off patterns; drought; river flooding; wetland shrinkage; depleted food for migrating birds; greater crop growth; more crop pests; increased ozone levels; higher shipping costs; losses of winter recreation; and more.


But regional climate modeling of this sort is highly flawed. Despite the assertions of scientific certainty, the evidence supporting claims of extreme man-made climate change is limited and mixed. Climate scientists, even those within the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, disagree about the extent of climate change seen in the last 150 years, the cause of that change, and the risk it poses.


Researchers at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research, one of the leading climate modeling centers, itself acknowledges the limitations of regional climate modeling, saying:


It should be noted that the future climates simulated by these models [the Hadley and Canadian climate models used in the National Assessment] are in no way to be considered predictions or forecasts of the future. They are scenarios of the future and thus inherently uncertain. This uncertainty increases as the spatial scale of focus decreases, i.e., going from continental to regional scales. Researchers should exercise extreme caution in the conclusions they draw from impacts analysis using the output from these climate models, given the uncertainty of the model results, especially on a regional scale.

-Doherty and Mearns, 1999


Worse than the misrepresentation of climate science that permeates the UCS report are the flawed policy prescriptions that are offered up. A laundry list of measures sought by old-school environmental groups for 30 years, the measures proposed by the UCS study have well-documented flaws, and would do both current and future generations considerably more harm than good. Some specifics follow.


Increasing energy efficiency and conservation and achieving more efficient fossil fuel generation of electricity generally mean increasing energy and technology costs. Imposing higher costs on energy generally slows economic growth, which is itself a protective factor in human health and environmental quality. As pioneering environmental analyst Aaron Wildavsky and many others have shown, when it comes to economic development and individual incomes, richer is safer and environmentally cleaner.


Increasing the amount of energy produced from "renewable" power sources generally means more expensive energy, and, in any event, cannot come close to providing the power needed for industrial societies. A report by ecologists at Cornell University, for example, showed that even if deployed as thoroughly as possible, "renewable energy" sources could provide only 50 percent of the needs of the United States, while requiring nearly one-sixth of the entire land mass of the country.


Increasing the efficiency of conventional vehicles generally means influencing the market to favour smaller, lighter vehicles that use less power by imposing fuel-efficiency standards on automakers. As numerous analysts have pointed out, the market for such vehicles is quite limited, and as they lead to lighter, less powerful vehicles, such fuel-efficiency standards lead to increased risk of death in automobile accidents. Indeed, it was the imposition of such fuel-efficiency standards in the United States in the 1970s that planted the seed of the sport utility vehicle trend by rendering the mid-size, not particularly profitable station wagon non-economic for automakers. This left families with only the light trucks and vans -- the progenitors of SUVs and mini-vans -- that were not subject to the fuel economy restrictions.


Switching from carbon-intensive energy sources, such as coal, to natural gas and biofuels is already done where it is economically efficient, a phenomenon called "decarbonization." Accelerating fuel switching beyond the point where it is economically efficient, however, diverts resources that could be used to secure safety elsewhere, ultimately leaving society less wealthy, and correspondingly less healthy and environmentally protected.


Introducing hybrid and fuel-cell cars has severe limitations, as typified by previous attempts to enshrine the battery-electric vehicle as the technology of choice. As one recent article in the Globe and Mail newspaper points out, Canadians, who have very high environmental values, draw the line at buying hybrid cars that offer less performance than conventional gasoline cars at a higher price.


Reducing driving, through anti-sprawl planning and public transportation has been a favoured goal of old-school environmental activists for decades, and the literature about the pitfalls of such transportation demand management techniques is extensive. In the main, anti-sprawl planning and public transportation fail to meet the demands of consumers in developed countries, while anti-sprawl controls have been shown ineffective at reducing air emissions.


The threat of rapid climate change is one that humans would do well to take seriously. Climatic change would have impacts on virtually all elements of human action, from agriculture, to transportation, to the production of goods and the provision of services. But the threat of economic harms inflicted by old-school environmental activist groups may be more serious. With potent policies being urged to regulate energy, favor certain technologies, and limit economic freedom, society's response must be based on a solid understanding of the science behind climate change, and the impacts of proposed policy options.


In Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America, backed by the David Suzuki Foundation, try to scare Canadians and Americans into adopting unwise public policy by exaggerating certainty of predictions about man made climate change. The proposed policy options are a long-standing wish list of old-school environmental activists, and, if implemented, would seriously harm the economic freedom that is the wellspring of safety and environmental quality in developed countries like Canada and the United States.


While the threat of rapid climate change is certainly one to be taken seriously, it is equally important to be sure that we understand what is really happening with the climate. We must know what the causes of observed changes are before we take actions that will divert scarce resources into potentially fruitless, or even harmful policies that hurt individuals by raising the costs of energy and forcing them into less safe technologies, and hurt societies by reducing their economic freedom and ability to compete in a global setting.


Kenneth Green is Chief Scientist at The Fraser Institute. This article is adapted from his latest policy study "Greenhouse Gas Reductions: Not Warranted, Not Beneficial."


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