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February 17, 2016

Krugman Adopts Climate Alarmism That’s Juuuuust Right

February 17, 2016
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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.”

John Holdren, President Obama’s science czarwarned back in the 1980s that as many as one billion people could perish from climate change by 2020.

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.

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  • Wave Rider

    I for one am sick of this anthropogenic global warming BS!
    I live by a clean coal powerplant and our air is just fine. I’ve learned ALOT about clean coal technology. While taking a tour I’ve learned that
    our plant here is equipped with Selective Catalytic Reduction that removes nitrogen oxides , Precipitators that remove the flyash which is then used to build the concrete roads we all enjoy , A Bromine injection system that removes the mercury which by the way , isn’t much at all to start with! Scrubbers that remove the Sulpher Dioxide which is chemicly transformed into synthetic gypsum used to manufacture drywall for your home. Most drywall manufacturers request synthetic gypsum because its already powdered and ready to use! Raw gypsum from the mines overseas are huge rocks that need processed. The exhaust from this system when released into the environment is mostly just steam.
    Fossil fuels have saved more lives and has brought more people out of poverty than anything in the history of mankind! Not to mention the high standard of living we all currently enjoy.
    “Green energy” can’t and never will meet the great demand for power.
    The blatent misinformation about clean coal technology is rampant , is costing massive job loss and places the electricity grid at risk.
    These windmills require more energy from fossil fuels in their manufacturing process than they can ever produce in their lifetime and when they burn up , their output of pollution is so severe that it’s equal to burning 10,000 tires! Unreal!
    California’s “green energy” requires imports of out of state power from fossil fuels power plants to keep its grid stabilized like every “green city” does. Don’t be fooled! Coal fired power plants are propping up these so-called “green cities” , like Aspen Colorado among others, its just an illusion , all the while they are demonizing coal! Its dishonest and dirtier than than the coal they hate! It makes me sick!
    America’s energy portfolio needs to include everything , including renewables , but not to the point of going broke! Solyndra is a prime example! Its just commonsense.
    Fossil fuel haters keep stating fossil fuels get millions in subsities BUT they conveniently forget those subsities go to help the poor afford heating and air conditioning. Anyway , To limit our nations energy production in any way isn’t just irresponsible, it’s dangerous and dumb! It’s suicide!
    We need fossil fuels to meet the great demand for power and will continue to need them until we master nuclear fusion, the energy of the future!

    • America needs to reorganize

      In comparison to Solyndra going belly-up we now see Chesapeake Energy & others going bankrupt. Like you said in your comments renewable need to be included with fossil energy. At what point does fossil mining cause collapse & devastation of the Earth’s crust. Is it possible in Our Nation to have a cataclysmic series of earthquakes become enjoined due to continued heating of the Earth’s surface & over mining fracturing bedrock?

      • Charles Purvis

        Are you aware that underground rock mining has been taking place for many decades (and will continue unabated, whether coal mining stops or not) with none of the cataclysmic effects that you describe?

  • Charles Purvis

    I’ll wager that Krusty Klugman the Klown has delved as deeply into the science of “climate change” as reading a Democratic talking points paper.

  • TomMartin_Editor

    Nice article. You ask of Krugman’s logic “How does that make sense?” I think it clearly makes sense to his readers in the (obvious, to them) context of “the bulk of the cost of addressing (or attempting to) this crisis will be paid by others, because those others (e.g. the “1%” and large corporations) have essentially unlimited funds which can be transferred with impunity to any project.”

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