The Economist doesn’t understand climate change

by Milan on December 9, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Economics, The media

From what I have seen of academia and government, The Economist is one of the most widely-read and influential news publications out there. Keeping on top of what they report upon and argue was a necessary task for a university-level debater. It also helps avoid surprises when dealing with academics and bureaucrats. If The Economist gives a national leader a nickname, you can be sure there will be much scurrying that results among both bureaucrats and political staff.

That reputation and influence makes it all the more regrettable that The Economist doesn’t understand climate change. They concur that the key science is settled, that climate change is happening, and that action should be taken in response. They support the creation of carbon taxes. At the same time, they don’t recognize the magnitude of the problem, and they haven’t adapted their general editorial stance to properly take it into account. For them, climate change is a potentially important sideshow – it is not the key phenomenon determining the future of humanity.

That is odd, given their general appreciation for science and the clarity of the messages scientists are sending. Right now, we are on track to warm the planet by more than 5°C by 2100 – as much of a difference in mean global temperature as there is between the present climate and the one that prevailed at the middle of the last ice age. And yet, The Economist seems to believe that following this business-as-usual path wouldn’t have a major effect on the ongoing process of economic growth, which they are unflinching supporters of. The fact that we are profoundly altering things like sea levels and precipitation patterns in ways that will endure for thousands of years is apparently less important than what the global GDP growth figure for the next couple of years will be.

For humanity to have a prosperous future, we need to stop the climate from changing so much that it undermines human welfare and prosperity. Given the inescapable link between burning fossil fuels and climate change, achieving that goal will require moving to other sources of energy and leaving most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels unburned. The Economist certainly has not recognized this – nor have they recognized the danger of catastrophic or runaway climate change if humanity keeps burning coal, oil, and gas heedlessly. Because of that, they still think that it will be possible to adapt to climate change even if no success is found in mitigating it. They commit the error of making fun of renewable sources of energy, just because they represent a small portion of humanity’s total energy use today. Ultimately, only renewable forms of energy can be relied upon to serve human needs indefinitely. The fact that they remain a niche energy source is cause for concern – not a reason to believe we can keep relying on fossil fuels forever.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for the worst effects of climate change to become visible, before The Economist will start taking the full range of risks seriously. By the time the droughts, storms, and flooded coastlines are fully visible, it will be far too late to prevent even more serious and widespread effects. For now, The Economist remains in denial. They have accepted the fact that human beings are warming the planet in threatening ways, but the implications of those facts have not yet flowed through all the channels of their thinking and marinated their ideology.

Indeed, I suspect that ideology is the main problem here. The fundamental worldview of The Economist is libertarian. They believe that consenting adults can make agreements between themselves that provide benefits without harming everyone else. Governments need to step in and regulate in circumstances where private agreements cause public harm. The problem with climate change is that – since so many different activities contribute to it – governments effectively need to regulate all significant private agreements, at least insofar as they involve the production of greenhouse gases. Because The Economist is unwilling to accept such a broad mandate for government, they cannot recognize the scope of the problem being faced.

Given where the world is right now, it is not enough to just call for a carbon tax and then get back to the business of encouraging growth. If the choice is between a world with both growth and unlimited climate change and another with neither growth nor climate change, the latter is preferable for humanity as a whole, despite how it would involve major sacrifices both from those who are already affluent and those who are trying to escape from extreme poverty. Maintaining a climate that is compatible with human welfare and prosperity has over-arching moral and economic importance. Given how massively the world’s governments and corporations are failing to achieve that aim, The Economist should be calling for non-violent resistance, the blocking of rail lines to coal plants, and the pulling of investment from fossil fuel companies.

Until they begin to propose a response to climate change that is proportionate to the risk it involves, they will be doing a disservice to all those who rely upon their analysis and advice.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan December 9, 2010 at 7:26 pm

In a recent editorial, they say: “Perhaps, after a period of respite and a few climatic disasters, it will get going again. It certainly should.”

The big problem with this perspective is that there are long lags between the emission of greenhouse gases and their full effects being made manifest. By the time the first major disasters are being experienced, it will be too late to prevent significantly worse ones from taking place.

Milan December 12, 2010 at 4:19 pm

To be fair, I think there is a lot of internal disagreement about climate change within The Economist.

The editorials (‘leaders’ for Brits) have a pretty consistent, agreed line. But articles written by individuals show more variation. Some express a lot more concern about abrupt, catastrophic, and runaway climate change scenarios (those that could exceed the capacity of humanity to adapt). Others are much more dismissive of the threat posed by climate change, and see it as just the latest anti-progress worrying from environmentalists.

Perhaps as the makeup of their staff changes with time, those with the more antiquated views will move on and the overall editorial line will shift. That said, it seems quite possible that the planet’s climate is changing more quickly than their perspective.

. January 8, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Clean and green, for a price
Britain can have clean energy or cheap energy, but not both

DESPITE its reputation for wind and rain, Britain is not used to cold weather. Unseasonal snow over the past couple of weeks has blocked roads, shut airports, closed schools and brought the army out to help clear Edinburgh’s streets. Energy-watchers, meanwhile, have been fretting about the spike in energy consumption caused by the chill. On December 6th prices rose to a two-year high as Britain recorded one of its highest-ever levels of electricity demand.

Such figures are in the news because Britain is facing an energy crunch. All but one of its nuclear stations, and about half of its coal power plants, will shut by 2023 and must be replaced. Left to its own devices, the market would replace them with natural gas, but the government has committed itself to eye-wateringly tough climate-change targets, aiming to reduce emissions of planet-heating gases by 2050 relative to their 1990 levels by 80%. To that end, ministers hope to encourage a mix of nuclear reactors and wind-, wave- and solar-powered electricity.

Two developments, one last month and one to come next week, suggest how hard it is going to be to achieve that aim. On November 26th Ofgem, the energy regulator, announced an inquiry into competition in the energy sector after profits in the industry jumped by around 40%. Several big suppliers, including Scottish and Southern Energy and British Gas, have imposed price rises of up to 9%. Previous inquiries have found no evidence of collusion. But high energy bills remain politically poisonous: at a time of street protests over university fees and an embarrassing series of WikiLeaks, David Cameron, the prime minister, was asked about energy bills at his once-a-week question session in Parliament this week.

Milan January 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

This Economist article on the oil sands demonstrates how they just don’t appreciate the importance of cumulative emissions.

Milan January 24, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Apparently, The Economist also opposed public sewer systems back in 1848:

“Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions—they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.”

Arguably, this is an example of how slowly libertarians incorporate new information about the world.

Tristan January 27, 2011 at 8:57 am

Wow.

Milan February 14, 2011 at 9:59 pm

This article on Brazil’s offshore oil doesn’t even mention climate, in considering the pros and cons of digging the stuff up: In deep waters.

Milan February 17, 2011 at 10:51 pm

All the references to James Hansen I can find in The Economist:

A special report on water – Sources and acknowledgements

The illusion of clean coal

“FACTORIES of death” is how James Hansen, a crusading American scientist, describes power stations that burn coal.

Alaska, ho!
Is this month’s unbearable heat a coincidence?

“Precipitation is harder to predict than temperature, and no one quite knows what will happen to the periodic El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. But scientists certainly expect more droughts and flooding in America. In sum, “Extremes of the hydrologic cycle will become more extreme,” according to Jim Hansen, a NASA scientist. That means more severe storms, as well as forest fires brought on by dry conditions.

Hotting up in The Hague
Amid much fanfare, a UN summit on global warming is being held in the Netherlands. Should anybody care?”

“A study by a team led by James Hansen of America’s space agency, NASA, has looked in detail at the net effects of these factors. It distinguishes natural “forcings” from man-made ones, and works out the impact of each on temperature. Under normal circumstances, the earth releases heat at the same rate at which it absorbs energy from the sun. But the researchers conclude that man’s actions since 1850 have upset this balance (see chart 2). Man-made GHGs now cause a forcing of more than two watts per square metre, the equivalent of increasing the sun’s brightness by around 1%. This study says that “increasing GHGs are estimated to be the largest forcing, and to result in a net positive forcing, especially during the past few decades.” Dr Hansen stresses the big impact of GHGs other than CO2; any effort to reduce emissions would be cheaper if it included them too.”

Also,

Is this the same James Hansen, I wonder?

In May 2000, Bill Clinton issued an executive order to develop a system of marine protected areas in America. James Hansen, the new chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Resources, has written to President George Bush asking for his help in stopping or delaying the implementation of that order. It remains to be seen if the appeals of 160 researchers who released a statement at the AAAS meeting saying that marine parks are good for fish and fishermen alike will have any influence on the decision.

The climatologist’s Wikipedia page doesn’t say anything about fish.

This definitely isn’t the same Hansen:

To some western Republicans, war has already been declared. Most public land is concentrated in the west—and, historically, natural resources have been the source of local prosperity. James Hansen, a Republican congressman from empty western Utah who will chair the House Resources Committee, has written to Mr Bush urging him to reverse the orders creating national monuments and protecting national forests. Mr Bush has taken his advice, suspending the creation of almost all Mr Clinton’s national monuments as one of his first acts on taking office.

A bold way of applying to the Richard Casement internship in their Science and Technology section would be to write a review of Hansen that speculates on what it means for the overall pro-growth editorial line of The Economist.

Milan March 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

This is one of the better things The Economist has written recently about climate:

“But these new types of climate action do not replace the need to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon-dioxide levels are still rising; the shadow of uncertainty and risk they cast into the future is getting deeper and longer. Carbon emitted today will continue to warm the planet for millennia, unless active measures to remove it from the atmosphere are undertaken at some later date. Reducing other short-lived sources of climate change while continuing to emit carbon will delay rises in temperature, but it will not stop them. Broadening climate action can supplement existing efforts on carbon and provide new suppleness to climate politics—both good things. But this does not change the imperative of decarbonisation.”

. October 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm

HAS Britain hit the jackpot in Blackpool? On September 21st Cuadrilla Resources, the first firm to drill for shale gas in the country, estimated that 200 trillion cubic feet of gas lie in an area near the seaside town in northwest England—nearly 40 times previous projections of all of Britain’s shale resources and, in theory, four times as much gas as is still recoverable from the North Sea, according to Oil & Gas UK, a lobby group. Cuadrilla hopes to drill 400 wells in Lancashire in the next decade.

. November 9, 2011 at 10:05 am

GEOLOGICAL structures of vast antiquity are more often called on to bolster the arguments of atheists than enlisted as tokens of a deity’s existence—let alone his nationality. But the deep Cretaceous salts which trap oil in rocks off Brazil’s coast are “strong evidence”, in the words of President Dilma Rousseff, “that God is Brazilian.” It is not a new conceit, but it has rarely been a more apposite one. The pré-sal (“below the salt”) oilfields look set to generate wealth on a scale that could transform Brazil’s economy.

Before the pré-sal finds, which started in 2007, the country’s total proven and probable reserves were 20 billion barrels. Conservative estimates for the total recoverable pré-sal oil now come in at 50 billion barrels: a little less than everything in the North Sea, all in the waters of one country. Optimists expect three times as much. “In the pré-sal area, our exploration has a success rate of 87%, compared with a world average of 20% to 25% for the industry,” says Sergio Gabrielli, the president of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company.

Pedro Cordeiro of Bain & Company, a consultancy, says all this makes developing the pré-sal a national commitment comparable to that of the Apollo programme. In terms of cost it is actually a good bit larger. Apollo cost less than $200 billion in today’s dollars; the total bill was a few percent of America’s annual GDP at the time. Ten years’ aggressive development of the pré-sal could take a trillion dollars, around half of Brazil’s 2010 GDP.

. August 24, 2012 at 3:22 pm

The country certainly needs more generating capacity, especially of the low-carbon kind. But it is going the wrong way about encouraging it. Specifying how much power is to be generated from nuclear and from each form of renewable power means picking winners—something that governments generally do badly. Offshore wind and nuclear, the government’s favoured technologies, are among the most expensive ways to get carbon out of the energy system. And all political promises to guarantee energy prices are notoriously unreliable and unlikely to spark investor confidence. In 2011 Germany suddenly decided to shut its nuclear power stations.

Rather than interfere with and second-guess the market, the government should strengthen it. For investors to view the electricity-generating business with enthusiasm, they must be able to find out what the real price of electricity is. At present that is impossible, because most electricity in Britain is “traded” between the generation and supply arms of the same firms. The government should have threatened to split them up (a gambit that worked wonders with British Telecom) and forced trading onto open exchanges, as happens in Germany.

The best way to encourage green energy is to tax carbon. Australia took that brave step in 2011, admittedly with plenty of giveaways and exemptions for the early years. Under the European emissions-trading scheme carbon does have a price in Britain, but it is too low to be effective and is hard to increase. If Britain commits itself to unilateral action, the early price would still be low, but the government could promise to increase it over time. It is the price of carbon in 20 or 30 years, not now, that determines investment decisions. This move would encourage cleaner technologies but allow the market to choose which it favours and how much to pay. It is simple and more likely to endure than complex interventions.

The energy business is changing fast. The price of solar power has fallen; the price of oil has soared. Shale gas is booming. Wave power, carbon-capture technologies and electricity storage could all prove revolutionary. All the more reason to let investors, not Mr Cameron, pick the winners.

. September 22, 2012 at 8:53 pm

THE Arctic is melting faster than almost anybody expected. It has just been reported that the area of sea ice has never been smaller. And having already surpassed previous annual low points in August, it will shrink further in September. Since 1951 the Arctic has warmed roughly twice as much as the global average. So the latest record is a frightening milestone in the advance of climate change. Yet for many in Asia, in the short term, greed trumps fear. The thawing of the north offers the prospect both of access to untold mineral wealth and drastically shorter shipping routes to the Atlantic.

That is not to argue, of course, that the melting of the Arctic poses no risks to Singapore or indeed the rest of the earth. As global warming disrupts weather patterns, raises sea levels and forces mass migration, a faster route from Yokohama to Rotterdam may seem only small compensation; and the scramble to extract minerals from the unfrozen wastes, sheer folly.

. July 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Nonsense And Sensitivity: Top Climatologist Slams The Economist For Yet Another ‘Flawed And Misleading’ Piece

Among other things, the author hopelessly confuses transient warming (the warming observed at any particularly time) with committed warming (the total warming that you’ve committed to, which includes warming in the pipeline due to historical carbon emissions). even in the best case scenario, business as usual fossil fuel burning will almost certainly commit us to more than 2C (3.6 F) warming, an amount of warming that scientists who study climate change impacts tell us will lead to truly dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. the article does a disservice to Economist readers by obscuring this critical fact. Sadly, it is hardly the first time in recent history that the Economist has published flawed and misleading stories about climate change.

The Economist seems blissfully unaware that while the Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation (!) and add up to 1.5°F to warming in 2100 by itself, “Participating modeling teams have completed their climate projections in support of the [IPCC’s] Fifth Assessment Report, but these projections do not include the permafrost carbon feedback.”

The Economist also seems blissfully unaware of the fact that we are currently close to the 1000 ppm emissions pathway. And The Economist also seems blissfully unaware that stabilizing anywhere near 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2 would require immediate and sustained action to replace the world’s fossil fuel system with one based on carbon-free energy — precisely the kind of aggressive action this piece seems designed to undercut.

. July 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm
. August 4, 2013 at 6:54 pm
. August 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm

China’s impact on the climate, though, is unique. Its economy is not only large but also resource-hungry.

The country’s energy use is… gargantuan. This is in part because, under Mao, the use of energy was recklessly profligate. China’s consumption of energy per unit of GDP tripled in 1950-78—an unprecedented “achievement”. In the early 1990s, at the start of its period of greatest growth, China was still using 800 tonnes of coal equivalent (tce, a unit of energy) to produce $1m of output, far more than other developing countries. Energy efficiency has since improved; China used 390tce per $1m in 2009. But that was still more than the global average of 300tce and far more than Germany, which used only 173tce.

Despite a huge hydroelectric programme, most of this energy comes from burning coal on a vast scale. China currently burns about half the world’s supplies. In 2006 it surpassed America in carbon-dioxide emissions from energy. By 2014 or 2015 it will emit twice America’s total. Between 1990 and 2050 its cumulative emissions from energy will amount to some 500 billion tonnes—roughly the same as those of the whole world from the beginning of the industrial revolution to 1970. And the total is what matters. The climate reacts to the stock of carbon, not to annual rises.

These emissions are adding to a build-up of carbon already pushed to unprecedented heights by earlier industrialisations. When Britain began the process in the 18th century, the atmosphere’s carbon-dioxide level was 280 parts per million (ppm). When Japan was industrialising fastest in the late 1950s, it had risen a bit, to 315ppm. This year the level hit 400ppm. Avoiding dangerous climate change is widely taken to mean keeping below 450ppm, although there are significant uncertainties surrounding this figure. At current rates that threshold will be reached in 2037. China is likely to be the largest emitter between now and then.

About a quarter of China’s carbon emissions is produced making goods for export. If the carbon embodied in those goods were marked against the ledgers of the importing countries China would look a little less damaging, the rich world a lot less virtuous. But even allowing for that, China is not playing catch-up any more. It is doing more damage to the stability of the global climate than any other country.

. August 25, 2013 at 8:55 pm

TO MEXICANS, state ownership of their oil is a bit like gun ownership in the United States—steeped in history. So President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposal, unveiled on August 12th, to change the constitution to allow private investment in Mexico’s oil industry for the first time since 1960, is a taboo-buster.

In fact his intention is nakedly economic. It starts from the premise that Mexico is running out of easy-to-access oil in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Pemex, the national oil and gas monopoly, has neither the funds nor the expertise to take advantage of the shale and deepwater deposits that have proved so bounteous across the border in the United States. So it needs partners. The proposal leaves one big question unanswered, however: on precisely what terms will Mexico seek to attract private investment?

Given Mexico’s sinking oil production, Mr Peña’s proposals are undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But the more open the discussion about them, the better.

. October 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Fracking
Dash for cash
If Britain wants an American-style energy boom, it should import American-style local taxation
Aug 24th 2013 |From the print edition

. December 21, 2013 at 9:58 pm

THE New Zealand government, facing a general election next year, is confronting a referendum opposing asset sales and protests over drilling for oil. It is unlikely to be swayed by either. Government leaders say the sale of assets will contribute to returning the budget to surplus, and any oil discovery has the potential to transform the economy.

The government could not stop the referendum but it knew it would have a fight over drilling for offshore oil. That is partly because of the grounding of a cargo ship, the Rena, off a North Island beach in 2011, and a subsequent oil spill. So in April it passed legislation outlawing protests that interfere with or damage oil-exploration vessels. Protest vessels are not allowed within 500 metres of a ship or drilling platform. That has not stopped some protest ships from setting sail. Other demonstrators have gathered to protest on beaches around the country.

. April 19, 2014 at 11:57 am
. September 13, 2014 at 12:53 am

No reform matters more than the liberalisation of Mexico’s hidebound energy sector. The state has controlled the hydrocarbons industry since it was nationalised in 1938. Pemex, the state oil firm, is a cash cow for the government—it contributes a third of revenues—but it is poorly managed and its production levels have been steadily declining. Industrial electricity prices are almost 80% higher than those in the United States. Mexico’s Congress this week approved secondary laws that will throw the country’s deepwater and shale fields open to foreign investment. The electricity industry will also be liberalised. Lower energy prices ought eventually to result.

Shovels hitting soil would help confidence—provided the projects are not boondoggles. Obvious priorities include new natural-gas pipelines and a new airport for Mexico City.

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21611069-enrique-pe-nieto-has-achieved-lot-now-his-government-needs-maintain-momentum-keep-it

. September 13, 2014 at 4:53 pm

This is profoundly disappointing. With more than 30 trillion cubic metres of recoverable shale gas, China has the largest reserves in the world, almost 70% more than in America, home of the shale-gas revolution. It is also a setback to the country’s efforts to reduce pollution. Dirty coal now makes up about 70% of energy consumption and, despite fast growth in renewable energy, gas is the only cleanish energy source that could displace enough coal to rein in carbon emissions quickly.

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21614187-china-drastically-reduces-its-ambitions-be-big-shale-gas-producer-shale-game

. September 29, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Expanding the Montreal protocol would not, by itself, keep the rise in global temperatures within safe bounds. That will require cutting carbon emissions by around 26 billion tonnes of CO{-2} equivalent a year by 2030 (or almost halving the current rate of emissions). A broad carbon treaty will still be necessary; so will stopping deforestation, slashing subsidies to fossil fuels and much else (see article). But expanding the Montreal protocol would get more than a tenth of the way towards what is needed.

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21618781-quickest-way-cut-greenhouse-gases-expand-montreal-protocol-paris-montreal

. May 6, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Large firms no longer employ all that many people in America: the domestic employee base of the S&P 500 is only around a tenth of total American employment. New firms would invest more, employ more staff, and force incumbents to invest more in order to compete. If this sounds pie in the sky, consider the shale revolution over the past decade. Although the industry is now suffering from low oil prices, it is a rare example of entrepreneurial spirit taking on a stodgy industry to the benefit of all. A new commitment to competition could be the source of optimism that America is desperately searching for. After all, it is only a healthy dollop of greed and a belief in a better future that prompts people to start from scratch and try to cross the moat that has been dug around corporate America.

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