Friday, March 28, 2014

Just Right

In today’s WSJ, Matt Ridley takes a closer look at the soon to be released second part of the latest United Nations IPCC report on the impact of climate change. You know the IPCC, right? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, people who deal strictly in science with facts, data, and all that.

Climate Forecast: Muting the Alarm:

The 2007 report was riddled with errors about Himalayan glaciers, the Amazon rain forest, African agriculture, water shortages and other matters, all of which erred in the direction of alarm. This led to a critical appraisal of the report-writing process from a council of national science academies, some of whose recommendations were simply ignored.

Others, however, hit home. According to leaks, this time the full report is much more cautious and vague about worsening cyclones, changes in rainfall, climate-change refugees, and the overall cost of global warming.

It puts the overall cost at less than 2% of GDP for a 2.5 degrees Centigrade (or 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase during this century. This is vastly less than the much heralded prediction of Lord Stern, who said climate change would cost 5%-20% of world GDP in his influential 2006 report for the British government.

The forthcoming report apparently admits that climate change has extinguished no species so far and expresses "very little confidence" that it will do so. There is new emphasis that climate change is not the only environmental problem that matters and on adapting to it rather than preventing it. Yet the report still assumes 70% more warming by the last decades of this century than the best science now suggests. This is because of an overreliance on models rather than on data in the first section of the IPCC report—on physical science—that was published in September 2013.

So the report says that the economic impact of climate change will be much less than previously predicted imagined and that it will lead to species extinction. And that’s based on warming projections that seem unlikely to occur.

In short, the warming we experienced over the past 35 years—about 0.4C (or 0.7F) if you average the measurements made by satellites and those made by ground stations—is likely to continue at about the same rate: a little over a degree a century.

Briefly during the 1990s there did seem to be warming that went as fast as the models wanted. But for the past 15-17 years there has been essentially no net warming (a "hiatus" now conceded by the IPCC), a fact that the models did not predict and now struggle to explain. The favorite post-hoc explanation is that because of natural variability in ocean currents more heat has been slipping into the ocean since 2000—although the evidence for this is far from conclusive.

None of this contradicts basic physics. Doubling carbon dioxide cannot on its own generate more than about 1.1C (2F) of warming, however long it takes. All the putative warming above that level would come from amplifying factors, chiefly related to water vapor and clouds. The net effect of these factors is the subject of contentious debate.

In climate science, the real debate has never been between "deniers" and the rest, but between "lukewarmers," who think man-made climate change is real but fairly harmless, and those who think the future is alarming. Scientists like Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Richard Lindzen of MIT have moved steadily toward lukewarm views in recent years.

Even with its too-high, too-fast assumptions, the recently leaked draft of the IPCC impacts report makes clear that when it comes to the effect on human welfare, "for most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers," such as economic growth and technology, for the rest of this century. If temperatures change by about 1C degrees between now and 2090, as Mr. Lewis calculates, then the effects will be even smaller.

Indeed, a small amount of warming spread over a long period will, most experts think, bring net improvements to human welfare. Studies such as by the IPCC author and economist Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University in Britain show that global warming has probably done so already. People can adapt to such change—which essentially means capture the benefits but minimize the harm. Satellites have recorded a roughly 14% increase in greenery on the planet over the past 30 years, in all types of ecosystems, partly as a result of man-made CO2 emissions, which enable plants to grow faster and use less water.

These more realistic warming projections would mean that climate change will have even less impact than the already dialed back IPCC report suggests. And if the warming that does occur is indeed relatively minor it could be a net benefit for mankind.