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Book review: ‘Climate Rationality: From Bias to Balance’

‘Climate Rationality: From Bias to Balance’ by Jason Scott Johnston. A Review by Michael Kelly

Of all the dozens of books I have read about climate change, this book is the most forensic in its analysis of the public debate, the policy formation processes and indeed the scientific process itself. The author is a Professor of Law at the University of Virginia Law School. In places, the book is a deep dive, which repays the effort needed to confirm the conclusions reached. In other places it is an easier read. It retreads much of the territory covered by Steven E. Koonin in his book ‘Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Does not, and Why It Matters’, but with different emphases – for example a much more detailed look at the legislative processes in the USA on environmental matters.

There are two long sections: (i) The costs of precautionary policy and (ii) The other side of the story: the structure, process and output of the climate science assessment institutions and the science they neglect, and a short third section (iii) Towards rational climate policy.

I found the conclusions of each section quite compelling. This review consists of the last paragraph of most of the chapters, from which the reader can form a direct opinion.

1.            At the end of a chapter on how the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) usurped the regulation of automobile performance:

The largest and most highly powered SUVs are precisely the types of vehicle whose price goes up the most due to CAFÉ (corporate average fuel economy) standards and demand for which is concentrated among higher income households. In this way, on the margin, the CAFÉ standards puts wealthier households in heavy, high powered, fuel inefficient but safe vehicles, and poorer households in fuel efficient by smaller vehicles. On the margin, therefore CAFÉ standards make the deadly big car – little car crashes stories where high income households are protected, and low income households are put at risk.

2.            At the end of a chapter entitled ‘It will bankrupt you’, dealing with the attack on coal:

All of these costs pertain just to unemployment. As we have seen above coal-fired power plants are generally located in relatively small towns and rural or exurban areas. For the communities in which they are located, coal-fired power plants closed by the MATS (mercury and air toxics) rule have been crucial taxpayers, providing funding for everything from schools to police. When they closed, entire communities suffered losses that no one has attempted to quantify.

Even aggregated, these costs are sure an underestimate of the cost of the MATS rule. That regulation was only a small price of a regulatory agenda with the explicit goal of eliminating entire American industries – coal mining and coal-fired electricity generation.   The type of coat-benefit analysis done by the EPA has never been designed to estimate the dollar harm from such massive catastrophic economic change.

3.            At the end of a chapter on the clean power plan (Note: the Obama-era CPP was cancelled by President Trump):

To summarise all of this, to ensure that EPA-imposed renewable energy requirements did not jeopardize the reliability of state electricity supply, the states – not the EPA – had to devote resources to producing a series of plans and reports to the EPA on how they were managing to reduce power sector GHG emissions while ensuring system reliability. Such reports would be due every two years, but electrical system reliability was clearly to take a back seat to the renewable energy goal. Only in ‘unforeseen, emergency’ cases could a state possibly get the EPA to grant it a ‘short term modification’ of power sector GHG emission standards.

4.            The concluding paragraph on the chapter entitled ‘Renewable Power and the Reliability and Cost of Electricity’:

Nowhere in the EOA’s CPP (or the RIAs (regulatory impact analyses) accompanying it) is there any analysis of the very real problems for electric system reliability and cost raised by high levels of renewable energy. Rather than explaining and analysing how and why increasing levels of renewable power can create reliability problems, the EPA simply dismissed such problems as more or less non-existent. It never discussed in any detail the cost of such major changes. The CPP was intended to transform the US electricity system, but as far as the EPA was concerned its role was limited to legally compelling the transformation. Responsibility for the costs and consequences of the transformation were not EPA’s problem.

5.            At the end of ‘Renewable Power subsides and Mandates’:

These regressive effects of renewable energy policies are magnified for minority households. Black and Hispanic households in the bottom 20 percent of income are often living in older, energy-inefficient homes. A very recent study, Kontokosta et al. (2020, 89-105) finds that even within the same income group, minority households systematically spend a higher share of their after-tax income on electricity and other energy bills. Hence increases in electricity prices caused by RPS (renewable portfolio standards) laws disproportionately burden such households.

6.            A long chapter on ‘Spinning the Tort Liability Roulette Wheel’ ends with:

However, as my later overview of climate science shows, while it is beyond dispute that human activities have impacted global climate, they have done so in many ways beyond atmospheric CO2. In particular, the evidence is overwhelming that land use conversion and urbanization and the emission of black carbon (or soot) have contributed to elevated surface temperatures in many regions of the world. The legal causation issue in cases such as California v. BP PLC is not whether human activities in general have impacted global climate, it is the magnitude of the defendants’ CO2 emissions. To estimate this magnitude, other influences must be measured and carefully controlled for in any kind of analysis (statistical, 3D climate modelling or lower dimensional climate modelling). Precautionary climate science has failed to do this, precisely because it is precautionary, focussing on establishing evidence supporting regulatory interventions to reduce CO2 emissions, rather than actually understanding and qualifying the full set of human influences on climate. As the defence in California v. BP PLC completely failed to present any of this, it ended up managing a climate tutorial that did not inform the court as to the real issues involved.

Similar end-of-chapter paragraphs from the second section on ‘The Other Side of the Story’ are equally compelling.

7              The first chapter is entitled ‘But Is It True’ and ends with:

Thus whereas one often hears it said that ‘97’ of scientists agree’ that human CO2 emissions are causing climate change, what may well be the best survey yet actually found something very different: that fully 40% of meteorologists and atmospheric scientists who publish mostly on climate did not agree with even the statement that global warming has been happening over the last 150 years and is mostly human caused.

8.            ‘Born in Politics’ is the story of the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and it concludes with:

Thus from its inception the IPCC was a science advocacy organization, a group designed to assess climate science in a way that justified the policy outcomes preferred by the national and international sectors responsible for its creation.

9.            ‘Settling Science and Propagandising for Action’ concludes with:

There can be little doubt that the scientists who have led NASA GISS (National Aeronautical and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies) for the last 40 years do not view the production and funding of climate science as an enterprise undertaken merely to advance human understanding of global climate, but rather as an activity to support precautionary climate policy. NASA GISS is not the only government agency to have publicised statements about climate and weather as well as climate science that are at best misleading. In my discussion of climate science that begins in the next chapter, I point out other instances of climate science propaganda.

10.          The chapter ‘Recent Observed Climate Change in Longer-Term Perspective’ forensically analyses the data taken on many phenomena, the last being drought cycles often claimed to be unprecedented, but Johnston concludes:

In depicting periods of intense drought that have cycled through western US history, Cook et al. (2007) are far from alone. Some of these droughts were severe and long-lasting. Meko et al (2007), for example, identified the Colorado Basin as suffering a 62 year drought in the mid-1100s that brought Colorado River flow levels roughly 20% below their twentieth-century levels. Century-long droughts for the Great Basin region of the western United Sates have been identified from tree rings as ending in 1800, 1200, 800 and 500 years before the present. While pollen records (see, e.g. Mensing et al. 2008) indicate that some of these may not have been severe, they provide confirming evidence for centuries-long droughts in this region during some periods (such as that extending between 180 and 800 years ago).

11           ‘Beyond CO2’ looks at many factors causing regional climate change ignored by the IPCC.

When the IPCC AR5 justifies cutting the estimated warming impact of BC (back carbon, or soot) by 2/3 from the estimate given by scientists who actually are experts in the study of BC because there are no ‘robust’ estimate of the climate change ‘metric’ for BC emissions from different regions, what it essentially is saying is that because BC is a short-lived regionally concentrated agent of global warming, it can be discounted. But this has nothing to do with what scientists have said about the actual present-day impact of BC emissions on the global climate. In fact precisely because BC is a short-lived atmospheric molecule, reducing BC emissions would likely have a very rapid effect on the climate in regions mot impacted by BC emissions. In this light, the IPCC’s decision to essentially neglect BC in it scientific assessment seems clearly to be driven by the belief that to divert attention to short-lived climate forces like BC would reduce the apparent significant of CO2 and other long-lived climate forcers. That is, that the case for reducing CO2 emissions to avert potential, long-term, far distant climate impacts would be weakened if people understood that reducing BC emissions would likely have an immediate impact on slowing warming in certain regions. This is quite obviously not a scientific question pertaining to the impact of emissions of different gases on global climate, but a policy decision.

12           The chapter ‘Projecting Future Climate from Computer Models’ ends with:

‘… IPCC is also not likely to give the projections from all the models equal weight, Fyfe (a GCM modeler with the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis) add, instead weighting results by each model’s credibility.’

If by credibility Fyfe means ability to reproduce the past relationship between temperature and CO2, without relying on tuning of uncertain feedback parameters and the ability to generate testable predictions that have not been disconfirmed, then at least from my review, it is not clear which climate models would have nonzero weight.

13           ‘The Precautionary Social Cost of Carbon’ concludes with:

Dayaratna et al. (2020) used the FUND Model because it is the only IAM (integrated assessment model) that allows for CO2 fertilization effects. I discuss such fertilization effects in more detail in my analysis of human adaptation to climate in the next chapter. As I explain there, while it is true that not all plants get the same boost in growth rates from higher-CO2 environments (even corn and soybeans, for example, have very different responses), the vast majority of pants grow faster in high-CO2 environments.  Even with no CO2 fertilization effects at all, when using the temperature distribution estimated by Lewis and Curry (2018) Dayaratna (2020, Table 2) find a SCC (social cost of carbon) of only $1.61 in 2020. This compares with an SCC of $19.33 using the Roe-Baker (2007) distribution. When they allowed for fertilization effects of either a 15 or 30% boost in agricultural and forest productivity, Dayaratna (2020, Table 2) found a negative SSC of respectively -$0.82 and -$2.74 in 2020. A negative SSC means that there is not net harm but a net economic benefit from a higher-CO2 world, even allowing for possible damage from higher temperatures in some economic sectors.

The third section Toward Rational Climate Policy’ has three chapters.

14           ‘Adapt and Prosper’ ends with

A contrary finding about air conditioning has been presented by Barreca et al. (2016,140). Despite dealing with the same sort of coarse data on air conditioning at the state level as exists at the level of metropolitan statistical area (ref), remarkably, Berreca et al. estimate that 86 percent of the decline in mortality on days with an average temperature above 90F between the period 1930–1959 (when there was no residential air conditioning) and 1960–2004 was due to the adoption of air conditioning. They also found that the impact of air conditioning was greatest for infants and the elderly, with cardiovascular death rates among the elderly falling the most, and also greater for blacks than whites. Barreca et al. (2016) found than an increase in the AC coverage in a state from 0 to 59 percent (the average share across states over the period 1960-2004) would lower mortality on days with average temperature over 90F by about 1%.

15           The ‘Surprising Sahel’ looks at other than narrow climate change causes of poverty.

Sahelians have always faced a difficult and changeable climate. As put by one long time student of the Sahel, through their traditional, customary mix of individual and shared property rights, Sahelians have pursued not just productivity enhancement, but risk avoidance through diverse and flexible agricultural responses in drought. (Ref). The French colonial experience in the Sahel shows the disastrous consequences of neglecting such traditional adaptations, and simply trying to centrally impose agricultural systems designed to maximise ‘productivity at all costs’. If scholars are correct that the potential for ‘indigenous intensification’ in the Sahel depends on ‘rainfall and soil nutrients’ then the logical policy response is not to supplant local institutions but to supplement them by providing ‘simple but reliable information on the onset and overall adequacy of the rains.’

16:          The final chapter on ‘Selected Policy Options’ focusses on three core issues: (i) how to facilitate efficient adaptation to changing climate, (ii) how to minimise present-day CO2 emissions while minimising the present day environmental harms and the unfair regressive costs imposed on the poor, and (iii) what to do about the climate science advocacy industry that has produced some very interesting science, but has also succeeded in moralising scientific disagreement in a counterproductive and indeed dangerous way. The last paragraph:

The moralization of scientific disagreement is a hallmark of totalitarian societies. Infamously the brilliant Russian biologist Nikolai Vavilov was imprisoned, tortured and ultimately murdered by the Soviet chief state scientist Trofim Lysenko for disagreeing with Lysenko’s completely false views about evolution and plant breeding, views that while completely false, were part of the justification for Stalin’s deliberate murder by starvation of millions of Ukrainian people. The moralization of scientific disagreement, the branding as ‘deniers’ of those who dispute the science advocacy produced by government-funded climate science organisation, can only end when such funding ends. With the rise of advocacy climate science production funded by billionaires such Michael Bloomberg, it is unclear why the US taxpayer should continue to fund public climate science advocacy institutions such as the IPCC and USGCRP. Public funding maybe justified for research on fundamental and unanswered climate science questions – pertaining for example, to the mathematical structure and behaviour of the global climate system as distinct from the weather. And public funding may be justified for balanced assessment of the costs and benefits of alternative climate policies. But it is not justified for one-sided, biased advocacy climate science produced not to help choose policy, but to justify an already predetermined policy response.

This is indeed a powerful book that is well researched, and the only defect is poor proofreading leading to a number of printing errors, some of which I have faithfully reproduced above.

‘Climate Rationality: From Bias to Balance’ by Jason Scott Johnston is published by Cambridge University Press 2021.