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Examiner Exclusive Interview with Professor Richard Tol

Examiner. Something appears to be broken in the mechanisms we as a society use for determining the right thing to do as far as climate change. But not everybody agrees on what is not working. Is it the science? The media? The politicians? The policy assessment? The implementation?

Professor Tol: I have no expertise in this area.

Examiner. You say the IPCC be dramatically changed. How?

Professor Tol: The responsibility for the IPCC in its member states should be transferred from the environment departments/ministries/agencies to the research departments/ministries/agencies or the national academies.

The Chair of the IPCC and the Chairs of the IPCC Working Groups should be removed from the IPCC Bureau. The IPCC Bureau should assume a supervisory role under a strong and independent Chair.

The IPCC should apply its own procedures.

Examiner. Some governments (The EU, the UK, China) are spending very large sums of money to combat climate change, the first two by lowering emissions, the latter by investing heavily in green technology for energy generation. Are these policies wise, given our state of knowledge about the issue?

Professor Tol: Climate change is a problem that should be solved. We cannot let the planet get warmer and warmer. There should be a carbon tax, which should be modest at present but rise steadily and predictably over time.

Current climate policy in Europe is expensive but not very effective in reducing emissions. The Emissions Trading System and the government supports for renewable energy are first and foremost corporate welfare programmes.

Examiner. If in fact some very basic assumptions are incorrect regarding future population and income per capita, can sound policy be formulated using IPCC publications and the Stern Report?

Professor Tol: While the IPCC emissions projections are not particularly well-founded, it is not clear whether they are biased upwards or downwards. There is no reason to assume that this would substantially affect the advice to near-term climate policy.

Examiner. You are very much in the news today because of the statement that appeared on your website. You write, “The most important problem of the IPCC is the nomination and selection of authors and bureau members. This is not based on academic quality (as it should be) but rather on political colour. The IPCC member states are represented by their environment departments. This responsibility should be transferred to their research departments or their academies.” This by implication seems to indicate that past work by the IPCC suffered from defects in this regard. To what extent should policy makers discount the conclusions put forward in AR4, for example?

Professor Tol: The conclusions of AR4 Working Group 1 are basically sound. WG2 has exaggerated the seriousness of the impacts of climate change, while WG3 has underestimated the costs of greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Examiner. How closely have you followed the controversy over the Climategate emails?

Professor Tol: Reasonably closely.

Examiner. The Oxburgh investigation has released a very short (5 page) report that in essence clears the Climatic Research Unit of East Anglia University from charges of a conspiracy to subvert the scientific process (an accusation that I don’t think anyone was making). It does, however, fault CRU for not availing themselves of statistical expertise in their analysis of temperatures. Do you feel that you could comment on the report?

Professor Tol: The Oxburgh report confirms that the CRU is disorganised and not competent in statistical methods. As most of what they do is database management and statistical analysis, this is a harsh verdict.

Examiner. You also wrote on your website that AR4 contains crude errors, only some of which are public knowledge. Can you tell us what these errors are?

Professor Tol: The media have focused on glaring errors in AR4, the sort that can be talked about in the pub. There are more subtle errors too, including the treatment of water resources by WG2 and the discussion of emission reduction costs in WG3. As only a few, randomly chapters have been investigated in detail, there is good reason to assume that other chapters contain errors too.

Examiner. You also wrote, “The errors are not random. Working Group 2 systematically portrays climate change as a bigger problem than is scientifically acceptable. Working Group 3 systematically portrays climate policy as easier and cheaper than can be responsibly concluded based on academic research.” Taken as a whole, your comments could very easily be interpreted as an accusation that AR4 is written specifically to a political agenda. Are you in fact making that accusation? If so, who in your opinion created the agenda and why?

Professor Tol: As the IPCC became more policy relevant over the years, it attracted more people with political rather than academic motives. Activists were few and from both sides in AR2. Some of the discussion in AR3 was very politicised, but in the end balance won. In AR4, however, green activists held key positions in the IPCC and they succeeded in excluding or neutralising opposite voices.

Examiner. The world last year spent $5 trillion on energy and invested $500 billion in green technology initiatives. Is that proportion appropriate? As an economist, how would you direct efforts to protect this planet and its population from harm related to climate change?

Professor Tol: Energy demand is growing rapidly, and conventional supply cannot keep up. We are heading for a transformation of the energy sector and this will require a large investment. I do not know whether current investment is appropriate in its size and composition.

I would impose a modest carbon tax and let it rise steadily and predictably over time.

Examiner. Would you say much the same things about the Stern Report as you do of AR4? What is the worth of the Stern Report to good policy making at this point?

Professor Tol: The Stern Review is more political and lower quality than the AR4 report. The Stern Review is thus irrelevant to sound policy advice.

Examiner. What is the political/career/reputational risk that you are taking by coming forward like this with statements that are sure to be widely reported and criticized? How do you intend to deal with it? Have you seen the reaction to Judith Curry’s attempts to bridge the gap between consensus holders and those of differing opinions on climate change?

I am a tenured professor. My research funding is secure in the medium term. In the long term, academic quality will prevail.

Examiner. What is this experience teaching you about the world, economics, science and human nature?

Professor Tol: No comment.

Examiner. In the first part of our interview you said you trusted arguments, not people. Which arguments to you are the most valid and appropriate characterisations of our relationship with our climate today?

Professor Tol: A part of the carbon dioxide we emit stays in the atmosphere practically forever. There are a lot of fossil hydrocarbons left unburned. The response of the climate system to greenhouse gas emissions is particularly uncertain. While I have not seen any convincing evidence that climate change will do serious damage in the 21st century, we could well be heading for trouble in the longer term. We therefore have to transform our energy system towards a zero-carbon energy system. As this will be a difficult and long-term process, we better start now.

Environmental Policy Examiner, 22 April 2010