Robert Samuelson’s Objective, Reasonable Analysis Of Climate Change Policy: Now Watch Him Get Called “A Denier”

samuelsonI’ve been reading and marveling at Robert J. Samuelson’s commentary on economic matters for decades. He lacks the panache of George Will, the certitude of E.J. Dionne, the passion of Charles Krauthammer, the comforting wishy-washiness of Kathleen Parker, and the partisan alliances of almost everybody. He’s just smart, articulate, observant scholar who gives his readers a sharp and objective analysis that often defies conventional wisdom. He annoys conservatives and liberals in equal measure, and I suppose is not a scintillating presence, since he is almost never on TV talking head panels.

Finally, he put his cerebral skills to work on the issue of climate change policy. Here, in part, is what he has concluded…

It’s not that the recent international conference in Paris didn’t take significant steps to check global warming. It did….The trouble is that what’s being attempted is so fundamentally difficult that even these measures may be wildly unequal to the task… Without energy, the world economy shuts down, threatening economic and social chaos. But the consequences of climate change, assuming the scientific consensus is accurate, are also grim — from rising sea levels (threatening coastal cities) to harsher droughts (reducing food supplies)…

 On the existence of human-driven warming, I accept the dominant scientific view, mainly because I’m not technically qualified to dispute it. [Aside: how reasonable. If only the similarly unqualified pundits who proclaim the absolute certainty of complex research that cannot produce a model that proves accurate were similarly honest.] But I have doubted that, without major breakthroughs in energy technology, we can do much about warming. The addiction to fossil fuels will triumph.

Paris confirms that view. Rather than show how much progress we’ve made, it demonstrates how little maneuvering room we have. Consider some estimates from IHS, a consulting company. In 2012, it reports, the world generated 45 gigatons of greenhouse gases, up 50 percent since 1990. Without new policies, that total would rise to 60 gigatons by 2030, IHS projects. But the national pledges made in Paris would hold the 2030 total to 50 gigatons. That’s good news, right? Well, not exactly.

Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius would require that emissions in 2030 drop to 35 gigatons, reckons IHS. So even with the Paris pledges, we’re about 40 percent above the goal. Moreover, IHS thinks that some pledged cuts won’t materialize. They are political gestures or depend on unproven technologies. There are no enforcement mechanisms.

Renewable energy — mainly wind and solar power — is supposed to rescue us. Quite likely, it won’t…In the next two years, the solar industry expects to double its installed U.S. capacity. In 2014, wind generation was up 51 percent from 2011, according to government figures. …But these achievements need to be qualified.  [W]ind supplied only 4.4 percent of U.S. electricity in 2014. Solar’s contribution was smaller, about 1 percent; for 2020, the industry’s target is 3.5 percent. Global figures are lower. The Economist magazine puts renewables’ share of world energy production at 1 percent . The fact that wind and solar are heavily subsidized in the United States, through tax breaks, suggests that recent cost reductions haven’t yet made renewables competitive with other energy sources.

Another handicap is physics: Wind and solar generate electricity only when the sun shines or the wind blows. They need backup power supplies. This hasn’t been (so far) a big problem in the United States, because we have many “base” power plants — typically fueled by coal and natural gas — that can provide backup. Developing countries are another story. Seeking to reduce their poverty, they need more bulk power, says Robert Bryce, an energy expert at the Manhattan Institute. They have favored coal.

Despite Paris, we haven’t acknowledged the difficulties of grappling with climate change, whose extent and timing are uncertain. We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these. The potential isn’t large enough.

Of course, there is always nuclear energy to bridge the gap, Samuelson notes. But the advocates of radical climate change measures are also card-carrying members of the anti-nuke crowd. The fact is that there is little reason to think that we can “get there from here,” but this harsh reality doesn’t dissuade ideologues and dreamy-eyed ecology fanatics from encouraging governments to waste billions of dollars, cripple industries and eliminate jobs with well-intentioned, hopeless regulations and laws.

There is also the fact, and it is a fact, that as Samuelson notes, “the extent and timing” of climate change is uncertain.  That means, to someone rational and unpolitical like him, that devising expensive policies to address a phenomenon that has not yet been defined with sufficient precision and reliability is irresponsible. He would never state it like that; Samuelson usually doesn’t characterize policy, he just gives you his analysis and lets you decide.

I wouldn’t state it like that, either. I’d call it idiotic. The fact that Samuelson’s clear-eyed analysis is almost entirely missing from the public climate change debate, including the rhetoric of the Presidential candidates on both parties, shows that they are more interested in pandering to ignorant base voters than seeking sensible policy measures on climate change, whatever it is.

29 thoughts on “Robert Samuelson’s Objective, Reasonable Analysis Of Climate Change Policy: Now Watch Him Get Called “A Denier”

    • Hey Paul,
      My brother, who is a bit more research orientated than I am and is the senior scientist at the research company he owns, recently joined the research teams that are working on developing a method of harnessing fusion energy to be used in the production of energy with Los Alamos National Laboratory. Earlier this month, they had a panel discussion with the scientists doing this research on Capital hill in DC talking about this research, I saw the podcast, it was quite interesting.

      I have hopes for future energy sources and once they get some things solved, I think fusion will be the ticket.

      Maybe we could touch on that topic a little bit when wear holes in our elbows over a few glasses of barley pop. 😉

  1. The obvious solution is to trigger nuclear winter, the diametric opposite of climate change. It will plunge sea levels (reducing the threat to coastal cities) and reduce or eliminate droughts ( increasing food production).

  2. Like Mr. Samuelson, I lack the technical expertise to defend or refute any of the opposing scientific arguments, but I will comment anyway. I do accept the premise that there is climate change and that human population is, at minimum, one factor contributing to that climate change. But I also believe that there are other factors contributing to climate change that probably have little to do with human population.

    Regarding human population, there are presently about 7 billion of us on planet earth. We all need food/calories, reasonably clean air and water, shelter, and enough energy to make it all come together at the right time and place. How well or not so well we make this all happen determines what kind of standard of living we enjoy. Some nations are blessed (as we are in the U.S.A.) and other nations are seemingly cursed continually falling far short of achieving even the most minimal standards of living for their people.

    It is obvious that every nation and its people must have economic activity sufficient to keep all the moving parts going in reasonable harmony. Energy… whether it be carbon based or otherwise… is an essential component in any economy in any nation and in any culture. We all need energy to keep going. I seriously doubt that we can keep the needed economic activity of the world running on nothing but renewable energy… today and for as far as I can imagine into the future given the technology we presently have available.

    The challenge we face might be best illustrated with a specific example: China.

    The population of the Peoples Republic of China is currently about 1.4 billion making it the most populous nation on earth. Owing to the one-child policy, the Chinese government is now worried about a “labor shortage” that might impede the economic expansion that is necessary to maintain social and political stability in China… a very important thing for the leaders of the PRC. Accordingly, they are now abandoning the one-child policy which will likely contribute to an faster rate of population growth. At the same time, to support this ever growing population and its expanding economy, which is heavily weighted with manufacturing activities, they need lots more energy. So, the PRC continues to build coal fired electric generation plants because that technology can produce relatively quick, easy, abundant, proven and affordable kilowatt hours of power. As trade-off for the benefits of coal based electricity, the air quality in many Chinese urban regions is very bad. So, if wind and solar could do it, I am guessing that the PRC would be blazing the trail for the renewable energy sources more than anybody else. And I am sure they are working on renewable energy… but not to the exclusion of good old reliable coal!

    So, what is the responsibility of China in the Paris deal and when will they start reducing dependence on coal based energy?

    Not for a while…

    So we face a perplexing problem. As long as we have 7 billion people and are still growing, we will need energy to make everything work, keep our economies expanding and to maintain social and political harmony. The sources of that energy are problematic… all of them, not just carbon based energy… and may lead to such environmental degradation that in time the “people problem” may hit a wall and may face a unpleasant self correction.

    I am not saying that we should not try to do better… and try hard… but I wonder how much sacrifice the American culture should bear in the defense of its own necessary economic activity in order to possibly but not definitely solve the environmental problems facing the world in the 21st Century.

    Because the American culture lives at such a relatively high standard of living compared to much of the rest of the world, it may be in our best self interest… not just a moral obligation to the rest of the people of the world… that the American culture should bear a fairly sizable sacrifice. Of course, this is NOT what the American people would want to hear.

      • Michael Ejercito said, “…my standard of living does not hurt anyone.”

        That kind of tunnel vision doesn’t help the conversation. Your standard of living combined with all the others standards of living above that of stone aged non fire burning neanderthals directly affects the environment, period! Humans are a scourge on the earth, period!

        Like many others, I don’t think the sky is falling as wing-nut climate change people are implying, I think it’s cyclical and the earth is currently on the relatively predictable temperature upswing, but that does not stop me from trying to be friendly to the environment and encourage others to also be friendly to the environment.

        The end result of the wing-nuts climate catastrophic implications might be a planet that we take a little better care of, that’s not a bad thing, but I think their methods and conclusions are intentionally deceptive. Let’s do something to better the environment of the Earth, but let’s do it for the right reasons not because there are nonsense predictions of catastrophic disasters just around the corner, which in terms of Earth’s normal major climate change events, an eon or two.

        • ResurrectedToday;

          I’m all in favor of taking better care of Mother Gaia, and my ‘Green Cred’ speak for itself; heck, this email is being sent complements of energy generated by my efforts on my stationary bike.

          That said, Global Warming INC really isn’t about taking care of the Planet.

          This was divulged in a moment of rather damning clarity by one of their own., Ottmar Edenhofer; UNIPCC, UNIPCC working Group III, Lead Author AR4 (2007). (emphasis mine throughout)

          “First of all, developed countries have basically expropriated the atmosphere of the world community.
          “But one must say clearly that WE REDISTRIBUTE DE FACTO THE WORLD’S WEALTH BY CLIMATE POLICY.
          “Obviously, the owners of coal and oil will not be enthusiastic about this.
          “ONE HAS TO FREE ONESELF FROM THE ILLUSION THAT INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE POLICY IS ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY.
          “THIS HAS ALMOST NOTHING TO DO WITH ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ANYMORE, with problems such as deforestation or the ozone hole.”

          Pretty gosh darn refreshing, am I right?

          As far as the barley pop, I insist it is organic, free range, fair trade, locally
          sourced, GREEN, & sustainable, with the barley humanely dispatched, the water…um…re-purposed, and the glass a recycled, dimpled pilsner mug chilled in a root cellar

          To reduce the carbon footprint, the meeting should be by skype or tele-conference, this isn’t a posh, high falutin’ Climate Conference ya know.

          Cheers!

          • I’m a very simple man; my beer merely has to taste good to me. Speaking of beer and tasting good, and I know of a local place that has a locally brewed, exceptional tasting, Oatmeal Stout. 😉

            Cheers & Happy New Year Paul!

            See ya soon…

    • So what all this means, in sum, is that we need to radically reduce world population in order to affect the climate. Makes sense to me.

      Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing that. We may see it in certain countries, but overall, the population will continue to grow, and energy to provide for them will have to be generated somehow. For most said countries, their only viable option is cheaper, dirtier energy (i.e. coal).

      So should we draw the conclusion from all this, and Samuelson’s analysis, that environmentalists’ only realistic hope of achieving their desires is for lots and lots of humans to die? I really think so, at this point.

      • “So should we draw the conclusion from all this, and Samuelson’s analysis, that environmentalists’ only realistic hope of achieving their desires is for lots and lots of humans to die? I really think so, at this point.”

        I doubt that’s what he meant, but it’s also undoubtedly true. Anyone over the age of 45 has grown up to see the population of the Earth actually double. That’s quite a stunning statistic when you think about it. Where there was one person, there is now two.

        And when this conversation comes up, I always think of John Calhoun and The Beautiful Ones. I recommend reading up on it…. But John B. Calhoun worked at The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and did experiments on mice around the 60’s. One of his later experiments was the “Mouse Paradise”. The experiment was to record the effect on mouse psychology when there was no shortage of food, water or shelter, and no possibility of predation, with the only check on the population being space. He designed an enclosure that had an 81 square foot footprint and 4 metre walls. On each wall he had tunnels going up to areas with food, water and bedding material. He introduced 20 breeding pairs of mice, and observed.

        The population doubled about every 50 days, until around the end of the first year, And the last surviving birth occurred around the end of the second year. There were two massive shifts in psychology… First when the population became uncomfortable… Males would fight viciously for territory and females would spontaneously abort litters, or expel them before weaning was complete, abuse and maiming of young increased dramatically, and the rate of homosexuality among those mice was approximately four times the natural expected rate.

        Second, when the population became so dense that it was impossible to hold territory, and the mice gave up trying. This last generation saw a complete breakdown of the family unit, females ceased to reproduce and males ceased to compete for females or space. Without the competition, mice busied themselves with solitary ventures like grooming, eating and sleeping. The lack of scars and the sleek coats dubbed them the name “The Beautiful Ones”.

        It also answered partially the answer of “Nature vs. Nurture”. Calhoun took mice from the enclosure once it became apparent that the population was extinguishing and tried to put them into other experiments. Without exception, those populations failed. The adult mice either failed to teach the younger generation basic mouse skills, or showed the younger generation a warped caricature of what it meant to be a mouse, and the resulting generation was broken, even after being exposed to healthy populations.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Calhoun#Mouse_experiments

  3. I hope the fanatics stay at only calling him a denier. Aside from the growing buy-in by politicians and lack of buy-in from the public in ways that make a substantial difference (like driving a lot less and not shipping the latest fad food from a remote part of the world) little has changed.

  4. I believe that Samuelson’s analysis of this “climate change catastrophe” is quite well thought out. Whether climate change is something that we should drastically respond to is dubious to me. Call me a “denier” or witch, whatever. I just don’t think the evidense is there: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/climatechange/10339243/IPCC-report-global-warming-theory-is-junk-science.html However, I will not say that it could not happen. Actually, I am much more afraid of Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear programs at this point.

  5. One word:

    Nuclear.

    Until the enviro-nuts can give up their hatred of that, there’s no discussion.

    Wind will for the LONG foreseeable future, eat up MORE natural resources and fossil fuels making windmills than the windmills will ever produce and solar will for the LONG foreseeable future, only be more efficient when dispersed, decentralized, and as close to the final user as possible. Both ultimately will require batteries or an alternate fuel source during their inevitable down times.

    • As a person who knows a thing or two about nuclear energy (I was a U.S. Naval reactor operator), I can say that it is not the answer. There is no political will to reduce regulation to the point at which nuclear energy will have a significant impact on the environment in the time frame envisioned, even considering the advanced new designs which are much safer and produce much less waste.

      Even if we significantly deregulated nuclear energy in the next Republican administration, there is no doubt that the uncertainty of seeing that deregulation rolled back immediately after the next Democratic party victory would make investment in nuclear energy a dubious and costly proposition. It is also a fact that construction costs of nuclear projects tend to be underestimated to begin with, and that nobody wants a nuclear plant in their back yard, which increases cost for remote locations.

      So no, it’s not the answer. Yes, under ideal circumstances, perhaps it could be, but too many people still buy into the commercial nuclear scares of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and have passed that fear on to their offspring.

  6. There is no need to subsidize nuclear energy. New generation reactors are far ahead of massive plants like the undeservedly infamous Three Mile Island. They can be handled by far fewer people and with much less in the way of moving parts. If America had gone nuclear back in the sixties, there would never have been any energy dependence and, by now, new generation reactors would be everywhere. Not only that, but other uses of compact nuclear power would have had us out to Saturn by now. But the environmentalists made themselves a vital pillar of the Democrat Party and the EPA became the weapon by which they could override the Constitution and enforce their will on the nation. Their excuse of choice in doing even more harm to the economy- while enriching and empowering themselves- is that of Climate Change, formerly Global Warming. As long as crying “wolf” and “the sky is falling” works for them, they’ll continue to use it. Truth is irrelevant. Only the perception of the ignorant matters.

    • France has used nuclear energy since 1974 and it has been a success story. Much more of their energy comes from the generation of nuclear power than fossil fuels. There is a no nukes movement in France but the French people generally prefer nuclear power rather than coal or fossil fuels since they are not held hostage by the Russians and the gulf states.

  7. Reader Houghton’s first paragraph summed up my view on this issue. I also made strategic changes many years ago including a solar unit in 1982. I wished to install a wind turbine but the cost factor and a confused zoning board prevented it. I also looked into a heat pump, but the technology and lack of any tax credits veered me off that.

    There are many other options to energy use besides nuke and carbon based and solar and wind are but two. Eventually, someone will make a significant breakthrough on cold fusion and that will be that.

  8. Eventually, orbital solar power will become commercially available; eventually, we will be able to pull carbon from the atmosphere to reverse the effects of global warming; and eventually, telepathy will dominate personal communications, etcetera and so forth. Or maybe not. Eventually is what we have theory and scientific process and science fiction for.

    In the meantime . . . .

    • Actually, we already can “pull carbon from the atmosphere to reverse the [stipulated] effects of global warming”. I looked into it, and it turns out that a proportion of any massive forest fire generates charcoal that originated in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a further proportion of which gets naturally sequestered by earth cover or in water where, not being biodegradable or subject to sun bleaching, it stays until recycled by very long term geological processes, e.g. through subduction taking it to volcanoes. So “all” we have to do is have regular burn offs in forest areas (it would be more effective, though more expensive and so less practical on a large enough scale, to harvest vegetation, carbonise more of it, and sequester all of the resulting charcoal; that’s essentially what happened when Amazonian terra preta was built up).

      Of course, true blue greenies wouldn’t like that either.

  9. Much of the public debate pretends that it’s an easy decision to “save the planet”, but what Samuelson’s saying isn’t particularly unusual among people who’ve been studying the economics of global warming. Billions of of poor people want to reach the standard of living we have in developed countries, and they’ll need energy to do it, but advanced low-carbon-emission generation technology is very expensive, and CO2 levels are too close to what we think are the disaster levels. Unless we get some amazing technological luck, we’re facing some hard choices as a civilization, at a time when we don’t have good ways to enact such choices.

    • It’s unusual in that 1) it’s from a newspaper columnist 2) in a paper that routinely mouths simplistic climate change propaganda 3) clearly stated so someone with 8th grade reading comprehension can understand it. Contrast it with the blather regularly issuing from Bernie Sanders or Robert Kennedy III (or II, I can’t keep count.)

      • The trick is figuring out how to get a market to manage a resource like the Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide capacity. Cap-and-trade doesn’t seem to be working very well, and I don’t think there’s enough political will for carbon taxes.

  10. Not a scientist but an avid enjoyer of rain, the more pitter patter on the roof, the better & calmer I feel midst all the worries, fears, & anxieties we all experience in this beautiful, yet troubled nation. I got something to say about this warming supposition & unless our 8th grade science curriculum led us to wrongly believe the deforestation of the abundantly wet Rain Forest would cause a calamity with the weather system one day, are we to drop that scary media news blitz of over 35+ years ago and accept another just as detailed account for this new & scary future projection of weather perversion?
    I want the experts to tell me why my beloved rain showers & storms have been almost non existent compared to just a few years ago, when ya had to run thru the house & out to the car to close the windows. Not one time this summer, especially in July & Aug, did the warm afternoon produce any thunderclappers or torrents of rain. Every single weather report having to do with rain stated chance of rain and like a broken record it repeated chance chance chance for months & rarely were heard any expected amounts or percentages.

    So what gives? Why have there been ominous storm clouds with NO, NOT ONE DROP of rain?
    We used to have hard driving rain, the type you couldn’t see the road ahead no matter how fast your wipers were slapping in a desperate race to give you some clarity of vision. So, if thunderstorms result from hot air rising & clashing with colder air way up there, then why haven’t we had more storms to go along with the theory of global heat increases?
    It’s akin to getting smoke but no fire, with storm clouds but no rain, which I miss so very much, like the great variety of butterflies that WERE our art eye candy every spring & summer. I can’t even recall the last time I saw a little yellow butterfly or heard that soothing drone of rainfall upon the windowpane.

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