Recently, well-known clean energy expert Michael Liebreich published an interview with Roger Pielke, whose views on aspects of climate change appeal to cynics. It is a good interview but overlooks an important point: risk.
Roger Pielke believes in climate change — but to some, his views border on climate change cynicism. Michael Liebreich has published a 90-minute or so podcast interview entitled: “The Inconvenient Truth about Climate Science.” It is a good podcast and the views expressed are interesting. It also expresses views that could be interpreted as suggesting we exaggerate the seriousness of climate change and, in turn, undermine the main justification of ESG. But important points are missing. The problem is not what the interview says; it is what it doesn’t say and the general emphasis.
In a nutshell, Roger Pielke is an expert on hurricanes — that is a simplification and probably does him an injustice, but nonetheless, he clearly has expertise in that area. He argues that there is no evidence that recent hurricane activity is linked to climate change.
He further suggests that very few of the issues we read about, including extreme weather events, are caused by climate change except maybe what he calls ‘climate fires.’
So far, controversial but not that controversial. It is generally agreed that the worse effects of climate change will be in the future, so to argue that the effects to date aren’t too serious is not especially inconsistent with the climate change narrative.
In the interview between Michael Liebreich and Roger Pielke, there was a lot of discussion on RCP8.5 — one of the scenarios the IPCC uses and known as the ‘high-emissions scenario’ but which is often referred to as ’business as usual.
There is a problem with RCP8.5; it makes assumptions about fossil fuel burning that are not realistic — we are highly unlikely to burn the amount of coal this scenario assumes, and yet it is often cited as if it is a probable scenario
And this takes me to the good news about climate change which was hinted at in the podcast. Clean energies, such as renewables, are advancing so fast that while the battle against climate change may not be winnable in its entirety, keeping average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees looks doable.
I believe that this good news has largely been missed (certainly, it was not forecast) because renewables have advanced exponentially, and as Ray Kurzweil likes to point out, both human nature and the markets are very poor at factoring for exponential change.
Roger Pielke describes what he calls “good news but qualified good news,” that “the world in 2022 is better placed than we would have expected in 2005.”
And that analysis is smack on. It is fantastic news: it should be celebrated and hailed as a great early victory in the war against climate change.
So, I agree with the thrust of the interview.
Then things get more controversial.
Climate change paradox
Roger Pielke goes on to talk about the “Climate change paradox.” Economists assume we will be much richer (aka the economy much larger) in 100 years, and since climate change is about the long term, why do we fret so much about a long-term trend if the trend suggests we will be better off? Roger Pielke says:
“It would be appropriate for ESG investors and their advisors to ask us, experts, to get out story straight? Which is it going to be, are we going to be richer or are we not going to be able to live in certain things places?”
But there is a problem with the climate change paradox. In many ways, it is quite the naive theory. Anyone who suggests they know how large the economy will be in 100 years, 50 years or even ten years is at best deluded.
We have no idea — history provides very little precedent. Yes, the economy may well grow at an extraordinarily fast rate, yes, poverty may be eliminated, and we may enter an era of abundance; but these outcomes are not guaranteed, and the journey may be excruciating. Who knows whether society, democracy and, at the minimum political stability can survive intact. And climate change is a risk factor. It poses risks to society. It may or may not pose a direct existential threat, but it clearly provides an indirect existential threat.
But above all, there is much we don’t know.
There is risk in climate change. It may prove to be less serious than is commonly assumed; it may prove to be more serious. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves and, more seriously, potentially fooling policymakers.
We don’t just implement measures to mitigate climate change risks we know about; we also need to implement measures to mitigate climate change risks we don’t know about. There is only one planet, one ecosystem— and it is fragile. To belittle the issue of this fragility would be to behave with appalling irresponsibility.
Thanks to the miracle of exponential technologies, we can defeat climate change, but without the warnings of climate change in the first place, these exponential technologies may never have got off the ground.
The Michael Liebreich and Roger Pielke interview was good and raised interesting points. But nothing in the interview raised inconvenient truths about climate change science, except in one respect. The interview was described as an inconvenient truth, it even began with a sort of defence of Stuart Kirk, the HSBC sustainability man who was so ignominiously fired after he appeared to question the relevance of climate change.
We are in a war against climate change and related sustainability issues. It is a war vested interests don’t want us to wage, so they confuse the debate with distortions of the truth. One would hope that experts who believe in climate charge but have evidence that is not totally aligned with the consensus, remember to always emphasise any disagreement is mild compared to their agreement with the general thrust of the consensus.