Are you freezing? Join the crowd. Arctic air is sweeping across Canada. Snow and ice are wreaking havoc on Britain. Russians are dying from the cold. And Germans are sneaking into forests to cut down trees because their fuel bills are so high.
Hey! Whatever happened to global warming?
That’s a naive question, of course. Everybody knows there’s little or no connection between daily weather events and climate change (except when there’s a heat wave, a hurricane or some other natural disaster, in which case global warming is invariably to blame). Experts will tell you that our bitter winter weather proves nothing about climate change – that the world is still warming up at an alarming rate.
Well, maybe not so alarming. Global temperatures have now held steady for 16 years. They levelled off around 1997. The latest data come from Britain’s weather and climate agency, the Met Office, which says you can’t draw any conclusions from such a short span of time. Still, the data are proving awkward for leading climatologists, who are reluctantly admitting that their projections have their limits. Nor is the news likely to increase support for activists such as NASA scientist James Hansen, who warned, in an interview with The Guardian back in 2009, that Barack Obama had only four years to set an example for the world and avert disaster.
I’m not questioning the basic science of global warming. The last decade was the warmest on record, and the next one may be even warmer. My point is that our uncertainty about the future is rather great. Our economic models turned out to be lousy. Why should our climate models be better?
“Climate models do a poor job of making predictions on decadal time scales,” Judith Curry, the head of the climate science department at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told me in an e-mail. “Climate models capture some elements of climate change, but they have deficiencies in the simulation of natural internal variability.”
In other words, climate change is very, very complicated. Greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels are just one of many factors that affect the climate. Other factors – ocean temperatures, soot, clouds, solar radiation etc. – turn out to be a lot more important than we thought and aren’t so easily captured by computer models.
I’m also skeptical about our ability to do something intelligent about it. Some of our policy responses to climate change have been a complete disaster. The European Union had the bright idea of setting up a system to trade carbon emission permits. So how has that worked out? The recession came along, and today the permits are all but worthless. According to the Swiss bank UBS, the scheme has cost European consumers about $280-billion for “almost zero impact” on carbon emissions. Meanwhile, artificially high electricity prices have made many European industries uncompetitive.
The trouble with many well-intentioned climate policies is that the law of unintended consequences works overtime. Take the sorry history of biofuels, which were supposed to green up the world by substituting for fossil fuels. The rush to biofuels has caused massive deforestation, disrupted commodity markets and pushed food prices to record highs. Poor people are suffering so that rich Europeans can get 10 per cent of their fuel from renewable sources by 2020 – all in the name of saving the planet. Meanwhile, governments are extracting hundreds of billions of dollars from frigid German and British consumers to pay for extravagant subsidies of uneconomic solar and wind power sources. (That’s why the Germans are cutting down trees this winter.)
Many people say the risk of climate change is so great that we need to act now, because doing something is better than doing nothing. But that’s not always true. So far, global warming policies have probably done far more harm to the planet than global warming has. Climate change is still rather poorly understood. Climate policy is hard. We should be humble about what we know – and what we don’t.
Now bundle up.