Carbon action gathers global pace

That’s the title of my Fin piece on Thursday (over the fold). As happens more or less routinely, it attracted a letter from Des Moore, formerly prominent as a Treasury official, then a rightwing economist, and now a climate science delusionist. Strikingly, and like most advocates of inaction, Moore doesn’t bother to debate the economics, where he would at least have some credibility as a commentator, if not much of a case. Instead, he recycles a bunch of the usual delusionist talking points.

It goes without saying that Moore has no qualifications relevant to climate science (I don’t either, but then I don’t set myself up as being able to refute the experts). What’s even more striking is that he, like so many delusionists, seems to be totally ignorant of basic statistical principles, and even to have forgotten stuff he must have been at least vaguely aware of in his former career as an economist. What else can be said about his repetition of the claim that “global warming stopped in 1998”? Every economist knows that you can’t measure trends properly without taking account of cyclical fluctuations about those trends. The worst thing you can do is take a peak to trough measurement.

As delusionists were very keen to point out at the time, 1998 was an extreme El Nino year, when temperatures rose well above the long-run (increasing) trend. Fortunately, we haven’t had such an extreme since then, and 2008 saw a fairly strong La Nina, which provides Moore and others with their talking point.

But eyeballing the data shows the obvious trend,

NOAA climate data
NOAA climate data

and anyone with a simple regression function on their spreadsheet can confirm it.

Carbon action gathers global pace

After two weeks in which the attention of Australian political insiders was consumed by the increasingly absurd utegate/emailgate scandal (I admit, I couldn’t avert my eyes either), two events over the weekend brought us sharply back to global reality.

The first, widely publicised, was the passage by the US House of Representatives of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, commonly referred to as the Waxman-Markey Act. The proposed Act establishes an emissions trading scheme, and commits the US to reduce emissions by 17 per cent, relative to 2005 levels, by 2020.

The margin of victory was narrow. However, in pushing for the passage of controversial legislation in the US, it is normal for an Administration to make concessions, and call in favours, sufficient to secure a majority. Since there is no point in wasting favours, majorities in cases like this are often slender.

The same process is likely to operate in the Senate. Under the conventions surrounding the so-called ‘filibuster’, a majority of 60 votes (out of 100) is needed to pass legislation through the Senate. There are 60 Democrats, but some defections are likely. So, the Administration will need to pick up some moderate Republicans, potentially including John McCain, an activist on climate change.

The second event, less widely noticed, but equally significant, was the release of a joint report on Trade and Climate Change by the World Trade Organization and the UN Environment Program. After noting the ‘compelling’ scientific evidence on climate change, WTO and UNEP endorse ‘Multilateral agreement on a target for greenhouse gas stabilization in the atmosphere, as well as firm and binding commitments on the level of global greenhouse gas emission reductions’.

The WTO-UNEP report rejects claims that more open trade is necessarily harmful to the environment, but notes that the global nature of the climate change problem presents new difficulties.

In this context, the report report gingerly picks up one of the hottest potatoes in the climate change debate: the possibility that participants in a global agreement to mitigate climate change might impose border taxes on imports from countries that choose not to take part. The report notes that ‘some degree of trade restriction may be necessary to achieve certain policy objectives, as long as a number of carefully crafted conditions are respected. WTO case law has confirmed that WTO rules do not trump environmental requirements.’ The report notes, however, the need to avoid using border tax adjustments as a vehicle for disguised protectionism.

The issue has already arisen in the US context. The Waxman-Markey Act contains provisions to protect US industries against competition from non-compliant countries. President Obama has opposed such provisions, but even the possibility that they might be imposed in the future will greatly increase the pressure on countries like China to reach an agreement in Copenhagen. And once the US, EU and China reach such an agreement, a decision by any smaller country to stay outside would be economically suicidal.

The WTO report also presents a dilemma for those supporters of free trade who have opposed international agreements to stabilise the climate. They can get behind the push for a global agreement and accept climate mitigation as a legitimate part of trade policy. Alternatively, they can undermine the WTO and prove the point of those protectionists who argue that environmental protection is inconsistent with free trade.

There are also some interesting problems for Australian political parties. Should the Liberals dump their current untenable position and support the government’s emissions trading scheme, at the cost of a split with the Nationals and the likely defection of some diehards in their own ranks? Should the Greens stand out for a purist position, or seek to improve the government’s scheme and promote a leadership position for Australia at Copenhagen?

The choices for the Rudd government are perhaps most interesting of all. The government has clearly enjoyed the discomfiture of the Opposition on this issue, but climate change is more important than party politics. Looking beyond this Parliament, the government needs to decide whether there is any real prospect of a long-term bipartisan commitment from the Opposition.

If not, the alternative is obvious. With the Opposition in total disarray, and lacking a credible position on climate change, a double dissolution would give the government excellent odds of increasing its majority in the House of Representatives and producing a Senate where climate legislation could be passed with the support of the Greens. If Labor and the Greens can resolve their differences, this would be the best outcome on offer.

16 thoughts on “Carbon action gathers global pace

  1. Yes, by the same logic, Des Moore (and Senator Fielding) would look at the non-seasonally adjusted labour force stats and say “economic crisis? What crisis? Unemployment is 20,000 less in May than in February – and there’s 10,000 more people in jobs!” Of course the seasonally adjusted and trend stats demonstrate the opposite.
    For Fielding there is the excuse that he is, as Peter Hartcher describes in yesterdays SMH, essentially a buffoon who is totally out of his depth — thrust through historical accident into a position of power for which he is singularly unqualified. But for Des Moore there is no such excuse.

  2. “But eyeballing the data shows the obvious trend”
    NOAA & NASA corrected their temperature data due to an “error” over stating the temperatures. NASA now states 1934 was the warmest year on record. Temperature data for 2008, shows it to be at the 100 year average. This is not reflected in the data you present. “Data show 2008 ranked 14th coldest of the 30 years measured by NASA satellite instruments since they were first launched in 1979. It was the coldest year since 2000.”

    NOAA data has been diverging high from NASA data and UAH data. A number of studies have show NOAA data to have a number of bias issues. Maybe take a look at the UAH temp data:

    If you desire to understand the climate science a good starting site would be:
    If you desire read a summary of all climate change literature to date, you can view the 880 page review at:

    Read the fine print in the House cap N trade bill. It is a trading bill to allow speculators to control the energy markets. The gov sets the caps, the speculators do the trading. Goldman Sachs will make out very well.

  3. JQ:
    I’ve been gathering and categorizing data on active anti-science advocates(i.e., visible denialists of varying degrees). Economists seem well-represented (along with a small group of physicists) as professionals who should have the math/stat background to know better.

    I use a tentative knowledge Scale K to categorize levels of knowledge/expertise on some natural science area.

    I’d normally place professional economists in background B2 there: technical professional, typically with substantive math/statistics working experience. The K2-K6 range represents the difference between someone who has at least read a few good introductory books on a specific topic (K2), up to someone who has spent serious time studying the research literature (K6) and following the field.

    Given that a professional economist *should* be accustomed to analyzing data, doing regressions, understanding time series, one would expect them to have no problem sorting out many kinds of good and bad arguments.

    Economists might or might not have studied much physics and chemistry. Some seem almost totally disconnected from physics, but others have PhDs in it, so it’s hard to tell.

    But, it appears that some economists:

    a) either haven’t read the basics before speaking [so, down in K1 or K0] OR

    b) {financial, politics, or ideology, or maybe one of the others} trumps everything?

    This doesn’t seem quite like your tribalism (i.e., of some mining engineers or TV weather people).

    So, any comments on characterizing the subset of economists that are also vocally anti-science in this domain? Needless to say, economists arguing about economics is unsurprising…

  4. Mostly (b), but some, like Moore, come from an older generation when math/stat training was the exception rather than the rule. More generally, there are a lot of K0/K1 types among the economist sceptics I know.

    Then there’s someone like McKitrick, who obviously has the training, but makes an atrocious mess every time he gets near data.

    There are some economists who’ve migrated from physics/chemistry, but it’s not all that common.

  5. Another interesting angle taken recently by our climate contrarians such as Ian Plimer and Bob Carter is to claim that because a majority of individual years in the past century and a bit show a cooling “trend” (or no warming “trend”) compared with the previous year, then there could not have been a warming trend over the century and a bit as a whole. If Plimer and Carter were to apply this logic to the weekend’s AFL results they could claim that Geelong actually won yesterday’s match against St Kilda because the Cats outscored the Saints in 3 of the 4 quarters.

  6. John, whilst the majority are looking towards Copenhagen one must feel sorry for all those sceptics who make an ass of themselves.

  7. And there is enough contempt shown here for other individuals to declare the interest in showing the anti AGW emphasis…isn’t either learned,academic or political but a personal problem for some.So Goldman Sachs are not going to make heaps!?

  8. Lukas,

    Steve Fielding may be in the senate due to an historical quirk of the electoral system, ie group voting and party preference tickets, however he still got in with more primary votes than cap and trade advocate Bob Brown. Bob Brown is in the senate by virtue of a different historical quirk of the electoral system in which Tasmanians get more senators per capita. We ought^ to reform both quirks by having above the line voter preferencing as well as a single national ballot for senators. However in the interum claims of particular senators having superior or inferior democratic status are dubious.


    ^ Ideally my preference would be for senators to be appointed by state governments so that the senate really was a states house and state governments had some veto over centralisation of power, however such a reform is even less likely to happen. So long as the senate doesn’t function as a states house we ought to remove the bias that sees people like Bob Brown holding a disproportionate amount of power.

  9. Global Climate Chaos July 6th, 2009 at 01:36 | #2

    Read the fine print in the House cap N trade bill. It is a trading bill to allow speculators to control the energy markets. The gov sets the caps, the speculators do the trading. Goldman Sachs will make out very well.

    Tim Lambert July 6th, 2009 at 01:53 | #3

    I count seven falsehoods in “Global Climate Chaos”s comment.

    jquiggin July 6th, 2009 at 04:37 | #4

    Hmm, I only make six.

    No doubt Global Climate Crisis’s comment is as riddled with climate science errors as Pr Q and Dr L suggest. But his final par contains loads of good economic sense and meshes with my observation (and occasional participation) in financial markets.

    Its probably a stretch to suggest that Goldman Sachs could pull an Enron, corner the carbon market and clean up [sic] as the carbon price spikes. But there is tons of “traders meat” out there for canny institutions with an inside run on political authorities. Does that sound like Goldman Sachs with its Rubins and Paulsons?

    Even liberal political economists (either Right-liberal like Greg Mankiw or Left-liberal such as Lindy Edwards) are now acknowledging that “cap and trade” is likely to open the flood gates for another orgy of financial racketeering. The Economist digs into the fine print of the Bill and come up with the dirt:

    permits go not to those who value them most (as in an auction) but to those whom the government favours. Under Waxman-Markey, electricity-distributors would get the largest share…Duke Energy, a power generator with lots of coal-fired plants, is also enthusiastic…Oil firms, with only 2% of the permits, feel hard done by.

    Its disappointing to see such clear eyed critics throw out the anti-cap trade baby with the denialist bathwater. But its not all that surprising. Liberalism has degenerated into an ideology, providing comfort to its adherents and rich pickings for the Big End of Town.

  10. The numbers are worse than most people think. A lot depends on where you are and all areas are up from baseline.

    We have a whopping great La Nina going that is bringing down sea temps in a large part of the Southern Hemisphere and various land parts of the World (inc the North Western coast of North America).

    But using the 2008 GISS data and looking at regions the north is roaring along:

    64N-90N: 3rd highest temp on record a whopping +1.48C above base line.
    44N-64N: again 3rd highest, +1.01C.
    24N-44N: 6th highest, +0.53C
    24N-Equ: 19th, +.23C
    Equ-24S: 16th, +.28C
    44S-24S: 1st, +.39
    64S-44S: 34th, +.03

    The deep south, 64S-90S is incredibly variable, ranging from +1.32 to -.36 over the last 20 years.

    You see the pattern, the sourthern hemisphere shows lower increases and greater variability because of the huge sea mass and is affected strongly by the El Nino/La Nina cycle (ENSO).

    Taking the northern Hemisphere as a whole, 2005, 2006 and 2007 were higher than 1998 (+.82, +.74 & +.77). 2008 is the 7th highest on record (+.6C), down from the record 2005, but well within normal variability and there is some contribution from La Nina.

    Global cooling from 1998 as some people claim? Well the global temp peak was in 2005 (+.62) and 2008 is still the 8th highest year at +.44 even with a solar minimum and a strong La Nina.

    God knows what it is going to be as we move into a El Nino (or even just neutral) and solar radiance climbs up again.

  11. John,

    After ‘eyeballing’ the data, I have come to the tentative conclusion that -> I’d really like to see some data from 1800.

    While the graphs indicate that the warming trend seems obvious from 1910 onwards, the graphs (Ocean and Ocean/Land) seem to indicate that up until 1910, temperatures are getting cooler. I wonder if the graph went a bit further back in time, it might look a bit more red?

    Of course, this doesn’t mean current warming is simply part of a normal cycle of warming and cooling, because the warming from 1910 could well be a result of industrialisation/coal burning etc

    Still, it could be argued that even one hundred years is a small sample size when considering global temperatures.

  12. Chris, the best estimates of this kind, going back about 1000 years, formed the basis of the Mann et al study, which was subject to one of the most outrageous of delusionist attacks.

    Essentially, the first thing to observe in this is that one side of the “debate” consists, without exception, of crooks and cranks, with the former group very much in the majority. This has been demonstrated at such length that I no longer bother to engage in discussion, as opposed to well-deserved derision.

  13. @jquiggin

    Very sensible John … it is tiresome to have to repeat the dance. Thjere’s an intersting comment on just this thing by Alex Higgins (presumably not the snooker player) in HuffPo where he outlines this endless dance.

    The talking points the delusionists adduce remind me of those skeletons in that famous scene from Jason & the Argonauts where no matter how many times they are knocked to pieces, they recover and attack again. When the delusionists don’t even acknowledge longstanding existing objections there comes a point where arguing shades into aiding and abetting their credibility, and to some extent subverting the more important business of designing and implementing effective policy.

    That said, from purely a stylistic point of view, it is amusing to note the ebb and flow of denier memes. Whatever happened to “urban heat islands”? Carter used to love that one but they seem to have gone off that one lately.

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