By David Yager
In today’s tumultuous world you really have to hunt for good news.
Record deficits and unemployment. Companies in multiple industries closing the doors or declaring insolvency. Rampaging mobs that police and politicians are scared to control. Rewriting history by destroying or desecrating statues and monuments declared shameful because they don’t meet new, dynamic and subjective definitions of right and wrong.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 is changing everything. If and when things return to normal, what will that look like?
The industry’s long-awaited search for stability and predictability has again been delayed by more setbacks for pipelines in the US. While the recent Supreme Court decision on Trans Mountain indicates that the legality of prior approvals may be settled and construction will continue, in the US Keystone XL and other pipelines have again been delayed or derailed by relentless legal challenges.
In the midst of this turmoil there are continuing attempts to change the channel on climate change. One is a new book by renowned and controversial American environmentalist Michael Schellenberger titled, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All (my copy is on order). Apocalypse Never is a major repudiation of the global climate alarmist movement which in the last quarter century has managed to convince much of world that life on Earth as we know it is doomed unless we stop using fossil fuels.
It is helpful that people like Schellenberger continue to try to inject common sense into the climate change debate. What the current terrible economic conditions may contribute is the conditions that cause more people to listen.
On its website on June 29, Forbes magazine released an article in which Schellenberger opened with, “On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I would like to formally apologize for the climate scare we created over the last 30 years. Climate change is happening. It’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem.”
You don’t read that every day!
It didn’t last long. Forbes pulled it down shortly thereafter, claiming it failed the publication’s standards for self-promotion. Which it did because the article was also a commercial for Schellenberger’s new book. However, the story is readily available on the internet.
Schellenberger’s lists several of the often-repeated climate “facts” that his book questions.
- Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”
- The Amazon is not the “lungs of the world”
- Climate change is not making natural disasters worse
- Fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003
- Land used for meat production has declined by 25%
- The cause of recent serious fires in California and Australia is a build-up of wood and more homes nears houses
- Carbon emissions in rich nations have been declining for decades
- The world produces 25% more food than it consumes and warmer weather will create more
- Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals is a greater threat than climate change
- Burning wood for fuel is much worse than burning fossil fuels
- Preventing future pandemics requires more, not less, “industrial” agriculture
To drive home his contrarian theme, the book’s publishers ran a cover picture of healthy and happy polar bears, the iconic arctic creatures allegedly threatened by shrinking sea ice caused by global warming and climate change (Enter “polar bears threatened by climate change” into Google and 1.26 million possible hits will appear).
These polar bears appear oblivious to climate change.
Schellenberger states that his list of climate exaggerations is hardly controversial because they are the result of serious scientific research and accepted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
He explained at length his credentials as a classic, committed, save-the-world environmentalist. Starting at 16 he embraced as many “progressive” causes as any one person could. He supported the socialist revolution in Nicaragua, raised money for the Rainforest Action Network, protected redwood trees in California, and embraced the end of fossil fuels to the point he takes partial credit for persuading the Barack Obama administration to commit $90 billion to renewables.
Then he wrote, “But then, last year, things spiraled out of control. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said, ‘The world is going to end in twelve years if we don’t address climate change.’ Britain’s most high-profile environmental group claimed: ‘Climate Change Kills Children.’… As a result, half the people surveyed around the world last year thought climate change would make humanity extinct.”
As those of us in the oilpatch know all too well, today’s climate change debate is increasingly more about politics, emotions and fear than the science behind the impact of fossil fuels on the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the weather of the future.
The backlash to the Forbes article was swift. The author was trashed in all the usual places by all the usual voices, some alleging he was a paid front for resource developers. When Forbes removed it from its website, the subsequent controversy probably improved book sales.
Criticizing those who question the official climate and environmental narrative is common. Movie producers Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs certainly learned that first-hand when they released Planet of the Humans a few months ago, a free movie that questioned the achievements, motives and altruism of the modern green movement and its relentless pursuit of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels at any cost.
Planet of the Humans was widely attacked and at one point there was sufficient pressure to have it removed from YouTube. Moore and Gibbs, long thought to be progressives who would never question the motives and integrity of the environmental movement, were branded as traitors. However, at some point facts matter, even with climate change. The movie is back up on YouTube and has been viewed nearly 9 million times.
When Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg released his first book The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, he was vigorously pilloried on multiple fronts. Attempts were made to prevent the translation of his book into English. Lomborg survived, his book became a best seller, and he will release his latest book July 14 titled, False Alarm – How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts The Poor, And Fails To Fix the Planet.
It will undoubtedly say the same thing that Lomborg has been saying for nearly 20 years. Climate change is indeed a problem, but the world has lots of problems and using any neutral, objective cost/benefit analysis, doing what we’re told we must is extremely expensive and the impact will not be significant.
Climate change has always been about money, but the focus has not been on the cost of replacing fossil fuels today but the massive future expense of not replacing fossil fuels. This started years ago with the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2006 by Sir Nicholas Stern, a British economist who worked for Britain’s treasury and the World Bank.
In my 2019 book, From Miracle to Menace – Alberta, A Carbon Story, I wrote:
Stern’s report was a very political document presented in a manner that looked objective and scientific. The key assumptions were repeated from the climate change models of the day. A 3°C to 4°C increase in the world’s average temperature could cause major flooding in the twenty-first century, displacing 200 million people. Somewhere between 15% and 40% of the world’s species would face extinction. Stern called climate change, “the greatest market failure the world had ever seen,” ignoring the fact that it hadn’t happened yet.
Stern then monetized the future disasters using what critics regarded as a very low discount rate to increase the current cost of future events. He wrote that unchecked climate change could cost the world 5% of GDP each year but doing something now, like increasing the cost of carbon immediately to reduce consumption, would cost only 1%. The cost could rise to 20% of GDP if the impact turned out to be more serious than the worst-case scenarios at the time. The poorer countries would suffer more because of their limited capacity to adapt. Stern even went as far to talk about the unborn, lamenting the fate of the people of the future who didn’t exist.
One of the lasting impacts of Stern’s work in monetizing today the potential impacts of climate change tomorrow was changing investment behaviour and disclosure of future risks for public companies. The future cost of climate damage was also included in the ever-expanding definition of fossil fuel subsidies, and figures like US$5 trillion were published, reported and repeated.
The whole concept behind today’s ESG movement is that climate change is real, the end of fossil fuels is inevitable, and boards and shareholders should react accordingly. The increasingly repeated corporate commitment “net zero by 2050” has its roots in events from early this century.
A new term emerged in the late 1980s in Europe called “the precautionary principle”. It was part of the growing movement to invent then embrace “sustainable development”. Terence Corcoran, editorial writer for the The Financial Post, wrote a great column about this subject June 25 during that newspaper’s annual week of commentary devoted to “Junk Science”. Corcoran reviewed that the UN’s Brundtland Report on sustainable development in 1987 stated, “…we cannot delay action until all scientific facts are on tables. We already know enough to start to act – and to act more forcibly.”
It gained traction in 1992 at the UN’s so-called “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, resulting in the following written commitment in Article 15. “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as reason to postponing cost-effective measures to prevent future environmental degradation.”
Was the science settled? No time to waste in 1992. Saving mankind from itself was so urgent the cure could not wait for the final diagnosis of the ailment.
Corcoran wrote, “Rio Article 15 summarizes one version of a concept that has been loaded into the legal agendas of most governments and global agencies.” The spate of lawsuits where US municipal and state governments sue oil companies for climate damage that has yet to occur has been years in the making.
You know the rest. For most of this century the climate movement has gained momentum at every level. Carbon taxes. Pipeline opposition. Fossil fuel divestment movements. Green funds. ESG. The enormous cost of replacing cheap hydrocarbon energy with renewables was rebranded as a fantastic investment opportunity. Clean tech was the new growth industry, a promising US$30 trillion-dollar business.
That it wouldn’t actually work in great many applications from plastics to airplanes to 24/7/365 electricity in the winter at northern latitudes was regularly overlooked.
Then along came COVID. The $US30 trillion got spent all right. In four months. Without building a single solar panel or wind turbine. Now that we know that the government of Canada has distributed or committed $C300 billion to prevent an economic collapse for only 38 million people, then on a per capita basis the governments of the OECD countries (1.3 billion citizens) will be on the hook for over $10 trillion. Globally this would be $62 trillion, although obviously the 6.5 billion people who don’t live in the 36 wealthiest countries will not receive anywhere this level of borrowed public financial support.
The turnaround in financial priorities since March has been dramatic. On July 1 Bloomberg released an article titled “Energy CEOs Drop Climate Change Talk to Stress Survival”. It reviewed the remarkable change in priorities when public companies released their first quarter 2020 financial results compared to previous reporting periods.
It opened, “Just as 2020 seems like it might be a breakthrough year for corporations looking to combat climate change, the novel coronavirus emerged…So sudden was the shift that a Bloomberg analysis of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies found that climate change discussions dropped 50% during first quarter earnings calls, compared with those from the previous quarter. Conversations about liquidity, cash flow and debt payments dominated, with many executives forced to take extraordinary measures to keep their businesses afloat in a suddenly devastated global economy.”
Which brings us back to the title of the article and a return to common sense. Everybody except the most dedicated and doctrinaire climate alarmists knows that facts, fiscal sanity and science disappeared from the climate change debate years ago. None of the governments or companies assuring voters, shareholders and customers that they can achieve “net zero 2050” know how they will achieve it.
Concepts like America’s Green New Deal to spend trillions on completely retooling the energy infrastructure of the world’s second largest energy consumer must now compete for capital with the trillions already spent to prevent economic collapse.
Thanks to the economic devastation of COVID-19, voices of those like Schellenberger and Lomborg will raise questions about the wisdom of directing funds from economic survival to renewable energy. Only very wealthy societies have the luxury of worrying about what may or may happen in 10, 30 or 100 years. And there are far fewer very wealthy societies than there were in February.
That the world’s economy had to endure a major contraction to bring common sense back to the climate debate is hardly good news.
But hopefully the foregoing will assist those feeling helpless to see that the light at the of the long fossil fuel tunnel is not an oncoming train.
David Yager is an oil service executive, energy policy analyst and author of From Miracle to Menace – Alberta, A Carbon Story. More at www.miracletomenace.ca