… a major international initiative to examine how countries can achieve economic growth while dealing with the risks posed by climate change. The Commission comprises former heads of government and finance ministers and leaders in the fields of economics and business, and was commissioned by seven countries – Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom – as an independent initiative to report to the international community.
But it’s not ‘independent’ in any meaningful sense, it being commissioned by governments, and only accessible to appointees that are pathologically on-message. And it speaks — ‘reports’ — to a ‘community’ that is dominated by people of the same mind, who are categorically remote from the vast masses they enjoy privilege over. The space occupied by the global climate aristocracy is untroubled by debate, the contest of ideas or the scrutiny of evidence.
Hence we see Nick Stern listed as a member of the commission, and Grantham’s vanity project, which Stern Chairs, but which the public mostly funds, listed as a ‘partner’ organisation of the report…
The report’s headline figure is that the world could realise $26 trillion dollars of benefit over the next 12 years by doing what Stern and his chums say.
Needless to say, this seems implausible to me. The 65 million ‘additional low carbon jobs’ generated by 2030 would be the equivalent of a low carbon job for every adult and child in the UK. What economic geniuses never admit about “creating jobs” is that, although we all want everybody to have a job, jobs are a cost. If 65 million people are added to a labour force to produce exactly the same function as 65 million fewer people, then the workforce has become less efficient with respect to labour and capital. The figure is only of interest to political hacks in search of a fiefdom. Everyone else will be stumping up the cash to pay for the inefficiency.
Ditto, the $2.8 trillion raised ‘in carbon price revenues and fossil fuel subsidy savings to reinvest in public priorities’ are not a net benefit. Especially so since many of the ‘subsidy savings’ were not direct subsidies at all, but are reduced rates of VAT (or equivalents) the consumer pays. For instance, the VAT paid on domestic energy by the British consumer is 5%, compared with the standard rate of 20% for most goods. The “new cliamte economy” will charge you more for energy. It’s that simple.
And higher GDP? Well, it all sounds nice, but for the $30 trillion of unlikely benefits the Global Commission claims will be realised by 2030, it is demanding a commitment to $90 trillion now. Let us write the figure in full:
$90 trillion is a lot of money. There are 7.442 billion people in the world. This means the Global Commission is asking for $12,093 per person. The world Bank — where Nick Stern used to work, after having been given a job by his brother — informs that global GDP per capita is $10,714. In other words, the Global Comission want more than a year’s worth of labour from the entire population of the planet to realise its goal. One has to admire the ambition, and the frank admission about what it is they want to create…
This is our ‘use it or lose it’ moment. Investing the expected US$90 trillion to 2030 to build the right infrastructure now will deliver a new era of economic growth. Investing it wisely will help drive innovation, deliver public health benefits and inclusive growth, create a host of new jobs and go a long way to tackling the risks of runaway climate change. Getting it wrong, on the other hand, will lock us into a high-polluting, low productivity, and deeply unequal future.
Decisive action now will clearly yield a far more attractive and less dangerous future, and it will require strong and concerted leadership. The purpose of this Report is to lay out what it will take and to demonstrate how acceleration can be achieved. It is to inform and give impetus to economic decision-makers—finance and economic ministers, business leaders, and investors—equipping them with the arguments and the evidence to drive the transformation.
It should be read as more than just a Report. It is a manifesto for how we can turn better growth and a better climate into reality, for how we can carry this call to action into board rooms, through the halls of government and over the airwaves. We must consciously and conscientiously legislate, innovate, govern, and invest our way to a fairer, safer, more sustainable world.
It is a manifesto. Indeed, it is a manifesto. It is a manifesto that its authors will not debate, will not accept any challenge to, and which they do not intend to subject to democratic contest. Yet they want more than a full month of every person’s labour, per year, for the next twelve years.
One might think, then, given the vast sums of money demanded, and the extraordinary commitment required, that the Global Comission would have been very careful in putting together its argument.
Anyone with any familiarity with the climate debate will understand the significance of these figures. Whereas there has been agreement that the world has warmed, there has been no such agreement on the metrics given in the figure.
On floods, the IPCC state that,
There is limited to medium evidence available to assess climate-driven observed changes in the magnitude and frequency of floods at regional scales.
There is low agreement in this evidence, and thus overall low confidence at the global scale regarding even the sign of these changes.
There is not enough evidence to support medium or high confidence of attribution of increasing trends to anthropogenic forcings as a result of observational uncertainties and variable results from region to region (Section 18.104.22.168). Combined with difficulties described above in distinguishing decadal scale variability in drought from long-term climate change we conclude consistent with SREX that there is low confidence in detection and attribution of changes in drought over global land areas since the mid-20th century.
On temperature extremes, too, the IPCC gives a much milder picture than the graphic.
New results suggest more clearly the role of anthropogenic
forcing on temperature extremes compared to results at the time of the SREX assessment. We assess that it is very likely that human influence has contributed to the observed changes in the frequency and intensity of daily temperature extremes on the global scale since the mid-20th century.
The IPCC do not make such clear statements on wildfires — which have been the subject of much controversy in recent weeks.
In short, the Global Commission’s figure seems out of kilter with the scientific consensus, even where it does not flatly contradict it. It is telling indeed, that the Commission have chosen not to cite the IPCC on natural disasters.
The figures are cited as coming from the International Disaster Database (IDD)at The Emergency Events Database compiled by the Université catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium. The figure states that the data was modified by the “author’s calculations”. I think the author was quite likely drunk.
The problem for the Commission is that disaster data is not climate data. The criteria for a disaster data record are one or more of:
10 or more people dead
100 or more people affected
The declaration of a state of emergency
A call for international assistance
The data series extends back in time to 1900. But they are not all continuous over this time. Nor is there any claim that all events have been captured by the record. Nor is any attempt made to estimate the disasters that have not been recorded.
For instance, it is highly likely that an extreme weather event, say, in Europe during either World War, or in rural India during Partition, or in Africa during civil conflicts, would have gone unreported, or perhaps even unnoticed by the wider world and its disaster and relief agencies — which were barely even a thing before the 1970s. By contrast, much of the world, even extremely poor regions, has been connected via smartphone to the Internet and news media in just the last decade.
So what does the data actually say? Here is the IDD data for floods.
According to the data, there were just 11 flood disasters in the entire world in the first two decades of the last century. And in the last twenty years, the world has seen a whopping 3,610 such incidents. That’s an increase of nearly 33,000%.
Is the difference plausibly attributable to climate change? Or is the more likely explanation simply that the data relating to such events over the course of the entire 118 years does not exist?
What does the IDD data say about droughts?
I have not used lines here, as the data is not continuous. (I probably should not have used lines in the flood data graph, either). If the data on which the Commission rely is to be taken at face value, the world experienced just 16 droughts in the first 2 decades of the last century. But what is missing from that picture?
Deaths. We can bring the trends out by dividing the series into 2-decade long chunks. And this is what emerges…
The incidence of droughts has risen 5,000% over the course of the last century. But the number of deaths has fallen by 85%. All the more incredible, given that the population grew nearly 500%. Multiplying them together, then, droughts are barely 3% of the problem today, compared with a century ago.
Can we say that climate change has caused droughts to become less deadly?
Of course we cannot. What underpin these changing trends has zero to do with the climate, or even the weather, and everything to do with the scope for recording data, and the capacity for mitigating disaster created by affluence and technological development.
It is worth reiterating the point for the next of the Commission’s chart — wildfire.
Is it plausible that there were just two wildfires in the second decade of the last century, versus 15 last year — apparently an increase of 7,500%?
No. It is not.
The difference can be accounted for by technology. In 1900, that vast majority of people never got more than a foot off the ground for longer than a second. Though the camera had been invented a century earlier, imaging technology was far beyond the means of most people. Today, we have on orbiting spacecraft cameras that are capable of detecting the heat radiated by a match millions of miles away. Similar hardware now scans the Earth for fires.
Meanwhile, though the five year moving average shows that wildfire outbreaks did increase to 2000, they have diminished somewhat since then, and there is no obvious trend, even in this data series, relating to climate change. And in spite of all the drama associated with wildfires created by 24 hour rolling media and Bill McKibben’s Twitter feed, deaths from wildfire outbreaks seem very low.
Which is not to say that they are not a problem — and a very big, expensive problem, at that. They surely are. But like floods, the problem of whildfire is as much a function of policy as weather. Land and forest management and planning (‘zoning’ in American) in drought and fire-prone regions is as much the cause of loss of life and property as is climate and arson. It is even possible that certain restrictions on land owners, such as prohibiting the creation of fire breaks between trees and houses, for instance, may have contributed to the increased toll of fires. The IDD’s database, then, is not recording objective climate statistics, but at least in part the consequences of policy, demographic change, and economic growth.
Finally, then, the excess heat…
There were no heatwaves in the world until 1936. Then two came along at once. No more appeared until the 1950s, when there were eight. Then, by 2010, there were a whopping 29 heatwaves.
Very few people died from heatwaves, according to the IDD in the first half of the twentieth century. But in 2003, heatwaves claimed nearly 75,000 lives, and in 2010, 57,000 died.
The 57,000 deaths in 2010 were largely from the heatwave that hit Russia that year. And the 75,000 deaths in 2003 were the result of the heatwave in Europe. Both these estimates were produced by comparing July and August death statistics against those months’ averages. And this should cause more caution than a face-value reading of the data might permit.
We cannot take seriously the Commission’s use of the IDD’s data on extreme temperatures. Recall the qualification for a natural disaster is:
10 or more people dead
100 or more people affected
The declaration of a state of emergency
A call for international assistance
The IDD does not calculate each summer (or winter) the number of excess deaths. (It does not even count cold spells as natural disasters). Yet surely the number of deaths across the entire of Europe varies by more than 10 each Summer. The dramatic figure exists in the database only because so much was made of the heatwave by those seeking to push climate change up the political agenda.
In the European Union, there were more than 5 million deaths in 2016, of which a number like 75,000 is just 1.5%. The 75,000 cases from 2003 were slightly premature deaths of the continents most extremely vulnerable people, not healthy people suddenly struck down by climate change while going about their normal business. We can see that the total number of deaths for 2003, rather than that season, does not show the increase we would expect to see if these deaths were, so to speak, ‘unexpected’.
The deaths attributed to that summer’s heat were caused substantively by the neglect of older people, particularly in France. It is not climate change deniers who would deprive senior citizens of air conditioning and heating. That is the privilege of global climate aristocrats, like Nick Stern.
If I were to author a demand for $90,000,000,000,000, I would make damn sure I had bullet proof statistics. As it happens, I took half a day off work to produce this blog post. I do not enjoy the patronage of billionaires like Jeremy Grantham. I do not have the backing of Western governments and boatloads of their civil servants. I am not invited to take part in any UN agency’s business. I have no corporate sponsors. I am not best mates with the world’s top climate scientists.
And yet, even I can see that the ransom note issued by Stern and his pals is utter BS.
The cost of Stern’s manifesto is extraordinary, and the case for it is extremely weak. Yet no research organisations will be rushing to question the data, much less the motives. Few newspapers will be wondering what is the ideology underpinning the Commission’s manifesto, let alone where the money will come from.
Call me a crazy, conspiracy-theorising climate change denier, but I don’t think demands for $90 trillion on the basis of such low quality data are produced by people acting in good faith. I think their motives should be questioned, their claims challenged, and their data scrutinised. That the likes of Stern and the Global Commission on the Economy and the Climate go unchallenged, routinely, is an extremely worrying fact of contemporary politics.