Last night, Al Gore launched a 24-hour online “reality” show. While we probably won’t see the former vice president engaging in any lewd acts, the show does have something in common with its more lurid reality TV counterparts: name calling and lies.
Gore claims that his, “24 Hours of Reality will focus the world’s attention on the full truth, scope, scale and impact of the climate crisis. To remove the doubt. Reveal the deniers. And catalyse urgency around an issue that affects every one of us.”
Really? Let’s consider the claims made in a trailer for the show:
“What can change in a day? A street can become a river. A mountain can become a mudslide. A forest can become kindling. Across the globe cataclysmic events are occurring with such regularity that it’s being called a ‘new normal’ But there is nothing normal about it. And there’s something else that lies destroyed beneath the rubble: the truth about climate change. Big oil and big coal are spending big money to spread doubt about climate change.”
So, Gore is asserting that (a) extreme weather events are becoming more frequent because of human-induced climate change and (b) this “truth” is being “destroyed” by energy interests who are funding “deniers” to spread “doubt.”
At a Yale University forum on extreme weather and global warming in June, world expert on extreme weather Professor Roger Pielke, Jr. noted, “the data on tornadoes, large-scale river floods (in unaltered river basins), and landfalling hurricanes shows no evidence of trends in the direction of more extreme events.” Well, that seems to be a flat contradiction of Gore’s assertion. And to my knowledge Professor Pielke is no shill for the fossil fuel lobby: the research organisation he works for seems to be largely funded by government grants and he has attacked subsidies to fossil fuels.
Also contrary to Gore’s liturgy of disaster, it turns out that deaths from weather related natural disasters have been falling for decades. The reasons are manifold but include the fact that computer models are now much better able to forecast extreme weather events. Combined with better communications, this means people have longer to prepare for any particular onslaught, be it a hurricane, a flood, or a tornado.
In addition, more efficient food production, combined with better transportation and storage means that droughts are far less likely to lead to starvation. (In spite of a doubling of the global population in the past fifty years, per capita food availability has risen more than a quarter and deaths from droughts are rare. In fact, pretty much the only reason anyone now dies from drought is that they are prevented from accessing food by politicians – as when President Mugabe’s henchmen in Zimbabwe prevented supporters of opposition parties from receiving food aid.)
Millions of other innovations, from air conditioning and central heating to new building materials and better storm-water drains have also reduced death and disease from extreme weather. And in combination technological innovation has resulted in the production of more and better goods of all kinds, which has led to increases in wealth and a reduction in the cost of things that wealth can buy, including safety.
Much of this technological innovation has been made possible by the use of inexpensive carbon based energy. Coal, oil and natural gas have lowered production costs and enabled us to consume goods (cars, fridges, TVs, computers, etc.) that were not even imaginable prior to the development of these cheap forms of energy.
Unfortunately, the use of these energy forms has resulted in the emission of carbon dioxide, which is probably contributing to a gradual warming of the climate. Whether or not this warming is leading to more extreme weather events remains a highly contentious matter. Professor Pielke argues that we do not have enough data to make a connection. Moreover, even the data we have is probably biased: the same communications technologies that have helped reduce death rates from extreme weather events have also ensured that we document a far higher proportion of those events, which at least partly explains why there are now more such events recorded.
But even if warming is leading to more extreme weather events, it is not obvious that cutting emissions of carbon dioxide is an appropriate solution. Many of the technologies we use to reduce the impact of extreme events rely on fossil fuels: heating and air conditioning for example enable us to limit the impact of extreme heat and cold. Any attempt to cut emissions of carbon dioxide will make energy more expensive, which will raise the cost of using heaters and air conditioners. As a result we will be more susceptible to extremes of heat and cold.
Restricting emissions of carbon dioxide will also make production in the US more expensive and less competitive. Since India, China and other low cost producers are unlikely to introduce similar measures, production will shift to those shores. Bottom line: the US economy will suffer and jobs will go. Since wealth generally enables us better to adapt to a wide range of natural disasters, restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions will make us more susceptible to those disasters compared with business as usual.
But Gore is right on one thing: cutting carbon emissions will reduce the value of losses from extreme weather events. That’s because the rapid increase in such losses in recent decades is almost entirely a consequence of increases in wealth, combined with an increasing tendency to locate valuable property in weather-prone areas. Since cutting carbon dioxide emissions would reduce the rate of wealth creation, it will also reduce the value of losses. However, I suspect that even Gore doesn’t think that destroying wealth is a good way to reduce losses from extreme weather events.
A much better way to reduce losses from extreme weather events would be to remove the perverse incentives our government has created that encourage people to locate in areas prone to weather related disasters. Take the National Flood Insurance Program, which bails out property owners when they are flooded, is currently responsible for over $18 billion in federal debt, and effectively encourages people to build on land subject to flooding. It’s difficult to imagine a more counterproductive policy. The NFIP is set to expire September 30th. Let it.
The government could also remove swathes of unnecessary restrictions on economic activity that inhibit innovation and wealth creation, from environmental regulations to taxes to banking regulations. That way we would all be better able to address threats from weather related natural disasters – and everything else.