Little Whyte Bull

By Gareth Renowden 09/07/2014


Late last week, New Zealand’s far right ACT party was pleased to let the media know that its leader, Jamie Whyte, had won the “prestigious Institute of Economic Affairs’ Seldon1 Award” — an award given to IEA fellows by the IEA for work published by the IEA. Whyte is an IEA fellow, which may (or may not) be prestigious in itself — the IEA is the grandaddy of British free-market “think tanks” — but the award appears to be little more than a bit of mutual backslapping. Whyte won for a paper published last year entitled Quack Policy – Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism (pdf), in which he sets out to show that “much ‘evidence-based policy’ is grounded on poor scientific reasoning and even worse economics”. Unfortunately, in his discussion of climate science in the paper, he shows an incredibly poor understanding of what the science actually says, and an even worse appreciation of its implications for humanity.

Here’s Whyte asserting that “the science is not settled” (p80 of the pdf):

The forecasts for AGW relied upon by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other authorities are derived from modern climate science and, especially, from general circulation models (GCMs). How credible are these models and the climate science behind them? Or, more precisely, how much credence should we give their predictions of a calamitous man-made increase in the global climate (sic) in several decades’ time?

That climate models are especially important in determining a need to urgently cut carbon emissions is a common fallacy expressed by those who seek to minimise the need for action to reduce those emissions. Climate models are extremely useful tools, and they allow us to ask a great many “what if” questions about the way the ocean/atmosphere climate system works, but to know that we are in big trouble all we need is basic physics and an understanding of climate history.

What do we know with great certainty?

  • Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere must result in heat accumulating in the climate system. This is both theoretically obvious — known for 150 years — and understood down to the quantum level.
  • The pattern of warming observed — the fingerprint — is precisely what would be expected from increased greenhouse gas levels. It is supported by observations of land and ocean warming, land and sea ice reductions, and stratospheric cooling.
  • The study of past climate states — paleoclimate — tells us that when atmospheric CO2 was at levels equivalent to today’s, sea levels were 16-20 metres higher than now, and the world was a much warmer place, with little or no ice in the Arctic and a greatly reduced Antarctic ice sheet.

No models are required to suggest that dumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere is going to get us into big trouble. The models provide useful advice about what we can expect to happen and when, given assumptions about future greenhouse gas emissions, but they are not the only or even the most important reason2 why we need to act to stabilise and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas loading.

A paragraph later, Whyte suggests a null hypothesis, but gets it completely the wrong way round.

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that we do not know what the climate would be in 50 years’ time if the climate models that predict AGW were false. In other words, we do not know what the climate would be if the null hypothesis were correct. No one denies that the climate changes even without any human influence. But, without depending on the very models we seek to test, we cannot predict the future climate without the effects of greenhouse gases. This means that we do not know which future climatic observations would confirm the AGW hypothesis and which would disconfirm it.

When we have observations showing that the planet is warming because of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases, and a detailed understanding of why based on well-understood physics, then the correct null hypothesis is that warming will continue if greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. The onus of proof lies with those who want to overturn that understanding. I somehow don’t think that Whyte is quite ready to re-write quantum physics.

Whyte’s misunderstanding of climate models and what they tell us is not limited to the foregoing, and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to enumerate all the ways in which he is wrong3, but it is worth looking closely at his discussion of “uncertainty and climate policy” (p91 et sub). Here’s his introduction:

The predictions of theories that have not been tested, and are not entailed by well-known facts, do not warrant high levels of certainty. Those who insist on this are not ‘anti-science’, as they are often claimed to be. On the contrary, it is those who are willing to be convinced in the absence of predictive success who display an unscientific cast of mind. The predictions of AGW may well be true but the certainty we should have in them falls well short of the certainty properly enjoyed by the predictions of physics. Those scientists who say otherwise – who claim that the predictions of climate science warrant as much confidence as predictions based on gravity, or that the AGW thesis is ‘settled’ – do not promote the public understanding of science.

Whyte’s fixation with, and denial of, the “predictive success” of climate models is just one more straw man among many, but his misunderstanding of certainty implies that the “motivated certainty” he imputes to scientists is much more in evidence in his own thinking. He argues, but fails to convincingly demonstrate, that we can’t be certain of the truth of the “AGW thesis”, and that therefore we should not act to cut emissions. It’s been difficult to get international agreements on emissions reductions, he says, and then states:

Add to this the uncertainty about the AGW thesis, and pursuing the policy of cutting carbon emissions looks misguided.

As non-sequitors go, that has to take the biscuit, if not a whole packet of jammy dodgers. It is certainly difficult to get international cooperation on climate matters, but that is true on almost any policy matter. I don’t expect to find Whyte’s ACT party arguing against the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement on the ground that it’s difficult to negotiate and that its benefits are uncertain, though both are certainly true.

Whyte’s failure to grasp even the bare bones of the climate problem lead him to some truly facile statements about sensible policy options.

If AGW is uncertain, and if the future climate even without AGW is uncertain, how can you decide which adaptive policies are wise? The short answer is that you need only respond to market prices. […] …adaptations to climate change will occur without any direction from governments. Insurers and investors have a private interest in adjusting the prices they charge to changing risks, and businesses and households have private interests in responding to those changing prices. No government policy is called for.

There’s one small problem for this view, and it’s a trap Whyte would have avoided had he bothered to familiarise himself with what we really know about the climate system. We no longer live in a static climate. Heat is accumulating in the system, and even if atmospheric greenhouse gases were to somehow, magically4, stabilise at current levels, the planet’s surface would continue to warm for at least another 30 years, and sea level rise would continue far into the future. If you take no steps to cut emissions and stabilise greenhouse gases, you are committed to adapt to a moving target.

Acting to reduce emissions amounts to a sensible insurance policy5, because it reduces the risk of low probability, but high cost damages in the future. We may not be certain that warming will be catastrophic, but even a low probability of that being true should motivate us to act urgently, because the ultimate costs will be so large.

Those costs, however, are not purely economic and cannot be assigned a single monetary value. You cannot simply assume that economic growth will continue in the future, or that future generations will inevitably be richer than we are today. The environmental damages of climate instability and resource restraints on an increasingly crowded planet will make continued economic growth (as it is presently defined) ever more difficult to achieve. The economy and the environment are not two separate but interacting systems. Economies exist inside earth systems that provide free support services (air, water, soil, stable climate etc). When those services fail, economies inevitably struggle. Money is of no use if there is no food to buy.

If you accept the evidence offered by climate science at face value — that the planet is warming, and it would be wise to try to stabilise and then reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — then policy making can flow from that. The message is not itself political: it is a statement of well understood fact. The denial of that fact is, however, motivated by economic interests and political ideologies. Whyte is just another ideologue making stuff up to justify his world view. Apparently that’s enough to get a form prize in year 12 philosophy at Free Market Grammar.

In some respects it’s not surprising that the right wing, free market, libertarian-leaning wing of political thought should be uncomfortable with the recent emphasis on building government policy around real evidence, and not just gut feelings or populist sentiment. As Stephen Colbert has pointed out, reality has a well-known liberal bias. It’s hard to think of a single tenet of free-market, right wing policy which has any broad base of evidential support. So what do you do when you don’t like the facts? You shoot the messenger delivering them.

Whyte’s paper, in its section on climate science and condescending nonsense about scientific expertise, is just a well-written but intellectually lightweight exercise in building straw men and shooting them full of arrows. In right wing circles, this obviously plays well, as his award — and rapid elevation to the leadership of the ACT party — demonstrates. The real world is not about to cooperate, however hard Whyte, ACT and the ideologues of the right might wish it to.

[Tommy Steele]

  1. Not this Seldon, sadly.
  2. Ocean acidification alone should be enough to motivate steep emissions cuts and ultimately, reduction of atmospheric GHG levels.
  3. They are many, and various, but life is too short etc etc…
  4. The free market at work, perhaps?
  5. Whyte manages to get the insurance argument wrong, too, in a section in which he discusses alien abduction policies(!).