Going for the record

Just a quick post to highlight a BBC article called society set for climate change woe. You might be surprised by who was quoted as agreeing that we are about at the point where the consequences are starting to outweigh the benefits. It’s the same person who has just published a paper suggesting an anthropogenic signal in economic losses from hurricanes.

My main reason for writing this was to comment on a quote from Matt Ridley. It might qualify as the highest density of errors seen to date. He says

I think we probably will see 1.5 degrees of warming. The point is most people think 2C is when it turns catastrophic. That’s not right. The literature is very clear; 2C is when we start to get harm. Up until then we get benefit.

We’ve just passed 1oC. Warming is expected to depend linearly on cumulative emissions. We’ve emitted about 550GtC to date, and are going to find it very difficult to not come close to doubling this. The only way we could only see 1.5oC of warming is if we do suddenly start reducing our emissions, or if the anthropogenic contribution to date is much smaller than we currently think.

Well, we’re pretty certain that more than half of our recent warming is anthropogenic and the best estimate for the anthropogenic contribution is more than all of it. I guess Ridley is welcome to think that we’ll probably see 1.5oC of warming, but if he does it just illustrates that he’s rather clueless about a topic that he’s written about for a number of years. Most now think that staying below 2oC is getting increasingly difficult.

The 2oC boundary is also not when we think it will turn catastrophic. At best it’s perceived as a limit that keeps us well away from the level of warming that might justifiably be described as catastrophic. It’s also not clear that 2oC is when we start to get harm. It’s a continuum; there’s not some kind of actual boundary below which everything is good and above which things get bad. Also, it is likely that the damages will be non-linear. The difference between 2.5oC and 2oC is likely to be considerably greater than the difference between 2oC and 1.5oC.

It’s also not true that the literature is very clear. The only study I’m aware of that suggests that there might be benefits for some future warming is Richard Tol’s 2009 meta-study. Not only were most of those benefits sunk anyway, he’s since corrected his study to show that there are virtually no benefits for future warming. Tol’s study has also been quite heavily criticised.

So, as far as I can tell, virtually every sentence of Ridley’s comment is essentially wrong. Quite remarkable really; I didn’t think he could get even more wrong than he’s been before. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised though; this is someone can write an article on libertarianism and the distrust of elites without mentioning that he’s a Viscount.

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31 Responses to Going for the record

  1. Rachel M says:

    OMG! I’m speechless.

  2. Will wonders never cease 😉

  3. Rachel M says:

    Skeptics will stop quoting Richard Tol now like they stopped quoting Richard Muller when he called himself a converted skeptic.

  4. He’s trying to walk it back, a little

  5. Nick says:

    Owning a coal mine does give one special insight into the benefits of warming..

  6. Nick,
    Technically, he owns land on which coal is mined, but your point is well made.

  7. Nick says:

    And poor Roger H. accidentally omitted a word that wasn’t there. Tol really loves personal befuddlement.

  8. Rachel M says:

    That’s disappointing. Richard Tol says the downsides outweigh the advantages at 1.1°C while Ridley says we’ll start to see harm at 2°C which suggests a benefit before then. Hard to see how those two statements could be in agreement.

  9. Basically, Ridley is – I think – referring to Tol’s 2009 paper in which it is suggested that we see increasing benefits till about 1oC of warming, and then they start decreasing, reaching 0 at about 2oC of warming. Of course, there were some errors in that paper, which resulted in a correction correction which is discussed here. Bottom line, correcting the errors and adding newer data largely removes any benefits.

  10. lord sidcup says:

    A fossil fuel apologist saying “we were just trying to help plants grow” will look really crazy 20 years from now. It looks pretty crazy now.

  11. Sou says:

    AFAIK we’ll be lucky to be under 2 C of warming 35 years or so out, with 4 C of warming by the end of this century a distinct possibility. After that … depends on what we do.

    Let’s hope the promises made for COP21 come to fruition and result in an even bigger effort to reduce emissions, and we might stay lucky (where “lucky” is a relative term).

  12. Pingback: Short memory? | …and Then There's Physics

  13. izen says:

    I struggle to see how adding the word ‘incremental’ anywhere in what Tol states could make it match Ridley’s statement.

    It would be interesting to know what measurable benefits the global economy has derived from the 1degC rise so far, and what further benefits Ridley expects to see. And whether those benefits DO outweigh the damaging effects of climate change.

    I doubt it is possible to attribute benefits to AGW without having to admit the impact of the changing incidence of extremes.

  14. I think Tol is arguing that the benefits are positive till 2oC. So his point was that they increase until 1C, while Ridley was pointing out that they go negative at 2C. Hence, they are both consistent. Of course, that seems to suggest that Richard has forgotten his own correction.

  15. BBD says:

    Ah, when contrarians run out of road. Such fun!

  16. It is quite amusing to watch Richard try to walk back from saying something actually sensible 🙂

  17. Magma says:

    My father grew up in a row house near the center of a large city, and my grandparents still lived there when I was a child. The house retained a coal chute that had led to a long-since removed coal furnace. I suspect that if someone had said back in the 1930s or 1940s that coal was a filthy fuel and would soon be gone from homes people would have rolled their eyes and said uncomplimentary things about impractical dreamers. And yet by the early 1950s it was history, vanished like the horse-drawn delivery wagons my father also remembered from his childhood.

    The one-sided lack of imagination on the part of so-called skeptics is striking. Build seawalls around the world’s coastal cities (or all of southern Bangladesh), or desalination plants to supply a third of humanity’s freshwater needs? No problem, piece of cake, we’ll adapt. But photovoltaics continuing to drop in price/watt or energy storage and battery technology improving by leaps and bounds? You’re a mad, impractical fool.

    Motivated reasoning at its worst.

  18. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    Lord Ridley’s claims are only very slightly less boring than those Lord Monckton.


    I have come to the conclusion that current energy and climate policy is probably more dangerous, both economically and ecologically, than climate change itself.

    A Lukewarmer’s Ten Tests”, GWPF Report (28 January 2013)

    Why anyone should heed the words of a aristocratic coal baron with no climate science credentials who sits on the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation and who oversaw the first run on a British bank in 150 years is quite beyond me.

    As for Tol:

    Let’s just say that Tol consistently demonstrates that consistency has never been his strong point.

  19. dana1981 says:

    Yes Tol’s research in which Gremlins intervened suggested that warming to 2°C could be a *net* benefit, but that any additional warming beyond today’s temperatures will be an incremental negative. It’s like if your parent gives you $10, then starts taking away $1 per day that you behave badly. For 9 days you can behave badly and still come out ahead in aggregate. But you’re still losing $1 per day. To argue that’s financially positive is ridiculous IMO. The best thing for your personal economy is to behave yourself and keep as much of the $10 as possible.

    Ridley’s claim that we’ll only see 1.5°C is even more ridiculous yet. We’re already committed to about 1.5°C based on GHGs emitted to date. I think it’s funny to contrast Ridley’s comment with Tol’s comment that we’re unlikely to see less than 3°C because international negotiations won’t achieve sufficient emissions cuts to do better. Tol is actually being quite realistic, in contrast to Ridley’s outright denial.

  20. The 2oC boundary is also not when we think it will turn catastrophic. At best it’s perceived as a limit that keeps us well away from the level of warming that might justifiably be described as catastrophic. It’s also not clear that 2oC is when we start to get harm. It’s a continuum;

    The Northern Hemisphere temperature varies by 13C from winter to summer ( and the global average varies by about 4C during this time ). You really should be able to explain why this warming is not catastrophic, but 2C would be, but I don’t think you can.

  21. The Northern Hemisphere temperature varies by 13C from winter to summer ( and the global average varies by about 4C during this time ). You really should be able to explain why this warming is not catastrophic, but 2C would be, but I don’t think you can.

    If you think this is an appropriate comparison, then I suspect that you’re correct. I won’t be able to explain it to you.

  22. BBD says:


    The quality of your input has nosedived of late and it didn’t start from a very high bar.

  23. BBD,
    That, in itself, is quite a feat 😉

  24. Joshua says:

    Not sure if it’s been linked, but to add evidence to (what seems to me is) the incoherence of Richard Tol’s positioning on economics and climate change:


    My favorite part – Where Richard claims, with complete certainty, that he’s calculated the long-term ratio of negative and positive externalities associated with using coal and oil. I would love to know how he’s quantified the fossil fuel related component of upcoming expenditures (of trillions?) to fund military intervention in the ME :

    RH: Because as an economist you can’t be satisfied that coal is cheaper but it’s only cheap because it doesn’t pay for its externalities, the costs it imposes on someone else either in terms of health or …

    RT: But even if you start including those externalities then coal would still be cheaper than renewables and most other fossil fuels actually.

    One of these days, I’m going to run across a “skeptic” who maintains a consistent attitude towards dealing with uncertainties. One of these days…..

  25. Joshua says:

    You really should be able to explain why this warming is not catastrophic, but 2C would be, but I don’t think you can.


    It’s really quite impressive to see (what seem to me to be) smart, knowledgeable people engage in such shallow rhetoric. There is the question of whether TE is so “motivated” that he doesn’t see the shallowness of the logic underlying that comment, or whether he sees it but for some reason is willing to engage in such shallow rhetorical gamesmanship regardless. Although in the end, it really doesn’t matter which is the case.

  26. Joshua,
    I think I enjoyed this part of the interview even more

    RH: So you were one of the people that helped prove that human fingerprint was on climate change?

    RT: We were the first to show that in a statistically sound way.

  27. Joshua says:

    Yeah. That was good also. One thing that always stands out is Richard’s humility.

  28. Because the U.S. Congress seems to have somehow gotten the wrong idea the last time, hopefully Prof. Richard Tol would be willing to testify again regarding these parts:

    “… The only solution to the climate problem is if we decarbonise the economy, right? We need to go to zero emissions. … we should be trying to decarbonise the economy as fast as we can but I think we will need a century to do so. …” [Prof. Richard Tol, 2015-11-16]

    “A simple carbon price. From the perspective of the atmosphere, it doesn’t matter where the CO2 comes from and therefore it also doesn’t matter where the CO2 reduction comes from. If you impose a carbon price then you give everybody who emits CO2 an incentive to emit less and you let the market and the households and companies sort out what is the best way to do it, or pay the price if it can’t be done.” [Prof. Richard Tol, 2015-11-16]

    “… Yes, a simple carbon tax. A carbon tax can be managed by perhaps ten civil servants in the Treasury, that’s all you need. Instead we have a large department of climate change that employs many, many civil servants, all of whom are making up silly rules. And I would simply abolish that whole department and replace them with a working group of ten civil servants or so in the Treasury and that’s all we need.” [Prof. Richard Tol, 2015-11-16]

  29. Jim Eager says:

    I always have to chuckle when someone like TE asks what the big worry is about a 1C or 2C increase in global mean temperature, when the difference between their oft-cited Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age is around 1C, both being only 0.5C above or below the the historic trend line of the latter Holocene. They seem to be utterly incapable of connecting even the most obvious of dots. That and they have the memory of a gold fish.

  30. semyorka says:

    Warming 1997-present on GISTEMP is currently “statistically significant” which means that term will no longer be politically significant. and the warmest monthly anomaly on GISTEMP.

    Apparently Riddley said you needed 0.5C a decade to convince him we had a problem. Though I think a few others will be a bit more circumspect in the coming months.

  31. graemeu says:

    When they say benefit, I presume they mean net benefit. Perhaps the land with the mine could be made over for the relocated state of Vanuatu!

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