By Robert Bradley Jr. — May 28, 2020
“The popular climate discussion … looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability … because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.” (Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, pp. 126–127).
The Houston Chronicle‘s favorite climate scientist, Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, a leading climate alarmist (see Part I yesterday) fancies himself as an energy and public policy expert. And so the Chronicle takes Dessler at face value well outside of his areas of expertise.
Here is Dessler’s latest Opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle, A Just Transition from Fracking to Renewable Energy is Possible [February 28, 2020] His op-ed (in yellow) is interspersed with my critical comments.
One of the hot-button issues in this presidential campaign is fracking. All of the Democratic candidates for president support either limiting or outright banning the process. Rather than a knee-jerk tribal response, this is an issue that deserves serious consideration as it pits the uncompromising laws of physics against the conventional wisdom of politics.
Comment: Politics, politics …. Dessler’s “uncompromising laws of physics” assume what is under debate. It asserts that the human influence on climate is unequivocally pronounced and of the worst kind. And both suppositions are not open to scientific debate!
Yet the “laws of physics” driving high-sensitivity warming in climate models (ugh!) is precisely what is unsettled, as I have documented elsewhere. To share one quotation therein [“The Scientific Challenge of Understanding and Estimating Climate Change” (Palmer/Stevens, PNAS: 12-3-2019)]:
The idea that the science of climate change is largely “settled,” common among policy makers and environmentalists but not among the climate science community, has congealed into the view that the outlines and dimension of anthropogenic climate change are understood and that incremental improvement to and application of the tools used to establish this outcome are sufficient to provide society with the scientific basis for dealing with climate change.
As a drilling technique that allows extraction of natural gas and oil locked up in shale rocks that would otherwise be inaccessible, fracking has allowed the U.S. to become one of the world’s dominant energy producers.
Comment: But much more than this, fracking had made the US the world’s leading producer and is fueling an export boom to compete against coal globally (via LNG).
Dessler’s university, Texas A&M, parenthetically, has been in the forefront of horizontal fractionation by educating George Mitchell and thousands of others whose labors have supplied the US and world with huge quantities of hydrocarbons. Since resources come from the mind, not the ground, TAMU is a global center of for carbon-based energy and thus CO2 emissions.
While many people are making money from fracking today, it comes with a high environmental costs that must be eventually paid — by us now and later by future generations. But the sooner we transition to clean energy, the lower the bill will be when it arrives.
Comment: Dessler assumes climate alarm, and he does not understand (or want to understand) energy density, reliability, portability, scalability, and cost. His term “clean energy” is a misnomer, as evidenced by Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans. The environment, in fact, is growing much cleaner with the increase in the production and usage of mineral energies.
Fracking causes many problems, such as earthquakes and air pollution. But the most serious environmental impact of fracking is climate change. Fracking often vents methane (natural gas) directly to the atmosphere, where it’s a powerful greenhouse gas — 20 times as powerful at heating the planet as carbon dioxide. Because of this, it is an important contributor to climate change: methane released from all human activities contribute about 25 percent as much warming as carbon dioxide.
Comment: To the extent that earthquakes are linked to drilling, that is a tort issue. Air pollution has been declining for decades and in recent years. Tort damages apply to wind turbine health effects as well. Air pollution from fracking is subsumed under existing air-quality rules too.
Methane as a global warming gas begs the question of climate change as a major problem. Dessler also should have noted that methane has a relatively short atmospheric lifespan and is controllable (and declining) at the drill site. This is not a CO2 issue, but watch out meat eaters.
While we have yet to feel the full impact of rising levels of pollution, climate change is costing us a lot of money. Damages from Hurricane Harvey, for example, cost at least $125 billion.
Comment: Alarmists are now assuming that unusual events are tied to anthropogenic warming, whether it be large hurricanes, heavy rain, or droughts. Buyer beware of recent statistics of extremes that have a propensity to go the other way over time. And this brings up the issue of adaptation, not mitigation.
Not all of this came from climate change, but climate change made the storm worse by increasing the rainfall by about 15 percent. So conservatively at least 15 percent of those damages can be attributed to climate change — corresponding to at least $600 per resident of Texas.
Comment: “Not all” … thank you for this slight concession. How much assumes what needs to be debated (and what is under debate). The $600 per resident might also have something to do with urbanization and water runoff, right Professor? Expect private and public actions in response to Harvey, not stasis. Entrepreneurship internalizes externalities.
And this is just one storm. Now factor in the extra expense from Harris County having to invest in flood infrastructure ($2.5 billion), or the expense from having to build our houses up off the ground to account for more severe future floods, and you see that we’re already paying a steep cost.
Comment: That is called adaptation, which should occur as wealth allows the greater ability to prepare for extremes from any source or direction. For example, I am building a new house in the Texas Hill Country that is 18 inches higher than normal to guard against a 1935-level flood in the region.
And this is just one impact (more severe rainfall) in one place (Houston). Add in the expenses from hotter temperatures — running your air conditioner more, outdoor workers suffering from more heat injuries, agricultural decline, livestock deaths, etc — and then multiply this by millions of locations, and you can see how unchecked climate change will be an existential economic threat.
Comment: Shame on this climatologist-trying-to-be-an-economist. At a minimum, the lower energy costs from warmer winters offset incremental summer charges. And what about the positive externality, the unpriced benefit, of carbon dioxide fertilization?
Addressing climate change cannot be done as long as we are reliant on fossil fuels. The science on this has been crystal clear for decades, so it is well past time we start planning for how to phase out fossil fuels over the next few decades.
Comment: Is climate alarm settled science? I have gathered quotations over the past decades disputing this very claim, including from Dessler’s distinguished senior colleague at Texas A&M, Gerald North, arguing the opposite.
Based on this, the Democratic candidates all agree that some limits on fracking make sense. The debate among them is on what schedule and with what policy to carry out the policy. Among the Democratic frontrunners, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have backed a total ban on new fracking. Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar support continuing fracking on a limited basis.
Comment: Dessler reveals himself, once again, as a political operative, not a sober scientist, with his public pronunciations of the science, economics, and policy of climate change. He is “all in” with alarm and government planning and will not debate his opponents in person or in a side-by-side analysis of the issues. (I have tried.)
There are lots of potential ways to go about this, each with its own sets of benefits and drawbacks. A carbon tax is favored by many across the political spectrum, and indeed will likely be a component of any comprehensive climate plan. But if enacted alone, without other policies to buffer the associated rise in energy costs, it can mean those with the fewest resources end up paying the largest share of their income.
Comment: Politics trumping science. What is a “comprehensive climate plan”? Dessler is a Green New Dealer (“Why the Green New Deal Makes Me Hopeful about Climate Change,” February 15, 2019).
Other policies can make a more just transition by providing assistance for not only those hurt most by climate change, but also those in the fossil fuel sector who will need to find new sources of employment.
Comment: A lot of folks in the oil and gas industry, tens of thousands Texas A&M educated, might be offended with this conceit. Maybe a few wish this professor would take his politics elsewhere.
Those who are employed by the industry are just as beholden to our fossil-fuel-driven economic system as those suffering its consequences, and policies to address climate change should treat both groups fairly.
Comment: Hundreds of thousands demeaned by one Texas A&M Professor. Bad Aggie….
When the debate over fracking and fossil fuels gets serious, special interests and other alarmists will scream bloody murder. They will try to scare you by overstating the costs, trying to convince you that we cannot transition to a climate-safe future. Don’t listen to them. Their concerns are not based in reality.
Comment: Nice try! Dessler wants to claim that alarmist science is not alarmist because it is ‘mainstream,’ but he wants to dismiss mainstream economics because it is, to him, alarmist.
The reality is that innovation has been rapidly driving down the price of renewables — at this point, they are competitive with fossil fuel energy in many locations. So we’re almost there, and it seems certain that the cleverness of American business can get us the rest of the way to the point where the transition is seamless. To believe the alarmists is to not believe in the ability of the market to innovate to a stable climate. This is something we can absolutely do.
Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
Yes, a few scientists assert that renewables alone are sufficient, a position that gets applause. As for me, I would prefer to stick to science and tend my orchard.
Wind and solar are not scalable to meet a modern economy, and hydro and biomass are out too.
Whichever approach to solving the problem you prefer, make no mistake: the science of climate change does not compromise. Lofty campaign promises, constant TV commercials and carefully crafted catchphrases may sway political opinions, but they can’t change physics.
Comment: As he began this op-ed, Dessler ends by assuming what must be debated. He is not being a scientist but a lawyer arguing for one side for a client. He is convincing few.
Who is Dessler’s “client”? It is deep ecology and a fundamental personal animus toward free-market capitalism. This professor, an outlier, simply does not like the self-interested actions of almost everyone else who do not see things the way he does.
Professor Dessler is a one-world-government totalitarian in his climate crusade. And in one of the hydrocarbon meccas of the world. Expect him to grow more shrill as the debate continues to leave his views behind.