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King Canute versus the climate planners

by Judith Curry

On sea level rise, President Obama and King Canute.

In 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama said his victory marked “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow

So . . . how has that been working out?  Well, the figure below is the latest global sea-level chart that I could quickly find, current through Feb 2016. Apart from the dip in 2011 following the 2010 El Nino, it doesn’t look like President Obama had much of an effect on sea level rise.  Further, I suspect that the 2016 rates will contribute to a spike from the after effects of El Nino.

Sea level has been rising for centuries, even millennia.  Of course, it is too soon to expect Obama’s policies to have had any impact on sea level rise.  However, President Obama’s emissions reductions policies are expected to influence global temperatures at the end of the 21st century by a few hundredths of a degree, with a corresponding minuscule impact on sea level rise.

Of relevance to President Obama’s efforts futile efforts to change the climate and slow the rising seas, FEE has published an interesting article King Canute vs the Climate Planners.  Excerpts:

The scene prompted many commentators to compare these people celebrating in Paris to King Canute, who ruled Denmark, England, and Norway a millennium ago. According to popular legend, as a way of demonstrating his awesome power, he rolled his throne up to the sea and commanded it to stop rising.

It didn’t work.

His point was that power — even the absolute power of kings — has limits. During his rule, King Canute was enormously popular and evidently benefitted from the common tendency of people to credit authority for the achievements of the spontaneous evolution of the social order itself.

Lacking a Canute to give us a wake-up call, we might revisit the extraordinary speech F.A. Hayek gave when he received his Nobel Prize. He was speaking before scientists of the world, having been awarded one of the most prestigious awards on the planet.

Rather than flattering the scientific establishment, particularly as it existed in economics, he went to the heart of what he considered the greatest intellectual danger that was arising at the time. He blew apart the planning mindset, the presumption that humankind can do anything if only the right people are given enough power and resources.

If the planning elite possessed omniscience of all facts, flawless understanding of cause and effect, perfect foresight to know all relevant changes that could affect the future, and the ability to control all variables, perhaps their pretensions would be justified.

But this is not the case. Hayek called the assumption the harshest possible word: “charlatanism.”

In the climate case, consider that we can’t know with certainty whether, to what extent, and how climate change (especially not 50-100 years from now) will affect life on earth. We don’t know the precise causal factors and their weight relative to the noise in our models, much less the kinds of coercive solutions to apply and whether they have been applied correctly and with what outcomes, much less the costs and benefits of attempting such a far-flung policy.

The idea that any panel of global experts, working with appointed diplomats and bureaucrats, can have the requisite knowledge to make such grand and final decisions for the globe is outlandish and contrary to pretty much everything we know.

Hayek explains further:

“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”

 

Hayek’s conclusion:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.

He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will.

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

JC reflections

This essay provides a good starting point for evaluating the legacy of President Obama’s climate policies.  Even if they aren’t overturned by the Trump administration, there is little to no impact on the global climate to be expected from planned U.S. emissions reductions.  But . . . the rest of the globe has signed onto the Paris agreement.  Even in the unlikely event that each of these countries actually manages to meet the obligations that they have already made, the amount of warming prevented by the end of the 21st century will be a few tenths of a degree (and that is if you believe the climate models).

As Hayek points out, the potential for overall harm of such policies is substantial.  The counter argument is that we are facing global ruin from AGW and that therefore we must act with comprehensive global policies.  I have debunked the ‘ruin’ argument in a previous post Is climate change a ruin problem?

Humility in the face of the unknowns of the complex climate system, not to mention global human societies, seems in short supply in the hyperconfidence of the Obama administration in dealing with climate change.  We can anticipate a change in the Trump administration; here’s to hoping for a dose of sanity in dealing with energy policy, the environment and reducing vulnerability to extreme weather  events.

Filed under: Policy

Source: 
Judith Curry

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