The Politics of Climate Change

The Labour Party in Australia was widely touted as the sure-fire winner in the recent Australian election. One of its key policy position was a renewed commitment to fighting “climate change”. To the Australian media, polling and establishments complete astonishment, Labour lost.

There are multiple explanations for the loss but running with “doing something about climate change” as the central theme of a campaign figures prominantly. Australia is a resource rich, sparsely populated country and energy and mining issues are real pocketbook issues for many Australians. Labour’s climate change policies were seen as very hard on extractive industries and as, potentially, raising energy prices a lot.

The climate change issue in Australia was not fought on a skeptics vs. believers basis so far as I can make out. The Coalition – at least most of it – seemed to accept that the science was settled (big mistake in my view) and that climate change was real and that it needed to be addressed. But the Coalition was clear that it would not cripple the Australian economy or Australian consumers with measures which were very unlikely to make any difference at all to temperature now or in the future. Labour, on the other hand, stressed the urgency of “doing something” about climate change.

I suspect this divide between people who think “doing something” about climate change (no matter how futile) and people who do not accept the urgency of dealing with something they really don’t believe in will inform politics in the West for the next few years. Most particularly, it will inform the next Canadian federal election.

The Liberal Party of Canada has been going all in on its “tax on carbon pollution” (a fine bit of wordsmithing managing to attach “carbon” to “pollution”). Led by the remarkably scolding Catherine McKenna, the Libs seem to think that purporting to “do something” about climate change is a vote winner. So McKenna tours the country speaking to uncritical school children and assorted environmentalists about how important having a “carbon tax” is. The Liberals tax will save the planet, ensure sea level rise stops (easy because sea level is not actually rising), save the Arctic ice cap (already saving itself, thank you), keep polar bears from extinction (also easy because virtually all polar bear populations are growing) and reduce or eliminate climate change “caused” weather events. Plus, Canada will honour its Paris Accord commitments (we won’t) and serve as a beacon to lesser nations like China and India in their efforts to combat climate change (as if).

The Liberals think that the fact that a carbon dioxide tax in Canada will have a rounding error effect on worldwide emissions and no detectable effect on world temperature does not matter politically. What matters politically is that the Liberals believe that there is a large constituency out there which urgently wants to “do something”.

The NDP is fully on board and, of course, the Greens have been banging the climate change drum forever. Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives seem to be on the fence. Like the Coalition in Australia, the Conservatives endorse the “climate change is a problem” line and very few are willing to challenge the underlying science or economics for fear of being branded uncool “climate change deniers”. But the Conservatives seem to be, prudently in my view, dragging their feet on “doing something” about CO2.

Political virtue signalling on the climate file is the easy part. All that is really required is the abandonment of any sort of scientific judgement (easy when you are told that all the scientists agree that climate change is real and primarily human caused) and policy skepticism (we don’t need a cost benefit analysis, this is an emergency!). The hard part occurs when you try to “do something”. Because doing something means that people are going to see their expenses rise without actually seeing (in any tangible way) any actual benefit. In fact, as Ontario’s wonderfully disastrous adventure in wind energy demonstrated, tax dollars can be wasted and consumer prices increased all without making any difference at all to the climate.

Scheer could have the climate change issue nailed if he was willing to set a basic standard for any program designed to address climate change. The standard would be that such projects need to be fully costed and their benefits fully enumerated. Scheer can take climate change “seriously” by demanding that any attempt to address climate change have a provable effect on climate change. How much will a given program reduce CO2 emissions and how will such a reduction in emissions in Canada effect world average temperature. That standard would appeal to those of us who are skeptical about the science. But it should also appeal to people who completely buy the science and really believe there is a climate emergency.

The Liberals, NDP and Greens will be running on the “do something” ticket. The Conservatives have the option of running on the “do something effective” platform. Setting a minimum price for carbon dioxide emissions, in theory, should reduce those emissions in Canada. But will that reduction, in Canada and only in Canada, be enough to do anything at all about climate change? That’s a real question and one the Liberals have, so far, refused to answer.



9 thoughts on “The Politics of Climate Change

  1. John Cross says:

    OK Jay, I’ll challenge you on that. Can you please produce your data on sea level rise and arctic ice cap (sea ice extent maybe?).

    • Jay Currie says:

      On sea level, a couple of the hundreds of papers suggesting what change there is has little or nothing to do with climate change: Origin of spatial variation in US East Coast sea-level trends during 1900–2017 Why would sea-level rise for global warming and polar ice-melt?

      Here’s a chart of Arctic Ice volume derived from the Danish Meteorological Institute’s measurements

      Looks pretty flat to me.

      • John Cross says:

        Jay, This was a test for me to see if I was paying attention, wasn’t it. From your second reference “Arctic sea-ice has already reduced its volume due to melting from 33,000 km3 in 1979 to 16,000 km3 in 2016″. So your own reference which I assume you carefully selected to represent your points, actually contradicts your point on arctic ice volume.

        However putting that aside for now, and looking at the science in your references.

        Reference 1 is a look at how vertical land movement is influencing the tide gauge readings. This is a well known problem (if the land moves vertically then it will introduce errors into tide gauges) but this paper looks at vertical movements along the Atlantic US coast in more detail than ever before. They this this is important work since it can help ” constraining recent global-mean RSL rise” (i.e. reduce errors in our estimates of sea level rise). So, this directly contradicts your assertion that “sea level is not actually rising”.

        Reference 2 is a look at a lot of different issues but most of them are about the shape of the earth and the gravity anomalies in it. It appears to be concerned about future predictions but it also appears to accept the current observations as shown in Figure 2. So it does not agree that there is no sea level rise.

        Finally, your graph about the lack of decline in arctic ice volume is interesting since it starts at 2008. A look at a longer record can be found at this link: . So it is basically the hiatus argument all over again. Are you sure you want to try that here – it didn’t work out so well the last time.

        Anyway, thanks. That was enjoyable – I haven’t had time to read any scientific papers in a long time so I appreciate the break.

  2. Jay Currie says:

    From the high point of 1979 there is no question that Arctic sea ice has dropped – in mass and extent – as it has previously. And this year there looks to be an interesting decline. But, as the predictions were that the Arctic would be “ice free” at some foreseeable point in the future, the fact there is ice at all is a pretty clear refutation.

    As to sea level rise, we know that sea levels have been rising, slowly, since the little Ice Age. For a variety of reasons only some of which have much to do with “climate change”. The science is, at best, imprecise. And certainly not good enough to panic about.

    I take it you are granting me the polar bear population increase. And agree with the IPCC that attribution of specific weather events is well beyond climate science.

    But I am more curious about your response to my suggestion that the Conservative’s platform should be that we need to do something “effective”.

    We both know that the Lib’s “carbon tax” will do sweet fuck all about climate change. Even it if produces a 20% reduction in Canada’s emissions (unlikely) it will make close to zero difference to world average temperature a year down the road or twenty years. Only because 20% of 1.3% of human emissions is, well, nothing. It is virtue signalling and nothing more.

    I think that sort of mindless gesture is politically toxic. What do you think, John?

  3. […] issue and with a fall election coming into view, the rhetoric will become more extreme and shrill. Jay Currie discusses climate change and the Canadian […]

  4. John Cross says:

    Hi Jay: Humm, moving those goalposts seems to be a fulltime job. You have gone from commenting that the ice cap was saving itself to a red-herring argument that it was predicted that the arctic would be ice free but that prediction hasn’t happened yet.

    In regards to sea level rise, my main point was that the papers you referenced as being the shining examples of showing that there is no sea level rise related to climate actually agree that sea levels have risen due to climate change.

    Polar bears – biology! That is a subject I am not all that conversant in so I am happy to read what is out there but don’t know enough about methodologies or theory to argue it.

    Yes, I do agree that no specific weather event can be attributed to global warming. That is the problem when you have only 1 test case to work with.

    In regards to Canada’s emissions, that is much more of an opinion thing and as such does not have robust answers. My personal point of view is that I think about it as similar to WW2. At the time, Canada felt that it was important to join the war and did so long before other players who were much larger and more influential joined. While Canada incurred a horrible loss of about 45,000 soldiers killed, the relative loss of men compared to the total military deaths was about 0.3% (roughly the same as a 20% cut of 1.3%). Does the fact that our contribution was so small mean we shouldn’t have participated? In my opinion no, but it is only an opinion.

    • Jay Currie says:

      The WWII analogy is interesting, John. At the time we entered the war we had clear, if difficult goals – keep England alive, defeat Hitler. We had a wide variety of means of achieving those goals and we deployed all of them. Our contribution, up until the Americans joined in, was huge in relative terms. It was also strategically essential in that we provided much of the convoy escort needed for supplies to reach England and provided many of those supplies. Without those convoys, there is every chance England would have been starved out before the US entered the war.

      The critical difference between WWII and action against climate change is that Canada’s contribution to the survival of England and the costs of that contribution could be precisely measured in terms of tonnages of materials delivered and, sadly tonnages of shipping sunk in that delivery. I think you’ll agree that this level of precision is not available for action taken against climate change. However, though the Liberals are keeping the figures very close, we can arrive at estimates of the costs of such action and pretty realistic estimates of the effects of that action.

      Canada is generally thought to be responsible for about 1.3% of worldwide CO2 emissions (ignoring the role of our forests as carbon dioxide sinks). If we were able to achieve a 20% decrease in emissions we would go to (with a bit of generous rounding) 1% and reduce overall world emissions by .3% leaving the world with 99.7% of its current emissions. Effect on temperature? A .3% decrease (assuming current sensitivity estimates are close to correct) would translate to .006 of the targetted 2 degrees of warming.

      Now, for all the glorious speeches about saving the polar bears, the grandchildren and the ice cap, if you asked the average Canadian if they would be willing to pay $1000 a year to achieve a .006 reduction in temperature rise (maybe) I suspect you would not get a lot of buy-in. WWII was fought to save England and defeat Hitler, the action against climate change is being fought for an imperceptible and largely unproven reduction in temperature in the distant future, maybe.

      Hitler and the Nazis were very real, 25 miles across the Channel and bombing England daily. Much as McKenna and company like to gin up every snowstorm, heat wave and rainstorm, climate change barely registers as a threat for the vast majority of Canadians. Trying to make it the centrepiece of a re-election campaign is not likely to save the Liberals from their fiscal incompetence and sheer lawlessness.

      • John Cross says:

        Jay, with all due respect to the men who lost their lives, I am not sure that the early Canadian war effort was all that significant. Did it delay the evacuation of the continent, perhaps but that is a matter of pure speculation. The end result was the same.

        However this does illustrate a key point in the overall discussion. You are looking back over history knowing what was done and knowing what the results were. In a sense you have perfect vision. And this seems to be the same standard that you want to hold climate science to! I do agree that level of knowledge is not available for climate science – it can’t be. But that level of knowledge was not available to people during the war either. It is only available in retrospect. All they had to go on during the war was the information they could collect and from this they created actions.

        We can not predict the future so your demanding that we predict the effects of climate change in the future with as much certainty as we have knowledge about what happened during WW2 makes me question if anything would actually change your mind.


  5. Neil says:

    Three comments here.

    First John, your argument comparing Canada’s contribution in WWII to the carbon tax is coming a little too close to the ultimate refuge of climate alarmists who run to Pascal’s wager to justify action. I do not wish to pay substantial carbon levies so as to back Skippy and Barbie’s virtue signalling to the world.

    Second Jay, you are bang on regarding doing something effective should be the Conservative platform. I hasten to add that I have no suggestions in this regard. I believe Mr. Harper finessed things by saying ‘we will do what the US does’ knowing full well the US Senate would never allow actions that harmed constituent’s wallets.

    As per Yes Minister, ‘doing something’ is known as the politician’s syllogism. We must do something. This is something. Let’s do this.

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