Lawrence Solomon: Let’s play Chicken Little

(September 23, 2013) Insurance is the last refuge of the global warming true believer.

Lawrence Solomon: "If we’re to conjure up a new species of insurance based on blue-sky speculation of catastrophe -- let’s call it Chicken Little insurance –- surely we can do better than to grasp at climate change." Handout/Disney

Lawrence Solomon: “If we’re to conjure up a new species of insurance based on blue-sky speculation of catastrophe – let’s call it Chicken Little insurance – surely we can do better than to grasp at climate change.” Handout/Disney

This article was first published by the National Post.

Climate change models that claim the world will suffer great harm in future are “close to useless,” pronounces a prestigious new study by Robert S. Pindyck, a physicist, engineer, professor of Economics and Finance at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and true believer in perils from global warming. Pindyck is speaking of the gold standard in climate change models — Integrated Assessment Models (IAM), which combine data from both climate models and economic models.

“I couldn’t agree more,” says Tom Rand of Toronto’s MaRS group, another true believer. He has dedicated a chapter in an upcoming book to “eviscerating” the same models that Pindyck shreds. “The IAM models are garbage.”

So what, says Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s Commissioner for Climate Action. “Let’s say that science, some decades from now, said ‘we were wrong, it was not about climate’, would it not in any case have been good to do many of the things you have to do in order to combat climate change?”

So, it’s come down to this — we now have widespread agreement from numerous true believers that the models — the only source of scary scenarios — are junk. But the true believers want us to take action on climate change regardless, out of prudence, on the mere possibility that the sky could be falling. It’s an “insurance policy,” Pindyck explains, with other true believers nodding in agreement.

This is a peculiar species of insurance policy, one where the premiums that we’re being asked to pay total literally trillions of dollars, where the perils that we’re being protected against are ill- or undefined, and where — should any of the perils ever materialize — no benefits will be paid out to us policyholders.

This is also a peculiar species of insurance because the insurance industry has traditionally insured on the basis of past experience — this is the tradecraft of actuaries, who ground their assessment of risks on the likelihood that “actual” events that have occurred will reoccur. But in all of known human history — some 5,000 years — and even what’s known of human pre-history — some 200,000 years — none of the many periods of global warming that we’re aware of has led to human harm.

To the contrary, without exception all past periods of warming have been accompanied by advances in human progress. This was true in the Roman warming, at the time of Christ, in the Medieval warming of 1,000 years ago, which ushered us out of the Dark Ages, and in the warming of the last century which has seen unprecedented material wealth and a near-doubling of our lifespans. Indeed, most scientists I’m aware of — some 32,000 of them — believe that carbon dioxide and the natural global warming we’ve recently experienced provide mankind with benefits, not harms, as no self-respecting insurance actuary could deny.

findusonfacebookBut if we’re to conjure up a new species of insurance based on blue-sky speculation of catastrophe — let’s call it Chicken Little insurance — surely we can do better than to grasp at climate change.  Chicken Little’s fear — that the sky was falling — was not without explanation. In Earth’s history and even in human history, there are numerous examples of heavenly bodies colliding with Earth, some leading to catastrophe. Earlier this year, a meteor exploded over eastern Russia with a force estimated at 20 to 30 Hiroshima bombs, causing some 1,500 injuries and damaging 7,200 buildings. This meteor caught scientists unawares. We do not yet know how to track such heavenly bodies, despite their potential for cataclysm. Rather than spending a few trillion on an insurance policy countering carbon dioxide, a gas most scientists consider beneficial, a few million countering unannounced visits by asteroids and meteors seems far more prudent.

Or maybe better protect against another Great Plague or other pandemics that periodically threaten large populations. Just one century ago, an estimated 20 to 40 million died in the Spanish Flu. We have no reason to think we are invulnerable today, given globalization, agricultural and medical practices that have not withstood the test of time.

There are no shortage of low-probability, high-consequence perils that could befall us at any time. If we must indulge a human need to worry about the unknown, let’s at least pick fears worthy of trembling over, that at least offer some plausibility — no matter how remote — that they can befall us in future.

And let’s at least keep the cost of insuring against them to a minimum. Global warming policies have already impoverished millions by converting foodlands into fuel lands to create ethanol, and by inflating the cost of electricity, making fuel poverty a household term in Europe. The greatest peril of all is spending trillions on faith-based “insurance policies” all-but-certain to harm us.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based environmental group. This article was first published by the National Post.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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