A Climate Bill that’s built to fail?

The confirmation earlier today that retired ESRI economist, Prof John FitzGerald has been given the plum job of chairing the Expert Advisory Council on Climate Change has hardly been greeted with universal applause.

The first question is what exactly qualifies FitzGerald for the gig? Many people were wondering the same thing last week regarding Patrick Neary, our one-time Financial Regulator, or The Dog That Didn’t Bark, as he is better known.

What’s the connection between Neary and FitzGerald, you may ask? Well, during his pitiful presentation on the multiple failings of his tenure as regulator, Neary was at pains to point out that while he was a humble civil servant doing a difficult task for which he was ill-equipped and with zero political backing, he took his cues from the real experts, specifically those highly polished top-drawer economists over at the ESRI.

After all, they weren’t beholden to anyone, they had plenty of analytical tools and no shortage of in-house expertise. They also had ready access to the media, both print and broadcast. If there was anything rotten in the Irish economy, surely the high-powered economists at the ESRI would know about it? Well, apparently not.

While by 2007, the dogs in the street seemed to have spotted that Ireland had become a bubble economy, with critically dangerous levels of dependence on a seriously overheated property sector, none of this was to come between the ESRI’s finest and their economic models and carefully tabulated assumptions as set out in its now-infamous Medium Term Review, 2008-2015.

In its Executive Summary, they projected annual growth rate from 2008-2015 of 3.75%. Even though the cracks were already showing at the time of its writing, FitzGerald et al cheerfully opined: “Our analysis suggests that, even if the current downturn were to be more severe than anticipated, the economy would eventually recover more vigorously to realise the medium-term growth rate”.

While Neary was pensioned off into well-compensated ignomony, nobody at the ESRI, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, lost their jobs as a result of providing this hideously inaccurate State economic forecasting service that, in no small degree, helped steer our Ship of Fools onto the rocks as the economy collapsed and tens of billions of unrepayable gambling debts of dodgy bankers and builders were piled onto the hapless Irish public (in response to this blog, UCD economist Karl Whelan rushed to FitzGerald’s defence on Twitter earlier today. Apart from excoriating the poor quality of this post – naturally – he added: “Fitz has promoted the idea of higher carbon taxes for lower income taxes for at least 25 years. Shooting the wrong messenger”).

You may have found yourself snickering at Neary’s pathetic performance last week, but when he said the ESRI from its economic crows’ nest gave no warning whatever as to the disaster that would befall us, in that at least he was being entirely accurate.

I spotted said Prof FitzGerald at an EPA lecture on climate change in Dublin’s Mansion House back in early March. The fruits of his research appeared later that month in his Irish Times column, in an article inauspiciously titled, ‘Solution to global warming is technology’. Given the vast ranges of uncertainties involved in Earth sciences, understanding climate change and grasping its wider implications is largely about risk assessment.

And if anyone in Ireland should be chastened by their own calamitous personal failure to assess risk, it would be said Prof FitzGerald. This, to me, was a good thing: nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, but only the truly foolish fail to learn from these painful experience. So what exactly has FitzGerald learned? Well, if his own writing is anything to go by, the answer is: absolutely nothing.

As I explained at length in a ThinkOrSwim posting back in March, FitzGerald’s Irish Times article was again that chilling mix of hubris and incompetence that so many economists seem to bring to climate change. Then again, since FitzGerald’s punishment for being dead wrong about the crash is ready access to the media and now, chairmanship of the Expert Advisory Council that will advise the Government on implemeting the Climate Act when it finally comes into being, what on Earth would be the point of learning from his mistakes?

A cynic once described experience as the process of making the same mistakes, but with increasing confidence. This being the case, we can be said to have a truly experienced figure heading up the Advisory Council. Ireland does of course have a handful of actual climate experts, most notably Prof John Sweeney of NUIM, who has been part of Ireland’s representation as an IPCC expert for many years.

Sweeney has been, it appears, excluded from this new Expert Advisory Council. If you are wondering why, his trenchant response to FitzGerald’s pitiful article back in March could have sealed his fate. Sweeney, a man who rarely seeks out the limelight and is always polite and measured in his exchanges, was unusually animated in calling out the “deeply flawed” nonsense being pedalled by FitzGerald, which he said “betrays the fallacy of framing the climate change problem solely in an economic paradigm”.

Sweeney went on to point out that “narrowly focused economic perspectives on the climate change problem frequently reinforce political inertia by emphasising the “what’s in it for us” issues that enable procrastination based on perceived national self-interest.” The NUIM professor concluded his broadside by pointing out that climate change “is a game changer which cannot be accommodated in conventional economic paradigms”. The science, Sweeney presciently warned, “and not economics or national self-interest, must drive policy”.

And so, in a nutshell, the champions of narrow national self-interest (Coveney, Kelly et al) have ousted the ‘science science’ in favour of that far more pliable pseudo-science of economics, where uncooperative physical realities such as finite resources and limits set by physics, such as the carrying capacity of the atmosphere, can be blithely ignored and reasoned away with a quick tweak of a discount rate (FitzGerald’s former ESRI colleague, the neoliberal economist Prof Richard Tol, has been muddying the waters of climate change policy for years by using an assortment of techniques to low-ball risks and ignore the benefits of dealing with climate change).

I speculated back in March that Prof FitzGerald’s new-found interest in climate change was probably linked to his brushing up the auld CV for the Advisory Council gig, and so it came to pass.

That FitzGerald is hopelessly out of touch with (or, more likely, simply unaware of) the stark realities presented by the physical science of climate change is evidenced by the following knuckle-headed assessment: “It is our grandchildren and great grandchildren who would benefit from applying the brakes today to bring the momentum of climate change to a slow halt. Like development aid, action on climate change involves an appeal to altruism on the part of voters – there is little in it for people living in Ireland today.”

That view might, in 1995, or perhaps, at a stretch, 2005, have been seen as misguided but understandable. Given the absolute clarity and overwhelming scientific consensus that now surrounds the core science of climate change, and given the extremely narrow window remaining in which the global community can exercise any meaningful control on climate change before it becomes a planetary runaway train, FitzGerald’s opinions sound naive and outdated.

So far, so bad. Prof Frank Convery, late of UCD and Prof Alan Matthews of TCD, are also, according to today’s news report, also likely to be on the Council. Matthews does appear to have a solid grasp of reality, while we await Convery’s inputs with interest. Beyond that, the EPA, Teagasc and the SEAI all get ex-officio seats, with six further spots to be filled.

Prof Ray Bates of UCD may have been busy positioning himself for a spot on the Council. Bates has taken an increasingly skeptical position in recent years; in particular he has been busy pedalling the ‘climate hiatus’ angle – this is the notion, crudely expressed, that global warming has somehow stopped or levelled off since the late 1990s.

According to Bates, “…No completely confident explanation of either the warming hiatus or the models’ failure to replicate it is at present available”. And on this basis, he merrily thrashes even the highly conservative, politically diluted and ultra-cautious IPCC AR5 report on the grounds that ‘it’s the hiatus, stupid’, or arguments to that effect.

Bates quotes career climate contrarians such as Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry to buttress his argument; recently, he sent a link to a document from the secretly funded denialist think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, to defend his challenging the IPCC’s findings on CO2 and ocean acidification. The problem with the ‘hiatus’ argument is that it is incorrect. A major recent NOAA study has blown it clean out of the water. It “refutes the notion that there has been a slowdown or ‘hiatus’ in the rate of global warming in recent years”.

Since the release of the IPCC (AR5) report, “NOAA scientists have made significant improvements in the calculation of trends and now use a global surface temperature record that includes the most recent two years of data, 2013 and 2014—the hottest year on record”. Its conclusion: “Our new analysis suggests that the apparent hiatus may have been largely the result of limitations in past datasets, and that the rate of warming over the first 15 years of this century has, in fact, been as fast or faster than that seen over the last half of the 20th century.”

This is very awkward indeed for those, like Bates, who argue publicly that the short-term interests of industrialised, export-driven agriculture are somehow of more consequence than the existential threats posed by climate change (and before you ask why would an atmospheric scientist be publicly lobbying for Irish beef and dairy expansion, while ignoring all the published science that points out the extreme vulnerability of food production to climate change? I have no idea. I did enquire, but have yet to receive a reply).

Tomorrow (Tues/9th) afternoon sees the Committee Stage of the Climate Bill (list of proposed Opposition amends is here). The indefatigable deputy Catherine Murphy has submitted a slew of useful amendments. “The Bill aims for a low-carbon Ireland but doesn’t say what that means. We think the Bill should include a simple 80% emissions reduction target like recent law in Finland” Oisin Coghlan of FOE is quoted in the Irish Times. “At the very least the Government’s own definition of low carbon should be included in the Bill. Without that clarity the law will fail to deliver the climate action it promises.”

In summary, what most observers would like to see emerge is a clear political signal that Ireland is irrevocably committed to an ultra low-carbon future. This will give confidence to a slew of investment in both renewable and energy-saving technologies, as well as reshaping transport and agriculture policy towards genuine sustainability.

For my money, we have to impose ‘carbon budgets’ on each Government department, in exactly the same way as each operates within a fiscal budget. Failure of a minister to deliver on required reductions their department’s annual carbon budget should be as serious as failing to live within agreed financial targets. Scotland last month produced more electricity from wind energy than used by its entire domestic sector. Clean, locally produced energy and jobs, or filthy, imported fuels that foul the air locally and destroy our shared atmosphere – is that really such a tough choice?

The independence and expertise of the Advisory Council, notwithstanding the abovementioned concerns about its Chair, is still crucial. If Fitzgerald sticks to being an effective chair and lets the actual climate experts get on with their tasks, he may yet prove my reservations groundless.

Behind the scenes, underfunded and outgunned NGOs and umbrella groups like the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and An Taisce have been keeping on the pressure to get a much, much better Bill. They are up against political cynicism, public service inertia and vigorous and well-funded lobbying by special interest groups like the IFA and IBEC.

It’s an entirely unequal battle, but what evens things up in the long run is that those fighting climate change are on the right side of history, and this reality, sooner or later, will be largely uncontested.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Climate Bill that’s built to fail?

  1. Eric Conroy says:

    Well said again John. Just one point of clarification: a lot of Catherine Murphy’s amendments came from Mick Wallace who directed them through Catherine as she is on the committee dealing with the legislation. Hopefully the latest news that the minister will take on some of the amendments will come to pass, after all the opposition amendments had been rejected on a government technicality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *