Richard Tol Dons Cloak of Climate Denial

Read time: 5 mins

This is a guest post by Cindy Baxter.

They were all there.  A veritable octopus of conflicting climate denial arguments, from “it’s not happening” to “satellite data says it’s all the forests’ fault” to “it’s the sun,” “we can adapt” - and everything in between. 

This small gathering of climate science deniers, including Conservative MP and member of the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Climate change, oilman Peter Lilley, and Conservative MP for Monmouth, David Davies, met in a small room buried on the third floor of the UK’s House of Commons in London last week.

They were there to hear Professor Richard Tol, advisor to the Global Warming Policy Foundation and IPCC Working Group II economics chapter Coordinating Lead Author. 

The meeting was organized by Irish MP and climate denier Sammy Wilson, on behalf of “Repeal the Act” a group that argues the “climate is always changing.”

For someone who claims he’s not a climate denier, Tol certainly managed to belt out a number of the classic denier arguments in the next two hours. 

He first gave a lengthy presentation on his economic theory that climate change won’t cost the earth and that it’s going to be much cheaper to adapt to a 650ppm carbon loading in the atmosphere (that would lead to at least 4degC of warming), than it would be to try to limit global temperature rise to 2degC.

Tol’s talk was peppered by mutterings from the floor about why he was discussing a warming world when it clearly wasn’t warming and wasn’t going to.  He waxed lyrical about his support for a carbon tax as the only single instrument that might stop a problem most of the room believed didn’t exist.

If China, India decide not to act, we have to work harder to keep to the [warming] goal and it will cost more,” was one argument for adaptation instead of mitigation.

From a selfish point of view I’d put my money into adaptation. We can adapt without having to seek cooperation from India and China.  We would have much greater control over it.”

He warned against the take-up of “negative emissions” that some now believe is the only way to keep warming to 2degC, arguing that vast sums of money would be thrown away on subsidizing biomass energy and CCS to solve a problem that wouldn’t cost much anyway.

Throughout the session, Tol’s talk was weirdly interrupted by whooshing sounds from the back of the room where Piers “sunspots” Corbyn was inflating a huge plastic globe.

It was during question time that things got interesting.  Tol, the so-called “believer” was thrown theories from across the wide world of denial.

First up was “Principia Scientific International” editor Terri Jackson who was aghast at the idea of negative emissions because, she said, “if you suck C02 out of the atmosphere you’re going to have mass deaths.”

Tol warmed to some of the questions:  when MP David Davies said he was puzzled about why, if we were still coming out of a little ice age, surely some of the sea level rise already recorded would be recovery from that.  He’d asked several scientists, he said, and nobody could answer him.

Tol: “This little ice age point is very fair.  Recording of statistics start at the wrong point.  It’s hard to say what is natural rebound and what is human or solar-induced warming.”

This “It’s the sun” is a classic denier argument that has been ruled out scientifically, yet here was Tol citing it as a possible cause.

He went on to repeat another classic denier meme:  that global warming has “stopped.”

Until 20 years ago we’d say that the recent warming was stronger evidence of greenhouse gas-induced warming.  It seems now to have stopped, for reasons nobody can explain.  It’s basic physics – it should be warming.”

He seems to have missed the IPCC’s clear steer that global warming has not stopped, that it has continued, unabated, and that more than 90 percent of the heat has gone into the oceans, with most of the warming in the last 15 years being taken up in the deep ocean.

On sea level rise, natural subsidence was also not being factored in:  “The Netherlands is sinking.  And Tokyo, and Bangkok.  It’s obvious we can withstand sea level rise from land subsidence and so therefore we can withstand some sea level rise.”

Tol’s theories on sea level rise are also based on his economic theories.  Apparently, in 1850, when it began building its dykes, the Netherlands was as poor as Bangladesh is today, ergo, Bangladesh should be able to afford to build dykes today.

An engineer was eager to ask about the cost of adaptation instead of mitigation, arguing that surely there were bigger problems to worry about.

Tol agreed. “I could name ten to twenty problems that are bigger than climate change,” he said - without naming any. But someone whose twisted logic says we can afford to adapt to a warming of 4degC could probably find a few examples.

The biggest threat to Tol seems to be Lord Stern, for whose 2006 review he holds a deep disregard – he said so at least half a dozen times. Confusing, considering that on his twitter profile he describes himself as the “scholar most-cited by Stern Review.”

While he may have begun his presentation in his Professorial gown, by the end of it, Professor Tol was most definitely showing his Global Warming Policy Foundation multi-colored coat of denial. 

As the briefing limped to a confused end, Piers Corbyn gets up with his globe, tells us the jet stream is to blame for all bad weather (without mentioning the melting Arctic), declares war on termites (which create more global warming than humankind) then sends a hearty congratulatory message to the Heartland Institute’s annual climate denial conference in Las Vegas.

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I first started reading seriously about this subject about 5 years ago. It didn´t take me long to realize there were mutiple debates being waged in several interelated fields (“climate science”, “engineering”, “statistics”,  “economics”, and “politics” come to mind). I also found there labels being used which I found really confusing. For example, I read some were using the term “climate denial”. However, when I dug into the meaning of this term I realized the proper term was closer to “skepticism about ANTHROPOGENIC warming” (the US military would use the acronym SAAW).  

Why do I bring this up? Because the debate ought to be centered on the word anthropogenic. I don´t think anybody denies the climate exists. However, there sure is plenty of argument going on over the anthropogenic part. 

Now let´s move to persuasion.  Decision makers, bosses,  and higher ups come into those fancy conference rooms knowing they are smarter than we are, and that they happen to be on top because they know much more about almost every subject about to be discussed. Therefore a frontal attack on their belief structures and opinions is completely useless. Try it a few times and you will not get invited into that conference room at all, and you´ll be performing  studies about the impact of tropical cyclones on the Haitian mango industry. 

So what is this about? I´m not on any side. I happen to think everybody is wrong. So I have to thread really carefully so nobody gets mad at me, and this means you are now being treated like those higher ups I used to convince to do  what I wanted to do by always, always using extreme care when dealing with them.