The Bear’s Lair: Will we get smarter about global warming?

Philipp Blom’s “Nature’s Mutiny” (Liveright, 2019) looks at the Little Ice Age of 1560-1700 and demonstrates that, whereas the first generation afflicted by unexpected cold weather sat around moaning about God not loving them, after about 40 years more intelligent responses occurred, such as improvements in agriculture, a massive growth in international trade and the birth of modern capitalism. Since it is nearly 40 years since the world started worrying about global warming, can we hope for an equivalent improvement in response IQ?

The Little Ice Age involved a decline in global mean temperature of about 1 degree Celsius, between about 1560 and 1700 (its onset appears to have preceded the sunspot “Maunder Minimum of 1640-1700). Blom’s thesis is that the climate change was a stimulant to political, economic and social changes in Europe, which propelled what we now know as the “Enlightenment”.

In its first few decades, until about 1600, the reaction to unexpectedly cold winters was almost entirely gloomy and negative. European society at both the elite and mass level was used to regarding natural changes as evidence of God’s will, so the unexpectedly cold winters and poor harvests were taken as evidence of God’s wrath, caused by the sinfulness of Mankind. Numerous leaders focused on casting out human sin, which had no effect on the climate, but resulted in the emergence of various extreme religious manifestations. One especially cruel manifestation of this was a spate of witchcraft trials, over 110,000 in Europe between 1588 and 1600, resulting in over 50,000 burnings of unfortunate and presumably mostly innocent ladies, as well as a few “warlock” men.

Around 1600, responses to the Little Ice Age became more constructive. In the Netherlands, a spate of land reclamation projects with windmill-powered drainage hugely increased the amount of arable land available for farming, while throughout northern and western Europe the enclosure movement and more effective farming techniques increased crop yields by some 50%. Another such development, primarily in the Netherlands and Britain, was the commercialization of agriculture, so that grain came to be sold through centralized wholesalers with international distribution rather than through local markets.

A third change, essential to the financing of increasingly costly government, which could no longer extract enough surplus revenues from the agricultural sector, was the development of long-distance trade routes and exotic products that could be taxed on their way to consumers. The British and Dutch East India Companies (spices, tea and coffee), both started around 1600, were key to this change, as was the development of North American and Caribbean colonization (tobacco and sugar) in the early 17th Century. The English had been first with this innovation, founding the Muscovy Company in 1553, but the Muscovy Company founders, seeking a North-East passage to “Cathay” around the north of Russia, were unwitting Deniers of the Little Ice Age, and hence ended with a lot of frozen ships and mariners and not very much useful trade.

We are still not 40 years into the climate change debate – James Hansen’s Congressional testimony, which can be judged as starting it, took place in 1988, so the 40th anniversary will not occur until 2028. We are thus still at the “God does not love us” stage in our response to it. Most of the proposed government remedies so far, notably the “Green New Deal” have been attempts to wipe out our sin, in this case the sin of running a carbon-emitting industrialized modern economy.

We have also had innumerable witchcraft trials, in our modern world attempts to close down disfavored energy producers such as coal mines and oil companies, or to silence those whose opinions on “climate change” are unattractive to the consensus. Fortunately, the fatality levels from the modern witchcraft trials have been much lower than in the 16th Century, but that is not for want of trying among those acting as prosecutors.

However, in the next few years, we are due to see some better solutions if the pattern of the “Little Ice Age” is repeated. Indeed, some of those solutions are already apparent, and should make our “clean energy” picture much brighter than seemed likely only a few years ago.

For one thing, the disgraceful crony capitalist 2007 legislation passed by the Nancy Pelosi-led Congress and signed by George W. Bush that banned incandescent light bulbs has done less damage than it might have. Instead of the unpleasant, expensive and environmentally vile CFL light bulbs, that GE and other crony capitalists were trying to force us into using, we now have LED bulbs, that have the blissful advantage of lasting a couple of decades, so to offset their higher capital cost bring a genuine consumer benefit of not having to be replaced every few months. I have not noticed any significant lowering of electricity bills from using LED bulbs, but I hate changing light bulbs, so the new LED bulbs leave me ahead of the game.

A second emerging solution is that solar panels, mostly manufactured in China, have become so cheap that solar power is now cost-competitive with other power sources, provided it is being used in a region with abundant sunlight. It still makes no sense to assemble gigantic solar power grids in Germany, for example, where heavy cloud cover, high latitude and high land costs make them uncompetitive, but in Arizona, solar power is a genuinely competitive alternative.

Now a third better solution to climate change has appeared. The efforts of Elon Musk and Tesla to make electric vehicles cost-competitive have so far been futile. However the demand from electric vehicle makers for high capacity low cost batteries has brought down the cost of battery storage so far that it is now a viable solution to the main problem preventing the adoption of solar and wind power as a principal power source: that they provide no power when the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing. Florida Power and Light is building a 409 megawatt battery farm alongside a solar power project in Manatee County, which will come on stream in 2021 and provide 24-hour power in a way not previously possible from solar and wind sources.

If battery storage is now a solution to the intermittent power problem, then renewables can now provide a much higher percentage of the electric power grid, and one of the major bottlenecks to “clean” energy production will have disappeared. Tesla may not have solved the problem of electric automobiles and may indeed find that the major auto companies are about to eat its breakfast in that business, but it may have solved the storage problem for renewable energy sources in the electric power grid.

Solutions to the global warming problem are thus beginning to appear, in plenty of time to prevent an excessive artificial heating of the planet by 2100 – we are after all not yet at 2020. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal are beginning to seem like the citizens of the German town of Nördlingen, who in 1590 entered on a program of witch burning that resulted in wiping out, not just marginal old crones but the wives of some of the city’s wealthiest leading citizens. God ended by punishing Nördlingen in the following generation, by subjecting it to one of the nastiest sieges of the Thirty Years War – irrational cruelty such as the Green New Deal would impose is generally punished later.

It is becoming apparent that the solutions to global warming propounded since 1988 are like the witch burning and religious pessimism of the late 16th Century – harmful in themselves and irrelevant to the real problem, in that case of declining agricultural production. We do not need draconian government controls, expensive “green” boondoggles or massive new carbon taxes, all of which will destroy the economy’s productivity while doing nothing to solve the global warming problem.

The Little Ice Age should teach us another lesson: that sudden changes in global temperature can happen naturally, and that we should be ready to meet them in a way that avoids wiping out a high percentage of the world’s population. The huge increase in global population since the Industrial Revolution, from 1 billion to 7.5 billion, must be halted and then reversed as soon as possible. Population must be kept far below the carrying capacity of the planet, so that natural and man-made environmental problems and even catastrophes can be solved without mass global tragedy.

For the carbon emissions problem, whatever the severity of its impact on climate, we need new technologies and massive declines in the cost of technological solutions. Scientific advances, brought by the magic of the private sector’s market forces, are beginning to solve this climate problem as they solved those of the Little Ice Age. Regulation, taxation and political denunciations of business will simply get in the way, just as did religious admonition and witch-burning the last time around.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)