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Silent economics

Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute, is up in arms today about an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by the Conservative peer Matt Ridley. Ridley's article, which extolled the virtues of fossil fuels, attracted Schmidt's ire because of one sentence in particular:

The next time that somebody at a rally against fossil fuels lectures you about her concern for the fate of her grandchildren, show her a picture of an African child dying today from inhaling the dense muck of a smoky fire.

Schmidt has variously described this statement as "totally abhorrent" and "asinine".


I fail to see why. Either we think that Africans should have greater access to fossil fuels or we don't. It is neither "abhorrent" or "asinine" to consider which of the two available options is preferable. It is a question of economics and morality - a subtle one but one that must be answered. 

I'm sure economists will be able to advise us about the technicalities of weighing up costs in the present and costs in the past, but here is the essence. In the schemes favoured by the green movement the theoretical costs of climate change in the distant future loom large in the present; deaths from wood fires in the Africa of today look much less important, perhaps even fading into insignificance. The accusation is not, therefore, that greens are callous about deaths in Africa. It is that they discount the future so little that they end up treating wildly hypothetical harms in the far distant future as being of greater importance than real, actual harms happening today. This is a stark contrast to the attitudes and approaches among bad right-wingers, to whom those deaths in Africa look much more like a clear and present crisis. The future, we wickedly declare, can take care of itself.

I'm therefore unequivocal in my belief that the real benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh the theoretical harms. My response is a clear "yes" to more coal and gas for Africa. Schmidt, meanwhile, will not say one way or the other. Indeed, over the weekend, I asked my many climate scientist followers on Twitter to venture their own opinions, but not a single response was forthcoming. I think many people will find this attitude surprising, given the number of deaths from wood smoke in Africa. Recognition that fossil fuels are of vital necessity for Africans might be off-message; it might impact on funding; the "colleagues" might be upset. But silence in the face of such a death toll is inexplicable.

Some might even find it "abhorrent".

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Reader Comments (152)

Well it needed saying loud and clear. Alarmists get all defensive when this is pointed out, but are happy to call us out for allegedly putting their unborn grandchildren at risk.

Same goes for fuel poverty due to greencrap inflated energy prices in high latitude countries. The poor freeze their nuts off in winter, while Greens go by air to conferences in Mexico.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterRog Tallbloke

Poor old Gavin. It's not easy trying to fill the boots of James "Death Trains" Hansen. Perhaps he should go out and get himself arrested or maybe chain himself to some railings someplace.

At least Hansen had a great hat.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

I have to confess that I don't attach much importance to Schmidt's views on the subject.

The point is that a fuel such as gas provides clean, efficient heating for survival and cooking. Those who seek to deny the use of this fuel in the poorest communities because of exaggerated, uncertain and long term scenarios predicted by flawed computer models are the ones who deserve criticism.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

"At least Hansen had a great hat."

All hat, no cattle.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke in Central Illinois

I would think that "turnabout is fair play" - manufactured guilt and phony moralizing are key weapons in the greenies' arsenal in their fight against Western civilization.

It's only appropriate to train those weapons back in their direction. Accusing them of abhorrent disregard for the ugly effects of green policies in the here and now is an effective tactic, based on the volume of the squeals from the disgruntled fighters for "the cause" such as Dr Schmidt.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:29 PM | Unregistered Commenterfortunatecookie

"no bucks no Buck Rodgers."

no Climate Change no Climate Change funding.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

I think Schmidt thinks microwave meals are available to go in their solar powered microwaves, and that barbeques are fun and guilt free if you use Green stamped charcoal briquettes.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

No doubt Gavin believes that African nations should be able to develop, powered only by wind and solar with perhaps a few unicorn farts and fairy dust thrown in for luck.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke down the pub

Our Gav.
In the middle of a tweet.
Our Gav.
Being cool is pretty neat.


Mar 16, 2015 at 1:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterBad Andrew

The first thing the greens do is try to make fossil fuels much more expensive. The next thing they do is oppose the building of power plants wherever they can, including Africa where they have been unfortunately too successful in their efforts since often outside money is needed for this. They may not think they are making a choice, but the consequence of more expensive fuel and delayed/prevented power plants is people continuing to cook with wood and dung--what else could happen? Magic?

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterCraig Loehle

I consider Gavin Schmidt to be totally abhorrent.

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:47 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

The elephant in the room is that Greens care about there own grandchildren - and others of their race.

Dead Africans today are welcome as we obviously have too many of that kind anyway.

The usual cover or justification for the genocide is "overpopulation".

Mar 16, 2015 at 1:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterMCourtney

Ref update, I don't do facebook, twitter etc, but are those really Gavin's words aimed at A.Montford?

There have been some dumb quotes by warmists over the years, about hottest, coldest, wettest, driest, but Gavin is hoping to make 2015 the best evah, on record, for dumb quotes, that with a high level of confidence, he is going to regret.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Ad hom from Gavin rather than explain why hundreds of thousands deserve to be sacrificed today to 'save' an unknown number tomorrow. The answer is he has no answer.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:03 PM | Unregistered Commentercheshirered

Let them eat cake.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve

As long as they don't fly or drive anywhere. Can you imagine how ridiculous you would look calling fossil fuels 'evil' then using a whole heap of them. Hypocrisy is even worse than the abuse of the scientific method..

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Burton

As just explained on Twitter in 2010 the EU considered CO2 emissions and black carbons, and decided that the latter would not be a priority

This is ample evidence that Ridley's dichotomy (CO2 emission reduction vs African children dying because of soot) has in fact been considered already and the children left to die. Messrs Schmidt and McNeall were unfortunately distracted at the time.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:08 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

"@aDissentient Yet another leap to conclusions that justify your pre-exisiting prejudices. And you wonder why no-one serious engages with you"

And are we to infer from this that Gavin considers himself 'serious'? Gavin, l'homme serieux? Intellectual? I believe psychologists have a word for a condition where one's view of oneself is radically different from everybody else's.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:14 PM | Unregistered Commenterbill

FF power in Africa will create more opposition (healthy Africans) for Alarmists. Can't have that!

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterSlywolfe

Masdar Zero Carbon Eco Super City.
Built in the heart in big oil rich Dubai.
As if there was,nt enough miles of abandoned empty high rise buildings in Dubai already.

Why they cant use Solar Panels in the Third World or the Middle East or even in Las Vegas.
Desert/ Tropical conditions continuous bright sunshine unfortunately even with automated wipers and sprayer or 3rd world cheap labour they don't have the fresh water supplies to clean them and the Detergent runs off and pollutes the ground.

Oh well nevermind

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:18 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Poor poor Gavin.

What is actually abhorrent to the Gavinator is that the truth hurts.

So the Gavinator attempts using false premise and seeks to prevent public yet very alarmist shaming discourse.

Prevent open discussion Gavin attempts to strike again; and is laughed at!

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterATheoK

Gavin sounds suspiciously like he is indulging in "confected outrage".

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterThinkingScientist

Some people will lecture us on the "social cost of carbon" but strangely they consider only the problems and not the benefits - and some of the problems have only a tenuous link. By how much has life expectancy increased since the industrial revolution? Shouldn't this be included as a benefit?

The same mindset is at work here. There is only one pile of money. Either you spend a billion dollars a day on a possible problem or you could use it to help the billion people living on less than a dollar a day.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:24 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

Not sure I agree with this bit, Bish

"It is that they discount the future so little that they end up treating wildly hypothetical harms in the far distant future as being of greater importance than real, actual harms happening today".

Discounting decreases future costs and benefits; although for low discount rates the effects are small. But that does not make a cost in the future of "greater importance" than the same cost in the present unless you have negative discount rates. And I know few who seriously argue for that.

In a Stern world, the rate of pure time preference is essentially zero, so a death today is effectively valued the same as a death in the far distant future. Neither is of greater importance than the other. Some counter-argue that greater weight should be placed on those alive today than those in the future (would we save our children more from suffering than our great great great grandchildren?) This is a hotly contested issue amongst economists.

Policy makers are effectively balancing the welfare of a known number of African children who are suffering today against the welfare of a very much larger number who may with unknown probability suffer in the future. Or maybe climate change will cause very little future harm. Given that we can't properly estimate either the probabilities or the level of damages, particularly in the tail, nor agree on the appropriate discount rate, there is no simple or uncontroversial way of balancing these claims. Making these decisions is ultimately driven as much by our ethical choices about intergenerational equity as what the science tells us about probability distribution of possible future damages. But I agree with your broader point that Ridley has implicitly posed an entirely reasonable question.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterHoblinMango

That's Gavin crossed off my Christmas card list - not that he stood much chance of being on it in the first place. Unpleasant individual.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:26 PM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

Also in the Guardian in 2012 - once again, soot considered unimportant, all focus on CO2 emissions

And not a climate scientist showing up to remind people about the other consequences of soot

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:28 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Actually - "But some climate scientists – including Myles Allen of Oxford University – are concerned that in the rush to do more about the short-live gases, we may be taking our eye off the elephant in the room: carbon dioxide"

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:29 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

It is not just the third world suffering, remember a significant number of people in this country are suffering from fuel poverty which is increasing due to the current daft energy strategy.

A significant number of people die in this country from cold related illnesses. Does Gavin Schmidt or his Greenie friends care? No they are saving the planet!

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterCharmingQuark

Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute

Huh? Is this what "climate scientists" do all day.
How can we distinguish them from politicians?

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

Gavin needs deaths elsewhere to offset the carbon footprint of his airconditioning. It makes him feel better, to know that his expensively managed office climate, makes him feel better, AND more selfrighteous. Win win for Gavin.

I don't think the word "hypocrisy" appears in climate science dictionaries.

Hippos should, big animals that once dead, cause powercuts in Africa. The turbine blades of hydro electric power stations, do not make efficient liquidisers.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

And again, their response is to flounce and wave outraged jazz hands, but to never, ever answer the accusation.

I wonder why?


Mar 16, 2015 at 2:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

My only previous experience of Schmidt was when he petulantly refused to be seen on the same platform in a TV programme with a “denier”, as he did not want to engage in any debate. Even I could have shot holes in what he eventually did say, which seriously made me have doubts about his credentials. He appears to be a “name” on which the mantle of AGW has been hung, in order to give it some sort of credibility. Quite why, I have no idea. MCourtney (1:57 PM) perhaps makes the most pointed comment, here.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:43 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Hoblinmango: intergenerational equity is a rather specious argument to justify doing nothing to solve current issues. Carpe Diem is a sound principle on which to work - sort out today's problems today and let the future take care of itself. The risk today is real and present and not some incalcuable future risk. By analogy, imagine what would have happened had the Victorians in London prevaricated on providing clean water supplies and a decent sewage system because there might be a water shortage 100 years in the future.

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:48 PM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

how does Doug 'know' what Andrew thinks, or 'know' that this is cynical.. i for one agree, that give Africa, etc coal, would help millions.. Doug's attitude shows his 'bad faith' in imagining others 'bad faith'

and Bangladesh
Norway may pull investment from Indian firm over Bangladesh coal plant

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

From McNeall's blog.

August 21, 2014 · by Doug McNeall · in Climate, Communication, Media, Twitter · 1 Comment
Here is a list of ways to win at twitter*.

1. Start offensive

Get off to a good start by being deliberately offensive right at the start of a debate, and put your opponent on the wrong foot. They’ll be too perturbed, emotional and quite possibly angry to make a rational argument. This is a real win for you, as you can gradually get more reasonable, and then accuse them of bad behaviour.

2. Always have the last word

No matter how petty, how incomprehensible, how inconsequential, or how far from the original disagreement, make sure you get the last tweet in any exchange. Link to cat gifs if you have to, the last person tweeting wins the argument.

3. Be selective

Point to facts that back up your world-view, and nothing that challenges your world-view. Ideally these facts will be true, but they should on no account give the whole story. Then, when somebody points to a fact that challenges your worldview, you can safely say “that does not contradict my fact”, and it sounds like it doesn’t contradict your world-view.

4. Be speculatively rude

Say offensive things about your opponents, and only back down if robustly challenged. Make a show of an apology, delete tweets – you’ll look grown up and gracious if challenged, or the original insult will make your opponents look an idiot if not. Win-win.

5. Use your favourites, retweets

If a friend with your world-view insults, or even counters an opponent, make sure you pile in with retweets and favourites. This will alert all your friends, and they should do the same. This has the double effect of making you feel a part of a team, while simultaneously intimidating your opponent.

6. link to snarky listicles

A bit like subtweeting, but with more characters available.
He does qualify this at the end by saying that this is a joke - but what do you think?

Mar 16, 2015 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Carter

Gavin's first attempt at fame was the debate where he spectacularly lost again such luminaries as Michael Chrichton. He has not recovered since.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:00 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

The fact that little Gavin set up and maintained Realclimate while apparently being paid to work in the department of ecofascist nut environmental campaigner James Hansen makes him a less than reliable commenter.

The whole idea of Realclimate existing purely to defend the indefensible hockey stick is a crime against the spirit of the scientific method.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

Poor Gavin. He is painted into a corner and refuses to admit it.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter


Your analysis ignores the effects of technical change. If we can do something more efficiently in the future the undiscounted cost is lower.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterIt doesn't add up...

At RealClimate, Gavin said you can have a house as big as you want as long as it's solar powered.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeN


At RealClimate, Gavin said you can have a house as big as you want as long as it's solar powered.

... and made from straw.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:09 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

Gavin used to spread a silly concern about the flooding that may happen to those living in a basement flat in Battery Park apparently with no inkling that Battery Park was built on reclaimed land in the first place. More than likely he was ignorant of smoky fires in Africa too, and much else about potential climate impacts versus certain fossil fuel benefits. At least he read Ridley's polemic though. Most of the alarmists don't disturb their intellectual purity by actually reading the opposing viewpoint.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

I'm completely with Gavin and Doug here. Firstly the framing of this debate in terms of those who might be concerned about the risks associated with climate change not being concerned about the fate of poor people in the developed world is appallingly insulting. Not only is it possible to be concerned about more than one thing at the same time, there are also legitimate reasons for being concerned about the possibility that climate change could adversely affect these very people. Secondly, using this as a way to score some kind of point is also appalling.

I also agree with the sentiment that noone serious would possibly engage with this site and with the host of this site. It's very clear that there is no intent to engage in good faith and the framing is clearly cynical. It is to my enternal regret that I have bothered doing so. I now fully expect everyone to do a wonderful job of illustrating the point I'm making here without showing any awareness of doing so.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:15 PM | Unregistered Commenter...and Then There's Physics

I well remember, early in the Pause - perhaps around the mid-noughties - Gavin was asked on surRealClimate how long The pause would have to last for him to seriously reconsider MMGW theories.

Now, this was at a time when proper, surRealClimate scientists didn't believe that The Pause was real, and that catastrophic warming would re-begin (though it hadn't stopped) again at any moment. The MetOffice in their seminal paper "Improved Surface Temperature Prediction for the Coming Decade from a Global Climate Model" was confidently predicting that "at least half of the years after 2009 [are] predicted to exceed the warmest year currently on record".

Gavin - pretending to be all noble and reasonable-like - said that if new record highs weren't being set in (something like) three or fours years time, then for sure, he'd have to think again.

Gavin's deadline came and went a long time ago. He's still proselytising.

He's a charlatan.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterAngusPangus

With 585 million Africans without access to electricity, we should be concerned about the deaths caused by cooking fires. But I would also point out that with electricity comes refrigeration. That takes you from subsistence to a chance at growth. Employment and education soon follow. There just needs to be a way to bypass the government corruption to get these benefits to the people.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterBob_L

@davidchappell. We might value today more than the future - that's (arguably) fine - but it doesn't mean that we don't consider the future at all. Would we spare 1 life today at the expense of killing 1000 tomorrow? No, clearly not. Would we spare 1 life today at the expense of introducing a 1% risk of killing 1000 in 200 years? Difficult question on which economists would probably not find consensus. And this is what all the arguments about discount rates and intergenerational equity are effectively about. I don't think this complexity can be easily dismissed.

@It doesn't add up. Agree with your point. When I talked about "the same cost" in my mind I had assumed that the effects had been monetised, which would already incorporate the benefit of technical change.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterHoblinMango

Being "green" or into climate hysteria, which seems to be the same, doesn't just target African children, but children of the under-privileged everywhere. It isn't only about putting their great children ahead of today's children, it is about putting half the world's animal and plant species ahead of today's under-privileged children as well.

There is something demonic about putting the existence of a fingerling fish or a moss or a toad or what have you - even a polar bear - ahead of the existence of a ghetto child or a bush country child or a child from a country struggling to become better than it is. Yes, the Earth has been a wonderful provider of millions of species that all died out for one reason or another, but to go out of the way to debilitate the health of children - any children - to protect an endangered specie - now that is something only Man can comprehend. A "green" man, that is, provided, of course, it isn't THEIR children.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterTom O

It is sad, but true that the Green Blob seems to always insist that underdeveloped countries play their part in reducing CO2 emissions, by deliberately avoiding industrial development. Furthermore, it is the same Green Blob that has encouraged the use of millions of hectares of land to produce biofuels, rather than essential foodstuff.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

...and Then There's Physics,

Not only is it possible to be concerned about more than one thing at the same time, there are also legitimate reasons for being concerned about the possibility that climate change could adversely affect these very people.

How can climate change affect people who are already dead?

If you are concerned about more than one thing at a time tell us how you would save the dying of today.
We sceptics argue for the cheapest energy and economic growth. Because we are realists who have seen this work elsewhere in the world.

If you really don't want to "solve" overpopulation by killing blacks... tell us how you would do it.

On the Guardian I only ever see Greens sighing over acceptable losses and thankfulness that the dead are better off, really... all comforted by a strange delusion that they are 97% infallible and thus the good guys.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterMCourtney

I thought it wouldn't take long for the troll to turn up.

Mar 16, 2015 at 3:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

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