Coal Industry Report On Social Cost Of Carbon Relies On Climate Science Denial


The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) seems a confusing and confused organisation of major coal miners and burners – even if you only consider its oxymoronic title.

When the industry group was launched in 2008, the message was that coal — the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning globally — could be part of the future.

I believe we can limit greenhouse gases,” declared one of the wholesome American citizens depicted in the ACCCE television adverts.

One can only presume that the ACCCE has now dropped its hopes of limiting greenhouse gases, given that its latest “landmark report” claims the benefits to society of putting extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere massively outweigh the costs. Surely the message should be, “burn baby, burn”?

The Social Costs Of Carbon? No, The Social Benefits Of Carbon report by ACCCE claims the benefits of adding extra CO2 to the atmosphere are between 50 and 500 times higher than the costs.

But the report attacks climate change science using sources as ideologically tainted as the Heartland Institute – an organisation which once ran a billboard campaign with a picture of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to claim that the “most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

At its core, the ACCCE report is one long misrepresentation of the impact of coal on the planet, from its effects on growing food crops to raising sea levels to fuelling risk-laden climate change.

Carbon Dioxide as “food for plants”

One of the most popular debating points for climate science deniers is to tell you that carbon dioxide is simply food for plants.

The ACCCE report takes this well worn and simplistic climate science denial talking point and pushes it to its extreme. While it’s true that some plants generally grow quicker when more carbon dioxide is available, this is grossly simplistic and ignores the impacts of human-caused climate change on flooding and prolonged drought.

According to ACCCE, “the more CO2 there is in the air, the better plants grow” and that adding more CO2 to the atmosphere will only have positive benefits.

Professor Arnold Bloom, of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California at Davis, told DeSmogBlog:

The coal industry in the United States has repeatedly tried to make such claims, but the short-term stimulation of plant productivity and crop yields at elevated CO2 diminishes with longer exposures (weeks, months, years), a phenomenon known as CO2 acclimation. Moreover, longer exposures to elevated CO2 decrease food quality and increase pest problems because pests must consume more plant product to meet their nutritional needs. I have discovered that elevated CO2 inhibits the conversion of nitrate into protein in most plants.

Several passages of the section of ACCCE report on plant growth are near identical to text from a report produced by Craig Idso, of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change.

Internal documents from the Heartland Institute have revealed that Craig Idso receives $11,600 a month from the climate denial group.

Idso is also a former director at Peabody Energy — one of the world’s biggest coal companies and a member of the ACCCE.

Social Cost of Carbon

The report takes time to sully the concept of Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) that are a method used to work out how much each tonne of carbon dioxide costs society. This is known as the social cost of carbon (SCC) and the US administration currently has the figure at about $37 per metric tonne.

The ACCCE report heavily cites the work of Robert Pindyck, a Professor at the Massachusets Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Pindyck has been critical of IAMs and the ACCCE report quotes a working paper produced last year where he described IAMs as being “close to useless” as a tool for policy analysis. However, the ACCCE report did not choose to cite the very first sentence of Pindyck’s paper, which said:

There is almost no disagreement among economists that the full cost to society of burning a ton of carbon is greater than its private cost.

Nor did the coal group’s report cite another concern Pindyck has with the use of IAMs, which was also outlined in the abstract of the report, and said:

…the models can tell us nothing about the most important driver of the SCC, the possibility of a catastrophic climate outcome.

Also cited in the report’s section looking at IAMs is James Risbey, a climatologist now at Australia’s government-funded science agency the CSIROThe coal report cites a scientific paper written by Risbey 18 years ago and which warned that the use of IAMs came with several pitfalls. After viewing the coal report, Risbey told me:

The ACCCE report questions a number of issues as if they were in dispute or subject to major uncertainties that have been resolved for decades.  The report appears to question the relative roles of natural and anthropogenic emissions in driving climate change.  It has long been known that anthropogenic emissions are driving the increase in CO2 concentration. 

The ACCCE report appears to question whether greenhouse climate change will cause damages.  The methods of accounting and costing damages from climate change have been contentious and often questioned.  Much of that questioning has been based on a concern that the way damages are represented is too simple, leading to damage assessments that could grossly under-represent the true damages.  The uncertainties relate to the scale of the damages, not to the very likelihood of them happening as implied in the report.

In other words, two key sources used by ACCCE in its criticisms of IAMs seem in reality to disagree with the key message of the report.>

Sea Level Rise

The ACCCE paper claims that future damages caused by rising sea levels based on predictions from computer models “must be considered inflated and unreliable.” The paper also claims that there has been no recent acceleration in sea level rise and that real world observations are showing a slowdown.

Australia-based Dr John Hunter, of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, has published extensively on sea level rise in leading peer-reviewed journals. After reviewing the ACCCE report on sea level rise, Dr Hunter told DeSmogBlog:

If this was a review of the literature written by a student, then it would get a very poor fail – it ignores most of the scientific work that has been done, and instead relies on relatively obscure and carefully selected papers from a small number of authors.

One of those authors is an Australia-based engineer called Alberto Boretti, who recently changed his name to Albert Parker. Dr Parker works on “green engines” at RMIT University in Melbourne. He is a member of a group known as Principia Scientific International whose head claims carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas and cannot warm the planet. PSI is on the very fringes of the climate science denial fringe.

Dr Parker has published several papers with another Australian, Thomas Watson, who believes CO2 cannot cause climate change and instead has blamed “magnetism” – a theory sparked in Watson’s mind after seeing a UFO while backstage at a rock concert.

A claim in the ACCCE report that “observations reveal no acceleration of sea level rise over the past century” was, Hunter told DeSmogBlog, “both misleading and largely irrelevant.”

He said observations of global sea levels were actually in line with the predictions of climate models. Dr Hunter said:

The authors provide no quantitative estimate of what the acceleration “should” be if sea level were actually rising according to “AGW theory”. The real test of the models is whether they reproduce observed sea level, and over the past half-century (when we have good observational data), they do appear to. The models in fact show that the present acceleration should be small.

A belief in themselves

With reports like this, the coal industry in the US and Australia seems desperate to convince policy makers and the public that its position as the historically dominant source of the world’s electricity should continue.

Yet an increasing number of global investors with an influence over billions of dollars in funds – including the World Bank – disagree.

I believe in the future,” said ACCCE in its original 2008 television advertisements.

The self-interested ACCCE does not appear to believe in an honest appraisal of the science of climate change and seems happy to rely on denial, at the expense of society at large.

Image credit: Mark Fiore

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