Climate? Our biggest problem is poverty

Date: 1 december 2015

Indur Goklany
Indur Goklany

By Ralf Bodelier, translated from an original in Dutch. [Bishop Hill blog]

Indur M. Goklany is one of the most influential climate analysts in the world. ‘If we want a better world, we must continue using the cheapest form of energy.  For the time being that is the burning of oil, coal and gas’. Last month he published ‘Carbon Dioxide. The Good News’.

He was part of the climate negotiations for the United States in the run-up to the UNFCCC, and he was there at the birth of the mighty IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He participated in several of the five assessment reports of the same IPCC. But two decades ago, Goklany (70) distanced himself from the ‘climate alarmists’. He was one of the earliest champions of adaptation, arguing that it made more sense than mitigation (or emissions reduction). He developed the notion of “focused adaptation”, whereby you address current day problems that would/could be exacerbated by climate change.  Early this October he published “Carbon Dioxide. The Good News’, a long article about the benefits of more CO2 in our atmosphere, including a plea to the world to not decarbonize too fast. ‘Since the 1980s, we’ve been hoping that clean solar and wind energy will break through’, Goklany says.  ‘However, their share of energy worldwide still doesn’t exceed one and a half percent.’

The facts are well known. About 82 percent of our energy still comes from coal, oil and gas. Another 5 percent comes from nuclear.  The remaining 13 percent is from renewables, including hydropower. Fossil fuels also supply the raw materials for clothes and houses, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals, aircraft and technologies that boost crop yields and increase food production.

‘Besides, more and more research shows that the increase in CO2 in our atmosphere has very positive effects on nature and the environment’, Indur Goklany says. ‘Should we decide to leave coal, oil, gas and uranium in the ground, our society would be completely out of joint. And poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America would be most affected. In coming decades they will need a lot of cheap and reliable energy to develop. And that, like it or not, is fossil energy.’

I meet Indur Goklany, a friendly, modest and bearded scholar, in a tapas restaurant in his hometown of Washington. You won’t find him often on TV talk shows. You are more likely to find him in the footnotes of influential books like ‘The Rational Optimist’ from Matt Ridley in 2010 or the recent ‘The End of Doom’ by Ronald Bailey. You could call Goklany the father of the Ecomodernism, the optimistic, high-profile alternative to the traditional environmental movement. Ecomodernism is a trend that has enticed more and more former environmentalists to cross the floor, including former hippie and compiler of theWhole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand, and also Mark Lynas, until recently one of the most radical environmentalists in the United Kingdom.

Indur Goklany has also crossed the floor, although that was back in the 80s, before the term `ecomodernism’ was coined. ‘In the 70s I even contributed to Greenpeace,’ Goklany says. In the late 1970s the doubts came in. He was one of the first to champion adaptation, which he argues is more cost-effective and less costly than mitigation (or emission reductions).

Since the 1990s Goklany has been delivering the figures and ideas that have helped the ecomodernists to tell their story. Usually, these are not figures and ideas that get a warm welcome among environmentalists and the politically correct. The India-born researcher likes to research subjects on the edge of science, ethics and morality, like the idea that we should stop with generating energy from fuel fossils as soon as possible.

Many think climate change is the main problem we face today. Apparently you see that differently. 

‘I do. Despite the dramatic reduction in poverty because of economic development, the biggest problems we face today are still extreme poverty and its consequences – hunger, premature death, disease and an impaired environment. Extreme poverty is the fundamental problem of the moment. If we reduce poverty first, we will reduce these other problems. It is therefore good news that the elimination of poverty is still number one in the list of new development goals of the United Nations. ‘

What is the connection between alleviating poverty and your plea for fossil energy? 

‘Between 1981 and 2012, the number of people in absolute poverty declined by over a billion people worldwide as the rate of absolute poverty declined by almost three-quarters, from 54 percent to 15 percent.  The vast majority of these reductions occurred in South and East Asia – think of India and China. What happened? They got wealthier, because of economic growth fueled literally by fossil fuels. This is why they are also major contributors today to CO2 today.  It is not rocket science – you are poor, you need to get richer, but for that you need access to cheap and reliable energy.  And today energy is, for practical purposes, synonymous with fossil fuels.

However, there are still almost a billion people living in absolute poverty today. Ensuring that they have the means for economic development, which means ensuring they have access to cheap and reliable energy, should be our first concern. We have no idea how pathetic it is to not have energy, although I can still remember from my childhood in India. People with no access to electricity or any of the conveniences we take for granted, cooking their meals using dung, all the while inhaling the noxious fumes from the burning dung; women and children walking miles to fetch water; when the sun set so did all productive activity including studying and working because lighting was rare and expensive; streets without light; the fact that any action took physical effort and was time consuming, because gasoline, diesel and electric powered machines and appliances weren’t available.

It is not surprising that even the Bible starts with energy. The first thing God created was light. Then the rest came.

‘Though he didn’t do it perfectly. He created the light, but he didn’t make it cheap. For millennia only the wealthy could afford it.  Over time, with the help of fossil fuels we humans made it affordable to the majority. From the time we started, we developed on every aspect. In life expectancy, in health, in safety. In countries that don’t have sufficient energy, many people die prematurely. Therefore, developing countries – and particularly the poorest in developing countries – should also get the chance to have cheap energy as soon as possible. And the way it looks now, this energy will be fossil energy. Because no other form of energy is so cheap, so reliable and with so many advantages. However, under pressure from the climate movement we create hurdles, if not deny that possibility to the poorest. I find that really incredibly and morally objectionable.’


Many will not understand your message. How dare Mr. Goklany to claim such a thing? We do know that the world is going to hell and that oil is the great evil. ‘

‘The data are crystal clear. On one hand there is that huge group of around one billion people who still live in abject poverty. At the same time, everyone, worldwide, that’s born today, lives longer than their parents. He or she is much healthier, gets more and better education and has less risk of hunger. Average global life expectancy, probably the single best indicator of human well-being, has more than doubled from 26 years in 1750 to 31 in 1900 and to 71 years in 2013. In developing countries hunger and malnutrition decreased from 24 percent of population in 1990–92 to 14 percent in 2011–13, despite a 37 percent increase in population. People are having fewer children. And not only in the USA or with you in Belgium/Netherlands. It is happening in more and more countries, including in Africa or Asia. The South and the West are pulling towards each other more. The inequality between countries is decreasing. I will continue to point out that we owe it to the fact that we have plenty of cheap and reliable fossil fuels. But it is premature to declare victory, because there still exists a substantial gap in well-being between the developed and developing nations, and the rich and the poor.  So the need for cheap, reliable energy is not diminished.’


Environmentalists are going against your ideas. They argue that it is much better to not build more coal plants and wait for cheap renewable energy. When you do invest, they say, do it right away as sustainable as possible.  ‘

‘It depends on your starting point. If you want to put an end to child mortality, tuberculosis or malnutrition as soon as possible, you cannot wait for economic development and cheap reliable energy. Developing countries need economic development and, therefore, power, now. Think of it this way: Suppose there is a deadly disease, and we have a vaccine against this disease. However, the vaccine is not perfect; it has some side effects, which could be severe but not necessarily as deadly.  Does it make sense to withhold this vaccine and wait a few years for one that has fewer side effects?  What do you do? Should you postpone vaccinations for, say, two years until a better vaccine comes in? ‘

The dangers of burning fossil energy, so we hear, due to climate change will be catastrophic. 

‘That’s what I hear too, but all that is based on model results that use climate models that even the IPCC’s underlying chapter acknowledges overestimate the rate of warming. So far, the data do not indicate problems that are claimed will occur.  Crop yields are increasing, not declining, fewer people are dying from extreme weather and climatic events, death rates have declined from malaria and other vector-borne diseases, sea level rise is not accelerating. Among colleagues, there is a lot of doubt and discussion. Anything being suggested by one scientist, whether it’s the expansion of malaria, the acceleration of sea level rise, or the increase in heavy storms, will be doubted by another scientist. Apocalyptic predictions from the past turned out to be wrong.’

No one knows, for example, how to explain the Global Warming Hiatus that is there for 18 years now.

‘Supposedly, 66 hypotheses have been offered to explain the departure of reality from models.  But more important than the hiatus is that observational data indicating that the models are running too hot by a factor of two to four.  Data in the IPCC’s report confirm this overestimates.

We are now below the lowest estimate for the rate of temperature change projected by the IPCC from the 90s. When there is already a huge difference in a prediction that looks ahead 10 to 15 years on, how confident can we be about a prediction for 2100?

When you realize how much models are overpredicting warming rates, you have to be reluctant in supporting drastic measures such as the ‘ de-carbonization of the economy ‘.

Okay, now let’s assume that this pause in global warming will be over one day. And that global warming just rebounds. Should we just let it go?

‘Oh no, I am a strong supporter of, what I call, ‘focused adaptation’. We know that climate change is more likely to make existing threats worse rather than create brand new threats. So if we reduced our vulnerability to these existing threats we should be able to deal with the threats from climate change a lot easier. My research, based on impacts studies that have been quoted in the IPCC reports, shows that through the foreseeable future, the magnitude of these underlying threats – whether it is hunger, malaria, water shortage, or even habitat loss – will continue to substantially exceed the additional threat due to climate change alone. Therefore, if we reduce the underlying threats we would solve the bigger part of the problem even in the future. In addition the techniques that have to be devised to deal with the underlying existing problems should also serve to reduce the negative impacts of climate change in the future. In fact, we can reduce these underlying threats much more cost-effectively than we can reduce climate change.’

So what should we do?

‘We should adjust our practices and approaches in order to reduce our vulnerability to the current climate. Think about irrigation and storage of rainwater. Think about resilient and sturdier homes and infrastructure, genetic modification of plants to make them resistant against the vagaries of the climate, vaccinations to deal with malaria and other climate-sensitive diseases. These approaches will work whether or not climate changes, whether or not our models are eventually proven correct. If the climate changes or not, that is always a wise investment. The climate is fickle, and not always friendly to humans. Instead of many billions to spend on the fight against climate change, it is much wiser to fix problems that could be exacerbated by climate change. We know that sooner or later we’ll have to face droughts and floods. So we should prepare for those. So when we have a drought, for instance, we’d be able to deal with it, whether it is caused by climate change or just the usual, unpredictable climate or weather. If floods or storms are threatening, make sure they don’t do too much damage. This approach is also one in which climate-climate-skeptics and climate change believers can come together.’

In your latest publication ‘Carbon Dioxide. The good news’, you explain the benefits of more Co2 in our atmosphere. What are these benefits?  ‘

‘The most important one is the greening of the Earth. CO2 stimulates plant growth. In the 18th century humans produced three million tons of CO2 every year (measured as carbon), today it’s almost ten billion tons. And all that CO2 is plant food. It’s no surprise that many commercial growers pump extra CO2 into their greenhouses to increase production.

According to satellite data, between 1982 and today vegetation productivity has increased by 14 percent, in large part because of CO2. That’s a huge increase for our forests, but also for agricultural yields. That higher CO2 increases productivity of plants and crop yields has been confirmed by numerous scientific experiments over the past two hundred years. And you can also observe from satellites that the Earth is getting greener. These are hard data and not results from models that don’t seem to be reflecting reality. You can find these kinds of data in the IPCC-reports. In fact, according to the IPCC, terrestrial productivity today is 5 percent greater than in pre-industrial times, more than compensating for all the deforestation and other habitat loss that occurred in the interim. 

Additional CO2 is a major contributor to this increase in productivity. The problem is that the IPCC’s Summaries for Policy Makers emphasize the apocalyptic stories and underplay the benefits. We should look at both sides and then weigh the disadvantages against the advantages. In doing so, we must not forget something: many of the problems we see in future will be resolved, like we resolved many problems in the past. Human inventiveness is huge and technology continues to develop. ‘

The predictions about the disadvantages of climate change may be uncertain, but when they come out, so say the climate activists, it will become a disaster. ‘

‘Let’s look at natural disasters, since this is constantly being mentioned. I have elaborated on that subject in 2011 [in: Wealth and Safety: The Amazing Decline in Deaths from Extreme Weather in an Era of Global Warming. RB]. I did so using one of the best databases on disasters that exists. It is the EM-DAT database, the International Disaster database, available from the University of Louvain, in Brussels. I analyzed their data on the base of the question: how many people passed away in each decade between 1900 and 2010 because of a climate related cause like droughts and floods, heat waves and tornadoes?

On one hand you see that the reporting of extreme weather indeed is on the increase. This might be because we have more comprehensive and faster news coverage today than in times past.  More people are in the path of any disaster because of the increases in population.  Also the damage is worse because we are getting richer, which means there is more to get damaged.

But on the other hand, and that stunned me, I found that the mortality from extreme weather events has decreased tremendously. In a disaster year like 1931 more than 3.5 million people died because of something that could be attributed to the weather or climate. However, the cumulative total death from all extreme weather events since 2000 is less than half a million. In 2013 it was only 30 thousand. And that while the population has increased from two to seven billion people, in the 30’s 241 people per million people worldwide died because climatic, meteorological and hydrological disasters; in the first decade of this century this declined to five people per million. The chances now that you die because of drought, storms, heat or floods have declined to only one-fiftieth compared to eighty years ago.

We are, in short, getting better and better in protecting ourselves from the climate and weather. And, again, we do so thanks to fossil fuels. They give us the possibility to build solid houses to protect against storms, to grow crops despite droughts, to construct tougher dykes to protect against floods, to escape with a good car before a hurricane arrives, or to heat the house during cold waves or cool it during heat waves. When we were able to decrease the number of climate victims so enormously in the 20th century, should we not have some more confidence in the 21st century?’

You say that renewable energy won’t get through for the time being. But proponents of the de-carbonizing of our economy believe that renewable energy is getting cheaper so fast, that fossil fuels remain the best in the ground’

‘Yes, solar panels are getting cheaper, but are they also getting cheaper and reliable as oil? Because that is the crucial point. The big problem of, for example, solar energy is that it doesn’t work when the sun is hiding. The sun hides at night for twelve of the 24 hours that we have in a day. In addition, solar energy is less efficient when its’s cloudy or rainy, and in the West it’s cloudy for one third of the year. Because there is no solar energy available much of the time, some form of storage is needed, for example in the form of immense batteries. Currently, they are experimenting with many kinds of storage, but all of them make solar energy a lot more expensive than oil, gas, or coal. As an electrical engineer with some background in solid state physics I have great confidence that it will happen sooner or later, but it hasn’t happened yet.  But if a technology cannot pay for itself, it is no longer sustainable, so let’s not keep subsidizing such (non)solutions until they are ready.

That includes wonderful projects such as Sun farms in Arizona or the Sahara desert and transporting the power generated there through heavy duty cables to Michigan or France. Technically, anything is already possible, but it’s the economics, stupid.

As long as there are huge stocks of cheap fossil fuels that can be tapped, fuels that also continue work on a cold, cloudy, windless winter day or in the dead of night in Western Europe or the Mid-West, for sure we will not massively switch to solar or wind power. At least for the time being, there is not much that point to that. When countries decide to move for political reasons, it costs them an awful lot of money. Think of the Germans who have now been switching to renewables for four years now have spent already tens if not hundreds of billions of euros. Germany would have been better off if Chancellor Merkel used a small fraction of that for more research on new energy sources and using the remainder to stimulate economic growth rather than saddling Germany with high energy costs.’

How should we describe your position now? You are on the Wikipedia list, “List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming ‘. Are you a ‘ climate denier ‘?

‘Not at all. I have no reason to doubt that carbon dioxide emissions contribute to climate change. But I am proud to call myself a skeptic. And I think it is every scientist’s duty to be a skeptic. One who practices science takes nothing for granted. He is always looking at data to confirm (or not) whether observations track theory and models. The skeptic does not rely on ideologies. Skepticism is an intellectual approach. But few skeptics doubt some influence of greenhouse gases on the climate, or that it is warmer today than a century and a half ago. But they do question its major cause or what fraction of the warming is due to human beings in general, and to greenhouse gases in particular.  They also question the rate of future change from greenhouse gases, what that means to us and how best to react to any challenges.’

In the past, nobody would have asked you this question. Back then you were still in what is called the mainstream today. What made you to move from a Greenpeace sympathizer to become a climate sceptic? ‘ 

‘It started with research into air pollution that I did in the late 1970s when I was the Technical Director for the National Commission on Air Quality that was established by Congress. People were terribly worried about it, and rightly so. When I looked at these studies closely, I noticed, however, that the details were rather problematic. The researchers only had observed data on particulate matter air quality – in those days we were concerned with total suspended particulates or TSPs – in a limited number of spots in a county. Next they had extrapolated those results over the whole county.  But TSP concentrations varied rapidly from spot to spot. When I questioned this methodology, people didn’t seem very interested in the methodological flaws. They knew in advance what the results should be, who were good and who were bad, and who they had to be against.

Over time I started to notice the changing definition of ‘sustainability’. In the 80’s that concept had broad meaning. It encompassed economic development and environmental protection. But along the way the definition of sustainability was fully hijacked by environmental and climate activists. Nowadays you don’t hear them prioritize poverty and hunger, economics and development. Everything takes second place to climate change and the need to reduce CO2. So it’s OK to push biofuels even if it leads to greater hunger and more habitat loss, or have windmills that chop up birds and bats, or make energy expensive even if it postpones the banishment of poverty.’

How eccentric is your position? People who are committed to curb climate change rely on 97 percent of climate scientists who agree that we are heading towards a disaster.

‘To me that is a strange argument. I was schooled by the Jesuits. A teacher used the argument that 40 million Frenchmen believed in the existence of God could 40 million Frenchmen be wrong? I listened to him and considered that the majority of all Germans believed in Hitler. However, that was not a good idea.

Even now, it doesn’t mean anything that 97 percent of a particular occupational group has an opinion about something. Why would those other three percent not be right? In addition, it is a dubious number.

So where does that 97 percent actually come from?  Last spring climate economist Richard Tol looked into the research by Australian PhD student John Cook, who came up with this 97 percent. From Tol’s article –Global warming consensus claim does not stand up– it turns out that Cook has fiddled with it a lot. Even despite the rumblings, Cook’s conclusions aren’t as robust as people make from it. His conclusion is that 97 percent of the scientific articles pointing to ‘any’ role that people play in climate change and not so much on a ‘ decisive ‘ role. In addition, those articles agree about the fact that there is human contribution to climate change, but don’t necessarily proclaim that this will be catastrophic.’

‘You call yourself a climate skeptic. If you don’t confess in the Netherlands that you are a believer in climate changes, including the dramatic changes that come from it, you are not taken seriously anymore. How is it in the United States? 

That’s not different here in the US. But you should not worry about what people think. I often wonder how it is possible that so many people believe the story that climate change is going to turn out to be catastrophic. They never look at the data. Who reads the detailed chapters of the IPCC instead of just the Summaries for Policy Makers, for example? 

We are all social animals. We believe, say and do what everyone believes, says and does. No one likes to place himself outside the group by putting forward critical arguments against a deep and widely shared faith. Partly it’s because we are all exposed to the same ideas, distributed by the press and universities. What’s not really helping either is that climate change generates a lot of money. Scientists, NGOs and companies know that all too well. Governments subsidize something easily that is related to climate change. Of course everyone wants a bit of it. No one wants to raise critical questions. That would kill the goose that lays the golden egg.  But still we have to ask these questions.’

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