By Tom Harris
Climate change campaigners took advantage of last week’s tornados in the American mid-west to boost plans to end our society’s use of hydrocarbon fuels.
Alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power are the way to go to avoid dangerous global warming and increasing extreme weather events, they say.
But their advocacy makes no sense, no matter what you believe about the causes of climate change.
Studies show strong to intense tornados in the U.S. have actually decreased markedly over the past 50 years, despite a warming climate. When the period from 1954 to 2003 was analyzed in a 2008 paper published by the American Geophysical Union, it was found the most damaging tornados were about twice as frequent in the first half of the record as in the second half.
The same trend has been observed in Saskatchewan and Alberta where the number of intense tornados per year has generally dropped since 1920.
This is not surprising.
Contrary to the assertions of activists, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events decrease as the planet warms. It is during cooler periods, not warmer ones, that phenomena such as severe tornados rise. Strong to violent tornados in the U.S. actually peaked during the 1970s when concerns about global cooling dominated.
Climate campaigners have things backward for another reason as well. If strong tornados and other extreme weather events were actually on the rise, then they should be boosting the most affordable and reliable energy sources to prepare for and cope with these hazards.
After all, more electricity would be needed to handle greater demands for air conditioning and heating.
More power would be required to irrigate lands, build dikes, strengthen public infrastructure and relocate populations living on flood plains or at risk from tornados and hurricanes.
Yet, in discussing their solutions to these dangers, activists promote wind and solar power, the least reliable and most expensive options available, instead of our most reliable and plentiful conventional energy sources.
Extreme weather events aside, modern industrialized societies need massive quantities of reliable, high-quality power to run steel mills, Internet servers and transportation systems, even when the wind drops or a cloud passes in front of the sun. So it would be foolish to rely on electricity from these intermittent sources.
And, although wind and solar power have had decades to mature, they still cost between three and 10 times the price of electricity from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that even though non-hydroelectric renewable electricity generation received 53.5 per cent of all U.S. federal financial support for the electric power sector for 2010, it produced only 3.6 per cent of all generation.
Moving away from the inexpensive, steady power that hydrocarbon fuels provide because of tornados and other weather extremes is analogous to a ship captain ordering his crew into lifeboats when a severe storm is approaching. It would be suicide to abandon ship exactly when the protection of a sturdy vessel is most needed. It is also suicide to try to provide our base-load energy needs with flimsy sources such as wind and solar power.
Even if there were a human-caused climate crisis happening – and increasing numbers of experts doubt that there is – turning off hydrocarbon fuels in the developed world would have little climatic effect. China, which derives 80 per cent of its electricity from coal, is planning to build 500 coal-fired plants over the next 10 years, easily swamping the impact of changes in the energy sources of developed nations.
The net result of attempts to move away from dependable conventional energy sources in Canada and the U.S. would be mass unemployment and millions of people joining the billions throughout the world already mired in energy poverty.
And severe tornados and other extreme weather will continue to occur as they always have, with the climatic effect of our sacrifice immeasurable in the real world.
Tom Harris is executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition.