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Cartoon: the climate contrarian guide to managing risk

Posted on 4 March 2014 by dana1981, John Cook

Climate change is fundamentally a risk management problem.  Whether or not you agree with the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming, there is an undeniable risk that the consensus is correct and that we're causing dangerously rapid climate change.

Frequently, climate contrarians argue against taking action to mitigate that risk by claiming the uncertainties are too large.  One of the most visible figures to make this argument is climate scientist Judith Curry, who said in 2013,

"I can't say myself that [doing nothing] isn't the best solution."

This argument represents a failure to grasp the principles of basic risk management, as illustrated in the following cartoon.

When it comes to managing risk, uncertainty is not our friend.  Uncertainty means it's possible the outcome will be better than we expect, but it's also possible it will be much worse than we expect.  In fact, continuing with business-as-usual would only be a reasonable option in the absolute best case scenario. 

Doing nothing is betting the farm on a very low probability scenario.  It's an incredibly high-risk path that fails to reduce the threats posed by the worst case or even most likely case scenarios.  This is a concept Judith Curry understood in 2007, when she wrote,

"The rationale for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide is to reduce the risk of the possibility of catastrophic outcomes. Making the transition to cleaner fuels has the added benefit of reducing the impact on public health and ecosystems and improving energy security ... I have yet to see any option that is worse than ignoring the risk of global warming and doing nothing."

Judith Curry of 2007 got it exactly right.  Unfortunately she and her fellow climate contrarians no longer seem to grasp these fundamental principles of risk management.

Failing to mitigate global warming by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is fundamentally equivalent to continuing to smoke cigarettes, driving without a seat belt, or refusing to buy homeowner's insurance.  Each situation represents the failure to take action to reduce the risks of a very dangerous outcome.

Even if you personally have doubts about the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming and the threats it represents, there's a good chance you're wrong.  You may also doubt the medical science consensus that smoking causes lung cancer, but acting on that doubt by continuing to smoke is a risky decision.  The difference is that in the latter case, you're only risking the health of yourself and those in your proximity.  In the case of global warming, you're risking the health of entire ecosystems and future generations.

From a risk management perspective, mitigating the undeniable threat of catastrophic climate change is a no-brainer.  So let's stop delaying and denying and get to it.

The font in this cartoon is Klima, a free typeface for the climate movement by Matthew Anderson. The cartoon is free to be republished with a high rez version available.

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Comments 51 to 77 out of 77:

  1. Tom Curtis @47 and michael sweet @50,

    Fox & Gallant's $60.94/MWh calculation was entirely incremental to the rate increases in Long Term Energy Plan (LTEP) 2010, which already accounted for savings from coal plant shutdowns. By the government's own accounting, electric power prices will rise much more than the 1% promised in 2009.  If you want to dispute the study's findings, you're welcome to take it up with the authors directly. (What does SkS call people who refuse to accept peer-reviewed literature and instead cite sources such as Wikipedia, industry PR sites, and newpaper op-eds?)

    scaddenp@48 and Tom Curtis @49,

    Everything you wrote is nice and all, but none of it is an actual quotation of Curry saying, without qualification, that "We should do nothing about climate change" or "Doing nothing is the best solution". Unless you can produce that, I'm going to continue to argue that her quote in the above cartoon is a misrepresentation.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] You have expressed your opinion about the Curry statement embedded in the cartoon more than once. Please move one. Excessive repetition is a violation of the SkS Comments Policy.

  2. Russ, the contention of the cartoon, is that in the face of uncertainty, Curry is claiming that doing nothing is a valid option. I would find it very hard to read any other meaning into her statements. I dont contend that she has said it is the best solution - I claim that she is contending that it is a valid (ie a logical, reasonable choice). The cartoon is lampooning such a response.

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  3. Russ said... "Fortunately for John Cook, he chose to lampoon a climate scientist who isn't likely to sue him."

    Fortunately, John is responsible enough to not claim that someone is fraudulent in their research when it's clearly known they're not.

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  4. Russ R @51, on the Curry quotation, your response is evasive at best.  Curry has clearly indicated an opinion that we do not currently have enough information to justify any sort of policy response requiring explicit reductions in CO2 emissions, the fact that you are evading.  If you wish to treat that as irrelevant, then it is about time you started quoting Cook accurately.  He does not quote Curry as saying, "We should do nothing about climate change."  Rather he quotes her as saying, "I can't say myself that [doing nothing] isn't the best solution".  Playing bait and switch, as you have been doing, lessens you.

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  5. Russ R.@51,

    If you want to dispute the study's findings, you're welcome to take it up with the authors directly. What does SkS call people who refuse to accept peer-reviewed literature and instead cite sources such as Wikipedia, industry PR sites, and newpaper op-eds?

    (about michael sweet @50)

    I must opine this statement is a gross misrepresentation (followed by unnecessary personal attack), because michael sweet @50 said:

    It is good that you have finally cited data to support one of your positions, even if it is a little out of date. Please link to data to support your other claims

    (my emphasis)

    which is an indication of actual acceptance of "peer-reviewed literature", contrary to your claim. Perhaps his interpretation of the quoted study ("it is a little out of date") is not the same as your interpretation, but such difference does not mean that he "refuses to accept" the study. Rather than trying to personally attack him, it would be more constructive take your detailed knowledge of the study you apparently have, and prove that your interpretation is right, i.e. provide the data that supports your interpretation. But you instead have chosen to do baseless hand-waving "you're welcome to take it up with the authors directly", followed by personal attack. Such argumentation, I can repeat aftrer Tom Curtis above: "lessens you".

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  6. Russ,

    Fox and Gallant chose to do a worst case analysis of renewables.  The cost basis has decreased so much in the past 4 years that ther analysis is no longer valid.  I choose an industry site for costs because it is up to date.  It was the first of dozens of sites that document that wind and solar power have dramaticly decreased in cost and your reference is dated so that it no longer applies. Anyone who is informed on the subject would know this without a reference.

    My Wilipedia reference was to address one of your many unsupported arguments.  Here again, anyone who knows anything about the subject knows that fossil fuels transfer much of their cost from electricity onto general funds through health, fire suppression, general pollution etc.  I added the reference since you are apparently unaware of these basic facts.  While Wikipedia is not peer reviewed, this fact is so basic it does not require much to support the argument.  Since you are upset about me citing Wikipedia, what do you call someone who constantly uses his unsupported word for his arguments?   You have still not supported the bulk of your post here, in spite of your repeated posts since then and your wild claim that you had copius examples.  That is sloganeering and is prohibited at SkS.  The moderators have been lenient with you despite your repeated failures to support your wild claims.

    My op-ed cite was of an expert that you found and showed that your unsupported word that your increases in electricity were due just to renewable energy was incorrect. The increases are due to multiple causes and not just renewable energy.  Once again I have cited an expert and you have your unsupported word.  You have provided no evidence that the bulk of your price rise was due to renewables.  I also provided a clear cut example of savings due to wind energy.  It is too recent an example to get into the peer reviewed data set yet. This is because wind and solar have only in the past two years become useful for solely economic reasons.

    It is very tiresome to constantly post against your unsupported word when you are generally incorrect.  It is rare for you to provide even a single reference.   Since I posted asking you for references, you have made seven posts on this thread and have cited one, outdated, reference.  Then you complain that I do not solely use peer reviewed sources for common knowledge.  Please provide evidence to support your wild claims.

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  7. I concur with Tom Curtis@54, that the article characterises Judith Curry accurately. Especially the double-negation part. JC has been shown many times that she recently abandened the science and just plays the "uncertainty games".

    Russ R.@37 claim:

    Cook and dana1981, [...] are misrepresenting Judith Curry

    (emphasis original)

    is an absurd, given the welth of examples showing her abuse of double-negation. She likes to use the double-negation language and often contradicts herself in the process. On the other hand, I haven't seen any double-negation statements in IPCC. The cartoon's portrayal of JC as double-nagating obfuscator, is very accurate, in-line with the evidence I linked above.

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  8. chriskoz @55, even if Michael Sweet was rejecting the conclusions of Gallant and Fox (2010) (as is likely given his post @56), nothing follows regarding his integrity, nor his compliance with normal SkS standards, despite Russ R's insinuation.  Indeed, the direct response to Russ R's question:

    "What does SkS call people who refuse to accept peer-reviewed literature and instead cite sources such as Wikipedia, industry PR sites, and newpaper op-eds?"

    is that we do not call them anything at all.

    Implicit in the question is an assumption that any peer reviewed article must be accepted uncritically.  That is not Russ R's opinion, of course, but one by which he misrepresents the regulars at SkS in attributing it to us.  Such a standard is automatically contradictory, for many peer reviewed articles contradict each other.

    The SkS standard has, and has always been that you need some very solid, indeed, peer reviewed evidence to reject a consensus within the peer reviewed literature.  

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  9. Russ R, for the record, your statement that you were able to provide "real-world evidence" ("instead of abstract projections") of future costs (i.e. "mitigating global warming") was sufficient to convince me that there was no point in further discussion.

    Your subsequent citation of the Fox & Gallant projections has only confirmed that conclusion.

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  10. All: In a deleted comment, Russ R has stated that he is done posting on this thread.

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  11. Too bad, I had run into some issues downloading the Fox & Gallant paper and only got to reading it late last night. (Although I was just going to echo CBDunkerson, anyway.)

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  12. John Hartz@60,

    "All: In a deleted comment, Russ R has stated that he is done posting on this thread."

    Not quite.  I apologized for violating the SkS Comments Policy as was pointed out in the Moderator's Response @51, and invited you to delete my subsequent comment (a response to scaddenp@52) in which I further violated the excessive repetition policy.  (This was not done intentionally, as I posted the comment before seeing the moderator's response). 

    If however, you're indirectly instructing me to stop posting on this thread, I'll comply.

    I still owe CBDunkerson evidence that various costs of mitigation policies are irrecoverable or are locked in for decades.  (Assuming CBD actually wants it.)

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] From your deleted comment:

    Ultimately, is this a big deal?  Not really.  It's an oversimplified cartoon on a relatively obscure blog.  I don't plan to waste more time on it than I already have.

  13. Thanks for the clarification, Russ R.

    (I should also clarify my comment #61: after reading through Fox & Gallant 2011, I was not going to echo CBDunkerson exactly, since CBDunkerson does not appear to be interested in further engagement with Russ R. Rather, the echo was the point that the Fox & Gallant paper and the other quotes were themselves projections.

    On the specific matter of Ontario power bills, the projections by the Minister, the LTEP, and/or Fox & Gallant could conceivably be corroborated by (a) determining the extent to which Ontario ratepayers' bills have increased since the passage of the Green Energy Act and (b) undertaking attribution analysis to confirm the extent to which such increase is a necessary consequence of the Act - and/or the follow-up LTEP. I attempted a cursory search yesterday without much success.)

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  14. Russ R. - My apologies on missing the change of reference that scaddenp introduced, mea culpa

    I feel that Tom Curtis has a good point about that reference though, in that Curry is speaking of far more than geoengineering. And that her statements there are again representative of Currys tendency to overstate uncertainties, dismiss the knowledge that we have, and advocate for a "do-nothing" approach. All of which really supports the original post cartoon - Curry just doesn't seem to understand risk management, central estimates, or the equal possibilities of best-case and extreme outcomes.

    Curry appears (IMO) to have abandoned science in favor of ideological advocacy, public notoriety, and frequent appearances before congressional committees. Which I really don't understand - I've eaten at several of the House/Senate cafeterias, and believe me the food and coffee there are _not_ a sufficient reward for debasing the science...

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  15. Chriskoz@57 She likes to use the double-negation language

    Just to nitpick, I counted three negations, in the cartoon quote, in eleven words.

    I don't disagree with your main point, though, not eschewing double negation, isn't the worst way of confusing readers.

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  16. "I don't plan to waste more time on it than I already have."

    JH, I think Russ's "it" here means the "oversimplified cartoon", not this "relatively obscure blog."

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Whatever.

  17. Composer 99 @63, the Ontario 2013 LTEP (page 6) states:

    "• The 2013 LTEP cost and price forecasts are lower
    than previously forecast in 2010.
    • Significant ratepayer savings will be realized as a
    result of reduced Feed-in Tariff (FIT) prices, the
    ability to dispatch wind generation, the amended
    Green Energy Investment Agreement, and the
    decision to defer new nuclear."

    Later, they show a graph comparing current projections of the "total cost of the electricity service" to those from the 2010 LTEP (Fig 6, page 15), which shows the 2013 projection reduced from 21.4 to 17.6 Billion, a reduction equivalent to 6.7% per annum compounded over the last three years.  In Fig 7, they then show the changes in the typical forecast residential bill:


    The reduction from a forecast 154 to a forecast 125 dollars per month represents a compounded 7.2% per annum over three years.

    The OCEB is the Ontario Clean Energy Benefit.  The 2010 LTEP shows a forecast price for residential consumption of 800 kWh of $123 without the OCEB ($115.20 with) for 2011.  The 2013 forecast respresents a compounded 6% increase without, and 4.2% with the OCEB.  Those values overstate the real increase, as they are in nominal dollars.  In any event, over the first three years of the plan, prices have increased slower than originally forecast by they 2010 LTEP, let alone by Fox and Gallant.

    Speaking of Fox and Gallant, they quote the 2010 LTEP as saying:

    "Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan (LTEP), announced by the Liberal Party on November 23, 2010, states, 

    'Over the next 20 years, prices for Ontario families and small businesses will be relatively predictable. The consumer rate will increase by about 3.5% annually over the length of the long-term plan. Over the next five years, however, residential electricity prices are expected to rise by about 7.9% annually (or 46% over five years).'"

    Figure 15 (page 60), however, shows a real increase of 61.4% from 2010-2030, ie, an increase at a compounding rate of 2.6% per annum.  The 3.5% quoted is for the nominal rate, and therefore includes inflation.  Because the increase is front loaded, and indeed, because real prices are projected fall in real terms over the last 9 years of the plan, compounded rates do not reflect the overall cost of the transition.

    Finally, on a side note, I questioned Fox and Gallant's costings as not including savings from reduced investment in fossil fuel generation.  Russ challenged that on the basis that those savings had been included in the LTEP.  Perhaps Russ could quote the section of the plan that discusses how those savings were factored in?


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  18. Ouch... I've been crushed.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB]  You are welcome to use the Search function in the upper left portion of every page to find the most appropriate page to place your individual points of discussion on.  Note that comments consisting of simple assertion of a myth already debunked by one of the main articles, and which contain no relevant counter argument or evidence from the peer reviewed literature constitutes trolling rather than genuine discussion. As such they will be deleted. If you think our debunking of one of those myths is in error, you are welcome to discuss that on the relevant thread, provided you give substantial reasons for believing the debunking is in error.  As constructed, your removed comments constitute Gish Gallops and do not merit inclusion in these discussion threads.

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can be rescinded if the posting individual treats adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

  19. Bobki, general slaps-together of standard denial talking points usually get deleted.  Take your strongest point to the appropriate thread (left menu).

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  20. No thanks.

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  21. Bobki52...  Then you can't complain that you were stifled in your discussions. You broke posted rules and your comments were deleted according to policy. You've been politely invited to present your comments in a way that is compliant with policy.

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  22. Tom Curtis@67,

    "Finally, on a side note, I questioned Fox and Gallant's costings as not including savings from reduced investment in fossil fuel generation. Russ challenged that on the basis that those savings had been included in the LTEP. Perhaps Russ could quote the section of the plan that discusses how those savings were factored in?"

    If you look at page 10 of the LTEP2010, it lays out the main drivers of the plan and associated cost estimates:

    "Key features of the plan include:
    • Demand will grow moderately (about 15 per cent) between 2010 and 2030.
    Ontario will be coal-free by 2014
    • The government is committed to clean, reliable nuclear power remaining at approximately 50 per cent of the province’s electricity supply. 
    • Ontario will continue to grow its hydroelectric capacity with a target of
    9,000 MW. 
    • Ontario’s target for clean, renewable energy from wind, solar and bioenergy is 10,700 MW by 2018 ...  (etc...)


    • Residential bills are expected to rise by 3.5 per cent per year over the next 20 years. Industrial prices are expected to rise by 2.7 per cent per year over the next 20 years.
    • The government is proposing an Ontario Clean Energy Benefit to give Ontario families, farms and small businesses a 10 per cent benefit on their electricity bills for five years."

    Not only did they assume "reduced investment in coal fired power plants"; they projected zero future investment in coal-fired plants from 2014 on.

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  23. Bobki, you realize that turning down the opportunity to argue your position makes your position look insecure, yes?

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  24. Russ R @72, if you recall, what I originally indicated @47, and which you challenged, was:

    "Fox & Gallant estimate the costs of transferring to renewables on the assumption that all gross costs of electricity generation are also net costs. That is, they assume that increased investment in renewable energy will not be partly offset by reduced investment in coal fired power plants. That fact alone means that their headline result does not follow from their analysis"

    That should have been straightforward enough for you, but apparently not.

    In simple terms, if Ontario had not embarked on a LTEP to switch to carbon reduced* power generation, costs of electricity to the consumer would still have risen. They would have risen with increased wages due to inflation. Potentially they would have risen due to increased costs of fossil fuels. They would have risen due to increased investment in fossil fuel power stations to meet demand. The real cost of the choice to go to carbon reduced electricity, therefore, is the difference between the cost of that decision, and the cost of the cheapest alternative energy plan that did not take a reduced carbon route, but which similarly increased generation capacity. In economic terms, that approximates to the opportunity cost.

    The LTEP does not itemize that opportunity cost. It does not compare the cost of the LTEP to an alternative, high carbon plan that would have been pursued instead. Consequently referring back to the 2010 LTEP does not account for those opportunity costs. Nor does it show how their adjustments (even if considered legitimate) would effect alter the opportunity cost.

    For what it is worth, the 2013 LTEP indicates that the total cost of coal use was 4.4 billion a year. That is 25% of the 2013 total cost of electricity generation, and 22% of 2030 costs. (These figures underestimate the cost of coal as they compare 2003 nominal values with 2030 nominal values.) Health costs alone could have risen above 3 billion per annum (2005 study cited by 2010 LTEP).

    You introduced Fox and Gallant to show that projected costs of renewable energy programs underestimate actual costs. As has been pointed out, it only showed that one set of projected costs was higher than another. More to the point, it has now been shown that both the 2010 LTEP, and even more so, Fox and Gallant overestimated the increase in costs, at least over the first 3 years of the plan.

    Finally, you, following Fox and Gallant, highlighted the discrepancy between the Geoge Smitherson's statement in parliament and the 2010 LTEP. Neither you nor they, however, have shown whether Smitherson's statement referred to real value, nominal value or oportunity cost. Of the three, the later is the far more likely, and as it would be absurd to promise the LTEP would keep energy rises below the inflation rate, nominal value is extremely unlikely. Yet despite this, you (and they) have been quite happy to compare projected nominal increases to that statement as though they refuted it. For the record, the 2010 projected real increases work out at 2.3% per annum over the 20 years to 2030, not 3.5% quoted by Fox and Gallant. And opportunity cost would have been way below that.

    * not carbon free because they will still use gas power plants.

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  25. Russ R elsewhere, and with apologies to the moderator, you wrote:

    "You're arguing against my response to your argument against my response to CBDunkerson's rebuttal to my lampooning of a cartoon that itself lampoons a contextually questionable quotation of a climate scientist from a radio program six months ago.

    Is it really worth the effort?"

    No! That is the context which sparked the discussion. It is not the basis or the purpose of the discussion.

    The purpose of the discussion, from my POV is that you claim that the costs to switch to carbon free energy sources is large, and invariably understated. You have introduced Ontario as an example of that, but the actual facts with regard to Ontario show that the opportunity cost of switching to carbon reduced (not quite carbon free as there will still be some gas generation) is low, possibly even negative (ie, a positive benefit); and that they were initially overstated in the formal document presenting the plan.

    My question is, are you prepared to acknowledge that fact. Or will you keep evading the fact, thus showing that debating with you is indeed well represented by the cartoon you showed?

    With regard to the moderation, when I have issues with it I take it up with the moderators or John Cook in private.  Regardless of whether or not I was personally offended, however, the moderators need to take a consistent line that avoids behaviour likely to give offense in all contexts, regardless of whether or not it seems innocuos in a particular context.  So, without stating any view as to whether or not I was personally offended, I fully endorse the moderators actions.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Rus R's most recent comment constituted a moderation complaint and was therefore deleted.

  26. Tom Curtis,

    My apologies to both you and the moderators for my earlier inappropriate comment. Please know that it was in no way intended to be either insulting or inflammatory.

    I was going to walk away from this particular debate because I feel that the discussion has dug too deep into the weeds to be relevant to the purpose of the thread, and was no longer worth the time and effort.  Instead, I will continue.

    "...the actual facts with regard to Ontario show that the opportunity cost of switching to carbon reduced (not quite carbon free as there will still be some gas generation) is low, possibly even negative (ie, a positive benefit); and that they were initially overstated in the formal document presenting the plan.  My question is, are you prepared to acknowledge that fact...."

    No, but only because I don't believe that you've presented a convincing case.... yet.  Perhaps you will, and I'm open to that possibility.  If the numbers do support your argument, then I will gladly accept it, and adopt it going forward.

    So before we continue, let's recap, with direct quotations to avoid ambiguity:

    • I argued that the insurance analogy in the cartoon was inappropriate for a few reasons, but the one we're focused on is that "they don't tell you the cost of your premiums in advance".
    • When challenged on this, I offered to provide if requested, "evidence of the public having been misled about the costs of mitigating global warming, only to discover the true costs once the policy was enacted."
    • As requested, I presented Ontario's Green Energy Act as an example showing evidence of what was promised to the public before the law was passed: ("One percent per year, incremental on the cost of a person’s electricity bill, with corresponding capability through investments in conservation for people to lessen their use of electricity").
    • I also presented evidence that after the law was passed the government announced electricity price increases that were materially higher than what was promised: ("The consumer rate will increase by about 3.5% annually over the length of the long-term plan. Over the next five years, however, residential electricity prices are expected to rise by about 7.9% annually (or 46% over five years)."
    • Lastly, I linked to an additional study that argued that estimates underlying the government's announcement omitted a number of costs, which "would raise power bills by 40% above the government’s forecast.".

    Would you agree that the above points accurately summarize my argument prior to your challenge @47?

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  27. Russ @76, that fairly represents your argument.

    For my part I have shown @67 that rises in electricity prices have, and are projected to fall well below the LTEP 2010 estimates, and that ergo Fox and Gallant were in error.  I have also pointed out a clear ambiguity in the statement by Smitherman which neither you nor Fox and Gallant have sought to illucidate, and which both you and Fox and Gallant have disambiguated in the least likely way.

    On that second point, it is difficult to disambiguate without context, so I looked through the Ontario Hansard record of debates.  I was unable to find the statement attributed by Fox and Gallant in the relevant time period.  There were references to a similar statement to the press, however.  Smitherman was questioned on that on March 24th, and responded in part:

    "We anticipate, over three years, from 2010 to 2012, the first approximately $5 billion of incremental investment, and over time, we expect that the Green Energy Act will contribute 1% per year to the growth of electricity costs for Ontarians, with opportunities for them to use less electricity as well."

    That statement makes it crystal clear that opportunity cost is mentioned, not nominal cost.  That is, the growth in electricity costs under the Green Energy Act will be whatever they would have been without the Green Energy Act, plus 1%.  It is clearly not a predicted growth in nominal costs as you and Fox and Gallant implausibly interpret it.  That demonstrates that you, and Fox and Gallant have been making an apples and oranges comparison.  You have been claiming a refutation of a statement about opportunity cost based solely on an analysis of nominal costs.

    Further (and this is a new point), you have not even been making the nominal cost comparison correctly.  As part of the Green Energy Act, measures were taken to reduce consumption of electricity by making energy use more efficient.  That is part of the plan, and the costing of the plan must include those efficiency gains if it is to be valid.  The costs assessed, however, have been for a constant 800 kWh per month bill.  That is, it excludes any savings from improved efficiency of use.

    In the 2010 LTEP, it is estimated that conservation (ie, reduced electricity demand due to more efficient use) will account for 14% of "production".  For a true apples to apples comparison under the plan, therefore, the comparison should be between  800 kWh per month in 2010 vs 690 kWh in 2030, ie, 800 kWh less 14% conservation.  Allowing for this, that yields an incremental real cost of 1.65% per annum for the average household in Ontario.

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