From time to time an almost religious fervour surrounds a political idea. A consensus emerges about its importance which relegates to the margins any sensible or open discussion about the issue.
Almost a decade ago the impact of the millennium bug on conventional computer systems was one such idea. All the experts were united – this Y2K problem had all the makings of an economic catastrophe and any commercial organisation reliant upon computer technology needed to invest significant sums to alleviate the potential problem. As we now know, 1 January 2000 came and went and the millennium bug proved a damp squib. No real, lasting harm done. Countless thousands of information technology specialists made a financial killing in the run-up but life went on.
Today a similar almost evangelic fanaticism surrounds the phenomenon known as climate change or global warming.
In fairness, deep concern about the warming of our planet goes back almost two decades. I remember writing an article when I was barely out of university for a political magazine suggesting that the environmental movement had found in global warming a convenient stick with which to beat global capitalism. Unfortunately the subsequent birth of internet search engines meant that my words then were (mis)quoted to imply that I was hostile to all elements of green politics.
The argument I was making in 1990 is similar to the one that I make now – that the loudest voices amongst environmentalists all too frequently have a strong self-interest in perpetuating the idea that the entire issue is ‘settled’ in spite of the fact that as recently as the mid-1970s, the then conventional wisdom was that we were entering a new Ice Age.
Unfortunately once politics becomes part of the mix the chances of a reasoned debate diminish. In 2006 the UK government published the Stern Review (authored by the then head of the Government Economic Service, Sir Nicholas Stern). The erstwhile Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in summarising the document, claimed that ‘We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing a catastrophic tipping point’. This was a bold statement designed to make both a strong media strapline, but also to persuade the public of the urgency for widespread political action if environmental apocalypse were to be avoided. Yet the notion of a ‘tipping point’ in the context of climatology has no scientific basis whatsoever.
In point of fact the political handling of the Stern Report has been eerily similar to that of the so-called dodgy dossier published in September 2002 which formed the basis of this country going to war with Iraq. It was the suggestion at that time that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s holding of weapons of mass destruction (never since proved) was likely to lead to a nuclear holocaust within forty-five minutes.
I am by nature a sceptic. Choice to my mind should be at the very essence of political decision making. Nowhere is that more important than the clear choice that should face an electorate. As a result I am instinctively sceptical about the idea of a ‘political consensus’ developing on any issue. In principle I regard the notion of the ‘debate being over’ as little more than a conspiracy by the political class to disenfranchise the voters. In recent years, the most profound such political consensus has emerged over the religious fervour with which the proponents of global warming theory have dismissed any contrary view.
Even a cursory review of the large body of scientific research and opinion on global warming suggests that the debate on this issue is far from settled. However much the BBC, other media outlets and public grant giving bodies try to convince us that ‘there is no further need for debate’ the apparent scientific consensus on climate change is superficial. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seeks, via computer modelling, to extrapolate temperature changes for centuries to come. As Lord Lawson in his book ‘An Appeal to Reason’ points out, we only have to ask ourselves whether one century ago, “the Edwardians, even if equipped with the most powerful modern computers, would have been able to foresee the massive economic, political and technological changes that have occurred over the past hundred years”. This would be bad enough if the role of the IPCC was simply to predict climatic change, but it has also charged itself with making a range of policy prescriptions (which naturally can take no account of technological and economic uncertainty) on the back of its extrapolations.
Indeed given that only thirty years ago the consensus of expert climate science opinion was that we were entering a new Ice Age, the indisputable evidence of warming has only been apparent over a very short time scale. It is also worth noting that despite the rise in global temperatures that has taken place since the mid-1970s, this warming trend has ground to a halt since the turn of the millennium. Indeed the trend since 1998 (insofar as it is sensible to calculate trends in temperature change in anything less than centuries) has been something of a plateau. Last month one national newspaper reported that a new study suggested that global warming will stop until at least 2015 because of natural variations in the climate. Having studied long-term changes in sea temperatures, it was concluded that natural variations in climate will cancel out the increases apparently caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions and average sea temperatures around North America and Europe are even expected to cool slightly. In this scenario, the IPCC’s predictions of a 0.3°C global average temperature rise would not happen. The article also revealed that the IPCC currently does not include in its models records of such events as the strength of the Gulf Stream and the El Nino cyclical warming event in the Pacific, which are known to have been behind the warmest year ever recorded in 1998.
Climate change alarmists also face another problem. If carbon dioxide emissions are the primary cause of global warming, how given that industrialisation has been a global phenomenon for well over a century, do we explain the global cooling trend that occurred between 1940 and 1975? Similarly, the evidence is that in Antarctica, for example, the overwhelming bulk of that continent has also been getting cooler in recent decades. There is also the tendency in the media to attribute each and every extreme weather phenomenon to global warming and regard it as proof of a need to curb carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover there is (admittedly a minority) scientific view that suggests that the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and warming is in fact the other way round – the rise in global temperatures predates emissions of carbon dioxide.
In truth, the timeline perspective required to make any sensible judgement on changes in global temperatures is one of centuries or even millennia in the past. Certainly to suggest, as the Climate Change Bill does, that there should be a radical overhaul in economic policy on the evidence of temperature trends applying over two or three decades, is the height of folly.
One question that seems to be asked all too rarely in this ‘debate’ is whether a level of global warming is especially undesirable. The truth is that a warmer world does more to alleviate poverty than a colder and poorer planet. As a result we run the risk that the living standards of the most vulnerable and poorest global citizens will be most adversely affected by an aggressive programme of government intervention to reverse the process of industrialisation which has brought such prosperity and wealth to the West over the past two centuries or so.
Naturally the crux of the matter is the need for global agreement. Yet the fact is that there is no prospect on the horizon of a comprehensive international agreement on global warming. Indeed the environmental activists in this country are reminiscent of (and indeed may include similar personnel) the more vocal campaigners in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) during the Cold War. Worse still, the fallacy of unilateral action on climate change is even more fatuous than unilateral nuclear disarmament would have been in the 1970s and 1980s, when the UK was one of the half-dozen nuclear powers.
The fact is that today the United Kingdom boasts 1% of the world’s population and emits approximately 2% of global carbon dioxide. Rapid industrialisation of the two great economic superpowers of the future, India and China, would need to be curbed drastically if there were to be any real international progress on this issue.
China, in particular, is in no mood to play ball. On the one hand, its wily political and business class recognise the need for economic growth in order to maintain political stability. It is every bit as evident to the Chinese ruling class as it is to outside observers that the spoils of globalisation in that vast country are all too unevenly spread. The engine of economic growth is crucial and Chinese political leaders have no intention of seeing this slow down. Moreover, China quite understandably argues that in the past decade or so it has become the workshop to the Western world, producing vast quantities of consumer goods at low cost for export. Understandably, if Western consumers wish to continue avariciously to purchase these goods from the Chinese, it is only proper that under the terms of any global agreement, account should be taken of this international economic contribution.
The notion that the entire carbon emission problem can be solved by the extensive exploitation of biofuels has also recently run into the ground. The potential benefits of transferring crop production into carbon-free fuel at the expense of human consumption has been dispelled by rapidly rising staple food prices in recent months. The prospect of some of the most vulnerable and impoverished citizens being unable to afford their daily bowl of rice as global prices escalate in order to satisfy the West’s carbon targets is one that will understandably not be tolerated by developing world leaders, whatever moral pressure is laid on them to sign global agreements. Biofuels are not the answer.
As to various mechanisms around carbon capture – which has been likened by one commentator as the modern day equivalent of the medieval practice of paying the Church for indulgences – I believe this is likely to be exposed soon as a highly costly scam. Its effect has been the enrichment of a small number of enlightened entrepreneurs who have sought to ‘play the system’ by introducing an array of new schemes. This goes some way to salving the consciences of a few ‘socially aware’ in the developed world, but is unlikely to make anything other than a marginal contribution to the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
One of the more curious aspects of the IPCC’s analysis on global warming is its failure to take account of the capacity of humankind to adapt to changing climatic conditions. Indisputably, there have been substantial temperature changes even during the relatively short time of recorded human history. Humans have shown themselves to be hardier – surviving, adapting and making the best of whatever climatic low ball is thrown at them. Indeed even the most apocalyptic projections for global warming in the twenty first century suggest a temperature change smaller than that which has taken place since the mini Ice Age of the seventeenth century when in winter the River Thames literally froze over in central London.
As a result, trying to assess the cost of climate change in the absence of adaptation is almost meaningless. The insistence of the Stern Review that there must be a drastic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions makes little sense when history shows that we will be able to greatly reduce the adverse consequences of global warming by adaptation in our lifestyles. There is little doubt that even if you buy into the notion of global warming there will be considerable local variation – colder regions in the world will become more hospitable and in such regions agricultural yields are likely to improve markedly. The additional benefit is that market mechanisms, requiring no international treaties or worldwide agreement, will come into play. The adaptation route is less costly and will also appeal to the ever greater number of more democratically inclined and consumeristic global citizens. For them, an increasingly bossy, if well intentioned, world view emerging from developed nations is unlikely to appeal.
In short, the cult of climate change should, in my view, be resisted. Mankind has always been susceptible, even before the modern mass media age, to feel that ‘the end of the world is nigh’. The proponents of climate change guard their passion with almost religious fervour. As I mentioned at the outset, environmentalism became a more common creed at almost exactly the same time as the collapse of communism. This is no coincidence. The discrediting of socialism left a vacuum. Many of those who leapt gleefully onto the green bandwagon did so as a result of their distaste for capitalism, especially at universal and global export, and above all the result of fear and loathing of the United States of America.
Not withstanding the refutable evidence that economic prosperity can more likely be guaranteed by less, rather than more, government interference, the cult of global warming has provided its supporters with the ideal alibi for their instinct to interfere and intervene – namely activity designed to save our planet from the horrors of unfettered capitalism. Notwithstanding the attempts from climate change alarmists to whip up a culture of grievance in the developing world for the inequities of global capitalism, it is the very poorest who stand to lose most if global warming-led regulation is to be adopted. Reversing the gains of global capitalism – and I for one accept that to date the spoils have been too unevenly shared – will be most to the detriment of the less well off in developing countries and those living in the developing world.