"Political correctness is the natural continuum from the party line. What we are seeing once again is a self-appointed group of vigilantes imposing their views on others. It is a heritage of communism, but they don't seem to see this." ~ Doris Lessing (1919- )
My subject this week is the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and specifically Bjorn Lomborg's new book on climate change Cool It. According to Lomborg there are two major problems with Kyoto:
- It is expensive to implement.
- The beneficial impact on the physical consequences of climate change will be limited.
So why is the world so enthusiastic about it?
- Cutting CO2 and our carbon footprints are eye-catching policies which are easy to sell.
- Because the predicted effects of climate change are relatively long term (best predictions forecast it will take more than 90 years for sea levels to rise by 1 foot or 30 cm), the implementation of carbon reduction is not urgent (the world has already coped with the same rise in sea level which occurred over the last 150 years)
- Politicians are taking advantage of this lack of urgency. It is easy to advocate policies which require that little money is spent during their own terms in office, but laying the burden at the feet of their successors.
At the same time, while talking up the importance of climate change and giving the impression that it is being treated as top priority, pressure is taken off spending on other aid priorities.
Global warming deniers
I have been a fan of Bjorn Lomborg ever since I came across his book The Sceptical Environmentalist. I eagerly awaited his new book on global warming and it has certainly not disappointed.
There is a lot of misinformation about. It is dangerous to rely on newspaper reports and I lack the scientific knowledge to make my own judgements. I am, however, suspicious of a scientific establishment that attacks on its opponents for being global-warming-deniers and "flat-earthers" (Al Gore's defence of his exaggerated presentation of his case). Global warming, after all, remains a theory, with much supporting – but circumstantial – evidence.
So why do I trust Lomborg? Firstly, because his first book has weathered the vicious attacks from arch-environmentalists. The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) used information published by Lomborg's critics in the Scientific American magazine to brand his work as "objectively scientifically dishonest". But after a year's study, the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation found the DCSC report to be "dissatisfactory", "deserving [of] criticism" and "emotional." It also found the DCSC's ruling to be "completely void of argumentation" and "an almost totally political verdict."
Right wing American propaganda
Lomborg, a university professor, first became sceptical of environmental claims when he "read a Wired magazine interview with economist Julian Simon claiming that the environment, contrary to common understanding, was getting better, not worse". His instinctive reaction was that this was "right wing, American propaganda". It seemed an ideal class project and he set out, with his top students, to prove Simon wrong. Much to everyone's surprise, they found that most (although not all) of what Simon had said was right.
Lomborg's approach is to re-examine the very same research used by the environmentalist lobby to make their case. He and his students found that data is often used selectively to support a preconceived view, rather than allowing the data to direct them to a conclusion.
Case for carbon reduction
He has used the same approach in preparing his new book about global warming. The book is short and to the point and it exposes the dishonesty of much of the case for carbon reduction as a means for tackling global warming.
My friends scoff at my scepticism at what I see as "environmental correctness" (A subset of political correctness, which I despise). So I was glad to receive my copy of Cool It soon after the High Court in London ruled that "Al Gore's apocalyptic vision" presented in his film An Inconvenient Truth was "politically partisan" and "not an impartial analysis of the science of climate change." This made it even easier for me to accept and support a judgement made by someone whose objectivity I trust.
The argument in a nutshell
Lomborg's argument in a nutshell is:
- It is likely that human activities are contributing to a significant warming of the atmosphere.
- The consequences of the degree of warming predicted by the various scientific models are nothing like as dire as the environmentalist lobby would have us believe; nor is it not imminent
- Some of the worst consequences in human suffering and financial cost have more to do with social change than with the effect of weather (notably, people have moved into zones affected by flooding and extreme weather so the same amount of extreme weather has exacerbated the consequences)
- Global warming has positive as well as negative effects, but only the negative impacts are mentioned in newspaper reports and by environmental lobbyists (e.g. the number of additional casualties caused by hotter summers is far outweighed by the extra people who survive because of warmer winters)
- The money that needs to be spent on CO2 reduction to deflect global warming is huge and will have only a small benefit. (e.g. the consensus of studies show that, for Kyoto to be fully implemented, high fuel taxes would have to be introduced; the benefit achieved would be that a 1 foot rise in sea level, predicted by the end of the century, would be postponed by just 4 years).
- The enormous cost of Kyoto will deflect resources from other programmes which would have a much larger impact and more immediate effect on human welfare (e.g. malaria protection, HIV/AIDs treatment, flood prevention, and R&D on alternative energy).
- Money spent on these alternative programmes would alleviate suffering and release people to become productive individuals creating resources to tackle the effects of Global warming as better strategies and technologies are developed.
So let's put a bit of flesh on the bones. Lomborg starts as he means to go on by exploding the polar bear argument (the claim that global warming will melt the Arctic ice and wipe out a beautiful and unique species by destroying its habitat). This is a great media story with inspiring illustrations of polar bears drifting helplessly on ice floes or swimming to exhaustion. The reality, according to studies by the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, is that the polar bear population has risen from 5000 in the 1960s to 25,000 today. The reason for this increase is hunting control. And only two groups of bears are declining in numbers, both of which live in an area that is becoming colder. Meanwhile, two other groups which are increasing in numbers live in an area that is becoming warmer.
The most studied group of polar bears lives on the coast of Hudson Bay. Its numbers have grown from 500 in 1981 to 1200 in 1987. Since then, numbers have fallen to 940 in 2004, but this is still almost double the number in 1981. The headlines also fail to mention that, of the 300-500 bears that are shot every year, an average of 49 are shot in the area of the Hudson Bay colony. So hunting – not global warming – has the most significant effect on bear numbers.
This example shows how the environmental lobby, aided by the media, short changes the public in the presentation of its case. Tim Higham, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Programme, has been disarmingly frank about this. The official summary of the Programme's 2001 report was changed from a milder draft version ("There has been a discernable human influence on global climate") to a stronger statement ("most observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.") Higham explained this change as follows: "there was no new science, but the scientists wanted to present a clear and strong message to policy makers."
It gets worse. One unnamed scientist is reported to have written to a "fellow believer," proposing that an earlier period of climate warming (known as "the medieval warm period") should be "covered up" from the history in order to avoid undermining the climate-change argument.
There are also numerous examples of how political rhetoric is at odds with reality. For example, in 1997, the British government promised to cut emissions by 10% by 2010; instead emission have increased by 3%.
Having exposed the dishonesty that characterises the case for tackling CO2 emissions through the Kyoto approach, Lomborg argues that there are more effective alternatives:
- Instead of imposing a massive financial burden in both the rich and poor worlds through carbon taxes, cheaper measures such as malaria control would improve the health and welfare of many poor people. They would better placed to implement more cost-effective solutions to the problems of global warming. History has shown that richer countries have a much better track record for tackling environmental damage than poorer ones.
- Discouraging development in vulnerable areas subject to flooding and extreme weather hazards would cut the human and financial costs far more than carbon emission reduction.
One review of Cool It claims that Lomborg is doing the equivalent of describing the tipping point in an experiment where fruit flies are sealed into an airtight container with food but limited air – they breed successfully until the air runs out and they start to die. This critic has been sucked in by the hype. The current predictions by the same scientists that are quoted by the ecology lobby are not dire; the time we have to deal with the problem is relatively long.
We don't need eye-catching but inefficient policies that allow today's politicians to take the glory for their vision and foresight, but leave paying the bill to the next generation. Instead we need more carefully considered strategies that avoid the inappropriate use of resources and we can afford the time to improve our capacity to deal with the problem. In short: more haste less speed.