Posted 7 July 2010
"Unlike decarbonisaton, which is prohibitively expensive and is not going to happen, adaptation is relatively cheap and will happen. It enables us to pocket the benefits of a warmer climate while reducing the disadvantages. And, perhaps even more important, it forces us to focus on the real problems afflicting mankind." Lord Lawson writing for his old Oxford college, Christ Church.
Lord Nigel Lawson: Adaptation, Not Decarbonisation, Is The Only Way Forward
Christ Church Matters, Trinity Term 2010, Issue 25
It is a truth universally acknowledged that actions speak louder than words. Nowhere is this truer than in global warming policy.
The world’s political leaders are ostensibly agreed that, if the planet is to avoid what is customarily misdescribed as ‘catastrophic climate change’, our economies and lifestyles will have to be decarbonised in short order.
At the same time, the major oil companies are devoting roughly 95 per cent of their massive capital investment spending to future oil and gas supplies, which they would scarcely be doing if they felt the future for oil and gas were in any doubt. And China, while busily building new coalfired power stations at the rate of one a week (it has already overtaken the US as the world number one CO2 emitter), has become the new imperial power in sub-Saharan Africa, using its substantial political and economic muscle to secure control of the raw materials needed for its future growth, in particular African oil and gas reserves.
The Chinese are not stupid. With tens of millions of their people still suffering from acute poverty, and from the dire consequences of poverty such as preventable disease, malnutrition and premature death, it is understandable that their overriding priority is the fastest feasible rate of economic development. And this means, inter alia, using what is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, by far the cheapest available form of energy: carbon-based energy. For India, whose population is set to overtake even that of China, the priority is inevitably the same.
So it was no surprise that last December’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, which was intended to secure a binding global decarbonisation agreement, ended in complete failure. True, there was a Canute-like agreement that the temperature of the planet ought not to be permitted to rise more than 2ºC above the estimated 1850 level. But this was simply a figure plucked from the air, devoid of either scientific basis or the slightest operational significance.
The future, then, is one of steadily rising carbon dioxide emissions leading to steadily increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Does this matter? And, if it does, what will we do about it?
Whether it matters depends partly on how much warmer it is likely to make the planet, and how much harm any warming may do. Both these things are far from clear.
The first is unclear because climate science remains a particularly uncertain science. While CO2 is indeed a greenhouse gas, increasing concentrations of which may be expected to have (other things being equal) a warming effect, scientists disagree about how large that effect may be (this is particularly affected by ignorance of the effect of clouds). And, of course, other things may not be equal: there is much in climate science that remains unknown. Nor can the massive computers now used to provide temperature projections reduce the uncertainty one whit. All they can do is process the data fed into them (much of which, it is generally agreed, is of pretty poor quality) using models based on theories which may or may not be correct.
No doubt that is why, although the models predicted that global warming would accelerate during the first decade of the 21st century, so far this century there has been no recorded global warming at all.
But of course there may be in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up under the auspices of the UN to advise the world’s governments, suggested in its most recent Report that, by the end of this century, the mean global temperature would probably rise to between 1.8ºC and 4ºC above estimated 1850 levels – that is, to between 1.1ºC and 3.3ºC above today’s level.
Would that matter? Hard to say. There are considerable benefits, as well as costs, from a warmer climate. The IPCC has somewhat discredited itself by predicting a number of specific negative impacts which have subsequently been found to be wholly devoid of any scientific or empirical basis. And it was conspicuously reticent about the positive impacts.
Overall, it concluded that it would be in the developing world where the net adverse effects would be greatest, and that, as a consequence, by the end of the century, if nothing was done to stop the warming, living standards in the developing world, instead of being rather more than nine times as high as they are today, would ‘only’ be rather more than eight times as high as they are today.
Unfortunate, but scarcely catastrophic, one might think. Perhaps this is why, in the most thorough opinion survey so far conducted among climate scientists, when they were asked what they considered ‘the most pressing issue facing humanity today’ only 8 per cent answered either ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’.
It is, of course true that the IPCC may have been too optimistic in their developing world growth projections. But it was those growth projections which drove their CO2 projections which in turn determined their temperature projections.
So, what to do, should this warming occur (which it may or may not do)?
The answer is obvious: adapt. This is what mankind has always done, throughout the ages, and what we do today around the world, where temperature varies very considerably between, for example, Finland and Singapore, both of which seem to manage pretty well. And modern technology, which is developing all the time, means that our capacity to adapt is greater than ever before.
Unlike decarbonisaton, which is prohibitively expensive and is not going to happen, adaptation is relatively cheap and will happen. It enables us to pocket the benefits of a warmer climate while reducing the disadvantages. And, perhaps even more important, it forces us to focus on the real problems afflicting mankind. For the harms produced by warming are not new problems, but the possible slight exacerbation of existing problems, such as tropical diseases, droughts, tropical storms, and so on. These are what need to be addressed in any event, warming or no warming.
And this, I am confident, is what we – with one exception – will do. That exception is this country. The UK, alone in the entire world, has enacted climate change legislation obliging us, unilaterally, at very heavy cost, to carry out a programme of rapid and complete decarbonisation. Since we account for less than 2 per cent of global emissions, it can have no relevance whatever to the temperature of the planet. But it is, bizarrely, touted as world leadership: Britain leading the rest of the world by its example.
It is indeed an example to the rest of the world. An example of what not to do.
Nigel Lawson is Chairman of The Global Warming Policy Foundation and author of An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (Duckworth).