25 Jun 2014

Nigel and me: my imaginary conversation with Lord Lawson

Nigel Lawson gave a talk on Climate Change in May 2014. It wound me up. His text is in regular, my response is in italics.

There is something odd about the global warming debate — or the climate change debate, as we are now expected to call it, since global warming has for the time being come to a halt.

Has it really? I don’t think so. At best there is some evidence that the rate of increase is not as fast as was once predicted, but that is not the same as “coming to a halt.”

I have never shied away from controversy, nor — for example, as Chancellor — worried about being unpopular if I believed that what I was saying and doing was in the public interest. But I have never in my life experienced the extremes of personal hostility, vituperation and vilification which I — along with other dissenters, of course — have received for my views on global warming and global warming policies.

Perhaps you should take a look at your closing sentence which says “Global warming orthodoxy is not merely irrational. It is wicked.”  And you refer to the “self-harming collective madness that is climate change orthodoxy.” Is it any wonder that you get a few brickbats back?

For example, according to the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, the global warming dissenters are, without exception, "wilfully ignorant" and in the view of the Prince of Wales we are "headless chickens". Not that "dissenter" is a term they use. We are regularly referred to as "climate change deniers", a phrase deliberately designed to echo "Holocaust denier" — as if questioning present policies and forecasts of the future is equivalent to casting malign doubt about a historical fact.

Ah, but you are not simply questioning policy and forecasts, are you? You are casting malign doubt on scientific consensus. Hence the denier label.

The heir to the throne and the minister are senior public figures, who watch their language. The abuse I received after appearing on the BBC's Today programme last February was far less restrained. Both the BBC and I received an orchestrated barrage of complaints to the effect that it was an outrage that I was allowed to discuss the issue on the programme at all. And even the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons shamefully joined the chorus of those who seek to suppress debate.

Nevertheless, the debate has not been suppressed, has it? It still goes on. And on. And on.

In fact, despite having written a thoroughly documented book about global warming more than five years ago, which happily became something of a bestseller, and having founded a think tank on the subject — the Global Warming Policy Foundation — the following year, and despite frequently being invited on Today to discuss economic issues, this was the first time I had ever been asked to discuss climate change. I strongly suspect it will also be the last time.

The BBC received a well-organised deluge of complaints — some of them, inevitably, from those with a vested interest in renewable energy — accusing me, among other things, of being a geriatric retired politician and not a climate scientist, and so wholly unqualified to discuss the issue.

Maybe they have a point?

Perhaps, in passing, I should address the frequent accusation from those who violently object to any challenge to any aspect of the prevailing climate change doctrine, that the Global Warming Policy Foundation's non-disclosure of the names of our donors is proof that we are a thoroughly sinister organisation and a front for the fossil fuel industry.

Well you have just accused many of your critics of being in hoc to renewable energy vested interests. Can you blame them for thinking you might just be fronting up for the fossil fuel lobby? 

As I have pointed out on a number of occasions, the Foundation's Board of Trustees decided, from the outset, that it would neither solicit nor accept any money from the energy industry or from anyone with a significant interest in the energy industry.

Well then what have you go to hide?

 And to those who are not-regrettably-prepared to accept my word, I would point out that among our trustees are a bishop of the Church of England, a former private secretary to the Queen, and a former head of the Civil Service. Anyone who imagines that we are all engaged in a conspiracy to lie is clearly in an advanced stage of paranoia.

Maybe not to lie, but maybe a conspiracy to sow confusion where there really isn’t any. Is that impossible?

The reason why we do not reveal the names of our donors, who are private citizens of a philanthropic disposition, is in fact pretty obvious. Were we to do so, they, too, would be likely to be subject to the vilification and abuse I mentioned earlier. And that is something which, understandably, they can do without.

That said, I must admit I am strongly tempted to agree that, since I am not a climate scientist, I should from now on remain silent on the subject — on the clear understanding, of course, that everyone else plays by the same rules. No more statements by Ed Davey, or indeed any other politician, including Ed Milliband, Lord Deben and Al Gore. Nothing more from the Prince of Wales, or from Lord Stern. What bliss!

But of course this is not going to happen. Nor should it; for at bottom this is not a scientific issue. 

Isn’t it? Really?

That is to say, the issue is not climate change but climate change alarmism, and the hugely damaging policies that are advocated, and in some cases put in place, in its name. 

So what exactly is climate change alarmism? The conclusion that we might have to do something a little bit different to business as usual? Is building a drainage system for a new housing estate smell alarmism? Is paying for having armed forced defence alarmism? Is funding the NHS health alarmism?

And alarmism is a feature not of the physical world, which is what climate scientists study, but of human behaviour; the province, in other words, of economists, historians, sociologists, psychologists and — dare I say it — politicians.

Many things lie beyond the province of science. That doesn’t make them all alarmist in any way, so why refer to climate change alarmism? (unless of course you smell a conspiracy - but these appear to be only things that happen to you, not that you do to others)

And en passant, the problem for dissenting politicians, and indeed for dissenting climate scientists for that matter, who certainly exist, is that dissent can be career-threatening.

True. If you choose to take up an outlier position and then pontificate about from on high, then it does tend to be a little bit career-threatening. But then it would if you started espousing white racial supremacy or advocating abolition of the age of consent. You pays your money….

 The advantage of being geriatric is that my career is behind me: there is nothing left to threaten.

But to return: the climate changes all the time, in different and unpredictable (certainly unpredicted) ways, and indeed often in different ways in different parts of the world. It always has done and no doubt it always will. 

Yes…. your point being?

The issue is whether that is a cause for alarm — and not just moderate alarm. 

Only if it starts changing very rapidly and beyond the bounds we have grown used to in our 10,000 year civilisation. Which is of course exactly what is beginning to happen now.

According to the alarmists it is the greatest threat facing humankind today: far worse than any of the manifold evils we see around the globe which stem from what Pope called "man's inhumanity to man”.

I don’t think you have to be an alarmist to see that we face an existential threat here.

Climate change alarmism is a belief system, and needs to be evaluated as such.

What does that mean? You can argue that everything is a belief system, including pure science. Big bang theory anyone? Neoliberalism?

There is, indeed, an accepted scientific theory which I do not dispute and which, the alarmists claim, justifies their belief and their alarm. This is the so-called greenhouse effect:

What’s ”so-called” about it? With one hand you give, saying it’s “accepted.” With the other you take away, calling it “so-called.”

the fact that the earth's atmosphere contains so-called greenhouse gases (of which water vapour is overwhelmingly the most important, but carbon dioxide is another) which, in effect, trap some of the heat we receive from the sun and prevent it from bouncing back into space. 

Without the greenhouse effect, the planet would be so cold as to be uninhabitable. But, by burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — we are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus, other things being equal, increasing the earth's temperature.

That is the gist of the “so-called” theory.

But four questions immediately arise, all of which need to be addressed, coolly and rationally.

That would be nice.

First, other things being equal, how much can increased atmospheric CO2 be expected to warm the earth? (This is known to scientists as climate sensitivity, or sometimes the climate sensitivity of carbon.) This is highly uncertain, not least because clouds have an important role to play, and the science of clouds is little understood. Until recently, the majority opinion among climate scientists had been that clouds greatly amplify the basic greenhouse effect. But there is a significant minority, including some of the most eminent climate scientists, who strongly dispute this.

The theory of climate sensitivity was first described in the 1800s. There are hundreds, if not thousands of studies on climate sensitivity and no one can predict for sure how it will exactly work out over what time frame. But whilst some, like Judith Curry, argue that most models over-estimate climate sensitivity, it doesn’t prove they are right. No one in the scientific community argues that it’s not happening at all.

Second, are other things equal, anyway? We know that, over millennia, the temperature of the earth has varied a great deal, long before the arrival of fossil fuels. 

Again, I don’t think anyone disputes this. However, it’s only work undertaken by climate scientists that has uncovered the facts about variable climate in ages past. It doesn’t have any bearing on the current issues of climate sensitivity due to rising CO2 levels.

To take only the past thousand years, a thousand years ago we were benefiting from the so-called medieval warm period, when temperatures are thought to have been at least as warm, if not warmer, than they are today.

Not so sure about this. It appears the MWP only happened In Europe and its doubtful it was as hot as it is now.. But the difference between these hot and cool periods were far less than what we are facing now, and the rate of acceleration we face now is quite unprecedented, even when we look at the coming of ice ages which took thousands of years to happen. What we are doing to the climate now can be measured in decades.

 And during the Baroque era we were grimly suffering the cold of the so-called Little Ice Age, when the Thames frequently froze in winter and substantial ice fairs were held on it, which have been immortalised in contemporary prints.

Yes, we know this. But it just goes to show what a huge impact small fluctuations in climate have. Think how much bigger they will be as we turbo-charge these natural variations with an overdose of CO2. 

Third, even if the earth were to warm, so far from this necessarily being a cause for alarm, does it matter? 

Yes, of course it matters. If the Medieval Warm Period matters, and the Little Ice Age matters, then climate change, by its very nature, matters a whole lot.

It would, after all, be surprising if the planet were on a happy but precarious temperature knife-edge, from which any change in either direction would be a major disaster.

Come off it, Nigel, you are being very silly here.  It’s not the planet that’s at threat, it’s our civilisation which has been developed over the past few thousand years in very benign climactic conditions. Of course the planet will survive an uplift in temperature - it has done in the distant past, as you point out. But whether our civilisation would survive is a different matter.

Would it? In fact, we know that, if there were to be any future warming (and for the reasons already given, "if" is correct) there would be both benefits and what the economists call disbenefits. I shall discuss later where the balance might lie.

And fourth, to the extent that there is a problem, what should we, calmly and rationally, do about it?

We should try and ensure that our climate stays within the parameters that our civilisation has grown up on. It’s that simple.

It is probably best to take the first two questions together.

According to the temperature records kept by the UK Met Office (and other series are much the same), over the past 150 years (that is, from the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution), mean global temperature has increased by a little under a degree centigrade — according to the Met Office, 0.8ºC. This has happened in fits and starts, which are not fully understood. 

Well why would you expect it to be smooth? Climate is an inherently chaotic process. 

To begin with, to the extent that anyone noticed it, it was seen as a welcome and natural recovery from the rigours of the Little Ice Age. But the great bulk of it — 0.5ºC out of the 0.8ºC — occurred during the last quarter of the 20th century. It was then that global warming alarmism was born. 

Alarmism? Or simply awareness?

But since then, and wholly contrary to the expectations of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, who confidently predicted that global warming would not merely continue but would accelerate, given the unprecedented growth of global carbon emissions, as China's coal-based economy has grown by leaps and bounds, there has been no further warming at all. 

Bollocks. You are taking one very hot year (1998) as a starting point and suggesting that the upwards trend has stopped since then. But it’s not true and it never was. 1998 has been surpassed three times already. You are guilty of cherry picking data here.

To be precise, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a deeply flawed body 

Why is it deeply flawed? Because the process by which it is produced is not rigorous enough? Or because you don’t like the conclusions?

whose non-scientist chairman is a committed climate alarmist, reckons that global warming has latterly been occurring at the rate of — wait for it — 0.05ºC per decade, plus or minus 0.1ºC. Their figures, not mine. In other words, the observed rate of warming is less than the margin of error.

And that margin of error, it must be said, is implausibly small. After all, calculating mean global temperature from the records of weather stations and maritime observations around the world, of varying quality, is a pretty heroic task in the first place. Not to mention the fact that there is a considerable difference between daytime and night-time temperatures.

Well spotted! We’ll make a scientist of you yet.

 In any event, to produce a figure accurate to hundredths of a degree is palpably absurd.

Not when you are measuring over decades and can begin to measure trends.

The lessons of the unpredicted 15-year global temperature standstill (or hiatus as the IPCC calls it) are clear. In the first place, the so-called Integrated Assessment Models which the climate science community uses to predict the global temperature increase which is likely to occur over the next 100 years are almost certainly mistaken, in that climate sensitivity is almost certainly significantly less than they once thought, and thus the models exaggerate the likely temperature rise over the next hundred years.

Well that’s what Judith Curry thinks. But then she is a sceptic outlier. Most climate scientists think the rate of change is almost exactly what was predicted thirty of forty years ago and other indicators, like Arctic sea ice have actually changed faster than anticipated. Sea level rise, one key indicator, is happening at an entirely predictable rate. If there is a hiatus, it only shows in average air temperatures, not the many other indicators used to map climate change.

But the need for a rethink does not stop there. As the noted climate scientist Professor Judith Curry, 

Ah, I wondered when you’d bring Judith Curry into it. Note that she is “noted” whereas poor old Raj Pachauri is called an “alarmist”

chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently observed in written testimony to the US Senate:

“Anthropogenic global warming is a proposed theory whose basic mechanism is well understood, but whose magnitude is highly uncertain. The growing evidence that climate models are too sensitive to CO2 has implications for the attribution of late-20th-century warming and projections of 21st-century climate. If the recent warming hiatus is caused by natural variability, then this raises the question as to what extent the warming between 1975 and 2000 can also be explained by natural climate variability.

It is true that most members of the climate science establishment are reluctant to accept this, and argue that the missing heat has for the time being gone into the (very cold) ocean depths, only to be released later. This is, however, highly conjectural. Assessing the mean global temperature of the ocean depths is — unsurprisingly — even less reliable, by a long way, than the surface temperature record. And in any event most scientists reckon that it will take thousands of years for this "missing heat" to be released to the surface.”

Curry’s opinions are to be respected but that doesn’t make her right. Even if she is right, she is not saying that it doesn’t matter. The fact is that a catastrophe is coming and the only real debate is about when it will arrive.

In short, the CO2 effect on the earth's temperature is probably less than was previously thought, and other things — that is, natural variability and possibly solar influences — are relatively more significant than has hitherto been assumed. 

In short, this is also bollocks. To use the train analogy, it’s like we have been tied to the track and there is train approaching. Rather than working out how to stop the train, you are arguing about how fast the train is coming.

But let us assume that the global temperature hiatus does, at some point, come to an end, and a modest degree of global warming resumes. How much does this matter?

The answer must be that it matters very little.

How the hell do you know that? 

 There are plainly both advantages and disadvantages from a warmer temperature, and these will vary from region to region depending to some extent on the existing temperature in the region concerned. 

Well this is something the IPCC looks at. There are a few advantages to higher temperatures, but they are outweighed by disadvantages, and the warmer it gets the worse it gets.

 And it is helpful in this context that the climate scientists believe that the global warming they expect from increased atmospheric CO2 will be greatest in the cold polar regions and least in the warm tropical regions, and will be greater at night than in the day, and greater in winter than in summer. Be that as it may, studies have clearly shown that, overall, the warming that the climate models are now predicting for most of this century (I referred to these models earlier, and will come back to them later) is likely to do more good than harm. 

Which studies are these? Just “studies.” Can we have a reference? I know of no such studies.

This is particularly true in the case of human health, a rather important dimension of wellbeing. It is no accident that, if you look at migration for climate reasons in the world today, it is far easier to find those who choose to move to a warmer climate than those who choose to move to a colder climate. And it is well documented that excessive cold causes far more illnesses and deaths around the world than excessive warmth does.

Me thinks you are missing the point. Or more likely making a completely unrelated one.

The latest (2013-14) IPCC Assessment Report does its best to ramp up the alarmism in a desperate, and almost certainly vain, attempt to scare the governments of the world into concluding a binding global decarbonisation agreement at the crunch UN climate conference due to be held in Paris next year. Yet a careful reading of the report shows that the evidence to justify the alarm simply isn't there.

Careful? Or selective?

On health, for example, it lamely concludes that "the world-wide burden of human ill-health from climate change is relatively small compared with effects of other stressors and is not well quantified" — adding that so far as tropical diseases (which preoccupied earlier IPCC reports) are concerned, "Concerns over large increases in vector-borne diseases such as dengue as a result of rising temperatures are unfounded and unsupported by the scientific literature.”

So because the effects on health are not anticipated to be that big, we can therefore choose to ignore it?

Moreover, the IPCC conspicuously fails to take proper account of what is almost certainly far and away the most important dimension of the health issue. And that is, quite simply, that the biggest health risk in the world today, particularly of course in the developing world, is poverty. 

Here we see your real beef. That dealing with climate change will somehow make us poor. 

We use fossil fuels not because we love them, or because we are in thrall to the multinational oil companies, but simply because they provide far and away the cheapest source of large-scale energy, and will continue to do so, no doubt not forever, but for the foreseeable future. 

Actually most low carbon power sources are near free to run. They do require capital spending to build them but having done that they are then much cheaper to run that the cheapest fossil fuel. Because of this, it’s actually quite hard to compare running an economy on fossil fuels to running one on nuclear and renewables. David Mackay’s 2050 calculator costs various scenarios for future energy supply and there is no clear winner. So just saying that fossil fuels are bound to be cheaper needs to be backed up with some evidence.

And using the cheapest source of energy means achieving the fastest practicable rate of economic development, and thus the fastest elimination of poverty in the developing world. In a nutshell, and on balance, global warming is good for you.

No, what you are saying is that fossil fuels are good for you, a very different proposition.

The IPCC does its best to contest this by claiming that warming is bad for food production: in its own words, "negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts". But not only does it fail to acknowledge that the main negative impact on crop yields has been not climate change but climate change policy, as farmland has been turned over to the production of biofuels rather than food crops. 

Well the IPCC doesn’t suggest that we should use biofuels, That is politics. And many greens would agree with you that biofuels are not a great use of resources. But that has nothing to do with the veracity of global warming. 

It also understates the net benefit for food production from the warming it expects to occur, in two distinct ways. 

In the first place, it explicitly takes no account of any future developments in bio-engineering and genetic modification, which are likely to enable farmers to plant drought-resistant crops designed to thrive at warmer temperatures, should these occur. Second, and equally important, it takes no account whatever of another effect of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and one which is more certain and better documented than the warming effect. Namely, the stimulus to plant growth: what the scientists call the "fertilisation effect". Over the past 30 years or so, the earth has become observably greener, and this has even affected most parts of the Sahel. It is generally agreed that a major contributor to this has been the growth in atmospheric CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels.

All true, but all also stunningly irrelevant. Even if agriculture was a net beneficiary over thirty years, this isn’t a benefit that is going to be indefinite. 

This should not come as a surprise. Biologists have always known that carbon dioxide is essential for plant growth, and of course without plants there would be very little animal life, and no human life, on the planet. 

Of course we know that, but there is no shortage of CO2 in this world and having more of it doesn’t make plants grow quicker. 

The climate alarmists have done their best to obscure this basic scientific truth by insisting on describing carbon emissions as "pollution" — which, whether or not they warm the planet they most certainly are not — and deliberately mislabelling forms of energy which produce these emissions as "dirty". 

A gas doesn’t have to be toxic to become a pollutant. All it requires is for there to be too much of something.

In the same way, they like to label renewable energy as "clean", seemingly oblivious to the fact that by far the largest source of renewable energy in the world today is biomass, and in particular the burning of dung, which is the major source of indoor pollution in the developing world and is reckoned to cause at least a million deaths a year.

It’s a fair point. But then lots of “climate alarmists” don’t support the burning of biofuels.

Compared with the likely benefits to both human health and food production from CO2-induced global warming, the possible disadvantages from, say, a slight increase in either the frequency or the intensity of extreme weather events is very small beer.

You might think so, but then again this could just be your belief system showing through. Personally, my belief system tends towards thinking it maybe very large beer. 

 It is, in fact, still uncertain whether there is any impact on extreme weather events as a result of warming (increased carbon emissions, which have certainly occurred, cannot on their own affect the weather: it is only warming which might). 

This is almost certainly untrue. There has been lots of progress in recent years in measuring the likelihood of extreme weather events and climate change is a critical factor in this. Ask the insurance companies.

The unusual persistence of heavy rainfall over the UK during February, which led to considerable flooding, is believed by the scientists to have been caused by the wayward behaviour of the jetstream; and there is no credible scientific theory that links this behaviour to the fact that the earth's surface is some 0.8ºC warmer than it was 150 years ago.

That has not stopped some climate scientists, such as the publicity-hungry chief scientist at the UK Met Office, Dame Julia Slingo, from telling the media that it is likely that "climate change" (by which they mean warming) is partly to blame. Usually, however, the climate scientists take refuge in the weasel words that any topical extreme weather event, whatever the extreme weather may be, whether the recent UK rainfall or last year's typhoon in the Philippines, "is consistent with what we would expect from climate change". 

What exactly is wrong with these weasel words? All she is saying is that events such as these are becoming more common. Not that they never occurred before. 

So what? It is also consistent with the theory that it is a punishment from the Almighty for our sins (the prevailing explanation of extreme weather events throughout most of human history). But that does not mean that there is the slightest truth in it. 

Only statistics reveal that there is a truth there, just as they revealed a link between smoking and lung cancer years before anyone worked out what that might be happening. Big data - it’s hard to argue against it. Although you do try!

Indeed, it would be helpful if the climate scientists would tell us what weather pattern would not be consistent with the current climate orthodoxy. If they cannot do so, then we would do well to recall the important insight of Karl Popper — that any theory that is incapable of falsification cannot be considered scientific.

Moreover, as the latest IPCC report makes clear, careful studies have shown that, while extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and tropical storms, have always occurred, overall there has been no increase in either their frequency or their severity. 

That’s also complete bollocks. You are arguing against big data.

That may, of course, be because there has so far been very little global warming indeed: the fear is the possible consequences of what is projected to lie ahead of us. And even in climate science, cause has to precede effect: it is impossible for future warming to affect events in the present.

Of course, it doesn't seem like that. Partly because of sensitivity to the climate change doctrine, and partly simply as a result of the explosion of global communications, we are far more aware of extreme weather events around the world than we used to be. And it is perfectly true that many more people are affected by extreme weather events than ever before. But that is simply because of the great growth in world population: there are many more people around. It is also true, as the insurance companies like to point out, that there has been a great increase in the damage caused by extreme weather events. But that is simply because, just as there are more people around, so there is more property around to be damaged. 

The fact remains that the most careful empirical studies show 

which ones would they be, prey?

that, so far at least, there has been no perceptible increase, globally, in either the number or the severity of extreme weather events. And, as a happy coda, these studies also show that, thanks to scientific and material progress, there has been a massive reduction, worldwide, in deaths from extreme weather events.

It is relevant to note at this point that there is an important distinction between science and scientists. I have the greatest respect for science, whose development has transformed the world for the better. But scientists are no better and no worse than anyone else. There are good scientists and there are bad scientists. Many scientists are outstanding people working long hours to produce important results. They must be frustrated that political activists then turn those results into propaganda. Yet they dare not speak out for fear of losing their funding.

So it’s science good but scientists bad. An interesting distinction. But can bad scientists do good science?

Indeed, a case can be made for the proposition that today's climate science establishment is betraying science itself. 

How come?

During the period justly known as the Enlightenment, science achieved the breakthroughs which have so benefited us all by rejecting the claims of authority — which at that time largely meant the authority of the church — and adopting an overarching scepticism, insisting that our understanding of the external world must be based exclusively on observation and empirical investigation.

Is that what constitutes scepticism? I had no idea.

 Yet today all too many climate scientists, in particular in the UK, come close to claiming that they need to be respected as the voice of authority on the subject — the very claim that was once the province of the church.

But isn’t that exactly what Gallilleo was doing? Claiming he was right and the church was wrong. Isn’t that why he got into so much trouble? He told it how it is, using the deductive reasoning that is the bedrock of science. What exactly are today’s climate scientists doing that is so different to Gallileo? They are telling a truth that the neo-liberal establishment (i.e. you) simply don’t want to hear because it interrupts business as usual. What you don’t seem to get here is that it is you who are acting like the 15th century church, not the climate scientists.

If I have been critical of the latest IPCC report, let me add that it is many respects a significant improvement on its predecessors. It explicitly concedes, for example, that "climate change may be beneficial for moderate climate change" — and moderate climate change is all that it expects to see for the rest of this century

I beg your pardon? How did you manage to read that into the latest report?

 — and that "Estimates for the aggregate economic impact of climate change are relatively small . . . For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers." So much for the unique existential planetary threat. 

Again, I think you have been selectively reading certain passages that suit your argument. It’s not what the gist of the report is. Quite the opposite.

What it conspicuously fails to do, however, is to make any assessment of the unequivocally adverse economic impact of the decarbonisation policy it continues to advocate, which (if implemented) would be far worse than any adverse impact from global warming.

You are saying, baldly, that it will cost too much to sort out. But where is your evidence of what these costs will be? Nowhere. And how do you dismiss the argument that the longer you leave this problem, the more expensive it will be to sort out?

Even here, however, the new report concedes for the first time that the most important response to the threat of climate change must be how mankind has always responded, throughout the ages: namely, intelligent adaptation. 

Well what could be a more intelligent way of adapting than weaning ourselves off cheap and cheerless fossil fuels? It may well be a lot cheaper than building 20meter retaining walls around all our coastal cities and repatriating everyone who lives on a coastal flood plain. It is completely disingenuous to distinguish between adaptation and decarbonising energy. It’s like telling a fat person to go on eating too much because they can always get a gastric band fitted sometimes in the future. You, of all people, should see how ludicrous such an argument is.

Indeed, the "impacts" section of the latest report is explicitly entitled "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability". In previous IPCC reports adaptation was scarcely referred to at all, and then only dismissively.

This leads directly to the last of my four questions. To the extent that there is a problem, what should we, calmly and rationally, do about it?

The answer is — or should be — a no-brainer: adapt. I mentioned earlier that a resumption of global warming, should it occur (and of course it might) would bring both benefits and costs. The sensible course is clearly to pocket the benefits while seeking to minimise the costs. And that is all the more so since the costs, should they arise, will not be anything new: they will merely be the slight exacerbation of problems that have always afflicted mankind.

What you are suggesting is “do nothing and hope we can figure out what to do when we are in the shit.” Is that what passes for forward planning in neo-lib circles? Why do you guys bother to pay for armies? The threat they are designed to address may turn out to be no threat at all? And even if Putin does invade Europe, we may well be able to adapt. It would be much cheaper.

Like the weather, for example — whether we are talking about rainfall and flooding (or droughts for that matter) in the UK, or hurricanes and typhoons in the tropics. The weather has always varied, and it always will. There have always been extremes, and there always will be. That being so, it clearly makes sense to make ourselves more resilient and robust in the face of extreme weather events, whether or not there is a slight increase in the frequency or severity of such events.

Isn’t it just possible that the most cost effective form of resilience is abandoning fossil fuels? You present no evidence that adaptation is cheaper than decarbonisation.

This means measures such as flood defences and sea defences, together with water storage to minimise the adverse effects of drought, in the UK; and better storm warnings, the building of levees, and more robust construction in the tropics.

The same is equally true in the field of health. Tropical diseases — and malaria is frequently (if inaccurately) mentioned in this context — are a mortal menace in much of the developing world. It clearly makes sense to seek to eradicate these diseases — and in the case of malaria (which used to be endemic in Europe) we know perfectly well how to do it — whether or not warming might lead to an increase in the incidence of such diseases.

And the same applies to all the other possible adverse consequences of global warming. Moreover, this makes sense whatever the cause of any future warming, whether it is man-made or natural. Happily, too, as economies grow and technology develops, our ability to adapt successfully to any problems which warming may bring steadily increases.

Well  here you are assuming that decarbonisation equates with the end of growth. Again, no one is saying that. It’s just your belief system getting in the way again. It is quite possible that decarbonisation might lead to higher growth, just as war sometimes does.

Yet, astonishingly, this is not the course on which our leaders in the Western world generally, and the UK in particular, have embarked. They have decided that what we must do, at inordinate cost, is prevent the possibility (as they see it) of any further warming by abandoning the use of fossil fuels.

Inordinate eh? How do you know it will be inordinate? Where are your costings? And where do you show that adaptation is cheaper? What you are saying is all gas.

Even if this were attainable — a big "if", which I will discuss later — there is no way in which this could be remotely cost-effective. 

Where is your evidence?

The cost to the world economy of moving from relatively cheap and reliable energy to much more expensive and much less reliable forms of energy-the so-called renewables, 

There is surely nothing “so-called” about renewables. Renewables is exactly what they say they are. So why add it? 

on which we had to rely before we were liberated by the fossil-fuel-driven Industrial Revolution — far exceeds any conceivable benefit.

Again, without data, this is just hot air. You may believe in science but you don’t want to take economics into account. 

It is true that the notorious Stern Review, widely promoted by a British prime minister with something of a messiah complex and an undoubted talent for PR, sought to demonstrate the reverse, and has become a bible for the economically illiterate.

Unlike your good self! At least Stern uses some data to justify his assertions.

But Stern's dodgy economics have been comprehensively demolished by the most distinguished economists on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Not everyone agrees with Stern, for sure. But no one has come up with a more cogent or better argued and referenced alternative. Neo-liberals really don’t like Stern do they? But they haven’t got an alternative costed model.Why? Are they frightened they might not like the results?

So much so, in fact, that Lord Stern himself has been driven to complain that it is all the fault of the integrated assessment models, which — and I quote him — "come close to assuming directly that the impacts and costs will be modest, and close to excluding the possibility of catastrophic outcomes". 

I suggested earlier that these elaborate models are scarcely worth the computer code they are written in, and certainly the divergence between their predictions and empirical observations has become ever wider. 

No one is suggesting that these future economic predictions will be terribly accurate. But that’s no reason for not working on them. It’s like saying there is no point having weather forecasts because they are not reliable. In their absence, what else do we go on?

Nevertheless, it is a bit rich for Stern now to complain about them, when they remain the gospel of the climate science establishment in general and of the IPCC in particular.

But Stern is right in this sense: unless you assume that we may be heading for a CO2-induced planetary catastrophe, for which there is no scientific basis, a policy of decarbonisation cannot possibly make sense.

I beg to differ. We are headed for 4°C temp rise if we do nothing at all. Whilst the outcomes will be uncertain, there is a high chance that this will lead to catastrophe. There is not only a scientific basis for this, but an almost total scientific consensus that the outcome would be very bad for almost all of us.

A similar, if slightly more sophisticated, case for current policies has been put forward by a distinctly better economist than Stern,

now who is being bitchy

 Harvard's Professor Martin Weitzman, in what he likes to call his "dismal theorem". After demolishing Stern's cost-benefit analysis, he concludes that Stern is in fact right but for the wrong reasons. According to Weitzman, this is an area where cost-benefit analysis does not apply. Climate science is highly uncertain, and a catastrophic outcome which might even threaten the continuation of human life on this planet, cannot be entirely ruled out however unlikely it may be. It is therefore incumbent on us to do whatever we can, regardless of cost, to prevent this.

This is an extreme case of what is usually termed "the precautionary principle". I have often thought that the most important use of the precautionary principle is against the precautionary principle itself, since it can all too readily lead to absurd policy prescriptions. In this case, a moment's reflection would remind us that there are a number of possible catastrophes, many of them less unlikely than that caused by runaway warming, and all of them capable of occurring considerably sooner than the catastrophe feared by Weitzman; and there is no way we can afford the cost of unlimited spending to reduce the likelihood of all of them.

In particular, there is the risk that the earth may enter a new ice age.

Oh come off it. Ice ages take thousands of years to form, they don’t just happen over a century or two. The risk at the moment is all about getting warmer, not cooler, and you know it.

 This was the fear expressed by the well-known astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle in his book Ice: The Ultimate Human Catastrophe,

That’ll be the same Fred Hoyle who believed the universe was in a steady state?

 and there are several climate scientists today, particularly in Russia, concerned about this. It would be difficult, to say the least, to devote unlimited sums to both cooling and warming the planet at the same time. 

It is difficult to devote unlimited sums to any project, as no one has unlimited funds. But then no one is suggesting that we can or should.

At the end of the day, this comes down to judgment. Weitzman is clearly entitled to his; but I doubt if it is widely shared; and if the public were aware that it was on this slender basis 

Slender basis?

that the entire case for current policies rested I would be surprised if they would have much support. Rightly so.

But there is another problem. Unlike intelligent adaptation to any warming that might occur, which in any case will mean different things in different regions of the world, and which requires no global agreement, decarbonisation can make no sense whatever in the absence of a global agreement.

Well it all depends. The agreement doesn’t have to be 100% watertight, but if it includes USA, Europe, China and India, then it will go a long way.

 And there is no chance of any meaningful agreement being concluded.

Not with people like you chipping their cynical five pence worth on every available channel

 The very limited Kyoto accord of 1997 has come to an end; and although there is the declared intention of concluding a much more ambitious successor, with a UN-sponsored conference in Paris next year at which it is planned that this should happen, nothing of any significance is remotely likely.

Which seems to delight you

And the reason is clear. For the developing world, the overriding priority is economic growth: improving the living standards of the people, which means among other things making full use of the cheapest available source of energy, fossil fuels.

That is the challenge. Fossil fuels have been the amphetamines for economic growth and the move away from grinding poverty. We have to find a way of doing it without fossil fuels. For sure, it’s a huge challenge but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

The position of China, the largest of all the developing countries and the world's biggest (and fastest growing) emitter of carbon dioxide, is crucial. 

Spot on here, Nigel.

For very good reasons, there is no way that China is going to accept a binding limitation on its emissions. China has an overwhelmingly coal-based energy sector — indeed it has been building new coal-fired power stations at the rate of one a week — and although it is now rapidly developing its substantial indigenous shale gas resources (another fossil fuel), its renewable energy industry, both wind and solar, is essentially for export to the developed world. 

Not so. 

It is true that China is planning to reduce its so-called "carbon intensity" quite substantially by 2020. But there is a world of difference between the sensible objective of using fossil fuels more efficiently, which is what this means, and the foolish policy of abandoning fossil fuels, which it has no intention of doing. China's total carbon emissions are projected to carry on rising — and rising substantially — as its economy grows.

But China is growing increasingly aware of the problem, partly because of the horrible problem it is having with air pollution caused by burning coal. Hundreds of thousands of premature deaths is not good policy. And if any country in the world has the capability of changing its energy policy on a sixpence, it’s China.

This puts into perspective the UK's commitment, under the Climate Change Act, to near-total decarbonisation. The UK accounts for less than 2 per cent of global emissions: indeed, its total emissions are less than the annual increase in China's. Never mind, says Lord Deben, chairman of the government-appointed Climate Change Committee, we are in the business of setting an example to the world.

This sort of argument just sucks. We are so small that we don’t make a difference therefore we shouldn’t bother.

No doubt this sort of thing goes down well at meetings of the faithful, and enables him and them to feel good. But there is little point in setting an example, at great cost, if no one is going to follow it; 

This is called the rush to the bottom, or going to hell in a handcart

and around the world governments are now gradually watering down or even abandoning their decarbonisation ambitions.  Indeed, it is even worse than that. Since the UK has abandoned the idea of having an energy policy in favour of having a decarbonisation policy,

No. It’s energy policy involves decarbonisation. That’s not the same thing as having no energy policy.

 there is a growing risk that, before very long, our generating capacity will be inadequate to meet our energy needs. 

It will be anyway. Our plant is old and knackered and has to be replaced soon. That’s not because of our commitment to lower carbon emissions. 

If so, we shall be setting an example all right: an example of what not to do.

So how is it that much of the Western world, and this country in particular, has succumbed to the self-harming collective madness that is climate change orthodoxy? 

As opposed to the delights of laizzez-faire, unrestricted neo-liberalism?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that climate change orthodoxy has in effect become a substitute religion, attended by all the intolerant zealotry that has so often marred religion in the past, and in some places still does so today.

And you object to be called a “denier”, whilst you call your opponents “self-harming, mad and intolerant zealots”? Pots calling kettles black here, methinks

Throughout the Western world, the two creeds that used to vie for popular support, Christianity and the atheistic belief system of Communism, are each clearly in decline. Yet people still feel the need both for the comfort and for the transcendent values that religion can provide. It is the quasi-religion of green alarmism and global salvationism, of which the climate change dogma is the prime example, which has filled the vacuum, with reasoned questioning of its mantras regarded as little short of sacrilege.

Whereas the quasi-religion of neo-liberalism is alive and well and entirely sensible?

The parallel goes deeper. As I mentioned earlier, throughout the ages the weather has been an important part of the religious narrative. In primitive societies it was customary for extreme weather events to be explained as punishment from the gods for the sins of the people; and there is no shortage of this theme in the Bible, either — particularly, but not exclusively, in the Old Testament. The contemporary version of this is that, as a result of heedless industrialisation within a framework of materialistic capitalism, we have directly (albeit not deliberately) perverted the weather, and will duly receive our comeuppance.

Whereas we all know that materialistic capitalism bathes us all in the anointed waters of wealth and happiness and brings no known problems with it at all. Tell that to the citizens of Beijing with their chronic air pollution now resembling a nuclear winter.

There is another aspect, too, which may account for the appeal of this so-called explanation. Throughout the ages, something deep in man's psyche has made him receptive to apocalyptic warnings that the end of the world is nigh.

Well, let’s face it, it is and it has been ever since Hiroshima. We have the final say on whether life goes on in a timely manner or whether we wreck it all. That doesn’t make us religious zealots or superstitious primitives. It’s just where we are now.

 And almost all of us, whether we like it or not, are imbued with feelings of guilt and a sense of sin. 

It’s nothing to do with guilt or sin. If you drive a car, you have the power to mow down pedestrians and kill lots of people - fact. If you drive a planet, you have the same power. It’s just a question of using this power responsibly.

How much less uncomfortable it is, how much more convenient, to divert attention away from our individual sins and reasons to feel guilty, and to sublimate them in collective guilt and collective sin.

So why exactly did civilisation on Easter Island collapse? Was it a punishment from the Gods? Or plain old ecological mismanagement - they cut down all the trees and suffered the consequences.

Why does this matter? It matters, and matters a great deal, on two quite separate grounds. The first is that it has gone a long way towards ushering in a new age of unreason.


It is a cruel irony that, while it was science which, more than anything else, was able by its great achievements, to establish the age of reason, it is all too many climate scientists and their hangers-on who have become the high priests of a new age of unreason.

It is hard to fathom quite what you are claiming here. Science, logic and reason are all tools of the enlightenment, not excuses to support unbridled exploitation of the world’s resources. Sometimes science finds new ways to extract more produce from the earth — think agriculture and, maybe, fracking — but at other times it advises us to take precautions — vaccination, radiation, tobacco smoking. You seem to be saying that you support science only when it supports your world view, but contest its findings when you don’t like the implications, and seem happy to decry all such scientists as “high priests of a new age of unreason.” How very convenient for you.

But what moves me most is that the policies invoked in its name are grossly immoral. 

Hang on a minute. I don’t think the science invokes any policies. It’s just pointing out that we have a problem and that we would be well advised to take it into account and maybe even try and prevent it from happening. But it’s not selective about what we should do.

We have, in the UK, devised the most blatant transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich — and I am slightly surprised that it is so strongly supported by those who consider themselves to be the tribunes of the people and politically on the Left.

That’s as maybe.  By all means argue for a fairer way of addressing things, or a more right-wing way, or whatever tickles your fancy. But don’t pillory the scientists for pointing out we have a problem.

 I refer to our system of heavily subsidising wealthy landlords to have wind farms on their land, so that the poor can be supplied with one of the most expensive forms of electricity known to man.

Wealthy landowners have been milking farm subsidies for decades. I don’t remember you complaining about that.

This is also, of course, inflicting increasing damage on the British economy, to no useful purpose whatever. More serious morally, because it is on a much larger scale, is the perverse intergenerational transfer of wealth implied by orthodox climate change policies. It is not much in dispute that future generations — those yet unborn — will be far wealthier than those — ourselves, our children, and for many of us our grandchildren — alive today.

Isn’t it? The current generation don’t seem to be enjoying much in the way of increased wealth. But of course ever-increasing wealth is a cornerstone of neo-liberal thinking (which is of course based on science, logic and reason!). No politically driven dogma here!

 This is the inevitable consequence of the projected economic growth which, on a "business as usual" basis, drives the increased carbon emissions which in turn determine the projected future warming. It is surely perverse that those alive today should be told that they must impoverish themselves, by abandoning what is far and away the cheapest source of energy, in order to ensure that those yet to be born, who will in any case be signally better off than they are, will be better off still, by escaping the disadvantages of any warming that might occur. 

Do you really believe this? Is this what it means to be a neo-liberal these days, supping from the bowels of Ayn Rand? Somehow nothing, but nothing, must be allowed to stand in the way of unbridled economic expansion because the fabled future riches we thereby receive will allow us to take on any challenge posed? Which planet are you on? Why don’t you attack pension provision (surely the elderly are a waste of time and space if ever), health care (let the sick die), security services ( when we are rich we will all have private armies). All policies which are ruinously expensive and to what end? Why bother attacking renewable energy subsidies which will never rate more than diddly-squat in the great scheme of things?

However, the greatest immorality of all concerns the masses in the developing world. 

Ah, the hungry poor which Nigel and the neo-libs are going to rescue from poverty with their cunning policies

It is excellent that, in so many parts of the developing world — the so-called emerging economies — economic growth is now firmly on the march, as they belatedly put in place the sort of economic policy framework that brought prosperity to the Western world. Inevitably, they already account for, and will increasingly account for, the lion's share of global carbon emissions.

But, despite their success, there are still hundreds of millions of people in these countries in dire poverty, suffering all the ills that this brings, in terms of malnutrition, preventable disease, and premature death. 

From air pollution possibly?

Asking these countries to abandon the cheapest available sources of energy is, at the very least, asking them to delay the conquest of malnutrition, to perpetuate the incidence of preventable disease, and to increase the numbers of premature deaths.

It really isn’t, is it? It’s asking them to find a way of doing it that doesn’t bugger up the atmosphere, because we’ve discovered that there is a flip side to burning fossil fuel. There are no jobs on a dead planet.

Global warming orthodoxy is not merely irrational. It is wicked.

Neoloiberal orthodoxy, in contrast, is kind and good and thoroughly rational.

This essay is based on the text of a speech given to the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at the University of Bath.

I wonder what they really made of it....


  1. Only if it starts changing very rapidly and beyond the bounds we have grown used to in our 10,000 year civilisation. *Which is of course exactly what is beginning to happen now.*

    Not really, total bollux.

    I buy C02 will warm us a little, everything else is up for debate.

  2. AnonymousJuly 12, 2014

    Unfortunately, from what I hear most climate scientists behind the scenes are even more worried than they are in public. They're not just putting on a public show to ensure that their research funding comes through, assuming for the sake of argument that today's funding is as short-termist and biassed as this.

    I was once given a copy of Lord Lawson's book and thought it would be worth seeing how valid the references were. I started to trace them back through sources, more sources and so on and they seemed to just wither away to nothing. In other words, I think they'd been cherry-picked to make the case Lord Lawson wanted to make and he hoped that not many people would inspect his references too critically.

    Luckily for him, hardly anyone has had the time to do so, certainly not with enough care to publish their results in a refereed journal or a top peoples' paper such as the FT or Economist and say loudly "Lord Lawson, I think you're playing fast and loose with your references. Here's what I found ...".