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Comment piece on climate change

ES headline: Stand by for hot air on climate change
by Richard D North
Evening Standard,
4 June, 2007

Strapline: One environmentalist says the G8 leaders have few options on global warming

Deep into his farewell tour, Tony Blair said yesterday he hoped that this week’s G8 meeting on the Baltic would produce a “historic breakthrough” on climate change. I doubt it. We can be pretty sure that this generation of politicians will do little to dent our historically enormous demand for cheap energy. They won’t because we the world’s voters don’t really want them to. Neither do the Chinese, whose politics are a bit different but still can’t defy gravity: China has today confirmed that it is putting its economy first.

We are in a period when leaders mostly frame their speeches and policies in such a way as to make electorates feel good while not forcing them much to change how they live. So we will hear much this week about how the problem needs an international solution. Yet whoever bangs this drum, you can be sure that it allows every player to blame various foreigners for inaction. The UK will blame the EU (and vice-versa); the rich world will blame the poor world, and they us. Everyone will blame the US, which will sail on more or less regardless. President Bush is not an obviously attractive politician but he has at least never pretended that his voters want serious action on climate change.

We shouldn’t be fooled by Bush-bashing enthusiasts for the Kyoto Protocol: it aimed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide by just 5.2 per cent on 1990 levels, far too little to matter. It has failed. Son-of-Kyoto — which needs to be in place by 2012, and is the focus of all this year’s climate discussions — is very unlikely to be much more muscular. King Canute is famous for having told his courtiers he couldn’t stop the tide coming in. But Blair, Brown, Cameron and even Chris Huhne, the Lib-Dems’ environment spokesman, can’t do much about the climate. So they can’t do anything about global warming, predicted to push up average temperatures in England by at least two degrees by 2050.

Our leaders can’t stop sea levels from rising, either. And that would be true even if Britain became the leader of quite a big pack of like-minded states, all mildly keen to do something about climate change. It is quite possible that public scepticism about such gesturing over climate change will kick in quite soon. The British have learned not to trust Gordon Brown to be very open with us about anything much. So far, he has mostly used climate change as a tax-raising wheeze.

This is not to deny that there is a problem. It is becoming difficult to avoid the fact that man is doing something to his climate. Martin Durkin is a brilliant film-maker but his recent series for Channel 4, The Great Global Warming Swindle, made his enemies’ case for them. It wasn’t a good account of the science. Where he was right was in pointing out there is by now a large industry — it includes Al Gore, scientists, campaigners, government officials and most of the media — which pretends it knows much more than it actually does. Above all, it pretends that provided we slightly reduce our carbon emissions, we can make a big difference to our climate. This is nonsense.

To be fair to the more extreme commentators — I’m thinking especially of George Monbiot, with his most recent book, Heat — the most honest of them think that only a huge reduction in carbon emissions will do the trick, and they admit that won’t happen. They think the world — not just the UK — needs to make 80-90 per cent reductions in carbon emissions by 2030, at a time when global emissions are very likely to rise very fast. The Government has announced it has a target reduction of 60 per cent by 2050, but even that is unlikely. Its own recent figures show the UK to be emitting more carbon than ever. Huhne suggests that the cuts will have to be far deeper still. But how does he think that’s going to happen?

It may well be that we have already kick-started a climate catastrophe that can’t be stopped. That’s the argument of a new book, The Last Generation, by Fred Pearce, a respectable science journalist who has trawled heavyweight scientific opinion. Even Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientist, and a cheer-leader for doing something about climate change, has admitted that, even if the world works harder at it than anyone thinks we will, we are unlikely to halt some very big and possibly catastrophic effects. Even if average temperatures were to rise by two degrees, it may, for example, make swathes of Africa uncultivable, while parts of the Mediterranean may become almost uninhabitable. If temperatures rise by more than that — some doom-mongers predict up to six degrees — the effects on water shortages, food supplies, migration and peace could be severe.

But these alarming predictions are actually quite soothing. If we’re on the Titanic, and the ship’s already struck the iceberg, why not head for the bar? It may turn out that Mother Nature has many more surprises up her sleeve than the computer models have yet understood. We can already wonder how much the northern hemisphere will mourn some decent summers, and spring coming early brings advantages as well as confusion in the natural world.
There will be winners and losers from all but the most cataclysmic scenarios, and the British may be among the luckier ones. Yet uncertainty bites both ways. The earth has never been in this position before: prediction is all but impossible. And even if climate responds as expected to human reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we can presume that small reductions will give us only small gains — at least in the short term.

It isn’t comfortable to admit we are a greedy and fun-loving species. We like risk, especially when we think either the future or the foreigner will bear the brunt of it. So we need to recognise that ours is not the generation that will save the planet.

Actually, the planet doesn’t need saving, but mankind may. What we do now might be a useful rehearsal for restoring the earth to a condition that is comfortable for brainy bipeds. Some time in the next 100 years we might learn how to be carbon-neutral. It might even become convenient and cheap. But don’t trust anyone who says doing much now is a practical option. When any politician sounds this messianic sensible people are right to roll their eyes.

Richard D North is a fellow at the Institute for Economic Affairs.



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