| Comment piece on climate
ES headline: Stand by for hot air on climate change
by Richard D North
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 weeks 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 wont
because we the worlds voters dont really want them to.
Neither do the Chinese, whose politics are a bit different but still
cant 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 shouldnt 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 years climate discussions
is very unlikely to be much more muscular. King Canute is famous
for having told his courtiers he couldnt stop the tide coming
in. But Blair, Brown, Cameron and even Chris Huhne, the Lib-Dems
environment spokesman, cant do much about the climate. So
they cant do anything about global warming, predicted to push
up average temperatures in England by at least two degrees by 2050.
Our leaders cant 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 wasnt 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 Im 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 wont 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 thats
going to happen?
It may well be that we have already kick-started a climate catastrophe
that cant be stopped. Thats 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 Governments 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
But these alarming predictions are actually quite soothing. If
were on the Titanic, and the ships 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 isnt 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 doesnt 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 dont 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.