Climate change has mutated from a debate into a catechism. With so much at stake, says Fraser Nelson, can we afford to dispense with rational argument?
Last month, 1,000 emails leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. The institution is more important than it sounds: for decades, it has been at the centre of the global warming debate, keeping in touch with the close-knit group of scientists who guard the various projections about global warming. Or, as the emails showed, the lack thereof. ‘The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t,’ said one scientist. Another said: ‘We can have a proper result — but only by including a load of garbage.’
As the world leaders gather in Copenhagen to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto treaty it is unlikely the subject of these emails will be raised. This is not a forum for debate, but for the preaching of gospel. Already the head of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is hinting that the ‘fossil fuel lobby’ is responsible for the leaks — as if this made them any less damaging. They have hardly disproven global warming, but have exposed the way some scientists and academics see themselves on a crusade against the wicked deniers. Hysteria has taken the place of rational debate.
The truth about global warming is that the debate has many levels that can broadly be divided into four categories: 1) that global warming is happening; 2) that mankind is largely responsible; 3) that we are reaching a crunch point; and 4) that only a crash course of carbon reduction can avert it. All too often, the British press report people who believe — or reject — all four parts of this catechism. The debate is thus caricatured: shades of grey are airbrushed out. At The Spectator we do not dispute that global warming is happening, and we think it more likely than not that mankind is contributing to it.
But this leaves plenty of room for robust debate. Namely on what is the most important practical question being raised in Copenhagen next week: what should actually be done? Are there technological solutions worth exploring? Given how most Kyoto signatories promised carbon cuts and delivered the reverse, is there a point on halo-seeking politicians making promises that they are certain to break? And given that a legally binding solution in Copenhagen has already been ruled out, should they bother to meet at all?
The authors in the following pages make other arguments. Bjørn Lomborg, for example, believes that climate change is real and man-made — but fears the solutions being mooted would not address the problem. If we are serious about saving lives, he argues, money is better spent elsewhere.
But if we are serious about saving the planet then why not think of geoengineering? Mankind is ingenious enough to fix problems in the atmosphere, say the authors of Freakonomics, Prof Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. Why is only painful and expensive carbon reduction being considered? Prof Robert Mendelson asks if carbon reduction even makes economic sense. This Yale economist finds a series of wild assumptions in Lord Stern’s famous report which argued to the contrary.
To point this out, as Lord Lawson has done so powerfully, is to invite the normal response from the climate change lobbyists: name-calling and the use of words like ‘denier’. It is precisely this vicious, heretic-hunting, anti-intellectual atmosphere with which Sir Samuel Brittan takes issue; and it’s an attitude that Amanda Baillieu powerfully describes on page VII. What her experience shows is how many people whisper that they agree with her — but they only dare to whisper. It is now far easier to punish journalists for thought crime. As her article shows, the internet — Twitter and Wikipedia etc — has multiplied the tools for intellectual bullying.
It normally falls to The Spectator to throw a rock into the pond of complacency. On global warming, we seek to be the still, small voice of calm. As Maurizio Morabito says on page XIII, the truth about global warming is that our understanding of it is in its infancy. Before we tax the poor out of the sky and off the roads, before we slow the world’s economy in a way that will condemn millions to poverty, we should ask just what all this will achieve. Ask precisely where the doubts are. Because after reading the views of the scientists below, no one can argue that the debate is over.