Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Rhetoric and reality on Climate Change

Sitting here shivering at the end of the coldest late November in living memory (well, in this living memory at any rate) it's somewhat surreal to contemplate the assembled panjandrams of the climate alarmism industry sunning themselves in Cancun while delivering apocalyptic pronouncements of the doom that will befall us should a sufficiently draconian regime of carbon control be imposed upon the world. "Global warming? Yes please, I'd like some of that here" sums up, I'm afraid, my present mood.

Of course, we should not expect signs of apparent cooling in some places (or even a "slowing of the rate of warming" globally) to disrupt the accumulated science. Evidence is rarely definitive, and the warmists can always fall back on their theories (as Einstein once said about an observational test of Relativity, if the experiment did not confirm his theory then so bad for the experiment). Data can always be reinterpreted to fit in. And whatever scepticism may exist among sections of the public, most governments - and ours more than most - accept the consensus that the earth's climate is getting warmer, largely as a result of human activity. But still, it's hard to escape the sense that much of the urgency has gone out of the debate. No-one really expects a breakthrough at Cancun.

So where does this leave the advocates of action to forestall global warming? In a state of desperation; for while they have (for now, perhaps for ever) won the scientific battle, the gap between what they see as essential and what is likely to happen is steadily widening. Whatever targets may be agreed by conferences, the world's carbon emissions keep on increasing. It doesn't really matter how many eco-lightbulbs we put in our European homes if China and India keep pumping out the carbon, as of course they will. The most sensible response would be to accept defeat and begin planning to mitigate the effects of global warming when it occurs. The trouble is that neither the scientific establishment nor the political process is yet in a psychological place where they would be able to admit their limitations. Instead they dream their pipe-dreams.

The Royal Society has just published a strikingly downbeat paper by Professor Kevin Anderson (Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research) and Alice Bows of Manchester University which reveals a lot about the warmist scientists' current mood of existential pessimism. It begins by noting the Copenhagen commitment to keep the global temperature rise below 2° Celsius. The Canute-like confidence with which the EU and the British government believe that they can bend the planet to their will is indeed unintentionally hilarious.

The EU maintains it ‘must adopt the necessary domestic measures … to ensure that global average temperature increases do not exceed preindustrial levels by more than 2°C’. Within the UK, the language of many Government statements suggests, if not a zero probability of exceeding 2°C, at least a very low one. For example, in July 2009, the UK Government published its UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, in which it stated explicitly that ‘to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change, average global temperatures must rise no more than 2°C’. The previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, subsequently reiterated this commitment, stating ‘we should limit climate change to a maximum of two degrees’

Anderson and Bows assert, however, not only that the mechanisms now being adopted will fail to achieve this, (they dryly refer to what they term the "pivotal disjuncture between high level aspirations and the policy reality") but also that even such a limited temperature rise would have more seriously disruptive consequences than often envisaged. Most of the paper is taken up with a detailed analysis of how most projections of future temperature rise have failed to take full account of the impact of the accelerating development of China, India, Brazil and other such countries. Anderson and Bows substitute their own, more alarming, projections.

They might, of course, be wrong; time alone will tell. The accuracy or otherwise of their predictions, however, is of no consequence politically: all that matters is whether or not they are believed and whether or not their conclusions are acted upon. The two are by no means the same. Even in countries like the UK where policy is directly informed by the views of climate change scientists Anderson and Bows claim that "the scale of current emissions and their relationship to the cumulative nature of the issue is not adequately understood." But a bit later the authors imply that perhaps it is understood after all.

Put bluntly, while the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions.

Policy makers tacitly concede, write the authors, that "avoiding dangerous (and even extremely dangerous) climate change is no longer compatible with economic prosperity." Governments and their adivisers are interested in what is "feasible", not what would actually solve the problem of climate change. I find this reassuring. The starting point for any new global scheme ought to be an acknowledgement that (if the science is true) it will simply not be possible to limit temperature increase to under 2°C, and we had just better get used to it.

But the authors of this paper cannot bear so much reality. Anderson is reported in the Telegraph as calling for economic stagnation to be imposed on Western countries for a twenty-year period (the paper refers only to "planned austerity") and even for World War II style food and energy rationing to be imposed.

You only have to spell it out to realise that it's not going to happen. We don't, fortunately, live in the kind of centrally-planned, authoritarian state that would be necessary to impose such drastic disciplines. The present government's economic strategy, moreover, is utterly dependent on achieving growth - not to mention its chances of achieving re-election. Imposing a policy of economic suicide on Britain, or even on the whole of Europe, would in any case have very little impact: the developing countries will continue developing whatever we do.

The policy-planners are aware that emissions targets and the like are largely symbolic, even if the economic damage they will do is far greater than any benefits they may bring. They are not actually stupid. They have calculated that the appearance of action on climate change is important for its own sake - rather in the way that medieval kings spent the taxes they extorted from their subjects on building cathedrals or going on crusade. This is gesture politics; the futility of the gesture does not make it any less virtuous. The aim is not to prevent catastrophic global warming, which will happen or not happen in its own good time (and beyond the electoral cycle) and which humanity will cope with, as it has always coped with climatic change. It will bring as many benefits as harms. Rather, the aim is to be seen to be doing something, so that the eventual blame attaches to someone else.

And if the planet doesn't overheat, so much the better. It will vindicate the policies, just as a rainstorm vindicates the shaman's dance.