I have been meaning to write about climate change for a while now but I have been a bit wary about it. This is because of the complexity of the subject, which raises questions about the nature of science. The scientific method is built on the foundation of debate among scientists, who test a hypothesis, and then submit their results to the scrutiny of other experts in their field. This peer review allows other scientists to examine the data, experiments and the findings. While there are still controversies in some areas it is clear that the vast majority of scientists agree about the fundamental elements of climate change. Of course they could be wrong. When Wenger proposed the theory of plate tectonics he was ridiculed. Now though his theory is widely accepted. And we should be sceptical of some of the more outrageous claims that have been made. For example we have recently seen the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their false claim in a 2007 report that Himalayan glaciers would disappear as early as 2035. This type of scaremongering just gives ammunition to the sceptics. These doom-laden predictions remind me of Thomas Malthus, who argued human population would expand exponentially, while food production could increase only linearly by bringing new land into cultivation. He was wrong. Population growth was checked – people tend to have fewer children as they become richer. Malthus also failed to foresee the developments in agricultural technology, which made land more productive and reduced the pressure on biodiversity. But, although these models may sometimes be flawed, the best scientific consensus does accept anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The idea that so many scientists would be engaged in a conspiracy does strike me as far-fetched
I am sceptical of a lot of environmentalists. though I think there is a pseudo-religious and misanthropic air to many of their pronouncements. Their agenda goes is not just about saving the planet. I heard an interesting thought experiment the other day on the radio. 200 radical environmentalists were told to imagine the following scenario:
Imagine I am the carbon fairy and I wave a magic wand. We can get rid of all the carbon in the atmosphere, take it down to two hundred fifty parts per million and I will ensure with my little magic wand that we do not go above two degrees of global warming. However, by waving my magic wand I will be interfering with the laws of physics not with people – they will be as selfish, they will be as desiring of status. The cars will get bigger, the houses will get bigger, the planes will fly all over the place but there will be no climate change. Would you ask the fairy to wave its magic wand?
About 2 people of the 200 raised their hands.
What are the solutions? Call me a cynic but I have very little faith in political solutions. Nations are not suddenly going to forget their national interests. Political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s description of the Kyoto Agreement is illustrative. Of course The USA didn’t sign up. Perfect! They became the scapegoat for all the world’s environmental ills. 137 countries did sign up – to do nothing! Of the remaining 38 countries the vast majority did not live up the terms of the agreement. Not even Japan, the host nation was able to meet its targets. Countries will only sign an agreement when they have little change to make. The Copenhagen summit also failed to produce a legally binding treaty and ended in mutual recriminations. It’s just so difficult to balance the right of newly industrialising countries, who have until now polluted very little with the most industrialised societies, who have been at it for nearly 300 years.
I probably believe more in techno-fixes but they also bring problems with them. Environmentalists like to pick their science. They agree with scientists about global warming but like to ignore other areas of science. In particular I am thinking of nuclear power and GM foods. They are obviously controversial but I feel that harnessing science is our best option for saving the planet. Nuclear power is necessary to meet our energy demands; I can see no alternative. Even radical environmentalists like George Monbiot are coming round to this view. It is not perfect but life is often about choosing the least bad option. Genetic engineering is the key to crop and land management. We need a new agricultural revolution.
I do believe global warming has taken place and will continue to take place. I think that we will have to live with it. What we really have to is avoid the more catastrophic outcomes. I think that given human creativity and ingenuity there are a lot of possible solutions that, just like in the time of Malthus, we cannot imagine now. We must avoid the temptation to indulge in short-term feel good solutions. It is said that ecology ought to be a compulsory subject for all economists but I feel that economics should be obligatory for economists. We need to carefully analyse the costs and the benefits of any policy. This is our best hope.