I have written before in my review of Bjorn Lomborg’s book about how I am a climate change skeptic. I believe climate change is a huge problem, but I am open to changing my mind presented with an argument against it that makes sense.
Nigel Lawson is not someone I am naturally sympathetic to. I was an environmental science student a the time that he was the UK’s Environment Secretary. I was appalled at the way he ignored the Flower’s report. Shortly after he became chancellor of the exchequer I started my family and I am convinced I had a much rougher time of it thanks to the policies he pursued. Just to be absolutely clear, I am not a supporter of his party but even so I think that there were policies he could have pursued that would have been completely consistent with its philosophy, traditions and mandate that would have been a sight better than what he actually did. I must find a book about his career that I can review and use as a basis for a sustained rant against someone I really don’t like very much.
If I am honest, I read this book primarily with the intention of finding fault with it. But in the event I find myself compelled to praise its clear thinking and careful marshalling of a very strong argument. As you would expect from someone whose main achievements in life were in the field of finance, it is primarily an economic argument. This is quite a strength, because although the science is key to understanding the problem, any solution must make economic sense.
But his lack of scientific knowledge doesn’t stop him having a crack at climate change models. The heavy reliance on mathematical modelling really is the Achilles Heal of the argument in favour of man made global warming. Modelling has a dismal track record, especially when carried out on a global scale. Ask the Club of Rome. It is well known that statistics can be manipulated to prove almost anything by people who understand how statistics work. Modelling is much the same, but without the almost bit. As chance would have it, Lawson would have been doing his research in 2006 and 2007 when despite the models the Earth’s temperature had been stable for half a decade. But he doesn’t overplay his hand here. His critique is measured – the odd people who inhabit internet forums swapping conspiracy theories about global warming will not find a soul mate here.
Like Lomborg, Lawson is quite happy to accept the fact of climate change. His argument is that climate change is going to pan out slowly and that it is quite possible to adapt to it. Indeed he is sure that adaptation is not only possible but will inevitably happen. He admits that there will be losers, but is optimistic that there will be a comparable number of winners. As a believer in the free market I suppose that is what you would expect him to say, but he makes the case strongly.
And it is just as well that he thinks that way, because he sees not the remotest chance of countries actually reducing their carbon emissions. The advanced countries already produce prodigious quantities and can only change that with enormous cost and disruption which they have so far shown not the slightest inclination to do. Developing countries have even more motivation to burn cheap fossil fuels than richer ones. And how, in all conscience, can anyone tell them they shouldn’t when they look at the advantages that the richer countries have got from doing so. As a politician Lawson knows the difficulties of getting agreements across national boundaries, and it would be churlish to ignore this side of his expertise.
So can we adapt to climate change? There are a couple of key points. First humans do seem to be able to thrive in a wide range of temperatures. Lawson highlights Helsinki and Singapore, which both manage to sustain a highly desirable standard of living with more than 20 degrees difference in average temperature between them. It is also the case that the richer you are the easier you find it to adapt. Both points cannot really be argued against.
Lawson accepts the notion that climate change is real, even though he is less convinced of the science behind it than some of us. So the next question is whether the change that is predicted is too large to cope with. He selects the most authoritative prediction – that of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and works through it. He finds that the actual predictions are nowhere near as blood curdling as some media coverage would suggest. Also, the predictions take no account of adaptation. This is a reasonable thing to do in a report of course – which is ultimately intended as a guide for policy making. But it really is inconceivable that as the climate changes humans won’t adapt to that change in the same way that they have to other climate changes throughout history.
So the nub of the argument is that controlling carbon dioxide emissions is too difficult to realistically be achieved, but the consequences for global warming are not so bad. We can adapt to these changes by investing appropriately. There will be some winners and losers, but overall the cost is significant but with economic growth the cost can be met.
The only let down was the last chapter where he chooses to abandon arguing logically and switches to casting doubt on the rationality of the climate change proponents. This is the appeal to reason of the title. He suggests that climate change has replaced religion for many. Environmentalists are drawn to an apocalyptic vision of a world destroyed by calamities brought on by the ignorance of its inhabitants. We can only atone for our sins by confessing the true cause of global warming and making sacrifices. Well there probably are people like that around if you look hard enough for them, but the case for climate change is based on solid enough science. If the conventional wisdom is wrong and does need to be overturned, insulting people is hardly going to help. I am impressed by Nigel Lawson the rational man looking carefully at the evidence with an open mind. In the last chapter we see the partisan politician trying to discredit his opponents. I never liked that side of him and I still don’t.