Discussions about global warming are far from over, and there remains no unanimity on the issue. Indeed, given that there is not even a clear consensus that the planet is warming, most enviro-activists now speak about climate change instead.
This is a good way to hedge your bets: whether the world is getting hotter or colder, it is still changing. But even if there is in fact climate change one must still ask whether it is just a natural, cyclical occurrence, or if it is affected somehow by human activities. What role, if any, does anthropic activity play in general, and man-made carbon emissions play in particular, on climate change?
These are the sorts of questions scientists are trying to answer, and they are far from united in answering them. But the scientific questions are just one important set of questions which must be asked and answered. Obviously 100 per cent unanimity is not required here, but some sort of consensus is needed, and it seems that consensus is not yet present.
Another vital set of questions centres on economic issues. If government action of some sort is required, what will be the economic costs and benefits? Who will pay, who will benefit, who will lose out, and what goods and harms will need to be traded off? Both the economic and the scientific issues will require much careful homework before any precipitous and drastic government action is undertaken.
These two focuses – the scientific and the economic – have both been carefully discussed in some recent opinion pieces. They are worth highlighting here. Some of the scientific issues were thrashed out by David Evans, who for six years worked on carbon accounting and modeling for the Australian Greenhouse Office.
He is one of a number of experts who has had a change of mind over the scientific evidence involved: “When I started that job in 1999 the evidence that carbon emissions caused global warming seemed pretty good: CO2 is a greenhouse gas, the old ice core data, no other suspects. The evidence was not conclusive, but why wait until we were certain when it appeared we needed to act quickly? Soon government and the scientific community were working together and lots of science research jobs were created. We scientists had political support, the ear of government, big budgets, and we felt fairly important and useful (well, I did anyway). It was great. We were working to save the planet.”
However, Evans was willing to follow the evidence where it leads: “But since 1999 new evidence has seriously weakened the case that carbon emissions are the main cause of global warming, and by 2007 the evidence was pretty conclusive that carbon played only a minor role and was not the main cause of the recent global warming. As Lord Keynes famously said, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’”
Evans then presents some of the evidence that we now have. Here are a few of the facts he offers: “There is no evidence to support the idea that carbon emissions cause significant global warming. None. There is plenty of evidence that global warming has occurred, and theory suggests that carbon emissions should raise temperatures (though by how much is hotly disputed) but there are no observations by anyone that implicate carbon emissions as a significant cause of the recent global warming.”
And even the warming appears to have stalled: “The satellites that measure the world’s temperature all say that the warming trend ended in 2001, and that the temperature has dropped about 0.6C in the past year (to the temperature of 1980). Land-based temperature readings are corrupted by the ‘urban heat island’ effect: urban areas encroaching on thermometer stations warm the micro-climate around the thermometer, due to vegetation changes, concrete, cars, houses. Satellite data is the only temperature data we can trust, but it only goes back to 1979. NASA reports only land-based data, and reports a modest warming trend and recent cooling. The other three global temperature records use a mix of satellite and land measurements, or satellite only, and they all show no warming since 2001 and a recent cooling.”
After presenting other facts about global warming, Evans offers this summation: “So far that debate has just consisted of a simple sleight of hand: show evidence of global warming, and while the audience is stunned at the implications, simply assert that it is due to carbon emissions. In the minds of the audience, the evidence that global warming has occurred becomes conflated with the alleged cause, and the audience hasn’t noticed that the cause was merely asserted, not proved.”
And there will be huge economic costs to pay for carbon reduction schemes: “The Labor Government is about to deliberately wreck the economy in order to reduce carbon emissions. . . . The onus should be on those who want to change things to provide evidence for why the changes are necessary. The Australian public is eventually going to have to be told the evidence anyway, so it might as well be told before wrecking the economy.”
Indeed, the economic costs will impact all of us. The Federal Government is warning about sharp rises to the cost of living which we will all have to bear. But as Janet Daley reminds us, the poor will really be the ones to suffer. Writing in the UK Daily Telegraph, she warns that efforts to combat global warming will have a direct – and negative – bearing on poverty relief measures:
“There are two prevailing fashions dominating the political scene, whose aims and effects are in direct contradiction with one another. But that does not prevent virtually all of the political parties in the Western democracies from attempting to embrace both at the same time. They are global warming and the mission to eradicate poverty. What scarcely any leader seems prepared to admit (although they are all coming bang up against the reality of it) is that the objectives and tactics involved in forwarding the cause of preventing global warming are inimical to the cause of fighting poverty on a national and an international level.”
She explains, “There is not just a question of how actual environmental legislation is likely to affect the daily lives of poorer people (making their cars, fuel, home heating and food cost more) but of the apparent disregard for what they would regard as national priorities: when you are jobless and the rising cost of transport makes it inconceivable for you to travel to look for work; when the cost of decent food is climbing out of your reach, and your household energy bills are unaffordable, you are unlikely to see the contentious arguments for long-term climate change as the most urgent item on the political agenda.”
“Who is likely to be hardest hit by higher charges for throwing away large amounts of rubbish or using more water? The young (high-earning) professional who eats in restaurants and sends his laundry out? Or the poorer family with children, who rarely go out, bathe their children every night and use their washing machine every day?”
But it is not just the poor in wealthy countries who will suffer most; the poor nations among the global community will also feel the most pain: “Global warming is a worry that can be indulged by the richer sections of the populations of the richer countries. Never mind Glasgow East, there is a damned good reason why the governments of India and China, whose populations are only just discovering the joys of economic growth and the mass prosperity that it brings, should be unhelpful when their rich, self-regarding counterparts try to drag them into agreements which would trap them in the endemic poverty they have endured for generations.”
Daley concludes, “Green taxes almost always take the form of extra charges which take no account of income – whether it is vehicle excise duty or water metering – and that means that they affect the poor much more than the rich. Special compensation schemes in which the very poor get some relief simply create another poverty trap in which any improvement in earnings means a loss of benefit: the last thing we need in a country already overly dependent on benefits.”
As these two experts rightly remind us, some very hard questions need to be asked about both the science and economics of climate change action. Rushing headlong into drastic action plans before good answers are forthcoming will simply be a recipe for disaster.