Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In Denial About Alarmism

One good thing that should come out of the Climategate scandal is a more sober, more open-minded discussion about the causes, consequences and 'cure' for climate change. Though there'll probably be a little more gloating by those traditionally labelled as 'denialists' for a while yet.

But once they've done gloating the task in hand will remain the same: filtering out actual trends in climate from the chaotic and noisy background of weather. Possibly one example of this new rapproachment is The Global Warming Policy Foundation, launched recently. Nigel Lawson is one of the founding figures, and he has been regularly labelled a denialist by those leaning more towards the alarmist wing of the climate debate.

But he is joined by an impressive academic advisory council - including our own Richard Tol. Richard is firmly in the camp of those who worry adverse climate change is happening and will worsen. But he is decidedly against the more alarmist responses proposed by some. As he notes in a recent VoxEU contribution:
At the same time, estimates of the impacts of climate change do not support the often-dramatic language of the media. Estimates suggest that the overall impact of a century of climate change is equivalent to losing up to 2% of income. The impact of a century of climate change is of the same size as a year of economic growth. In the worst case, impacts may be ten times as large. Still, a deep recession wreaks as much havoc in a year as climate change would do in a century. Climate change is therefore not the biggest problem of humankind.
So a proportionate response to a highly uncertain threat is that of a carbon tax - something he has consistently supported. It is important to adopt policies that are themselves adaptive - with some potential for reversal if they prove unnecessary or to have unforeseen and negative consequences. Human society is also adaptable, as Francisco Capella has noted in a more philosophical piece on climate policy:
There is no optimal climate, and conflicts for the climate's determination may arise if humans achieve partial control over it. Even if humans are adapted to the present climate, this does not imply that it would be difficult to adapt to different climates if the changes are not excessive.

... For almost all human problems associated with global warming, the influence of climate on them is usually small if compared with other more important factors that can be more easily and efficiently dealt with. Climate change alarmists seem to ignore relatively simple solutions for the problems they raise. Humans are proactive, they do not passively submit to natural influences, and the avoidance of climate change is not necessarily the best option.
Climate change, like the weather, has always been with us - and always will be. To the extent we better understand our role as a species in influencing change then the better we can respond to it - including mitigating strategies. A more open, more modest approach by those like the East Anglia CRU, who allowed their politics to get in the way of their science, will also help.


  1. There is a need for a more balanced response to climate change, as there is a danger that the more fanatical supporters of the theory will adapt the language of "holocaust-denying" to those who question them - a perversion of language if ever there was one.

    Instead, I suggest we should return to the first principles of the environmentalists, denoted as the 'preventative principle'. This implied that we should act to reduce pollution and environmental degradation even in the absence of proof that it was damaging the earth. This philosophy would enable us to protect natural resources without getting hung-up on concepts of right or wrong. Reducing the protection of an ecosystem we all rely on to a squabble about statistics, is missing the point on a monumental scale.

  2. Pretty much from the outset I shelved the whole Global warming debate as of less urgency than peak oil. Every aspect of what we do today is steeped in oil, more importantly, cheap oil. As it gets more expensive out living standards will have to adapt. Downwards from their current position. This is more likely to happen sooner than the predicted devastation of global warming, making it a more urgent issue, albeit possibly not more important. Time will tell.

  3. @Hugh
    I'm for the precautionary principle up to a point. And the point, I guess, is that we cannot anticipate every risk, and all decision making takes place under conditions of uncertainty about the future. Always has always will. So we should be prudent and ideally choose courses of action than can potentially be reversed. Recognising that not all can be. 'Contingency' - life would be a lot more predictable without it, but probably less liveable as well.



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