Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Praise the scientists who deny climate change
Corriere della Sera - June 28th 2007

The essence of science is uncertainty, or so we non-scientists believe. I grew up being taught the principles of Karl Popper, the great Austrian philosopher, who said that something could be considered scientific only if it was capable of being disproved empirically. If you follow Popper, then no science can ever be absolutely certain. Yet today there is one sure way of causing outrage in polite society, especially in Europe, and that is to deny that climate change is a scientific certainty. At the recent G8 summit in Germany the leaders of the rich world said, however, that “the science of climate change has been settled”. Has it, really?

            A small group of brave scientists, statisticians, businessmen and politicians continue to go against the consensus by denying that manmade activity is changing the world’s climate. The right-wing National Post newspaper in Canada has been running a long series of articles by climate deniers. Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, continues to argue that scientists are supporting the global warming hypothesis only because that is the only way they can get research grants. James Inhofe, chairman of the environment committee in America’s Senate, continues to say it is nonsense even though the mood in American politics has shifted on this point. Just this week Ray Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, America’s biggest oil firm, attacked the idea that biofuels or other alternative energies were worth pouring money into.

            We should all thank the sceptics. The time when a consensus becomes unchallenged or even unchallengeable is a dangerous time, when mistaken policies could be followed or, just as likely, then selfish groups become able to exploit the consensus. This does not, however, make the sceptics right, except in the technical, Popperian sense: the science of climate change should not be described as “settled”, because it cannot in fact be certain. It is also true that climate is an incredibly complicated thing, which is very difficult for scientists to understand. So, as the sceptics say, we should retain a great deal of doubt about all of the scientific claims made about future trends in temperature and climate—especially when they consist of projections forward over decades or even centuries.

            This is not, however, a reason to do nothing. We buy insurance against our house catching fire even though we hope, and expect, that it will never happen. We know that we cannot be certain that it will not burn down, and so we pay some money to insure ourselves against this potentially catastrophic consequence, as well as taking precautions such as using non-flammable materials. The right approach to climate change is surely exactly this sort of attitude: scientists tell us that catastrophic changes are possible, but not certain. So we should take out some insurance to try to mitigate these risks, as well as taking some precautions to make the risks less likely to come about.

            The main sort of insurance and precautionary measure that would make sense is, however, precisely the sort that politicians are not currently enthusiastic about: namely, much higher taxes on the use of carbon-based energy, compensated for by reductions in other taxes. Despite all the bold words at the G8 summit from Angela Merkel, Tony Blair and others, we should not really believe that our governments are taking climate change seriously until they bring in taxes that penalize heavily the sort of activities that cause damaging emissions, and so encourage us to shift to less damaging activities.

            If that is done, and if we change the sort of energy we use, how will we feel if in fact we find that the sceptics were right and that climate change was all a mistake, a myth, rather like the so-called “millennium bug” that was going to destroy our computers on January 1st 2000? Just like someone who has bought insurance and still has an unburned house, I don’t think we will mind.


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