Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Honesty would be a better climate policy
The Times - October 29th 2009

Here is an oddity. Most human progress, in overcoming natural obstacles, say, or curing diseases, has been driven by optimism—the view that if we only try hard enough, or apply enough brainpower, we can solve any problem. Perhaps, to wax philosophical for a moment, such optimism arises from our awareness of mortality: how else to keep ourselves going? So why, when it comes to the environment, do campaigners think that pessimism and fear is the way to drive us on?

                Naturally, some fear or alarm is inherent in defining and acknowledging the size of any problem. But does it really help the cause of climate-change mitigation to tell us that we will all have to be vegetarians soon? Do we really benefit from being told, by the purest greens, that we need to change our whole lifestyles, soon digging allotments and owning our own windmills? Does it, indeed, help to describe the world’s current trajectory as “catastrophic”?

May I suggest, naďve as I am, that honesty might be a better idea? The reason, to borrow a word beloved of environmentalists, is that honesty would be a more sustainable policy, in the face of the facts about the environment and about the Copenhagen climate change conference that is hurtling towards us in December.

For the moment, that event, currently scheduled to last just 11 days and to assemble 20,000 delegates from 192 countries for the task of agreeing on a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is being billed as a unique opportunity, a make-or-break meeting to save the planet for the 21st century and beyond. It cannot possibly rise to that billing, and in fact we should all hope that it doesn’t.

An agreement hammered out or even finalised at such a meeting would be unlikely to be effective or credible. There are plenty of signs of progress in making climate-change mitigation a real, long-term strategy in all the biggest countries—the European Union, Japan, China, even the United States—even if that progress is considered inadequate by the climate lobbyists. But anyway, a multi-century problem, if that is what global warming is (see later—I am not a denier), needs to be solved by a whole series of decisions, initiatives and efforts, not in some sort of big bang. To start by setting acceptable frameworks that can be tightened up repeatedly later makes perfect sense, especially amid a global recession.

 For an honest way to describe the world’s current trajectory, from the point of view both of climate change and of greenhouse-gas emissions, would surely be more like a school report: “improving, but needs to try harder”. A more honest way to describe the trend in global temperatures is “stabilising, but don’t depend on it”. And if honesty is applied to the great bogeyman of a melting of the polar ice-caps it would need, since the recent Catlin Arctic Survey conducted by Pen Hadow and his explorers, to say “the ice got thicker last year, but we’re not sure that improvement will last”.

                Instead, people who point out these “inconvenient truths”, to use the phrase that won a fear-mongering failed American politician a Nobel prize, get demonised. Lord Lawson, who pointed out in his book “An Appeal to Reason” that global temperatures have in fact been stable for the past decade, says he has twice been disinvited from the BBC’s Question Time, presumably because his view on climate change is too reasonable. Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish statistician whose brilliant book “The Sceptical Environmentalist” exposed, by calmly laying out the facts, the falsity of so many claims that we are heading for an apocalypse, is a hate figure for greens the world over.

                By now, this column will have annoyed a lot of people. But annoyance is not the only intention: it is to advocate not just honesty but positive thinking. As Mr Lomborg showed, we have succeeded in making the air much cleaner in developed-country cities and the water more drinkable and supportive of biodiversity in developed-country rivers. Britain, like many developed countries, now has more forest cover than it did a century ago, not less as the deforestation mantra would have it. This is worth noting not to advocate complacency but rather to point out that environmental improvements can be achieved, because they have been in the recent past, without resorting to hair shirts or giving up economic growth.

                This is exactly what the International Energy Agency has just forecast is likely to happen in China. In a section from its annual World Energy Outlook, released early to inform the climate debate, it said that if China carries out its stated programme for energy efficiency and emissions reduction, its annual output of carbon dioxide in 2030 will be about 7 gigatonnes instead of the 11.1 gigatonnes the IEA previously predicted—and not because China is expected somehow to give up getting richer.

                What this shows cut by a third shows is how predictions that cover decades can be hugely influenced by changes in the assumptions fed into them. Of course, there is no guarantee that this forecast will be anywhere near accurate, nor that China will succeed in implementing this programme—but then all the predictions in the climate debate, of economic growth, of energy efficiency, of global temperatures, are highly uncertain. That, in fact, is the nub of our problem, not some inevitable catastrophe.

                What the Chinese forecast, combined with past evidence of successful environmental policy, also suggests, however, is that this task, of dealing with the risks arising from the unfavourable long-term trend in global temperatures, is a matter of mitigation, of adaptation and of technological development. It is not a drastic, all-or-nothing affair. It is an area of public policy and private activity in which changed government regulations and targets will need to be mixed with price signals and technological breakthroughs to produce a successful and adequate change to the world’s trajectory.

                That is a more mundane, long-drawn-out and ultimately less costly process than the catastrophe theorists would prefer us to believe in. But it is more realistic, more honest and more likely to attract widespread public acceptance.


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