Thatcher economist de-hypes climate debate

In November economist and former British Lord Chancellor Nigel Lawson in Maggie Thatcher's government rose to give an address at the Centre for Policy Studies in London. What his audience were privileged to experience was nothing less than a rare phenomenon: sheer force of reason in public debate. I adjure anyone concerned about the lack of emphasis on reason in current public debate to read the text of Lawson's address: The Economics and Politics of Climate Change: An Appeal to Reason in full here.  However, for those who struggle to read even eighteen reason-injecting pages....

Lawson's paper addresses the key scientific, economic, political and social issues surrounding climate change - a tall order within the ambit of a single address. First he deals with the "consensus" that persists in claiming that the climate science is "settled". And, adding his voice to others debunking the recent "scaremongering" Stern Report, Lawson cites the ultimate "uncertainty" inherent in our understanding of the "relatively new" and "highly complex science of climatology". For all its great size, says Lawson, the report "adds disappointingly little"..."apart from a battery of essentially spurious statistics based on theoretic models and conjectural worst cases."  

Lawson then goes back to basics. First, is global warming occurring? Second, if so, why? And third, what should be done about it?  As to the first, he cites the Hadley Centre for Climate Change

Noting that carbon dioxide emissions are an important contributor to the build up of greenhouse gases (gases which keep the earth warmer than it would otherwise be) he points out that carbon emissions are "a long way back" behind the major contributor - water vapour, including in cloud form - and that "neither is a pollutant". He confirms the published view of the British Met Office that attributes around 0.3 degrees C out of the 0.5 degrees increase between 1975 and 2000 to man-made sources of greenhouse gases. "But this is highly uncertain, and reputable climate scientists differ sharply over the subject. It is simply not true to say that the science is settled." And he cites the intervention of the Royal Society "to prevent the funding of climate scientists who do not share its alarmist view" as "truly shocking".  He goes on to identify from where our uncertainty ought to derive:

prediction figures as recording "no further global warming since 1998". Pointing out that the earth saw a total 0.7 degree C rise over the whole of the last century he asks why this has happened. Giving an answer alien to some climatologists: "The only honest answer is that we don't know."  Lawson explains, "Conventional wisdom is that the principal reason is the greatly increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere."
  • the science of clouds is " clearly critical" yet it is "one of the least well understood aspects of climate science."
  • the failure to understand "the extent to which urbanization has contributed to the observed warming".
  • The lack of correlation between the steady rise in carbon emissions in the twentieth century and the up and down variations in global mean surface temperatures, for which there is "no adequate explanation", and not least,
  • "the earth's climate has always been subject to natural variation, wholly unrelated to man's activities."
Lawson points out that the work of the UN set-up International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about more about prediction and "not a matter of science at all, but consists of economic forecasting" that "depends on the rate of world economic growth over the next hundred years." In this vein he points out: "The upper part of the IPCC's range of scenarios - a rise of between one and six degrees in global mean temperatures by the end of this century - is "distinctly unconvincing" depending, as it does, on "an implausibly high rate of population growth or an unprecedented growth in energy intensiveness, which in fact been in steady decline for over 50 years".

 "Equally implausible" are the IPCC's estimates of costs, not least on agriculture and food production. "Whatever climate alarmists like to make out, we are confronted with...the probability of very gradual change over a large number of years. And this is something to which it is eminently practicable to adapt." He goes on to give three reasons why "adaptation" is "far and away the most cost-effective approach".

The benefits of adaptation are that it:
  1. deals with existing issues, eg. coastal erosion.
  2. brings benefits regardless of whether the cause is man-made or natural.
  3. addresses the benefits of global warming as well as the costs.
He then derides a principal tenet of conventional alarmist thinking which argues we "need to cut back substantially on carbon dioxide emissions in order to help the world's poor" as "bizarre in the extreme". He asserts that the enormous cost involved can only "diminish significantly the export markets on which the future prosperity of the developing countries at least in part depends...far from helping the poor, it is more likely to harm them." He notes how even the UN admits Kyoto has failed, yet it still "remains the conventional answer to the challenge of global warming. It is hard to imagine a more absurd response."

Turning to the "immense" folly of any attempt to exclude the major developing countries from the Kyoto process, he highlights the case of China. "China alone last year embarked on a programme of building 562 large coal-fired power stations by 2012 - that is, a new coal-fired power station every five days for seven years." He identifies the shocking reality that: "China is adding the equivalent of Britain's entire power-generating capacity each year." And this is without considering the effect of similar development in India and Brazil.

The logic should be plain to all, he asserts: "If carbon dioxide emissions in Europe are reduced only to see them further increased in China, there is no net reduction in global emission at all." In his understated ‘Lordly' tone we can still glean his concern at the current media-induced hysteria: "The extent of ill-informed wishful thinking on this issue is hard to exaggerate."

Lamenting the "regrettable arrogance and intolerance of the Royal Society" he sees that "the uncertainty surrounding the complex issue of climate change is immense and the scope for honest differences of view considerable." And how "in a world of inevitably finite resources" spending large sums to guard against "theoretical danger" would be unjustified, especially as the "evidence that (warming) will accelerate to disastrous levels is, to say the least, unconvincing."

Having pursued the science, economics and politics of climate change, he turns to a fourth social issue. One, he believes, is driving the less-than-scientific and aggressively un-reasoning approach that marks current alarmist intolerance. "It is not difficult to understand...the appeal of the conventional climate change wisdom. Throughout the ages something deep in man's psyche has made him receptive to ‘the end is nigh' apocalyptic warnings."  Lawson believes we, as individuals, "imbued with a sense of guilt and a sense of sin" and he notes how easily we convert this into a sense of "collective guilt and collective sin"   

This in turn spawns a "new religion of Eco-fundamentalism" whose "new priests are scientists (well rewarded with research grants) rather than the clerics of established religions". But this new religion "presents dangers on at least three levels":
  • Governments of Europe pursuing policies fired by anti-Americanism
  • a profound hostility to capitalism and the market economy, and, most dangerous of all,
  • the abandonment of our traditions of reason and tolerance.
The irrationality and intolerance of Eco-fundamentalism, says Lawson, regards the "questioning of its mantras" as "a form of blasphemy."  And he concludes with an apocalyptic vision of his own - and one far more devastating in its consequences than Climate Change: "There is no greater threat to the people of this planet than the retreat from reason we see all around us today."

Climate alarmists are increasingly at the vanguard of Lawson's "retreat from reason". The debate on climate change is, sadly, fast becoming as much about the right to free speech as much a discussion on the issues. As Francisco de Goya once warned: "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters" - a pestilence of national economy-eating Eco-taxes, for instance. 

Peter C Glover has highlighted the failure of the British media to question the climate science "consensus" in this article in British Journalism Review magazine. A free copy of Lord Lawson's lecture (or a copy of the text) The Economics and Politics of Climate Change: An Appeal to Reason can be obtained via can be heard, or a text of the address obtained online here.