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Peter Franklin: Rebutting climate change scepticism

Peter Franklin is a Conservative policy advisor, speechwriter and contributor to The Guardian's Comment Is Free.

I’m a great admirer of Ruth Lea. A brave and early critic of Gordon Brown, she stood up to New Labour while the big boys of the business world were still sucking up. And despite her background in the pointy-headed world of Britain’s think-tanks, she communicates her ideas with a clarity that puts most of our elected politicians to shame.

Thus her letter in Wednesday’s Telegraph, in which she advances a highly sceptical line on climate change, is all the more disappointing. But it does, at least, gather up the key themes of the sceptical case in a few short paragraphs. So here they are, with a brief critique of each:

Climate change is always happening

Climate change sceptics are quick to point out that the Earth’s climate is changing all the time. And so it is. But the examples they give invariably fall into one of two categories: ‘major but prehistoric’ and ‘recent but minor’. An example of the latter is the so-called ‘little ice age’ – an era of frost fairs held on the River Thames. But the thing about the little ice age is that it was, well, little. For significant climate change on a global scale you have to go back to the end of the last proper ice age. However, you have to remember that this took place over thousands of years and that the human population of the time was sparse and nomadic. If anything like the same degree of climate change took place now, squeezed into a shorter time frame, then the consequences for civilisation and billions of people would be catastrophic. There is nothing in our history that compares with the scale, spread and speed of what might happen within our lifetimes and those of our children and grandchildren.

There is no scientific consensus on climate change

The validity of this argument would depend on how you define consensus. If you’re using the word as a synonym for unanimity, then there is indeed no consensus on climate change. If on the other hand you’re  using it in the sense of ‘mainstream view’, then there most certainly is a consensus – and an overwhelming one at that.

Recent rises in global temperatures are not significant and in anycase there’s no proof that they’re manmade

Most scientists would dispute this. But the temperature rises seen so far are not the point. What counts are the temperatures we could see as a result of the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Climate change sceptics hate talking about carbon. That’s because there’s no disputing the fact that atmospheric concentrations are rising at a rate unprecendented in human history – just as there’s no disputing the fact that human activity is to blame. Thus mankind faces an awesome decision: just how far can we carry on with this fundamental change to our planetary life support system? In this respect, the sceptics have forfeited all claims to moral seriousness – not because they’ve come up with a different answer to the scientific mainstream, but because they won’t even tackle the question.

People and the planet have adapted before and will do so again

Humankind and human civilisation have never experienced the rise in carbon dioxide levels that we’re seeing now. As Ruth Lea says, the climatic consequences are unpredictable; but that doesn’t mean that they’re improbable. Blithe reassurances that we will somehow ‘adapt’ lack conviction when they come from those who have no intention of planning for a future they don’t believe in. Come to think of it, they won’t even plan for the climate threats they do believe in, as the US authorities demonstrated in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Of course, in the long-term, the planet will adapt – but on a timescale that will provide no comfort to the human victims of climate change.

Some parts of the globe will benefit from climate change

The sceptics, who are so keen to remind us of the uncertainty of climatic factors, are nethertheless willing to forecast sunny spells in Sweden, Siberia and other such places. It seems that even clouds of carbon dioxide have a silver lining. This betrays a remarkably simplistic understanding of the consequences of global warming. The cold does of course make life hard in northerly latitudes. But human societies, like the local flora and fauna, have adapted themselves to these conditions. Rapid climate change will therefore be as disuptive there as anywhere else. For instance, melting permafrost is already causing terrible damage to roads and buildings in Russia, Alaska and Canada. In short, we should never underestimate the economic value of climate stability. If you need convincing just ask the insurance industry.

There’s nothing we can do about it anyway

This is an extraordinary claim. If humanity is supposedly capable of ‘adapting’ to whatever the climate throws at us, then we are certainly capable of taking the measures necessary to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Throughout the industrial world individuals and organisations are demonstrating that it is possible to achieve big cuts in carbon emissions and make money at the same time. Though Ruth Lea accuses the “eco-fundamentalists” of failing to acknowledge the hidden benefits of climate change, the real oversight is on the part of sceptics who fail to acknowledge the side benefits of fighting climate change. Energy efficiency saves on needless expense as well as emissions. Microgeneration technologies break the stranglehold of the anti-competitive energy giants. Renewable power counteracts the destabilising geopolitical influence of fossil and nuclear energy.

Kyoto is doomed to failure

Finally we come to the dear old Kyoto treaty. It seems that the sceptics don’t like the idea of emissions targets for each signatory nation. I wonder, if by the same logic, they think the World Trade Organisation should just allow each signatory nation to cut its tariff barriers as and when it feels like it? Surely, a degree of reciprocity is required both in regard to free trade and carbon abatement. Of course, the WTO has a big advantage in that it is able to enforce trade agreements by penalising infractions. The Kyoto mechanism needs beefing up in much the same way, but instead of this the sceptics want to replace it with something even weaker. This really would doom Kyoto to failure – but that, of course, is exactly what the sceptics are hoping for.


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