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Matthew Sinclair: A Sceptics' Response to Climate Change

Matthew Sinclair, a regular contributor to, has his own blog.

One of the big problems that classical liberal politics faces in the modern era is that liberalism is dead.   Liberalism has been corrupted from a principled position to libertinism; people are all liberals if anyone is going to stop them having fun but most lose interest with issues of economic liberalism like the minimum wage.   At the start of last century the minimum wage was opposed as an infringement upon freedom, nowadays it can only be opposed as a creator of unemployment.   Part of this problem is that if there is a big political issue, like global warming is generally accepted to be, there is an expectation that government do something.  Even if that action is thought highly unlikely to do much good it is "better than nothing".

Sceptics would do well to have a plan of action in mind to propose which might offer a reliable and affordable alternative to costly and ineffective emissions restrictions.   It wouldn't take much to be better than the vague internationalist idealism of the greens but pretty sensible policies can, I believe, be put in place to adapt to the possible consequences of climate change.   It is important to note that the effects in Britain are likely to be minor or even positive, certainly over the next century, and the major pains of global warming are forecast by the pessimists to be felt in the Third World.  Any plan should be drawn up with this in mind.

Detailed work is obviously needed but it is easy to outline initial ideas, some easier to put into practice than others, for how Britain might make a practical contribution to lessening the harm of climate change:

  1. Redirect UK aid money and campaign for EU aid money to be redirected towards defence in areas vulnerable to flooding.   This is a good idea regardless of whether global warming is real as floods in places like Bangladesh have been a serious humanitarian problem for some time.
  2. Fight the precautionary principle for technologies like the genetic modification of crops in order to ensure that technology to mitigate falls in agricultural yields is developed if it's safe.
  3. Encourage a similar differential pricing deal for treatments and any possible vaccine for Malaria as was established for HIV anti-retroviral drugs.   Such agreements can combine incentives for new drug development with access for the Third World if rich countries do not take them as an excuse to free ride.
  4. Help directly in the fight against infectious disease.   In particular, non-agricultural use of DDT should be actively supported.
  5. Make sure that the principle of conditionality is not lost in World Bank reform so that aid can still be used to encourage liberal economic institutions.   Rich countries respond best to climate change and good institutions are the most reliable route to development.

What's important to note about a sceptical response to climate change in comparison to a Kyoto-plus emissions reduction scheme is that even if it turns out that, as a former editor of the New Scientist suggested in the Sunday Times last weekend, the real reason for climate change is solar activity or a miracle cure such as fusion power is devised which allows for a costless emissions curb we will not have been wasting our time and money.   All of the measures listed above are a good idea regardless of global warming as they address existing problems.  None of them rely upon the dreamy internationalism, just as wrong now as in the Cold War, which supposes we can shame others into action by our example.  International agreement to curb climate change is particularly implausible given that if we increase the price of fossil fuels to control emissions we create comparative advantage for other nations in energy intensive industry and make it still more costly for them to concede that advantage.  Without such an agreement all Britain’s attempts to control climate change will do is shift fossil fuel use to other countries.

So far this article has focused upon the British response to climate change but directly or indirectly assisting states with particular problems related to climate change is not the most important role that we can play in ensuring poorer states adapt well to climate change.  While we can help to ease the pressures on states affected by the changing climate it is best that they not have to rely upon our good will and understanding of what they really need; international aid has a mixed to awful record.  As such, it is best if most of the heavy lifting in creating societies able to adapt to a climate change can be done by those states themselves.  Societies unable to deal with pre-existing environmental challenges are the ones most at risk from climate change and these societies are those without sufficient democratic accountability in their government and enough production in their economy.    Just as democracies don’t have famines rich liberal democracies will adapt to climate change. 

If Kyoto-style diplomatic dreams come true we will only succeed in pressuring poor societies into increasing government intervention in economies already overburdened with the heavy, corrupt hand of government.  We might pressure them into decreasing democratic accountability by accepting ‘global governance’ measures to enforce climate change policies and, in so doing, reduce accountability in states with governments already too inclined to blame others rather than confront important issues.  We might contribute to what makes those most in danger so vulnerable to the risks of climate change.   Doing this in the name of the fools gold that is controlling a system as complex as the Earth’s climate would be truly perverse.

As such, while it is necessary for those sceptical of the Kyoto-plus agenda on climate change to propose a positive programme, perhaps along the lines set out earlier in this article, we should also remember our first duty as conservatives:  To resist attempts to undermine the liberal democratic and economic order which can produce states able to adapt to all manner of challenges, including climate change.   The environmentalist demand for global action to tackle carbon emissions may now be a part of the threat to that order.

Also see Reconsidering some of the positive externalities to curbing emissions.


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