One religion is enough

The global warming activists are as misguided as they are alarmist

John Howard

5 November 2013

We are all aware of the climate enthusiasts, who advocate quite substantial, and costly, responses to what they see as irrefutable evidence that the world's climate faces catastrophe. By employing a sanctimonious tone against people who do not share their view, they show their true colours: to them the cause has become a substitute religion. Increasingly offensive language is used. The most egregious example has been the term "denier".

We are all aware of the particular meaning that word has acquired in contemporary parlance. It has been employed in this debate with some malice aforethought. An overriding feature of the debate is the constant attempt to intimidate policy makers, in some cases successfully, with the mantras of "follow the science" and "the science is truly settled".

The purpose is to create the impression that there is really no room for argument; this is not really a public policy issue; it is one on which the experts have spoken, and we would all be quite daft to do other than follow the prescriptions, it is asserted, which flow automatically from the scientific findings.

Writing recently in Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Dr Richard S. Lindzen, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of those with political agendas who found it useful to employ science, "This immediately involves a distortion of science at a very basic level: namely science becomes a source of authority rather than a mode of inquiry. The real utility of science stems from the latter; the political utility stems from the former."

It is a proven technique. It is behind the expression I am sure you have heard that something is "above politics" or "too important to be left to the politicians", with politicians themselves sometimes being the worst culprits of all in advocating that decisions they should make are in fact determined by others. Politicians who bemoan the loss of respect for their calling should remember that every time they allow themselves to be browbeaten by the alleged views of experts they contribute further to that loss of respect.

Scientists are experts in science. Judges are experts in interpreting the law and doctors are skilled at keeping us healthy-provided we take their advice. But parliaments –composed of elected politicians are the experts at public policy making, and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others.

This view of mine is of a piece with my long held judgment that the three great pillars of a democratic society are a vigorous parliamentary system; an incorruptible judiciary, and a free, sceptical media. I have always opposed Bills of Rights, not least because they hand over to unelected judges, decisions which should be made by elected representatives of the people. Laws affecting our daily lives, including sensitive social issues, should never be made other than by politicians. It is their job and their specialty to reflect community attitudes and values on such matters.

Global warming is a quintessential public policy issue. Understanding the science is crucial; so is understanding the economics; so is understanding that as public monies are involved rent seekers are thick on the ground.

According to McKinsey's Global Population Report prepared for the UN in 2012, by the year 2030, in just over 16 years, there will be 2.2 billion more middle class consumers in the world than now, with 1.7 billion of that additional number being in Asia. We are talking here of lifting close to a quarter of the world's population from the tyranny of poverty, through economic growth, in the short space of less than 20 years. It hard to conceive of a more exciting prospect; one that should engage policy makers to ensure that it comes to fruition. Some enthusiasts for radical action on global warming define the whole debate in moral terms. Surely lifting hundreds of millions from poverty should appeal to the moral instincts of us all? If that is so, it should be hard to justify anti-global warming policies ever standing in the way of economic growth in developing countries.

In the past five years, the dynamic of the global warming debate has shifted away from exaggerated acceptance of the worst possible implications of what a majority of climate scientists tell us, towards a more balanced, and questioning approach. There have been a number of reasons for this.

The Global Financial Crisis played a decisive role. To vary, if I may, Irving Kristol's famous phrase, it mugged the debate with a heavy dose of reality. Not only did it force some governments to count the cost of extravagant alternative energy schemes, but because of its impact on world economic activity it slowed the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, thus giving pause to reflect more deeply about the wisdom of some of the decisions which had been taken in the name of saving the planet.

The collapse of the Copenhagen Summit, in December 2009, dealt a heavy blow to the cause of a worldwide agreement on global warming, which is an essential prerequisite to the effective operation of emission trading schemes. Without a pre-Summit understanding between the Americans and the major emitters from amongst developing economies, the failure of that summit was inevitable. Little attempt appeared to have been made by Washington to bring about such an understanding.

It is highly unlikely that a compact of that kind will ever be achieved. Notwithstanding President Obama's strong commitment to cap and trade in his State of the Union address in February of this year, there remains a bipartisan reluctance in the United States to embrace agreements of this kind. The Republicans get the bad press on this, but recall that back in 1998, during the Clinton Presidency, the US Senate voted 95-0 against ratifying the Kyoto Agreement, unless it bound all the major emitters. And that was never going to happen.

Countries like China have watched western industrialised nations achieve the high per capita GDP, to which they now rightly aspire, through energy usages presently condemned as harmful to the environment. They have no intention of denying themselves that energy use, which so manifestly benefitted the west. Their single greatest goal is economic development. Who can question that, as it continues to lift millions of their people from poverty? What right has the already affluent West to deny them this?

The flood of emails coming from the University of East Anglia, the admitted errors regarding the Himalayan Glaciers, as well as the nakedly political agendas of some of those allegedly giving impartial scientific advice have degraded the image of the IPCC as the unchallengeable body of scientific experts on global warming. For example, Otto Edenhoper, Co-Chairman of the IPCC Working Group III, and a lead author of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007, demonstrated his commitment to impartial scientific enquiry with his remarkable statement, "One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore."Revealing his real agenda he has stated: "One must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world's wealth by climate policy."

And the most recent IPCC Report has produced a grudging admission that the warming process has been at a standstill for the past 15 years. But we are assured that is only temporary.

Importantly, as always, technology has altered the parameters of the debate. The extraction of oil and gas from shale has had a huge impact on the US energy scene. Gas is cheaper than coal, and natural gas emits 45% less carbon dioxide than coal, and costs much less than currently available wind and solar power. In 2012 US emissions of carbon dioxide dropped to their lowest level in 20 years, 14% below their peak in 2007. I am sure I do not need to remind a British audience of the potential benefits of shale exploitation in this country.

I have always been something of an agnostic on global warming. I have never rejected, totally, the multiple expressions of concern from many eminent scientists, but the history of mankind has told me of his infinite capacity to adapt to the changing circumstances of the environment in which he lives. Most in this room with recall the apocalyptic warnings of the Club of Rome, more than 40 years ago. They were experts; they predicted that the world would run out of resources to sustain itself. They were wrong. Tragically food shortages still occur but sadly many, although not all of them, result from tyrants using starvation as a political weapon.

Australia is a resource rich country. Just as two years ago Canadians gave majority government to Stephen Harper's Conservatives, who were pledged to a sensible use of its resources, so Australians have now elected a government with a pragmatic attitude on global warming, and a determination to treat our great mining industry as a prized asset. The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue. Of course the climate is changing. It always has. There are mixed views not only about how sustained that warming is – seemingly it has not warmed for the last 15 years, and also the relative contributions of mankind and natural causes. The views are anything but mixed about the soaring cost of electricity bills, with a growing consciousness that large subsidies are being paid for the production of renewable energy, with this having an increasingly heavy burden on low income earners.

As public opinion has turned, the more zealous advocates of action on global warming have sought to establish an automatic link between it and particular weather events. As many of you will know two weeks ago NSW had severe bushfires which destroyed more than 200 homes on the lower Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Those fires were subdued by the magnificent efforts of our firefighters, including our new PM Tony Abbott who unobtrusively joined his local volunteer fire brigade's contribution to the effort. He has been a volunteer fire fighter for years.

Led by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, an attempt was made, by what can only be described as alarmists, to exploit these fires for the purposes of the global warming debate. She said the fires were an example of the "doom and gloom" the world may be facing without vigorous action on climate change". They proved, she claimed, that the world was "already paying the price of carbon." Although she did try to have an each way bet by saying that a link between global warming and the NSW bushfires had not been established "yet".

The PM rejected the link. Then an even bigger gun was brought to bear. The former US Vice-President, Al Gore was interviewed on the ABC's flagship current affairs programme. He said there was no doubt about the direct link. According to him Abbott was wrong.

With exquisite timing, which I am sure was accidental, the following night the ABC commenced running a three part series on the Art of Australia. One of the paintings featured was William Strutt's iconic "Black Thursday". With impressive detail it depicts a huge bushfire in Victoria, which burnt out a quarter of the land mass of that State, destroyed one million sheep, and killed 12 people.

According to the programme's narrator, press reports at the time said that the fire was so intense that burning embers from it fell on a ship some twenty miles out to sea. That fire occurred in 1851, 163 years ago, during a period, so we are told, when the planet was not experiencing any global warming. You might well describe all of this as an inconvenient truth.

Where are we left in this debate? From this agnostic's viewpoint some broad conclusions can be drawn.

  1. First principles tell us never to accept that all of the science is in on any proposition; always remain open to the relevance of new research.
  2. Keep a sense of proportion, especially when it comes to generational burden-sharing. Nigel Lawson's compelling point in his book An Appeal to Reason, that the present generation should not carry too heavy a burden so that future generations are only 8.4 times better off rather than 9.4 times wealthier, should be heeded by all policy makers. Even the IPCC estimates that global GDP per capita will increase 14 fold over this century, and 24 fold in the developing world.
  3. Renewable energy sources should always be used when it makes economic sense to do so. The less that governments intervene the more likely it is that this will happen.
  4. Nuclear energy must be part of the long term response. It is a clean energy source, has the capacity to provide base load power as an alternative to fossil fuel, and modern nuclear power stations have a sophisticated level of safety.
  5. Always bear in mind that technology will continue to surprise us. I doubt that the expression "fracking" was widely known, let alone used five years ago.

Can I finish on a geo-political note? What some call "the shale revolution" now underway in the United States has the potential to be a game changer in the proper sense of that expression. It is still early days, but if the optimists are right it has the potential to reduce or even eliminate the energy dependency of the United States on Middle East oil. That would have mammoth strategic and foreign policy consequences. Even the prospect of it will dwarf any other energy consideration for the Americans. That applies whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.

This is an extract from former prime minister John Howard's Global Warming Policy Foundation Annual Lecture in London on 5 November, published here.

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