The Climate Change Debate: a Third Way?

In view of the current superheated and confusing political debates in Copenhagen on anthropogenic climate change, today’s op-ed article by veteran researcher and campaigner Bjorn Lomborg, published by The Australian, a News Corporation paper which, to its great credit and in contrast to other major English-language media like the BBC, the Guardian and the Australian ABC, has consistently welcomed and promoted ‘unorthodox’ opinions, is surely worthy of consideration by those whose minds are not yet closed on this issue.

Given the gravity of the situation on the eve of a political decision by the Copenhagen Summit, I take the liberty of reproducing Lomborg’s important appeal in its entirety, with due acknowledgement to the SOURCE .

Forget protocols, cut to the chase. Non-polluting energy sources are (the) key.

Thousands of politicians, bureaucrats and environmental activists have arrived in Copenhagen for the global climate summit with all the bravado and self-regard of a group of commandos convinced that they are about to save the world.
And although the political differences between them remain huge, delegates are nonetheless congratulating themselves for having the answers to global warming.

The blustery language and ostentatious self-confidence that fill the Bella Centre here remind me of a similar scene: Kyoto, 1997. There, world leaders actually signed a legally binding deal to cut carbon emissions, something that will elude the Copenhagen summit-goers. But what did the Kyoto Protocol accomplish? So far, at least, virtually nothing.

To be sure, Europe has made some progress towards reducing its carbon-dioxide emissions. But, of the 15 European Union countries represented at the Kyoto summit, 10 have still not met the targets agreed there. Neither will Japan nor Canada. And the US never even ratified the agreement. In all, we are likely to achieve barely 5 per cent of the promised Kyoto reduction.

To put it another way, let’s say we index 1990 global emissions at 100. If there were no Kyoto at all, the 2010 level would have been 142.7. With full Kyoto implementation, it would have been 133. In fact, the actual outcome of Kyoto is likely to be a 2010 level of 142.2 — virtually the same as if we had done nothing at all. Given 12 years of continuous talks and praise for Kyoto, this is not much of an accomplishment.

The Kyoto Protocol did not fail because any one nation let the rest of the world down. It failed because making quick, drastic cuts in carbon emissions is extremely expensive. Whether or not Copenhagen is declared a political victory, that inescapable fact of economic life will once again prevail and grand promises will once again go unfulfilled.

This is why I advocate abandoning the pointless strategy of trying to make governments promise to cut carbon emissions. Instead, the world should be focusing its efforts on making non-polluting energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels.

We should be negotiating an international agreement to increase radically spending on green-energy research and development to a total of 0.2 per cent of global GDP, or $US100 billion a year. Without this kind of concerted effort, alternative technologies simply will not be ready to take up the slack from fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, summit delegates seem to have little appetite for such realism. On the first day of the conference, UN climate change chief Yvo de Boer declared how optimistic he was about continuing the Kyoto approach: “Almost every day, countries announce new targets or plans of action to cut emissions,” he said.

Such statements ignore the fact that most of these promises are almost entirely empty. Either the targets are unachievable or the numbers are fudged. For example, Japan’s pledge of a 25 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 sounds incredible because it is. There is no way the Japanese could actually deliver on such an ambitious promise.

China, meanwhile, drew plaudits just before the Copenhagen summit by promising to cut its carbon intensity (the amount of CO2 emitted for each dollar of GDP) over the next ten years to just 40-45 per cent of its level in 2005. Based on figures from the International Energy Agency, China was already expected to reduce its carbon intensity by 40 per cent without any new policies.

As its economy develops, China will inevitably shift to less carbon-intensive industries. In other words, China took what was universally expected to happen and, with some creative spin, dressed it up as a new, ambitious policy initiative. Then again, spin always trumps substance at gatherings such as this. Consider how quick the Copenhagen delegates were to dismiss the scandal now known as “Climategate” — the outcry over the release of thousands of disturbing emails and other documents hacked from the computers of a prestigious British climate-research centre.

It would be a mistake not to learn lessons from this mess. Climategate exposed a side of the scientific community most people never get to see. It was not a pretty picture. What the stolen emails revealed was a group of the world’s most influential climatologists arguing, brainstorming and plotting together to enforce what amounts to a party line on climate change. Data that didn’t support their assumptions about global warming was fudged. Experts who disagreed with their conclusions were denigrated as “idiots” and “garbage”. Peer-reviewed journals that dared to publish contrarian articles were threatened with boycotts. Dissent was stifled, facts were suppressed, scrutiny was blocked and the free flow of information was choked off.

Predictably, the text of the more than 3000 purloined emails have been seized on by sceptics of man-made climate change as “proof” that global warming is nothing more than a hoax cooked up by a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals. And this is the real tragedy of “Climategate.”

Global warming is not a hoax, but at a time when opinion polls reveal rising public scepticism about climate change, this unsavoury glimpse of scientists trying to cook the data could be just the excuse that too many people are waiting for to tune it all out.

What seems to have motivated the scientists involved in Climategate was the arrogant belief that the way to save the world was to conceal or misrepresent ambiguous and contradictory findings about global warming that might “confuse” the public. But substituting spin for scientific rigour is a terrible strategy.

So too is continuing to embrace a response to global warming that has failed for nearly two decades. Instead of papering over the flaws in the Kyoto approach and pretending that grand promises translate into real action, we need to acknowledge that saving the world requires a smarter strategy than the one being pursued so dogmatically in Copenhagen.
**

(Bjorn_Lomborg is the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and author of Cool It: The Sceptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming – Knopf. 2007. ISBN 9780307266927.)

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