Samuel Brittan: A cool look at climate

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What is “global salvationism”? It is a name invented by David Henderson, formerly head of economics at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, for a highly popular doctrine (Economics, Climate Change Issues and Global Salvationism, University of Westminster).

The doctrine has two aspects. One relates to the economic fortunes of poor countries for which global capitalism is blamed. The other is the doomster message that “the planet” is going to hell unless far reaching changes are made in official policies.

The whole package is the accepted wisdom not only of pop stars but of most of the arts world. G8 leaders have been flirting with it; and many business leaders are afraid to criticise it. The best way to tackle global salvationism is not to oppose the whole package but to try to unpack it.

Let me concentrate on climate change. The only thing I will say about the scientific discussion is that some of the key figures in it emit a whiff of intolerance. Knowledge is not advanced by resolutions and majority votes, even of scientific academies.

A non-specialist can, however, at least formulate some key questions about global warming. The key questions are:

1. How fast is it happening and where? What are the confidence limits around the suggested answers?

2. How much damage is caused, to whom and over what time span?

3. What are the costs and benefits of various ways of tackling it, including adaptation as well as prevention?

4. Which depend on concerted action and which can be beneficial if undertaken by a single country?

Note that the contribution of human economic activity has mainly indirect relevance. Global warming could be very harmful even if it was due to natural processes; and it could be fairly benign even if man-made.

A level-headed summary of these matters has just been provided in the UK by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (The Economics of Climate Change). It is likely to infuriate zealots, even though its specialist adviser was David Pearce, a distinguished environmental economist and former chief government adviser.

My own contribution is to suggest how to approach judgment when the evidence is fallible. This is to see if there are several different considerations pointing in the same direction. I shall call it the cumulative or confluence principle.

In the case of reducing greenhouse gas emissions there are indeed at least three arguments pointing in its direction. There is not only climate change but the need to reduce dependence on oil and old-fashioned anti-pollution policy.

The oil argument itself comes in two halves. There is the danger of the rest of the world being held to ransom by political developments in the Middle East; and there is also the growing pressure on energy supplies from the emergence in the world economy of powers such as China and India.

A verdict on such grounds in favour of energy saving cannot be for all kinds of savings and at all costs. A measure which seems to score most highly on all four criteria is a genuine carbon tax, which was unanimously endorsed by the Lords Committee in place of the British Britain’s so-called climate change levy which does not affect is not applicable to transport or to households – who no doubt imagine that because “industry” pays the bill it does not cost them anything. But even the increase in this levy, planned for September, has once again been postponed on the pretext of the volatility of oil prices. British Treasury officials actually boast that fuel duties are now almost ten 10 per cent lower in real terms than they were in 1999. Greenpeace reasonably responds that the decision “beggars belief . . . The day before Tony Blair welcomes world leaders to Gleneagles to broker a deal on climate change he shows himself incapable of taking the most modest and obvious steps here at home”.

This is just an illustration. The main point I want to make is that if three or four only moderately strong different arguments point in the same direction, then the case for action is much stronger than if they are considered one by one. The basic idea is, when in doubt, look for a multiplicity of justifications – or objections. If this multiplicity has enabled President George W. Bush to go along with an energy-saving agenda, so much the better.

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