Changing the climate debate

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Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

Discussion about climate change seems stuck in an unproductive dichotomy.

Discussion about climate change seems stuck in an unproductive dichotomy. One side argues vehemently that global warming is nothing but a grand hoax. The other side maintains that the planet is headed for catastrophe. In my book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, I point out how neither side is right, and propose that we stake out a more sensible middle ground.

However, many people in this debate appear to identify almost tribally with one set of arguments. Kevin Watkins’s review of my book (Prospect, October) is a case in point. He claims that while I don’t deny that climate change is real, I understate the problems it causes.

In Cool It, I explore the impact of the most likely temperature increase over this century: the median estimate of a 2.6°C rise reached by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), whose estimates start at 1.8°C and go up to 4°C. This seems too low to Watkins, who accuses me of having a “cavalier approach to scientific evidence” and then himself only talks about a rise of the magnitude of 4°C or 6°C.

Watkins is bothered by my reporting that the IPCC’s estimates show that oceans will rise between 18-59cm, and that the most likely scenario is around 30cm. That’s similar to what the planet experienced in the last 150 years and it (rather obviously) coped. Watkins also accuses me of being fixated on low estimates, yet I also consider the IPCC’s projections of what would happen if Greenland were to melt much faster: sea levels would rise about 7cm and–at most–about 20cm.

Another complaint is that I encourage readers to “look on the bright side” of global warming. I submit that looking at both the negative and positive impacts of climate change is reasonable. Rising temperatures will mean more heat waves, but the cold is a much bigger killer than the heat. By 2050, global warming will cause almost 400,000 more heat-related deaths each year. Yet at the same time, 1.8m fewer people will die from cold. In this respect, global warming will save lives.

Cooling our fears of global warming is important, because our panic often seems to affect our abilities to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. Yes, we need to fix global warming in the long run. But we are blindly focusing on policies that will not achieve this.

Watkins quotes favourably the Stern review, which found carbon cuts a good investment. In the book I show that Stern is contradicted by all peer-reviewed economic studies. Watkins calls this my “own cost-benefit analysis” instead of acknowledging it is the conclusion of many economists.

In 1992, wealthy nations promised to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Instead, emissions grew by 12 per cent. In 1997, they promised to cut emissions some 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. Despite that undertaking, it appears that emissions will increase by 20 per cent. Politicians insist that the next protocol, to be negotiated in Copenhagen by the end of 2009, should be even tougher. After two failures, we need to ask if this is the right policy response.

If the US and Australia had committed to the Kyoto protocol, it would have cost $180bn each year until its 2012 expiry and postponed the effects of global warming by just seven days by the end of the century. Even if we stuck to Kyoto for this entire century, we would postpone the effects of global warming by just five years. This is why all peer-reviewed economic studies show that Kyoto-style policies are an ineffective way to help the world. Instead, I think we should find a way to make carbon emission cuts much easier.

The big problem is that cutting carbon costs about $20 a ton, yet the benefits only add up to $2 a ton. We need to make cutting emissions much cheaper so that helping the environment wouldn’t be the preserve of the rich, but could be opened up to everyone–especially to the main emitters of the 21st century, China and India, who have other pressing issues to deal with first.

I believe the answer is a dramatic increase in spending on research and development into low-carbon energy.

Every nation should commit to spending 0.05 per cent of GDP exploring non-carbon emitting energy technologies. This would cost $25bn per year, which is seven times cheaper than the Kyoto protocol, yet also a tenfold increase in current R&D spending. All nations would be involved, yet the richer would pay the larger share. Most importantly, this approach would create a global research momentum and a vision of both a low-carbon and high-income world.

One of the key points in my book is to ask why we want to help the third world through CO2 cuts when we could help them much more effectively through fighting malnutrition, illness and polluted water. Watkins calls this a “perfectly reasonable” question, then performs a backflip, claiming that I don’t understand that climate change makes people more vulnerable to malnutrition and illness. But malnutrition and illness also make people more vulnerable to climate change. The question is, how do we help developing nations the best?

If we eradicated malaria, we would not only do immediate good, but leave these nations more productive–estimates suggest they would be twice as rich by 2100–with more resilience and capacity to respond to climate change. Instead of saving one person from malaria through climate change policies, the same amount of money spent on malaria could save 36,000 people. This isn’t just an academic discussion–it’s about helping real people now and in the future.

Embracing the best response to global warming is difficult in the middle of bitter fighting that shuts out sensible dialogue. We need to cool our debate.

Changing the Climate Debate


Prospect magazine

November 2007

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