December 22, 2009

From the The Wall Street Journal, 22 December 2009

Nigel Lawson

The world’s political leaders, not least President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are in a state of severe, almost clinical, denial. While acknowledging that the outcome of the United Nations climate-change conference in Copenhagen fell short of their demand for a legally binding, enforceable and verifiable global agreement on emissions reductions by developed and developing countries alike, they insist that what has been achieved is a breakthrough and a decisive step forward.

Just one more heave, just one more venue for the great climate-change traveling circus-Mexico City next year-and the job will be done.

Or so we are told. It is, of course, the purest nonsense. The only breakthrough was the political coup for China and India in concluding the anodyne communiqué with the United States behind closed doors, with Brazil and South Africa allowed in the room and Europe left to languish in the cold outside.

Far from achieving a major step forward, Copenhagen-predictably-achieved precisely nothing. The nearest thing to a commitment was the promise by the developed world to pay the developing world $30 billion of “climate aid” over the next three years, rising to $100 billion a year from 2020. Not only is that (perhaps fortunately) not legally binding, but there is no agreement whatsoever about which countries it will go to, in which amounts, and on what conditions.

The reasons for the complete and utter failure of Copenhagen are both fundamental and irresolvable. The first is that the economic cost of decarbonizing the world’s economies is massive, and of at least the same order of magnitude as any benefits it may conceivably bring in terms of a cooler world in the next century.

The reason we use carbon-based energy is not the political power of the oil lobby or the coal industry. It is because it is far and away the cheapest source of energy at the present time and is likely to remain so, not forever, but for the foreseeable future.

Switching to much more expensive energy may be acceptable to us in the developed world (although I see no present evidence of this). But in the developing world, including the rapidly developing nations such as China and India, there are still tens if not hundreds of millions of people suffering from acute poverty, and from the consequences of such poverty, in the shape of malnutrition, preventable disease and premature death.

The overriding priority for the developing world has to be the fastest feasible rate of economic development, which means, inter alia, using the cheapest available source of energy: carbon energy.

Moreover, the argument that they should make this economic and human sacrifice to benefit future generations 100 years and more hence is all the less compelling, given that these future generations will, despite any problems caused by warming, be many times better off than the people of the developing world are today.

Or, at least, that is the assumption on which the climate scientists’ warming projections are based. It is projected economic growth that determines projected carbon emissions, and projected carbon emissions that (according to the somewhat conjectural computer models on which they rely) determine projected warming (according to the same models).

All this overlaps with the second of the two fundamental reasons why Copenhagen failed, and why Mexico City (if our leaders insist on continuing this futile charade) will fail, too. That is the problem of burden-sharing, and in particular how much of the economic cost of decarbonization should be borne by the developed world, which accounts for the bulk of past emissions, and how much by the faster-growing developing world, which will account for the bulk of future emissions.

The 2006 Stern Review, quite the shoddiest pseudo-scientific and pseudo-economic document any British Government has ever produced, claims the overall burden is very small. If that were so, the problem of how to share the burden would be readily overcome-as indeed occurred with the phasing out of chorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. But the true cost of decarbonization is massive, and the distribution of the burden an insoluble problem.

Moreover, any assessment of the impact of any future warming that may occur is inevitably highly conjectural, depending as it does not only on the uncertainties of climate science but also on the uncertainties of future technological development. So what we are talking about is risk.

Not that the risk is all one way. The risk of a 1930s-style outbreak of protectionism-if the developed world were to abjure cheap energy and faced enhanced competition from China and other rapidly industrializing countries that declined to do so-is probably greater than any risk from warming.

But even without that, there is not even a theoretical (let alone a practical) basis for a global agreement on burden-sharing, since, so far as the risk of global warming is concerned (and probably in other areas too) risk aversion is not uniform throughout the world. Not only do different cultures embody very different degrees of risk aversion, but in general the richer countries will tend to be more risk-averse than the poorer countries, if only because we have more to lose.

The time has come to abandon the Kyoto-style folly that reached its apotheosis in Copenhagen last week, and move to plan B.

And the outlines of a credible plan B are clear. First and foremost, we must do what mankind has always done, and adapt to whatever changes in temperature may in the future arise.

This enables us to pocket the benefits of any warming (and there are many) while reducing the costs. None of the projected costs are new phenomena, but the possible exacerbation of problems our climate already throws at us. Addressing these problems directly is many times more cost-effective than anything discussed at Copenhagen. And adaptation does not require a global agreement, although we may well need to help the very poorest countries (not China) to adapt.

Beyond adaptation, plan B should involve a relatively modest, increased government investment in technological research and development-in energy, in adaptation and in geoengineering.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the Copenhagen debacle, it is not going to be easy to get our leaders to move to plan B. There is no doubt that calling a halt to the high-profile climate-change traveling circus risks causing a severe conference-deprivation trauma among the participants. If there has to be a small public investment in counseling, it would be money well spent.

-Lord Lawson was U.K. chancellor of the exchequer in the Margaret Thatcher government from 1983 to 1989. He is the author of “An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming” (Overlook Duckworth, paperback 2009) and chairman of the recently formed Global Warming Policy Foundation (www.thegwpf.org ).

Copyright 2009, WSJ


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