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February 19, 2008

We are still waiting for a useful book on the realities of climate change and climate change policy, argues Richard D. North: The Hot Topic: How to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on - Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King

Posted by Richard D. North

The Hot Topic: How to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on
by Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King
London: Bloomsbury, 2008
Paperback, £9.99

This is an important book, and if read very carefully is not a bad primer of both the science of climate change and the policy problems it throws up. It is an even better primer of the sort of sloppy thinking which happens when writers dare not emphasise how unlikely it is that policy will quickly make much difference to climate change.

The things The Hot Topic avoids saying, and the things it muddles up, tell us more than it would really like. Its authors would love it to be a rallying cry, but sensible readers will come away thinking that - wishful thinking aside - it'll be a decade or three before humans take any serious action. Only one possibility might overturn that presumption. It is just possible that technology will allow effective action to be as cheap as is believed by optimists such as Dr King in his sunnier moments. (I shall review this book as though it were authored solely by David King. I'm assuming that it's his imprimatur which is its main claim to attention.)

This is the first readable book on climate policy to come from the broad church which is the UN/IPCC, the governments of the northern EU, and the BBC. It is co-written by one of the top climate policy experts, and the one who was until very recently in pole position to influence real-world climate politics, at least in the UK.

It has had praise heaped-upon it by all the climate right-ons. Book reviews, almost all by its natural fans, have glowed. Sir David King was the UK's chief scientist when he compared global warming to terrorism. He then got into trouble for so little concealing his contempt for President Bush's lack of climate seriousness. We know where he's coming from when he said that he agrees with almost everything Roger Harrabin, the BBC's "environment analyst", says.

Dr King’s account of climate change and climate change policy is unexceptional and clear. He is a perfectly good spokesperson for the UN/IPCC consensus, and gives a decent nod to the very many scientists who think that the IPCC is quite likely to turn out to be a wildly-under stated account of the climate chaos soon to befall the planet. This is, by the way, one sharp example of the absence of scientific consensus on climate change. Anyway, reading the "science" in the book is like reading a larky summary of IPCC reports, with a dash of the hairier stuff which Fred Pearce trawled for his book, The Last Generation [reviewed here].

You will not find in Dr King's book a decent analysis of the difference between likely Western - or northern - climate change effects and those which are likely to be unleashed on the Third World, or the tropics. You get the odd hint that if climate change is fairly mild, whether by management or good luck, the rich world will suffer only a bit and of course be in a good position to afford to deal with its problems. You get a much clearer sense that the poor countries of the world will get hammered.

This matters because, as the book notes, much of the serious action on climate change will have to be paid for by the West. That's s a hard sell - not noted by David King - when the avoidable pain will be somewhere else, if it is avoidable at all.

Here we come to the real problem with the book. It has no idea whether it is gloomy or happy. It errs on the cheerful. It dare not usefully analyse the policy problems, for fear of being an inadequate bull horn for solutions.

It also marks a change in Dr King's attitudes. He has quite often been on Radio 4's Today programme, usually caught simultaneously noting the seriousness and unavoidability of the climate change threat whilst cheering on the political action - inevitably too feeble to count - which is the best we can hope will emerge from voters. In particular, he told Roger Harrabin [listen again at 7.30am, 14th April, 2006], that at:

550 parts per million [of CO2eq – CO2 and its equivalents - in the atmosphere] which is roughly twice the pre-industrial level and the level which we are optimistically hoping we could settle at… the temperature rise could well be in excess of 3 degrees Celsius.
In response to the idea that this was catastrophic, King bigged-up adaptation - in short, living more cleverly with whatever's up ahead.

This book is a much starker account of the challenge - but a much more gung-ho account of our likely or possible response to it.

From being also almost sanguine about a limit of 550ppm, Dr King's new book now insists,

we have to go for 450ppm CO2eq.
But a few pages earlier he has just told us we're already at 430ppm and surely we're set to continue increasing our carbon footprint for a good while yet.

Early on, we get this stark statement:

All the evidence suggests that the world will experience significant and potentially highly dangerous changes in climate over the next few decades no matter what we do now.

[Authors' emphasis.]

That's to say, if man-made carbon emissions were to fall to zero tomorrow, there'd still be serious climate change.

One then learns that even if quite improbably dramatic action is taken now or soon, we will almost certainly be in a zone of very serious and possibly catastrophic climate change. We also learn that there is no sign whatever that we are anywhere near such action.

It follows that we are even further away from the sort of almost unimaginably hyper-activity which might usefully mitigate the effects of dramatic climate change, say in the second half of this century. Instead we get limp rhetoric about action now avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

… [T]he good news is that we do still have a chance of keeping greenhouses gases to that 450ppm limit.
And with it, an estimated and dangerous 2.5 degrees C increase in global temperature, using King's own analysis.
We will however have to act fast. Global greenhouse gas emissions will need to peak within fifteen years, and by 2050 they will have to have fallen to half their current levels.
Even a layman can take the measure of Dr King's new optimism.

I'd say: some hope.

The International Energy Agency says that without policy intervention the demand for energy will rise by 50 percent by 2030. So what do you think will happen? Will we halve energy use, keep it stable, or will it rise by half? Which would you bet on? Remember, the first option is very dangerous and the second and third merely much more so.

If you were dead certain of the unavoidability of a bad outcome, and pretty sure of the unavoidability of a terrible one, and not at all sure of the avoidability of an absolutely cataclysmic one, how much would you do? Hang on: how much are you doing? Isn't this the situation most of us believe we're in? Won't most of us agree to do a bit, but not much?

It is important here to see that this analysis holds good whether you believe the relatively optimistic or the relatively pessimistic climate scientists. It is even truer if you think they're both talking bunk.

There is much that is valuable in the book. It does, for instance, paint a fairly clear picture of the different political positions taken by different countries, especially in the run-up to the Bali negotiations. There is even a hint that Dr King understands how many of these positions are froth. There is quite a good summary of the current state of play with the various proposed technological solutions to climate change. There is a fairly good summary of some of the things individuals can do.

But all these passages tend to be overly-optimistic about the cheapness or convenience, and especially the timing, of doing much about climate change.

There is a hilarious moment when King approvingly quotes Sir Nicholas Stern's deliciously naïve remark:

As the science of climate change is widely accepted, public attitudes will make it increasingly difficult for political leaders around the world to downplay the importance of serious action.
Doesn't it occur to these men that it is the political elite everywhere who will have to drag their voters into reluctant acceptance of action?

I can sort of imagine why serious people like David King and Nicholas Stern believe it is worth pretending that we will do much, soon. They are political optimists - indeed they are policy professionals - who believe that policy can solve most things, or should die in the attempt.

I suspect that the Kings and Sterns are romantics who like the planet they inherited from their forebears, and fear change. They admire campaigners as being nice and being in the mould of reformers throughout the ages. They are too nice to be willing to consider that it may not matter to most living people if much of the planet becomes uninhabitable when they are dead. They are too populist to consider that the best of civilisation may survive climate chaos.

All that is fine, and it takes a nasty, realistic, cynical right-winger to hold his nose and stick up for the vigour of life unfolding in a pretty well unreconstructed way. So I read the science on climate change and see that climate chaos may well lie ahead for my children and their children and on into future generations. I care about that, a bit. I may continue and even intensify my life-long anxiety about flying and energy waste and all sorts of other things.

But I note that the young, who are said to know and care more about greenery than my generation, are just as careless about their carbon footprint as their forebears were. Their response to all this is their business much more than it is mine, but it is comforting that they are behaving so selfishly. They'll soon have accumulated so much guilt of their own that they won't be able to blame my generation for our indifference.

The likes of David King would be better employed analysing and discussing what will actually happen, and doing so with much more realism and much less idealism than they now deploy. I say this because I don't think David King is capable of producing a book which will much motivate people to change. His work is just realistic enough to be de-motivating. In its rather different way, George Monbiot's book Heat was similarly scuppered [as we noted here].

But I do think the former chief scientist has produced a book which was very nearly a useful analysis of the realities of climate change and climate change policy. Someone else will have to deliver the real thing.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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