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April 23, 2008

Global warming may not matter as much as polite opinion claims - but it might matter a lot more than Nigel Lawson is willing to acknowledge, argues Richard D. North: An Appeal to Reason: A cool look at global warming - Nigel Lawson

Posted by Richard D. North

An Appeal to Reason: A cool look at global warming
by Nigel Lawson
London: Duckworth Overlook, 2008
Hardback, Ł9.99

This useful pint-sized polemic gets off on the wrong foot. Besides, its tone isn't quite right. Nigel Lawson uses his opening pages to tell us he had a hard job getting it published. The poor diddums could have come to any number of free market think tanks and we'd have seen him right. Anyway, the complaint jives with the way his general bounciness alternates with occasional whining.

Things proceed badly. Lord Lawson gives us a moderately snippy account of the uncertainties surrounding climate change science. He's right, there are plenty of these, but he doesn't handle them very well. Actually, a sympathetic eye (mine) notes he hedges his bets, as he should. But he comes off as a bit of a "denier", and several green critics have duly gone into a red haze.

Why bother bashing the IPCC?
But Lord Lawson has also set up the wrong target. He starts by arguing with the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and then in the bigger and better part of the book bases most of his case on their words. How can this be?

The essence of it is that he doesn't much dispute the evidence which the IPCC uses. What he loathes is its handling of the evidence.

By the end of Chapter 1, we are on better ground. Lord Lawson suggests it might be wise to proceed by taking the IPCC's account of the science as serious if not "settled". Here, we get to the understanding that even if the "consensus" view of climate change were scientifically right, there's a lot left to talk about.

From now on the book is useful. Lord Lawson's view is that the more one digs into the IPCC's analysis of the consequences of climate change the less one finds a need for hysteria. The heart of the thing is that even if we could do it or were willing to do it, there'd be very little point in trying to stop climate change from happening.

This will surprise those who don't plough through IPCC material. The IPCC's material is mostly so dull and convoluted that one suspects it may have been designed to hide secrets. The truth is, as Lord Lawson shows, that the IPCC insists that even if climate change turns out to be quite bad, it won't stop the world - rich and poor countries alike - being much richer than either are now.

Lord Lawson also notes that if things are at the bad end of the IPCC's worst imaginings - then it is even less likely that any conceivable action could have staved off disaster.

It's the economy, stupid
It follows (though the IPCC and others don't tell us so) that if action to head off climate change dents economic growth, and dents the economic growth of the poor world most, it will only leave the least prepared less equipped to deal with its effects.

It also follows that we need to understand how expensive heading off climate change may be. Lord Lawson's view is that it will cost an enormous amount, and to prove it we need only see how little high fuel prices have dented Western fossil fuel use. If it were cheap to get into other fuels, we'd be doing it a lot faster. Besides, we're rich and like cars far more powerful than we need.

Here we get to Lord Lawson's bęte noire: Sir Nicholas Stern and his famous review. Rightly, what upsets Lawson is that Stern is supposed to be an economist, and an official one at that, but produced a politician's - an evangelical politician's - account of the issue. Like many people, Lord Lawson also thinks that Sir Nicholas cooked the books in his application of discount rates (the hypothetical balancing of the value we should place on the future). In effect Sir Nicholas assumed we all care about the future and about foreigners as much he presumably does.

Anyway, it is very likely that stopping climate change is mission impossible whilst enriching the world is more or less inevitable. The great merit of adaptation is that it doesn't require enormous amounts of goodwill. As Lord Lawson says,

… adaptation is essentially a matter of a large number of local and practical measures, which require no international treaty or worldwide agreement for their implementation.
Their Lordships rule OK
Much of this sort of analysis was to be found in the 2006 House of Lords report by the economic affairs committee (of which Lord Lawson was a member). This book brings this work up to date in a rather more lively form, and even has one or two jokes. It is from a school of thought whose leaders are David Henderson (a one-time OECD chief economist) and Julian Morris (a stout denier). If I have got it right, Henderson supplies the economic dryness and Morris supplies the energetic radicalism. Lord Lawson bowls up with the missing aplomb.

Lord Lawson's reasoning has some of the force one would expect of an economically-literate, hard-bitten Tory politician who has always taken an interest in Third World realities. It isn't so much that he knows mysterious arcana. It's more that he is supremely confident that he knows the way the world wags and knows that such good as can be done has to be done cannily. He shows us (rather as, very differently, Sir David King also has [his book reviewed here]) that hardly anyone believes what they say about climate change. The politics of the thing (as George Monbiot has ruefully admitted [his book reviewed here]) depends on leaders being able to say they care whilst noting that action is scuppered by someone else.

Lord Lawson is dismissive of the present attempts to address climate change, even in their own terms. He says few economists warm to the "cap and trade" systems which have been the main plank of policy. The notion is to dole out greenhouse gas quotas and let these be bought and sold. Leave aside that the quotas are too large to bear down on the problem. Lord Lawson thinks things might have gone better if firms had at least had to bid for the initial quota. But basically, the system is prone to corruptions of every sort. Low and gently rising world-wide taxes would be a better way of testing the water, and if they were revenue-neutral (that is, if carbon taxes replaced other taxes) would do little harm. This all seems about right.

A rather gloomy conclusion
The likelihood is that this book will have few readers, and many of them will be professionally disposed to loudly dismiss it. (Welcome to the world of opinion-forming, where books are written to be talked about more than read.) His critics will be helped by Lord Lawson's Tiggerishness. Never mind that at one point he suggests that dish-washing machines are useful because sink-washing is unhygienic. More oddly, he suggests that man's adaptability is very great and proves it by remarking that the temperature difference between Scandinavia and Singapore is much bigger than the difference posited between the present and the future global figures. So we'll manage fine. Tell that, the old hippy in me protests, to the African whose life has hovered for millennia on the brink of extreme desiccation and doesn't fancy his chances if the heat is notched up a few more degrees.

I fear this may be the difficulty with Lord Lawson's way of thinking. He's too optimistic. He thinks climate change doesn't matter. He doesn't discuss how parts of the earth may quite quickly be put beyond habitability. The likely candidates are not easy to predict and the rest of the world does not care. So the point is not what very nice people may do about climate change: it is what most of us will do. Not much, as Lord Lawson is dead right to observe. I don't think it'll matter much. But it might matter to some people a lot more than Lord Lawson thinks.

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. For an earlier analysis of the politics of climate change by Richard D. North, see: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: a sceptic's account of global warming and its humbugs.

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