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June 29, 2005

What should governments do about global warming?

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - continues his series on G8 and Global Warming: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: a sceptic's account of global warming and its humbugs.

What should governments do about global warming?
Granted that people can do an enormous amount to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions we might think governments have a small role.

If the vast majority of people believe and act on the mainstream global warming (GW) propositions, the market will respond with renewable technologies, more nuclear power, cheap conservation devices, low-energy airplanes, cars and the rest. People won't want to work in energy-intensive industries, or use their products. High-emission firms will be starved of investment by pension funds and others who believe their industries to be set for decline.

Governments could penalise greenhouse gas emissions, say by taxing them, and could do so in ways which are fiscally neutral (ie, by reducing taxes on incomes). It could ban outright certain sorts of behaviour. It could ration access to fuel, travel whatever. It could subsidise or mandate the production of whatever it pleased.

The difficulties for governments
The idea of fiscal penalties looks easy. It isn't: we have rather little idea how much we would have to increase taxation to get much reduction effect, and issues of equity are very tricky. Roughly speaking, we can say that if more than marginal, token or cosmetic change is demanded, then these activities will represent a degree of state interference not seen since the heyday of wartime and the post-war nationalised and welfare state.

It may be entirely justified, just as a large aid budget, major military expenditure, or (heaven forfend) a large increase in the Welfare State budget may be justified. But we need to understand how important an adjustment this would be. Put roughly, either tackling GW is easy and cheap, or it is difficult and expensive. If the former, the public could easily be persuaded to get on with it. If the latter, then it will require a social and cultural change which will be commensurately difficult.

Actually, the picture is a bit more complicated. Reducing greenhouse gases may be easy and expensive, or difficult but cheap. We may have ready access to convenient technology which costs a fortune. Or, we may need to make lifestyle changes which are inconvenient but don't cost much. But it is fair to say that expense and inconvenience are rather similar barriers to change.

Easy or difficult, this is a matter of millions of people coming to accept that what is asked of them will make a difference to an important problem.

The more demanding the course of action suggested by politicians, the more certain of result or the more awful the problem would need to be if assent is to be given. The less certain the awfulness of the problem, the more terrible it must potentially be if people are to rally to it.

So far, this debate has barely begun. I have never seen a serious attempt to explain to the public what will be gained by any proposal to abate global warming. No pain-for-gain equation has ever been laid out. We have had enormous amounts of "something must be done", "biggest problem facing us", etc: but very little of: for "x" sacrifice we think we can save "y" lives in "n" years.

That's just as well, since we simply don't know enough to talk honestly about such things.

Has Mr Blair talked well about climate change?
Yes and no.

He has said that he believes the scientific evidence and takes very seriously the call to action made by his chief scientist, Sir David King. He has made classic, hubristic promises and challenges. He declares the urgency of the thing:

It is now that timely action can avert disaster. It is now that with foresight and will such action can be taken without disturbing the essence of our way of life, by adjusting behaviour not altering it entirely.
And he has said that the public will not accept economic damage to achieve a reduction in climate change. He has said that there are technological fixes which will help.

You can call this an honest approach, if you like. But it is deeply confused, and we may say that it is disingenuously so. One cannot both say that you take the consensus very seriously and that you will in effect do no more than rely on politically easy fixes. The consensus' cheer-leaders are demanding big changes, and Mr Blair says they won't happen.

Mr Blair creates the impression that he wants to change Mr Bush's mind about climate change policy, and he may try. He may even succeed but that's so unlikely that even the attempt must be half-hearted or fake or quixotic. One has the feeling that both men know Mr Blair has to pretend to believe that he can change Mr Bush's mind.

What is really odd is the way that Sir David King spoke so robustly and undiplomatically about his belief that the Bush administration was behaving badly over climate change. Either Mr Blair allowed Sir David to do so because he wanted his chief scientist to vent steam (better his advisor was inside the tent peeing out than outside peeing in); or Mr Blair encouraged him to do so because the Prime Minister wanted to make the point to Mr Bush without having to do so himself; or he wasn't asked; or he didn't care.

Anyway, Sir David's suggestion that climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism was hardly thoughtful. Terrorism's potential to kill a few thousand people is bound to elicit a different response to climate change's potential to kill tens of millions. One difference, which Mssrs Bush and Blair might have pointed out to Sir David, is that leaders and public have a shared understanding and tradition in dealing with terrorism, but none at all with climate change. Sir David has a much harder job to persuade the public that they need to react to climate change than Messrs Bush and Blair had when they sought to respond to 9/11.

Nor is it useful to berate Mr Bush for doing rather little about climate change when Mr Blair does very little more.

The political "problem"
Democracies are essentially selfish, though they have always been capable of great sacrifices for causes in which they believe. But that has always been a matter of "mass belief".

If the majority of people believe these GW propositions, there will be pressure on politicians to encourage their economies and societies away from greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, this pressure may raise questions as to the justifiability of state interference in matters so complex and uncertain.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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