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June 29, 2005

So what's the problem with taking action on 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.

So what's the problem with taking action on global warming?
We can be pretty sure that we could pretty quickly have societies which are much less dependent on emitting greenhouse gases, we still do not know how much achieving this goal will cost in cash or inconvenience, and we have no idea how much cost and suffering we will save ourselves or anyone else by making the effort.

This matters not least because much of the effort will be made in the rich world and be made to save suffering in the Third World. Actually, there is limited interest in the rich world in making these sacrifices. That is why it makes sense to ask whether the expenditure on buying reduction in climate change "buys" as much relief in Third World suffering as, say, helping poor people who have AIDS. It is no use saying the rich world could do both: it probably won't do much of either.

This is the important argument of many contrarians and sceptics, and it does not conflict with the view that global warming (GW) is man-made, quite big and quite bad.

It is the position taken by Bjorn Lomborg, who corralled some distinguished economists and others to consider it. The results were trumpeted by the sober, rather green-minded magazine, The Economist. The economists each came to the conclusion that dealing with GW was a poor investment in reducing human suffering compared with other activities.

Naturally, this comparison of apples and pears (death by AIDS compared with death by climate-induced drowning) has its argumentative oddities. Still, we really do have competing calls on our limited generosity. We must face that. Even if the rich world dramatically increases its sense of solidarity with the poor, there will be painful choices. And it really probably is the case that a rich Third World will find dealing with climate change easier than a poor one. And it surely is the case that imposing expensive technologies to avert greenhouse gas on poor people will slow their becoming rich.

The technological opportunities
We can burn our fossil fuels whilst emitting much less greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. We can switch to fuels which don't produce so much greenhouse gas. We can trap our emissions of greenhouse gases. We can generate electricity using nuclear or various forms of renewable power. We can increase our conservation efforts.

Each of them has its fan base. It has been fascinating to see which environmentalists and serious-minded specialists have become fans of nuclear power and "clean coal" (uses of the fossil fuel which limit its greenhouse gas emissions), and to see their views taken seriously not automatically reviled in the media. The rich world could more easily afford any of them than could the Third World, and in some cases the most efficient route to reducing global emissions would be for the rich world to help pay for better technology in the Third World.

Whatever their fans like to say, each of these technologies has its difficulties in terms of cost or convenience. Presumably, vigorous competition between them all will establish how cheaply and conveniently they can be deployed.

It is worth noting that the US reviled for not supporting the Kyoto Protocols is learning more about most of these technologies more quickly and at greater public expense than any other country on earth.

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

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