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June 30, 2005

Global warming pain for gain sums

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.

Global warming pain for gain sums
We may be on the brink of global warming (GW) disaster. If it is about to happen, then there's nothing that can be done about it. You might as well party, if it's the Titanic's last night.

GW is famously a non-linear effect: one which does not respond tidily to increased inputs. Recall the little most of us understand of chaos theory: that butterfly whose wing-flaps can precipitate chaos a continent away. Likewise, a little more warming many plunge the world's climate into "crisis". It is routinely said to be teetering on such a brink right now. But whilst this is scary, it is also of course bizarrely reassuring. Being perilously close to a tipping-point might embolden one to avoid any further risk. But it may equally allow one to plunge on, on the basis that one might as well be hung for a sheep as for lamb.

One can more generally say that in the case of GW the small-risk option has already been taken. We have, according to the mainstream consensus, already set GW in train, and so to some extent we no longer have a low-risk strategy available to us. We only have various versions of high-risk strategies.

It is also routinely said that guaranteeing future generations a climate something like the pre-industrial "norm" (with all its ups and downs around the world), would need a 80 percent reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. This might require that the West reduce its emissions by even more, so as to allow the Third World any growth at all.

If GW is going to be very serious and fixing it needs a 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, we are in trouble. But even if many of us believe both wings of this argument, it is very much to be doubted if we will take a huge amount of action. People may come to regret our indolence, but future generations may say of us that we simply were not sure that the effort would produce a reward, and so we got on with our lives.

If GW is really quite uncertain in all sorts of ways, the problem is calibration. Suppose we have to accept that we won't achieve a "safe" 80 per cent reduction. What will a 10, 20, 30, 40, etc percentage reduction in greenhouse gas emissions achieve? We need some sort of answers to these questions, even if they are that we honestly don't have precise ones. We need to know the degree of not-knowing (as Donald Rumsfeld might have said).

We face this peculiar problem. If we accept that we need to reduce emissions by 80 percent, but know we won't, then we do logically have to accept that we will fail to do the right thing. By what margin shall we fail? If they are to be told that their pain lacks seriously virtuous effect, how are the public to get excited about increasing it?

Does Kyoto matter?
We do know that the Kyoto Protocol can achieve very little, except as a sort of training exercise in international co-operation, solutioneering, and voter-preparation. That is all good. But it is not wholly unreasonable for the US to assert that unilateralism (country-to-country approaches) are better than multilateral ones, and the US might cite the UN and its daughter, Kyoto, as the kind of multilateralist organisations about which it is sceptical. Actually the US plays a big part in all the Kyoto work apart from signing its protocols.

Anyway, whilst being proud of Kyoto's small progress, its fans ought to admit that the development of the right approach would be to tell voters how very little they have signed up to achieve so far. This is not obviously attractive to politicians, who like to congratulate their voters. But it will be necessary to the process of giving Kyoto serious bite. Kyoto can't progress further unless its failure to progress much so far is acknowledged.

Kyoto's existing promise of a five percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in a decade or so is a small one. Actually, we are on track to fail to deliver Kyoto's minimal reductions, so the US could say, and seems to say: "Kyoto is a useless club of the unwilling, so why would we join it?" Of course, this would be more attractive if it was said by people who then went on to address GW in an effective way.

Is the US serious about GW?
The present administration say they are, though they have been much bolder than most Western governments in disliking much of the IPCC consensus. But they are out-spending the rest of the world in developing technological solutions which might allow the Western way of life to continue unscathed whilst greenhouse gas emissions are massively reduced. Developing these technologies is designed to make dirigisme unnecessary. But they will still be available to the world and to the US even if either decide that government imposition is necessary.

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

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