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A load of hot air

A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create a new Era of Progress and Prosperity, by Nicholas Stern

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create a new Era of Progress and Prosperity Nicholas Stern

Bodley Head, pp.246, 16.99

As a general rule, I do not believe in reviewing bad books. Review space is limited, and the many good books that are published deserve first claim on it. But climate change is such an important subject, and — thanks to heavy promotion by that great publicist, Tony Blair — the Stern Review of the economics of climate change has become so well known (not least to the vast majority who have never read it, among whom in all probability is Mr Blair), that anything from Lord Stern deserves some attention.

However, anyone looking for anything new in this rather arrogant book — all those who dissent from Stern’s analysis, his predictions, or his prescriptions are dismissed as ‘both ignorant and reckless’ (the word ‘ignorant’ recurs frequently) — will be disappointed. The first half of the book is a rehash of the original Stern Review, and the second half a rehash of his lengthy 2008 LSE study Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change. This last is an exercise in political naivety which does not improve on its second outing; and the European Union leadership trumpeted by Stern (‘We can expect the EU and its member countries to continue to drive forward action on climate change’) has already collapsed with the back-tracking at the EU climate summit last December, after this book went to press.

The Stern Review sought to argue that atmospheric greenhouse gas (chiefly carbon dioxide) concentrations could be stabilised at relatively low global cost, and the resulting benefit from preventing much further warming would far outweigh that cost. This analysis has been wholly discredited by pretty well every prominent economist who has addressed the issue. For example, Professor Helm of Oxford, probably Britain’s most eminent energy economist, has recently observed that Stern’s implausibly low ‘cost numbers … [are] all but useless for the purposes of policy design and implementation’. So far from seriously addressing the substantial objections Stern’s critics have made, this book essentially just reiterates the original (non-peer reviewed, incidentally) analysis.

The only significant economic support for Stern’s prescription has come from Professor Weitzman, of Harvard, who accepts that Stern’s cost-benefit analysis is all wrong, but maintains that this is an issue where cost benefit analysis is inapplicable: there is an outside chance of a disaster so great that it needs to be averted irrespective of cost. One obvious problem with this approach, however, is that there is an outside chance of all manner of disasters, and we cannot spend unlimited resources on seeking to avert them all. Moreover, one of them is a new ice age, which would be very much worse; and indeed the formidably eminent scientist, Professor Freeman Dyson of Princeton, believes that any warming that might occur might well be helpful in forestalling a new ice age.

Not that there has been any global warming lately. The recorded global temperature trend so far this century (2001-2008 inclusive) has been completely flat, despite the predicted warming of all the computer models in which Stern places uncritical faith and despite (until the onset of the current world recession) a much faster than predicted growth in carbon emissions. This unexpected development, which at the very least demonstrates that the whole issue is both more complex and less certain than he would have us believe, is blithely ignored by Stern, who assures us that ‘the [temperature] trend is clearly upwards’, and that ‘rapid climate change’ is on the way — although he subsequently defines ‘rapid’ as ‘within the next century or two’. His ability to foretell the distant future is remarkable.

But then respect for the evidence is not a strong point of this book. To take just one example (and there are many), as part of his alarmist narrative he tells us that ‘low-lying island states such as Tuvalu are submerging’. This canard, which I believe was first launched by the climate change propagandist Al Gore, is wholly unfounded. In 1993, scientists from Flinders University in Australia, believing that the old float-type tide gauges used in the South Pacific (which were registering an annual sea-level rise of a negligible 0.7 millimetres a year) must be inaccurate, placed new modern ones around a dozen Pacific islands, including Tuvalu. After more than a decade of finding no sign of any significant sea-level rise (in 2006 Tuvalu actually recorded a fall) the project was abandoned.

Clearly concerned that there is still less than total acceptance of his message, Stern warmly commends direct action by Greenpeace and the like, and warns, mafia style, that ‘there are fewer and fewer hiding places for firms wanting to conceal dubious, unsafe or irresponsible practices’. Even the media are blamed for giving ‘similar time to scientists and deniers of the science, when the balance of argument in logic and evidence is 99 (or more) to 1, not 50-50’.

In fact, the media give far from equal time to the two sides in this debate. As I know from my own experience, it is virtually impossible for a dissenting voice to be given a hearing on any flagship BBC programme, either on radio or on television. But what is truly mind-boggling is Stern’s assertion, without adducing a scrap of supporting evidence, that informed opinion is 99 per cent (or more) on his side. The most thorough survey of the views of climate scientists was conducted by Dr Dennis Bray, a social scientist, and Professor Hans von Storch of the Meteorological Institute at Hamburg University, and published in 2007. Asked whether they agreed with the proposition that ‘climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic [ie man-made] causes’, 66 per cent agreed, of whom 38 per cent ‘strongly agreed’. In other words, a majority well short of Stern’s 99 per cent agreed, and only a minority ‘strongly agreed’.

Moreover, when they were asked what they felt to be ‘the most pressing issue facing humanity today’, which Stern asserts is climate change caused by global warming, only 8 per cent of them placed this first. So it would be closer to the truth to say that probably at least 90 per cent of informed opinion disagrees, one way or another, with Stern’s crude alarmism. If there is one silver lining to the current world recession, it is that it might bring about a dose of realism which will help us to escape from the highly damaging global warming madness which this book epitomises.

Nigel Lawson’s book, An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, is now available, with a new afterword, in paperback (Duckworth Overlook, £6.99).

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