The next generation is watching, Barack Obama told the Paris climate conference: ‘Our grandchildren, when they look back and see what we did in Paris, they can take pride in what we did.’ And that, surely, is the trouble with the entire climate change agenda: putting the interests of rich people’s grandchildren ahead of those of poor people today.
Unfair? Not really, when you look at the policies enacted in the name of mitigating climate change. We’ve diverted 40 per cent of America’s maize crop to feeding cars instead of people, thus driving up the price of food worldwide, a move which according to one study killed about 192,000 poor people in 2010 alone, and continues to affect nutrition worldwide. We’ve restricted aid funding for fossil-fuelled power stations in developing countries, leaving many people who would otherwise have had access to electricity mired in darkness and cooking over wood-fires — the biggest environmental cause of ill health, responsible for more than three million deaths every year.
Closer to home, by pushing up energy prices with climate policies, we’ve contributed to the loss of jobs of steelworkers in Redcar and Scunthorpe, and of aluminium workers in Northumberland (where I live and where coal from under my land has supplied the now-closed Lynemouth smelter — whose power station announced this week that it will reopen as a ‘biomass’ plant, that is to say burning wood from American forests, producing more carbon dioxide per unit of energy and at twice the price of coal). We’ve also worsened fuel poverty among the poor and elderly and we’ve damaged air quality in cities. These human costs are not imaginary or theoretical: they are real.
But ends can be used to justify means, and omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs. We justify the painful impact of policy by saying over and over that it helps to avert a far greater threat that faces ‘our grandchildren’. So exactly how great is that threat?
Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University, one of the world’s most respected climate economists, has had a stab at answering this question in a new paper accepted for publication in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, which takes all 22 published studies of all the impacts of climate change, good and bad, economic and environmental, and generates an average effect on welfare. This is what he has to say:
Global warming of 2.5˚C would make the average person feel as if she had lost 1.3 per cent of her income… That is, a century of climate change is about as good/bad for welfare as a year of economic growth. Statements that climate change is the biggest problem of humankind are unfounded: We can readily think of bigger problems.
Up till 2.2˚C, he says, our grandchildren will actually still be better off as a result of global warming. When I first reported in The Spectator in 2013 that the balance of evidence suggests that mild global warming will do more good than harm and that this would continue till the later decades of this century, I was subjected to torrents of abuse in the Guardian and other house organs of wealthy greens. Yet it has now come to be accepted as conventional wisdom.
Yes, but what if climate change proves worse than we expect and the century sees more than 2.5˚C of warming? (Actually, given what we now know about climate sensitivity, that’s unlikely: the probability density function for such rapid warming is very slim and depends on unrealistically large net-positive feedbacks.) Professor Tol says the following: ‘The impact of climate change does not significantly deviate from zero until 3.5˚C warming.’ And remember that ‘our grandchildren’ will on average be much richer than we are today. If they are not, then there’s not much of a problem because they won’t be generating emissions at a worrying rate.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assumes in its various scenarios that the people of 2100 will be between three and 20 times as well off in income terms as the people of today — and that’s despite climate change. In the ‘middle of the road’ scenario prepared by the OECD for the IPCC, which sees generally disappointing global economic progress, the average Indonesian, Brazilian or Chinese will earn at least twice as much as today’s American does. That’s how rich ‘our grandchildren’ will be, never mind Barack’s. In causing pain today for benefit tomorrow, we are transferring money from the poor to the rich.
So let’s just pause to reflect what is going on here. President Obama, President Putin, Prince Charles, Ban Ki-Moon and the Pope are urging us to worry about what will probably be a 1.3 per cent fall in the income (or about 3.5 per cent if we get 3.5˚C of warming) of a person who is at least three times as well off as we are today. That is to say, they would be at least 196.5 per cent richer, instead of 200 per cent. And yet world leaders are prepared to adopt and defend policies that hurt poor people today in order to try to avert this very slight pay cut for the very wealthy of tomorrow. In what universe does this entitle them to occupy the moral high ground?
Oh and by the way, perhaps we should ask the poor people of the world themselves what they think about this? On Monday Mr Obama quoted an Indonesian girl he met recently who was worried about climate change. I wonder how he managed to find her. The United Nations is carrying out a huge online survey of people’s priorities. Called ‘My World’, it allows people to rank 16 categories of things they care about. So far more than 8.5 million people have voted, mostly from poorer countries, and the number is growing all the time. Education, health, jobs and good governance come top. Action on climate change comes last — and not by a narrow margin either: it lags well behind the second-least popular priority (phone and internet access). Even among people aged 15 or younger, it comes last.
Climate change is an obsession of the rich which is not shared by the global poor, who care more about everything, even getting online. They can see all too well that a slight diminution of income in two generations’ time is not as important as decent health, education and a better living standard today. So let’s cut the humbug about speaking on behalf of poor posterity, please. Though they might not mean to, the green great and good are on the side of the rich.
Not that the inhabitants of rich countries are any longer much enamoured of such policies. As Gallup reports: ‘Warming has generally ranked last among Americans’ environmental worries each time Gallup has measured them with this question over the years.’ In another poll last week just 13 per cent of Canadians chose climate change as one of their top three concerns.
In Globescan’s poll for the BBC of 20 countries, there has been a marked decline in concern about climate change, and in enthusiasm for climate policies, since 2009: only four countries now have majorities in favour of their governments setting ambitious targets at a global conference in Paris, compared with eight before the Copenhagen meeting in 2009. Just under half of people in these countries consider climate change a ‘very serious’ problem, compared with 63 per cent in 2009.
The Paris climate conference has attracted about 40,000 delegates and camp followers, from politicians and civil servants to journalists and campaigners. I don’t have the numbers, but I would be willing to bet that very few of them paid their own air fares or hotel bills. A goodly proportion will have sent the bill to taxpayers in various countries, either directly or via the grants that governments give to green pressure groups.
Perhaps the politicians should stop listening to the vested interest of the Green Blob and begin asking what long-suffering taxpayers and real voters think about hitting poor people today in order to protect the incomes of rich people in 2100?
Matt Ridley’s books include The Rational Optimist, The Red Queen and Genome.