We scarcely need our fifth freezing winter in a row to remind us of the probability that future generations may look back on the panic over global warming which suddenly gripped the world in the late 1980s as one of the oddest scientific and political aberrations in history. Why did such an unprecedented scare blow up when it did, thanks to a moderate rise of just 0.5 degrees C in global temperatures, when earlier in the 20th century a similar temperature rise between 1910 and 1940 had been accepted as perfectly natural: as simply another phase in the general warming trend which had begun 200 years earlier, after four centuries of the ‘Little Ice Age’ when the world had cooled?
Future historians may be amazed by the speed with which this belief that the entire future of life on the planet was threatened by human emissions of carbon dioxide became the prevailing orthodoxy of the time. Less than four years after it began making world headlines in 1988 it led to the largest conference the world had ever seen, when more than 100 heads of government gathered in Rio, to agree that the human race must take drastic steps to reduce its emissions of a gas inseparable from almost all the activities of modern industrial civilisation.
They will see how for a while this belief carried all before it, as CO2 levels and temperatures continued to rise, just as had been predicted by the computer models relied on by that unique body set up by the UN to become the central driver of the scare, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But gradually, as the politicians of Europe and America proposed ever more dramatic measures to meet the supposed threat, it became clear that temperatures were no longer rising as the official computer models said they should. Ever more searching questions were being raised about the manipulation of the evidence being used to promote the scare. Finally in 2009 the world’s leaders again assembled, in Copenhagen, for a conference five times larger even that in Rio, where it was hoped that they would agree a treaty designed to change the entire future course of civilisation, and incidentally to land mankind with its largest bill in history.
After two weeks of acrimonious haggling the talks collapsed, for reasons which had already become apparent 12 years earlier at Kyoto. There was no way the fast-growing economies of the developing world, led by China and India, were going to accept any restriction on their drive to catch up with the richer countries which, if there really was a problem, they saw as having been responsible for it in the first place. Thus did all those years of negotiations designed to reach a world-changing agreement peter out in fiasco.
It is an astonishing story, and Rupert Darwall, a former City analyst, rightly makes the debacle of Copenhagen the climax of his account of it. Indeed, considering its importance, it might seem strange that this is only the second book which has tried to reconstruct that story, the first being my own, The Real Global Warming Disaster, published just before Copenhagen in 2009. Because public interest was so high at that time, my version became one of the three top sellers on the subject of the past decade, alongside those by Al Gore and James Lovelock (who later recanted much of what he had said earlier).
Apart from Darwall being able to end his book on a gripping account of what actually happened at Copenhagen, our two books inevitably cover much of the same ground and I was naturally interested to see which bits of the story he has been able to tell more fully. In terms of explaining why in the 1980s the belief in man-made warming was ‘an idea whose time had come’, we both explore the crucial importance of that fundamental shift of consciousness, focused in such books as Silent Spring and The Limits to Growth, which heralded the rise of ‘environmentalism’; and the belief that mankind had become a cuckoo in the nest of creation, capable unless we mended our ways of destroying all life on the planet.
We both describe the extraordinarily important part in the story played by the left-wing Canadian businessman Maurice Strong, organiser of the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, who primarily saw the new environmentalism as a means to divert huge resources from richer countries to the developing world. But Darwall also brings to light the remarkable influence behind the scenes of the British economist Barbara Ward, author of that nebulous phrase ‘sustainable development’, made famous through the 1987 Brundtland Report (in which Strong was also a participant).
Darwall rightly singles out 1988 as the year when global warming took centre stage, through James Hansen’s theatrical tour de force in front of a US Senate Committee and the setting up in Geneva of the IPCC. But here he gives insufficient background to the fact that the little group of men behind the IPCC, including John Houghton, the head of the UK Met Office, never intended that it should have any other purpose than to promote that belief in what they called ‘human-induced climate change’ to which they were already fanatically committed.
Darwall again identifies the importance of the role played by Margaret Thatcher who, as an early convert to the new orthodoxy, backed Houghton in making the Met Office’s new Hadley Centre one of its most influential champions. But, curiously, he does not mention how comprehensively in her last book in 2002 she recanted her earlier enthusiasm, in terms which made her one of the first of the latter-day ‘climate sceptics’.
One of the strengths of Darwall’s book is that he has interviewed some of the key players behind the scenes, thus teasing out many fascinating details which add to our understanding of the story, as in his devastating account of the utterly dotty but hugely influential Stern Review commissioned by Tony Blair in 2006. He gives fuller and more graphic accounts than have appeared before of various of the key UN gatherings designed to further the official agenda. But although he usefully discusses the release of those ‘Climategate’ emails just before Copenhagen, which revealed so much about the comparatively tiny group of scientists responsible for pushing the scare at the heart of the IPCC establishment, he surprisingly says almost nothing about the other scandals which erupted around the IPCC in the wake of Copenhagen, which did even more to expose the unscientific nature of that ruthlessly propagandist body than its earlier promotion of the notorious ‘hockey stick’ temperature graph.
Darwall’s book has been widely praised as a welcome addition to our understanding of this extraordinary story, which as he says reflects a historic shift in the global balance of power between the West and those fast-rising nations to the east led by China and India. But he barely touches on another aspect of the colossal price we in the West are still having to pay for it, nowhere more than here in Britain, in the profoundly damaging way the CO2 theory has been allowed to hijack our energy policy, The real irony of the greatest scare story the world has seen is that, although the science which drove it has come to seem ever more questionable, our politicians remain quite oblivious to this, locked into a policy which is now the biggest single question mark over our economic future. Herein lies the real battle which remains for us to fight and it is not going to be easy.