Samuel Brittan

Why we must dare to debate

The climate change debate in Britain exhibits the hallmarks of a collective craze. Asking dispassionate questions is not sacrilegious, says Samuel Brittan

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I have no expertise on the subject of global warming; nor do I have a strong view about it. But I do know attempted thought control and hostility to free speech when I see it; and I find these unlovely phenomena present among all too many of the enthusiasts for climate action. Words such as ‘denial’ are intentionally brought into the debate and recall those who deny the reality of the Nazi Holocaust.

Since my undergraduate days I have been carrying around a copy of John Stuart Mill’s timeless essay On Liberty, which contains the following stirring sentence: ‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’ Less often cited is another passage: ‘However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may be to admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.’

Too many of the enthusiasts for action on global warming not only implicitly reject these teachings of Mill, they give the impression of never having read or even heard of On Liberty. The atmosphere resembles more one of medieval heresy hunting than free scientific enquiry. To put it more kindly: I am reminded of those dreadful ‘experiments’ in school physics where you could do what you like provided you obtained the result preordained in the textbook.

It is for such reasons that I have accepted the invitation to sit on the Academic Advisory Council of Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation. Characteristically, many of those who have rushed to condemn it have not read its remit, which is not to propagate the views of Nigel Lawson, or anyone else, but to subject ‘both the claims of the damage that might be caused by any future warming and the costs and consequences of alternative policies that might be put in place, to dispassionate analysis based on hard evidence and economic rigour’. The trustees and the Academic Advisory Council cover a wide range of political, economic and scientific opinion and are determined to see this remit is observed.

The Economist, which loudly proclaims its adherence to global warming orthodoxy, nevertheless has this to say about the leaked emails from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit: ‘A more serious concern is that they believe in global warming too much and that their commitment to the cause leads them to tolerate poor scientific practice, to close themselves off from criticism, and to deny reasonable requests for data.’ Such considerations alone show how necessary the new foundation is.

I have been asked what accounts for the intolerant way in which global warming is discussed. I can only make a few guesses. It is always difficult to secure a hearing for a minority view when the main political parties are all officially arranged on the other side. I am reminded of a very different issue: the de facto ban in all the main organs of publication (except The Spectator) of any discussion of the devaluation of sterling for much of the 1960s. Then there are the collective crazes which take over from time to time. These range all the way from superstitious nonsense, such as predicting the date of the end of the world, to the gross exaggeration of remote dangers such as the millennium bug and the elevation of what might be an important real threat into a religious crusade, which sweeps aside all other issues and considerations, as in the case of global warming.

For the record, I have always been an environmentalist since the time when, as an out-of-breath schoolboy cyclist, I discovered that towns shown as separate on the map were linked by miles of hideous ribbon building. More seriously, the dangers from global warming need to be compared to the dangers of other forms of environmental damage, some of which may be enhanced by orthodox climate action, for instance the aggravation of world food shortages by hideous acres of rapeseed fields. Then there is the ridiculous notion of Britain ‘showing an example’. For instance, a department store I use has withdrawn its very handy plastic bags which could be re-used many times in favour of hideous brown paper bags which break open under the slightest load.

My instinctive reaction is to back policies for climate change which might also be justified on other grounds, e.g. the threat to energy supplies, or the environmental damage caused by the detritus of industrial civilisation — symbolised by cemeteries of disused cars; but to hesitate where action can only be justified by controversial projections of the kind with which I am all too familiar from macroeconomics.

There would seem to be two crucial policy issues to analyse, even if the scientific evidence is all in, which it is not. The first is, what rate of social discount to apply to future damage. It is not good enough to say, as some academics do, that any rate above zero is immoral. Does this cover the state of the planet or the universe in ten million years’ time?

A more difficult question is what to do about a small probability of a huge disaster. This has been the deciding factor for some otherwise dispassionate analysts. But to raise the issue does not settle the matter. There must be other areas where threats exist and before one can draw conclusions about global warming, it is necessary to examine how such threats have been treated — and see if a common approach is possible. This is the problem. And I hope that the foundation will contribute towards a solution.

Samuel Brittan is a columnist on the Financial Times and a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.