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Friday, 31 October 2014

Less wizardry, please

Ethical Economy: Cooling down global warming

Something has gone wrong with global warming. It’s not that the world has stopped heating up. It’s that the anti-warming political movement, which seemed almost unstoppable when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, has stalled.

Last week’s United Nation’s climate change conference in Durban ended with little more than an agreement to talk some more about what to do next. Even that was too much for Canada, which has just said no to emission-reduction targets. The activists blame recalcitrant governments and many commentators blame economic distractions. They are probably both right, but I think the activists’ own approach bears much of the responsibility.

While only experts can judge the strength of the scientific evidence for man-made climate change, no technical knowledge is required to be troubled by the way the activists present their case. The willingness to describe knowledgeable opponents as “deniers”, a word previously used only for fantasists about Nazi atrocities, suggests a very unscientific attitude.

The “Climategate” emails show scientists so passionate about their beliefs that they are unwilling to brook opposition. Fervour seems to have led to overconfidence. The status of the claim that recent years have been by far the warmest in a millennium has been downgraded from certain in 2001 to likely or mistaken (depending on the expert consulted).

The activists’ excess of passion and certainty has led them to a dogmatic conviction that a radical policy – rapid and sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions – is required to save the world. Since industrial economies cannot yet function without using large amounts of energy generated by burning carbon, the anti-carbon prescription equates to a campaign against prosperity – tough on rich countries (too tough for Canada to bear) and practically a sentence of economic stagnation for poor ones.

Such draconian measures only make sense if global warming is exactly what devout affirmers say it is – hazardous, accelerating, man-made and about to go non-linear (science-talk for catastrophic). Otherwise, a more moderate strategy makes sense. We should work on energy conservation (good in any case), increase research on carbon-neutral technologies and build up industrial production and prosperity in poor countries so they will be better able to marshal technological forces against the problems which global warming may eventually cause.

Why do activists show so little interest in such a sensible compromise? I blame the sorcerer’s apprentice. In the 1797 poem by JW Goethe (familiar from in the Walt Disney film Fantasia), this clever student is able to invoke – but not control – the magical-technological ability to turn a broom into a water-carrying machine. The man-made global warming activists tell a less poetic version of the same story. It goes like this: we have learned how to use the energy stored in the earth to serve our purposes, but do not know the spell which keeps the unleashed energy from destroying us – and we have no equivalent to the poem’s old master to rescue us from our carbon folly. Halfway countermeasures are likely to replicate the apprentice’s effort to stop the broom by splitting it with an axe – he ended up with two brooms and twice the trouble. Under the circumstance, moderation would be madness.

Durban is history, but the debate on global warming can still be calmed down. Activists need to admit that both their scientific analyses and their policy recommendations have been under the spell of this sorcerer’s apprentice-model. Rather than telling a simple tale of good (themselves) and evil (unresponsive industry and anyone who disagrees with them), they should accept that possible man-made climate change is a complex topic which deserves dispassionate study. True, delay might prove dangerous, but so too might hasty action. Besides, in practice, the activists’ current approach has been tried and found wanting.

A call for more careful study is not a counsel of despair. Rather, it is a call for aid from one of the most effective power-groups in the contemporary economy: scientists and engineers working together with politically sensitive regulators. Consider the dark arts of aviation, mobile phone technology and nuclear power (now there’s something with a sorcerer’s apprentice-feel). In all these domains, knowledge has been advancing steadily, accidents are rare and well grounded criticism has helped to make the technologies safer and more acceptable.

Indeed, in the modern economy this technical-regulatory complex – undramatic committees meeting in unbeautiful offices – plays the heroic role of the master sorcerer. It does not permit wild experiments and it eventually changes old practices when new evidence comes along. If climate change is to be taken seriously, the IPCC and U.N. conferences need to have less madness and more method.

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