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Global warming might not be so bad, if we keep our cool

Simon Jenkins May 28 2006

All panics are equal. But some are more equal than others. Present-day government warns us to be very, very afraid, successively of Aids, Saddam Hussein, BSE, terrorists, Sars, bird flu and now global warming. Rulers were once elected to free us from fear, not to increase it. Now they cry wolf every day and use it to demand more power and money into the bargain. Climate change is a hell of a wolf. Last week the BBCs resources were marshalled to produce a royal variety performance of usual suspects: retreating Patagonian glaciers, collapsing Arctic ice shelves, starving Africans, burning rainforests and storm-lashed New Orleans.

It was the best of the end of the world, meant to scare us witless. For added effect, Muhammad was finally brought to the mountain. Sir David Attenborough emerged to declare his conversion to global warming. There is no time left, he said, or only a little time, or perhaps it is already too late. Science is never strong on tenses.

Like a good citizen I try to keep up with this debate, as I once did with global cooling (now called global dimming in deference to the warming ascendancy). I read books on saving the planet and watch television, although the latter is these days less a debate and more concussion with pictures.

Yet every supposed call to arms reduces itself to banality. Scientists imply that Armaggedon is a matter of may or might or could well be, before telling us to use less petrol and flying off to another conference. At such moments I am inclined to join Voltaire in his garden.

Anyone who can add two and two must agree that the globe is getting warmer. We are sophisticated at measuring the life story of the planet and the figures are full of alarm. Carbon dioxide levels are rising, oceans are hotter, ice is melting. Science even appears to have resolved the global cooling paradox. The cooling results from aerosol pollutants whose haze dims the amount of sun falling on the earth. Warming would apparently be even worse if it were not for this dimming. One is outpacing the other, or so it is claimed.

Also clear is that this warming is not like previous ones in historical time. It is not another medieval warm period or little ice age, supposedly caused by changes in sun-spot activity, volcanoes or mysterious climatic rhythms. The 20th centurys soaring carbon dioxide emissions are due to human activity. They reflect a dramatic increase in carbon burning by a growing world population and its industrial production and consumption. Warming is the price of wealth.

My response to this used to be guided by such enlightened writers as James Lovelock. His Gaia thesis saw the planet as an entirety of living things in self-regulatory balance. Its natural components, including human beings, long contended for resources and, like Adam Smiths economy, achieved a rolling equilibrium. Seas rise and fall over time, shorelines and glaciers advance and retreat, some species become extinct while others (such as man) rise to Darwinian dominance. Dinosaurs had it their own way for a while, then Africans, then Northmen. Todays catastrophe is tomorrows rebirth.

Now Lovelock has done an Attenborough. In his new book Revenge of Gaia, he scares himself into the apocalypse lobby by gazing at the ubiquitous J-curve of carbon dioxide emissions as it shoots off the top of the graph. (Attenborough drew the curve in the sand in a hangar so he could walk up it.) Lovelock finds population growth wholly unsustainable and demands that we prepare for a calamity that might be wholly unexpected and unpredicted. Despite this non-sequitur Lovelock is sure that a final collapse might happen and we have little time left.

Panic again takes its toll on tenses. But when Lovelock and Attenborough form a quartet of gloom with Lord May, the former chief scientist, and Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, sensible people must listen. If such dark riders of global warming are upon us, the prospect is grim. Either we do what they say or we are surely for the chop.

Yet it is wholly unclear what we should do beyond something. Reversing the J-curve is beyond the power of persons, communities or even nations. The central thesis of the climate change lobby is that all humanity must, like Faust, renounce its pact with the devil. It must somehow resume a state of grace that ended roughly half-way through the last century.

To read Lovelock and others is to sense a reincarnation of medieval hell. If we do not cease our sinful ways, they wail, we and our descendants will be damned to unspeakable torment in fiery furnaces. There was something of Hieronymus Bosch about Attenboroughs programme. Those of a religious bent may react that God will intervene to save his chosen at the critical moment, but the Archbishop of Canterbury recently offered no more reassurance than to suggest that divine action was  a very big issue.

Just as medieval man did not behave any better when threatened with hell, so it is unrealistic to expect his successors to surrender the gains of industrial progress on the strength of a J-curve. Nor does it help when todays priesthood feuds with all the heat and little light of medieval schoolmen arguing about the number of angels dancing on a pinhead.

Global warming is a stick to beat rich America, but not poor India or China. It will beat the bourgeoisie, the town dweller or the car user. The assorted friends of the earth cry from their jets and turbine factories: make us virtuous  but not yet. Subsidy is spattered all over the place in search of headlines. One lobby demands millions for renewables, yet denies them for nuclear. Another demands the reverse.

Government backs inefficient power sources, such as wind, if they are cheap but not more reliable ones such as wave, solar and subterranean. The future of the earth is apparently a matter of public expenditure. Not a week passes without a press release crossing my desk to harness the Saharan sun to desalinate the ocean and green the desert. As for the antediluvian opposition to nuclear fission and fusion, the one short cut to lower carbon emissions, it merely shows that many warmers are more fad than Faust.

Argument is hopelessly vulnerable to political correctness. Do plane and car exhausts really cause more warming than dimming, and why reduce stratospheric pollution if it really might postpone the end of the world? If population growth is a cause of warming, why regard Aids as a catastrophe equal to it (rather than as a cause for charity), as did Margaret Beckett last week? Are not plagues, like volcanoes and tsunamis, periodic global adjusters? Certainly evidence points to higher seas. But this has happened before and millions already live below sea level. The apocalyptic scenario requires some tipping point at which the entire world goes to hell in a handcart. But it could just get warmer. I cannot see how a return to a warmer Siberia or Greenland is a bad thing for mankind, if not for polar bears.

Most of these warnings rely for their drama on some unpredictable and unexpected catastrophe. Yet presumably a different unpredictable catastrophe could tip the climate the other way. The dinosaurs could not forestall their extinction, nor could the Middle Ages chart the conquest of hell. Some inner faith in technological change tells me that Attenborough and his J-curve will one day seem quaintly out of date after some new, unheralded scientific innovation.

Yet common prudence cannot leave it at that. In the foreseeable future rising sea levels and climatic turbulence seem certain to cause widespread hardship. The test of the present scare is therefore not whether warming can be reversed, but whether countries, especially rich ones, can help those most at risk from its effects. Can new energy be harnessed to relieving desertification? Can fuel policy adjust the warming/dimming balance? Can disaster relief prove more effective and less corrupt than recently?

Some of these things are at least doable. When the 17th-century Dutch thought themselves Gods chosen people they proved it by creating a new land from the sea. They were optimistic and competent and have never looked back. Perhaps we must all become Dutchmen.





































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