Iain Murray, a British conservative, is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. He uses today’s Platform to respond to David Cameron’s recent policy announcement on climate change.
This week, I was planning to endorse David Cameron on the National Review blog The Corner. Not just out of tribal loyalty given my 1980s Oxford background, but because I genuinely believed that he had squared the circle of Tory politics in combining a genuinely conservative approach to the issues of the day with an appeal and communications style that can break the Conservative Party out of the vicious circle of infighting and seeming irrelevance that has bedeviled it for ten years now. However, this week Mr. Cameron gave me pause. His policy on climate change strikes me as so profoundly unconservative that it makes me question whether his approach on other important issues may veer away from conservative principle towards gesture politics and transnationalism.
When I began working on global warming issues several years ago I was firmly of the belief that it was stuff and nonsense. As the scientific facts became clearer, however, my view has changed. It is quite apparent now that the Earth is warming and that mankind has quite a lot to do with it. Yet to go from that realization to the belief that there is a significant problem that can be solved by immediate and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions is a significant leap, perhaps literally into the dark.
To begin with, greenhouse gas emissions are just one part of what we are increasingly realizing is an amazingly complex interaction of man and the climate system. The US National Academies of Science, for instance, last year addressed the issue of "climate forcing," the scientific concept of what causes the atmosphere to heat up. They found that we know very little about important "first-order" forcings of climate change and that the current measures and models concentrating on temperature may be inadequate for projecting what will happen to the climate in the future.
Secondly, even the temperature projections we currently have are so vague that scientists consistently refuse to call them predictions. With good reason, as the projections are based not just on scientific data, but economic guesswork. Moreover, the economic guesswork contains several basic, glaring errors that call into question the whole edifice. The House of Lords report on the Economics of Climate Change, of which Lord Lawson was a key author, is perhaps the best introduction to this subject. It should be noted that the all-party committee approved the report unanimously.
So simply saying that the world is warming and that we know some of this is due to greenhouse gases isn’t enough to justify drastic action that may cause more harm than good. Because switching to a low-carbon or carbon-free economy isn’t a cost-free option. It will require significant investment and substantial opportunity cost. The latter is an important point. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a warmer world. The only reason to take action on climate change is because we fear that it will make the world worse for its inhabitants, specifically in the exacerbating existing problems of malaria, hunger, water shortage, coastal flooding and threats to biodiversity. Using DEFRA’s own research, US analyst Indur Goklany has concluded that the effects of global warming will be smaller than those of other factors in exacerbating the problems. Therefore, it makes sense for us to tackle these problems now so that there will be less to exacerbate in the future. It will be difficult for the world to do that while it is trying to absorb the immense costs of a forced transition to a different energy system.
Those few words of background should suffice to suggest why I am dubious of grand programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It therefore pains me to read David Cameron’s proposals for specific emissions reduction targets, a new public sector bureaucracy, the Carbon Audit Office, and a "coherent approach to energy, transport, housing, planning and agriculture" reminiscent of John Prescott’s master plan for "joined-up government." Let me explain why this approach is, in my belief, unconservative.
First, it fails to adhere to the conservative maxim, so well set out by George Will among others, that we should deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. The targets approach, with "specific year-by-year requirements for carbon reduction," as David Cameron proposes, simply does not work. Remember that 155 countries (all, give or take the odd one, signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) have rejected the targets approach, refusing to commit to reducing emissions under Kyoto. Of the 34 OECD counties, perhaps three are on target to meet their emissions reduction targets. Tony Blair, for all his faults, has recognised that the approach is fundamentally at odds with securing economic growth. Conservatives should understand economic reality better than Tony Blair.
Secondly, the approach is imprudent. The House of Lords report has made clear that, while the science that says the earth is currently warming is robust, the economics that suggest catastrophe will result are far from clear. Mr. Cameron says, "By the time we find out whether or not the science is unambiguously right, the costs of remedying the situation will be vastly greater than the costs of taking precautionary action today." Strangely enough he is right here, but his proposed course of precautionary action may cost vastly more than the costs of even quite severe climate change. That is why the precautionary action we should be taking is of the "no regrets" variety. We should be looking at changes to the way we do things that will be beneficial even if climate change does not turn out to be a problem, and that will help greatly if it does.
A possible package of such reforms includes: removing regulatory barriers to innovation, eliminating energy subsidies, deregulating energy markets and deregulating transport markets, all of which would encourage technological innovation and efficiency; removing barriers to telecommuting and suburban growth, which would reduce the need for long commutes; reforming fisheries policy to replenish fish stocks and reduce destruction of coral reefs and the ocean floor; and tackling the potential threats of climate change at source by investing in malaria prevention and treatment, solving agricultural problems that make the food supply vulnerable, encouraging water pricing and transferable water rights in the developing world, helping low-lying countries develop sea defences and reducing habitat loss by encouraging efficiency.
Such a package would cost far less than the emissions reduction approach and be beneficial whatever happens with the climate. Moreover, Britain is in a unique position thanks to its Commonwealth connections to help the developing world in beneficial mitigation efforts. One might also think that a conservative would view working with Commonwealth in this area as rather preferable to subservience to an EU-led effort that amounts to a little more than a wealth transfer from Britain to the continent.
Finally, one should be mindful that the Carbon Audit Office would not be analogous to the Bank of England, which provides a useful check to government power. Instead, because it is based on the false premise that carbon reduction targets are a good thing, it will quickly become a rod for the economy’s back. There is already a huge and thriving rent-seeking industry that exists parasitically on British commerce precisely because of government policies in this area. It is likely to exercise disproportionate influence on the new Office, which will quickly become just another quango of the sort Mrs. Thatcher rightly abolished in the 1980s.
Speaking of Lady Thatcher, her name is often preyed in aid by Tories who point out that she was the first world leader to raise the global warming issue towards the end of her ministry. As I pointed out in an article last year on Mrs. Thatcher’s environmentalism, in her book Statecraft she "Makes it clear that she regards global warming less as an ‘environmental’ threat and more as a challenge to human ingenuity that should be grouped with challenges such as AIDS, animal health, and genetically modified foods. In her estimation, ‘All require first-rate research, mature evaluation and then the appropriate response. But no more than these does climate change mean the end of the world; and it must not either mean the end of free-enterprise capitalism.’"
Global warming is a serious issue that requires serious and innovative thought. Sadly, the approach proposed by David Cameron is merely a rehash of mid-90s market socialism. David Cameron has a reputation as an original thinker, a modernizer even. In his approach to global warming, he reveals himself as behind the times. He, the party and the world deserve much better.