is a Conservative policy advisor, speechwriter and contributor to
The Guardian’s Comment Is Free.

I’m a great admirer of Ruth Lea. A brave
and early critic of Gordon Brown, she stood up to New Labour while the big boys
of the business world were still sucking up. And despite her background in the
pointy-headed world of
think-tanks, she communicates her ideas with a clarity that puts most of our
elected politicians to shame.

Thus her letter in Wednesday’s Telegraph, in which she advances a
highly sceptical line on climate change, is all the more disappointing. But it
does, at least, gather up the key themes of the sceptical case in a few short
paragraphs. So here they are, with a brief critique of each:

change is always happening

Climate change sceptics are quick to point out
that the Earth’s climate is changing all the time. And so it is. But the
examples they give invariably fall into one of two categories: ‘major but
prehistoric’ and ‘recent but minor’. An example of the latter is the so-called
‘little ice age’ – an era of frost fairs held on the River Thames. But the
thing about the little ice age is that it was, well, little. For significant
climate change on a global scale you have to go back to the end of the last
proper ice age. However, you have to remember that this took place over
thousands of years and that the human population of the time was sparse and
nomadic. If anything like the same degree of climate change took place now,
squeezed into a shorter time frame, then the consequences for civilisation and
billions of people would be catastrophic. There is nothing in our history that
compares with the scale, spread and speed of what might happen within our
lifetimes and those of our children and grandchildren.

is no scientific consensus on climate change

The validity of this argument would depend
on how you define consensus. If you’re using the word as a synonym for
unanimity, then there is indeed no consensus on climate change. If on the other
hand you’re  using it in the sense of
‘mainstream view’, then there most certainly is a consensus – and an
overwhelming one at that.

rises in global temperatures are not significant and in anycase there’s no
proof that they’re manmade

Most scientists would dispute this. But the
temperature rises seen so far are not the point. What counts are the temperatures
we could see as a result of the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere. Climate change sceptics hate talking about carbon. That’s because
there’s no disputing the fact that atmospheric concentrations are rising at a
rate unprecendented in human history – just as there’s no disputing the fact
that human activity is to blame. Thus mankind faces an awesome decision: just
how far can we carry on with this fundamental change to our planetary life
support system? In this respect, the sceptics have forfeited all claims to
moral seriousness – not because they’ve come up with a different answer to the scientific
mainstream, but because they won’t even tackle the question.

and the planet have adapted before and will do so again

Humankind and human civilisation have never
experienced the rise in carbon dioxide levels that we’re seeing now. As Ruth Lea
says, the climatic consequences are unpredictable; but that doesn’t mean that
they’re improbable. Blithe reassurances that we will somehow ‘adapt’ lack
conviction when they come from those who have no intention of planning for a
future they don’t believe in. Come to think of it, they won’t even plan for the
climate threats they do believe in, as the US
authorities demonstrated in the
wake of hurricane Katrina. Of course, in the long-term, the planet will adapt –
but on a timescale that will provide no comfort to the human victims of climate

parts of the globe will benefit from climate change

The sceptics, who are so keen to remind us of
the uncertainty of climatic factors, are nethertheless willing to forecast
sunny spells in Sweden, Siberia and other such places. It seems that even
clouds of carbon dioxide have a silver lining. This betrays a remarkably simplistic understanding of the consequences
of global warming. The cold does of course make life hard in northerly
latitudes. But human societies, like the local flora and fauna, have adapted
themselves to these conditions. Rapid climate change will therefore be as
disuptive there as anywhere else. For instance, melting permafrost is already causing terrible
damage to roads and buildings in Russia,
Alaska and Canada. In short, we should never
underestimate the economic value of climate stability. If you need convincing
just ask the insurance industry.

nothing we can do about it anyway

This is an extraordinary claim. If humanity
is supposedly capable of ‘adapting’ to whatever the climate throws at us, then
we are certainly capable of taking the measures necessary to reduce our
reliance on fossil fuels. Throughout the industrial world individuals and
organisations are demonstrating that it is possible to achieve big cuts in
carbon emissions and make money at the same time. Though Ruth Lea accuses the
“eco-fundamentalists” of failing to acknowledge the hidden benefits of climate
change, the real oversight is on the part of sceptics who fail to acknowledge
the side benefits of fighting climate
change. Energy efficiency saves on needless expense as well as emissions.
Microgeneration technologies break the stranglehold of the anti-competitive
energy giants. Renewable power counteracts the destabilising geopolitical
influence of fossil and nuclear energy.

Kyoto is doomed to failure

Finally we come to the dear old Kyoto treaty. It seems
that the sceptics don’t like the idea of emissions targets for each signatory
nation. I wonder, if by the same logic, they think the World Trade Organisation
should just allow each signatory nation to cut its tariff barriers as and when
it feels like it? Surely, a degree of reciprocity is required both in regard to
free trade and carbon abatement. Of course, the WTO has a big advantage in that
it is able to enforce trade agreements by penalising infractions. The Kyoto mechanism needs
beefing up in much the same way, but instead of this the sceptics want to
replace it with something even weaker. This really would doom Kyoto to failure – but that, of course, is
exactly what the sceptics are hoping for.

17 comments for: Peter Franklin: Rebutting climate change scepticism

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