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Newsletter 19th January 2007

- Climate change: two views of Stern - Energy security - Atomic scientists get in on the act
 
Climate change: two views of Stern
Once again, climate change is the focus of our attention. This week, Sir Nicholas
Stern personally launched the book version of his eponymous review called, rather unadventurously “The economics of climate change”. At the same time, a double-barrelled critique of his work became available on the internet, prior to its publication in the respected journal World Economics later this month. The contrast could hardly be greater.
 
On Monday, a capacity audience at the RSA gave a warm welcome to the man himself, together with two commentators: Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace and Dr Jon Gibbins of Imperial College, with the whole event moderated by Stephanie Flanders, economics editor of Newsnight. As you will have surmised, this was not an event designed to generate controversy. Even the audience questions at the end were hardly challenging. The small minority of dissenters in the room kept their own counsel and considerately did not spoil the fun. And to hear Sir Nicholas and others speak, it would seem there was little to question. Criticisms already received were dealt with in a fairly sweeping fashion; the science is settled, and now so is the economics.
 
Meanwhile, in the virtual world (and perhaps much of the real world, too), the impression could hardly be more different. The “dual critique” (of both the science and the economics), put together under Professor David Henderson’s initiative takes 68 pages and casts severe doubts both on the starting assumptions and on the economic analysis.
 
If the science is wrong, then of course anything based on it will be equally flawed. And the criticisms come thick and fast. The essence is not that the IPCC view of the influence of Mankind’s emissions of CO2 is necessarily wrong, just that there is plenty of evidence which appears to contradict this hypothesis. This evidence is neither taken seriously by the mainstream nor properly addressed. Although not unusual group behaviour, this is not a very sound scientific approach, and tends to make sceptics more rather than less wary.
 
Even if the science is right (and it may be), there is a school of thought amongst economists (not least of whom are David Henderson and Nigel Lawson, two of the co-authors of the critique) which says that the approach of Stern and his admirers is just plain wrong. Even a rather low discount rate (say 2-3%) would make large-scale expenditure now to reduce damage which might occur many decades hence completely uneconomic: discounted benefits would be vastly outweighed by the costs. But the counter argument by Stern and others is that this conventional approach effectively values our own lives and comforts more than those of our descendants. To correct this, which is seen as an unethical and unacceptable approach, Stern uses a discount rate of only 0.1%, which transforms the situation and makes large expenditure now seemingly good value.
 
This argument is essentially an emotional one. Many of those who are uncritical of current mainstream climate science find it easy to believe that the human race is responsible for disrupting Nature, and that the guilt should be assuaged. The possibility of causing harm to future generations is, of course, not one to be dismissed lightly. However, the concept that we can know what trajectory progress will take and therefore guide it in a benign way is surely wrong. Can we honestly look back from the early 21st century and say that there are things which our grandparents or great-grandparents should have consciously done for our benefit? Yes, the previous century encompassed two enormously destructive world wars and a number of Manmade catastrophes brought about mainly by a small number of totalitarian regimes, but no-one can deny the enormous strides made in both length and quality of life in the last 50 years, even for many in the world’s poorest regions. We have vastly greater capacity than our forebears to maintain and improve our environment.
 
Central planning doesn’t work, even on a national level. Predicting and controlling the future for the whole world is orders of magnitudes more challenging.
 
Energy security
This newsletter is being drafted on a battery-powered laptop by candlelight: a rather pleasing juxtaposition of technologies. The high winds have brought down power cables in several areas and, once again, we realise how much we depend on power being on tap for nearly everything in our daily lives. Fortunately, the weather is mild. Assuming that the engineers are able to fix the cables soon, we should have no more than a few hours of inconvenience. If it stretches to a day, food in our freezers begins to thaw, we run out of hot water, and we become a little less sanguine about the whole thing.
 
Over the coming years, large chunks of our generating capacity will be decommissioned, as many coal and nuclear plants come to the end of their useful lives. We need to replace them sooner rather than later, and not just by more gas-fired stations which make us even more reliant on the good nature of Mr Putin and his successors. Neither will the much-vaunted wind power do much good. During the only cold spell so far this winter, most of the country was becalmed; during the present windy spell, most turbines would have to be shut down for safety reasons.
 
Government has an obligation to provide energy security for the population. If it continues to insist on the need to decarbonise our economy, then that means investment in either or both of nuclear and coal (with carbon capture and sequestration). There is little sign of anything happening, despite the talk. Any party which lets the lights go out on a regular basis has little hope of re-election.
 
Atomic scientists get in on the act
For 60 years, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has presented a virtual timepiece – the Doomsday clock – to represent their view of the current threat to humankind. For the first time, they have now taken account of the view that Manmade climate change also has the capacity to cause a global catastrophe, and advanced the clock two minutes. The hands now stand at five to midnight (midnight represents the end of the world as we know it), the latest they have ever been. Clearly atomic scientists, already a pretty pessimistic bunch, have had their spirits lowered still further by the climate change community. This was reinforced by some gloomy thoughts from Sir Martin Rees and Stephen Hawking.
 
So, more hype, but still no sign of the global action we have been promised, and this will not happen until the majority of voters are ready to accept the costs.