Global Warning

An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming by Nigel Lawson, and Blueprint for a Safer Planet by Nicholas Stern

Both these books look comprehensively at global warming and cover much the same ground in much the same order. There the similarities end. First published last year, Lord Lawson’s Appeal is the best short book on the entire range of issues in the global warming debate that is available from a British publisher. This paperback edition with a substantial new afterword is therefore most welcome. Lawson is lucid, thoughtful and fair-minded. The book’s highly useful footnotes and bibliography attest to Lawson’s familiarity with the wide range of scholarship on the many scientific disciplines that contribute to understanding the climate and with the major economic analyses of the energy-rationing policies proposed to deal with warming.

That should not be surprising. Lawson was an active participant in the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs, which took expert testimony from a wide range of scientists and economists. In 2005, the committee produced the best official report on global warming that has so far been done. Although leading peers from all three major parties were involved and agreed unanimously, their report has been ignored by all three major parties. Its conclusions, you see, were “sceptical”.

Lawson’s book is for the most part sceptical as well. And appropriately so: a healthy scepticism is a most reasonable attitude to take towards claims of intellectual and political authority. He argues that the rate of warming has been modest, the predictions from computer models of much faster rates in the future are not credible, and the possible adverse impacts are wildly exaggerated. Turning to policy, he argues that adapting to changing climate is much more sensible than trying to reduce drastically greenhouse gas emissions, which would be colossally expensive even if it were possible. Lawson observes that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the European Union’s efforts to reduce emissions are not working and that a new international agreement to follow Kyoto that would include the US, China and India is almost certain to fail as well. 

More speculatively, Lawson finds the attraction of pursuing energy-rationing policies that would cause much more harm than the potential global warming they are meant to prevent to be based on a quasi-religious enthusiasm. He shrewdly observes that this recent quasi-religious commitment to saving the planet from a harmless trace gas necessary for life, which is popular among the secularised chattering class, is encouraged by political leaders and government officials because it serves their interests by providing a new rationale for exercising their authority and expanding government control over people’s lives.

Providing a rationale for more government is exactly what Lord Stern has done, first with the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, released in 2006, and now with his Blueprint for a Safer Planet. The then-Chancellor Gordon Brown commissioned the Review to provide support for government climate policy. It was researched by a large team of government economists led by Stern, a senior UK and international bureaucrat and, most conveniently, Labour Party loyalist. Stern, then plain Sir Nicholas, gave Brown and Prime Minister Blair exactly what they wanted and in so doing became a policy wonk celebrity. He was given a life peerage for his efforts.

Although the mammoth Review appears to be a most professional piece of work and contains an impressive economic apparatus, its methodology and analysis have been rubbished by leading resource economists. The include William Nordhaus of Yale, Richard Tol with multiple academic appointments, Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge, and a team headed by David Henderson, former chief economist at the OECD (to whom Lawson dedicates his book).

I expect many more people will buy Stern’s new book than Lawson’s, but I doubt that many will read much of it. It is dreary, tedious and full of humbug, but since it appears to confirm the conventional wisdom, buyers can feel reassured by having it on their shelves. The irony is that Lawson’s understanding, if not his conclusions, is closer to the mainstream than Stern’s. Although acclaimed as a pillar of the establishment view that global warming is a looming catastrophe that requires drastic and immediate action, he is in fact on the extreme fringe on both the science and the economics.

On the science, Stern claims that the case for alarm is indisputable. In fact, however, he does not base his case on scientific facts and observations but rather on the alarming predictions of computer models. As Lawson points out, this is a public relations con by the alarmist industry. The computer models have no forecasting ability, nor do United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists claim that they do, however much they give that impression. 

On the economics, in a section titled “Why some economists got it so badly wrong”, he dismisses in two pages the economists, more distinguished and expert in the field than he is, who criticised his Review. Rather than explaining why this consensus is wrong, Stern mounts his high horse and claims that the economists who disagree with him do so because they are morally obtuse. This is comical. Lawson aptly compares him to Dickens’s immortal creation, Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.

Stern speaks the language of international do-goodism as only a lifelong practitioner can. We must offer the world’s poorest people a low-carbon path out of poverty. Development and saving the planet are not conflicting goals — they can only be accomplished simultaneously. All that is needed is a grand “global deal”. This global deal merely requires international collaboration on an unprecedented scale, well-designed policies that are implemented with great care immediately and pursued with unwavering commitment for 40 years, and a vast redistribution of wealth from rich to poor countries.  In short, international central planning run by people bearing a remarkable resemblance to Lord Stern.

Stern’s global deal looks to me like a series of Heath Robinson contraptions that must be made to run in perfect harmony. I’m not surprised that the Labour government finds it an alluring prospect, but I am disturbed that the intellectual adolescents now leading the Conservative Party have found an agreeable guru in Stern as well. 

The Tories would in my view do much better if they listened to the sage advice of one of their soundest leaders of the past half century — the former Energy Secretary and Chancellor, Nigel Lawson.    

But that may soon happen. Since the Tory leaders base their leadership on what the polls and focus groups tell them to do, even they will eventually recognise that the fad has peaked. Although global warning alarmism is still an article of faith for the chattering class, the general public have never been sold on it and are now becoming painfully aware of the staggering costs to them of reducing emissions.   

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