Is the climate around global warming changing?

Monday’s Panorama was the BBC’s most balanced look yet at the real ambiguities of climate science and policy.

Rob Lyons

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It didn’t start well. Monday night’s edition of Panorama, entitled ‘What’s Up With the Weather?’ aimed to examine British attitudes to climate change and the state of the science in the wake of both ‘Climategate’ and the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change last December. And that seemed to mean presenter Tom Heap sticking a carbon dioxide detector into a car exhaust to prove it was helping to warm the planet.

The programme did, however, get better. What was striking about it was that the BBC, which has tended to be gung-ho in its presentation of the dangers of global warming, actually presented those who are sceptical of the orthodoxy in a reasonably fair way. In doing so, it accepted that there is a genuine debate – and not some Big Oil-funded attempt to pervert the course of environmental justice, as some earlier BBC programmes have suggested. That debate is about what has caused the moderate rise in temperature over the past 150 years, how much warmer things will get, and what the best policy is to deal with a changing world. In turn, this reflects (hopefully) a more rational turn in the politics of climate change.

One thing that became very clear was how much agreement there is between ‘sceptics’ (also known as ‘deniers’ in too much of the discussion about climate in recent years) and those holding a mainstream view. Well-known US climate scientist John Christy from the University of Alabama and Danish ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Bjørn Lomborg broadly agreed with Bob Watson, former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Bob Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change (both of whom have been vitriolic in their attacks on sceptics in the past) on the basic science of global warming:

  • the world has got warmer over the past 150 years
  • carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas
  • human activity has emitted a lot of additional carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere
  • this human activity is to some extent responsible for global warming

The differences of opinion come when we get to the issue of how much influence all those cars, planes, factories and farms have on the temperature and what it means for the future. Christy believes that the human influence is fairly small – about ‘a quarter’ of the current warming, he guesses. Watson and Ward believe that most of the recent warming has been due to humans and that this means markedly increased temperatures, with potentially disastrous consequences, if we do not decarbonise the economy. Lomborg is far from being a sceptic on climate science; he is really critical of the policy response rather than the IPCC’s estimates for future temperature. He believes that cutting carbon emissions drastically and quickly would be far too expensive and that what we need is a mix of research into low-carbon energy sources and a degree of adaptation to a warmer world.

What seems to have slowly dawned on those banging the drum for radical action on climate change is that the attempt to panic the population into accepting drastic cuts in living standards to counter rising temperatures has failed. Instead, this approach has merely confirmed for many people that the whole thing is a green conspiracy. In the programme, Heap talked to one ordinary couple about their attitudes to climate change. While the wife was convinced it was a major problem, the husband thought it was just a scare story. But this sharp difference of opinion soon collapsed when it came to the costs of switching to a low-carbon economy. While the orthodox approach to climate change would involve increasing the cost of energy (and therefore, pretty much everything else), this couple – like most others, one suspects – was concerned that energy prices were already too high.

Former IPCC boss Bob Watson suggested to Heap that we should be prepared to pay to insure against future warming, just as we insure against a fire in our homes. That sounds fair enough. But the price of the insurance is important here. Insurance only makes sense if the cost is small, yet some of the proposals for cutting emissions sound positively ruinous.

Another side to the programme was the discussion of what Climategate – the release of previously private emails and data last year from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia – really told us about the science. The importance of the material contained in this disclosure has sometimes been overstated by many critics of the climate orthodoxy, alleging a conspiracy between researchers to massage data and suppress dissent. While some of what is discussed in the CRU emails sails close to that, it ignores the real problem: the wider environment in which the climate debate has taken place.

The real driver of the climate change scare has been the political demand for certainty, a Great Moral Truth that society can be organised around. The genuine ambiguities of the science and the policy options have been obliterated – something that the BBC itself has been serially guilty of. If critics of the orthodoxy push the idea of a ‘conspiracy’ too much, this may divert attention from the real lesson of Climategate: that this climate change business is all just a lot more complicated than many have been prepared to admit and pressing the panic button right now would be a very stupid idea.

This became all too apparent at the Copenhagen summit. For all the talk about huge emissions cuts, there was an enormous degree of bad faith at work. No credible politician was really going to commit to the policies that might produce rapid decarbonisation of the economy, least of all leaders of rapidly developing countries who need all the energy – ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’ – they can get. (The fact that the UK parliament passed a law last year committing the country to such drastic emissions cuts says much about the state of political life here.) The Kyoto-style, targets-driven policy for international cuts in greenhouse gas emissions has been an expensive failure.

A new approach is required that takes a more grown-up approach to climate change, one that is based on dealing with a potential practical problem of rising temperatures rather than an existential crisis that demands the wholesale impoverishment of society in the name of ‘the planet’. Let’s keep working on the science, without any preconceptions of what the outcome will be. Let’s work on new energy technologies because we’ll need lots more power in the future. Let’s see what rising temperatures might mean and how we can best adapt to them, or even use them to our advantage. Let’s cut out the moralism and the name-calling.

A good place to start will be in the public debate about climate change. While Monday’s Panorama was by no means perfect, let’s hope it is a small milestone on the road to a more mature discussion of global warming.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi slammed the MPs investigation into climategate. In light of the falsity of various claims, Rob Lyons wondered when the IPCC will just melt away. Brendan O’Neill pointed out that Climategate won’t put a stop to climate-change alarmism. Stuart Blackman pointed out that climate change is not beyond questioning. Christopher Monckton felt that Al Gore was too chicken to debate him. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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