Dominic Lawson: Some more inconvenient truths

Al Gore travels all over the world by private jet to lecture us on the need to reduce our carbon emissions
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The Independent Online

Ah, the joys of climate change! I write this column while sitting outside on a terrace in sun-soaked Sussex, even though it will be November before the week is out. The rule in our household has been that we turn on the central heating when the clocks go back. Not this year. Meanwhile, as I tap at my computer I see that the grapes on the vines curving round the house are more plump and plentiful than I have ever known them.

Isn't life just so unfair? As many economists have noted - and yesterday it was the turn of Sir Nicholas Stern, the head of the Government Economic Service - if the world does warm dramatically over the next 100 years, those who will suffer most live in the already blighted areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa. This country will actually benefit - and not merely through a revival of wine-growing and the boost to domestic tourism. The health risk to our oldest people from cold weather will be much reduced - as will their home heating bills.

Hypothermia is hardly the principal concern of those living closer to the Equator. But given that they are already suffering from drought and crop failure, why wait for the world's major economies to adopt Sir Nicholas Stern's putative global carbon trading scheme which, he claims, will lead to a stabilisation of worldwide temperatures?

Stern also, and rightly, talks about the need for "adaptation" to climate change; this is an area that has attracted comparatively little attention from governments in the West, but which is both cheaper and more obviously achievable than his grand global carbon reduction plan, which was launched with a blaring fanfare by our legacy-hunting Prime Minister yesterday.

Genetically modified crops will be at the heart of such adaptation - which is why the environmentalist movement, in its current manifestation, will not hear of it. For example, researchers at Cairo's Genetic Engineering Research Institute have created a drought-resistant variety of wheat which requires about one-eighth of the irrigation needed by conventional wheat, and thus could be cultivated entirely by rainfall even in some desert areas.

Such technology is not just for areas of genuine desert. Given that agriculture is responsible for about 70 per cent of the world's fresh water consumption, new plant strains that demand a tiny fraction of the water hitherto used will allow that vital life-force to be redirected in ways that could be to the great benefit of the most deprived.

A similar technological advance is becoming available to solve a second problem now said to be imminent - the encroachment of sea water onto coastal areas. About a third of the irrigated land on the planet is already ill-suited to the propagation of crops because of excessively salty soil. Recently, scientists at the University of California developed crops with a dramatically increased tolerance for salt.

If we in the developed world want to help those in the third world to survive the agricultural conditions that already persist - rather than imaginary disasters that may or may not take place in the future - then it is clearly right to give these countries low-cost access to such technologies, just as we are now offering the countries of Africa access to anti-retroviral drugs to combat the devastation of HIV/Aids.

This is similar to the argument of Bjorn Lomborg, the "sceptical environmentalist" who wrote, a few years back, that the Kyoto accord to reduce carbon emissions was a "tragic waste of resources", and that if trillions of dollars were to be spent in order to save the lives of the world's poorest, that money would be much better directed at the conditions that are really killing them now. For this, he was traduced and occasionally even physically attacked by those one might describe as "gullible environmentalists". As Al Gore might have put it, Lomborg was guilty of uttering inconvenient truths.

That would be the same Al Gore who travels all over the world by private jet - one of which was recently rejected by an aide because it had insufficient headroom for Big Al - to lecture us on the need to reduce our carbon emissions. Since Mr Gore is apparently to be taken on by the British Government to advise us on such matters, perhaps someone in the Civil Service might have the courage to point out to him that despite what he says in his new film, satellite temperature measurements do not demonstrate that 2005 was the hottest year of the modern era. That was 1998.

I do not claim that simply because global average temperatures have been stable over the past few years, this proves that the increases in anthropogenic carbon emissions are not having effects of the sort claimed by Mr Gore and others. But I do wonder what levels of hysteria would now be generated if there actually had been a consistent and measurable increase in average global temperatures over the past few years.

On Sky Television last Sunday the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, said that "the scientific debate has now closed on global warming". That remark was both depressing and dishonest. Depressing because it displays ignorance of the nature of science - no such debate can ever be "closed" or we would still, for example, believe that light travels through a medium called "ether".

Dishonest because it simply is not the case: the most recent survey of climatologists, which was conducted by the German Institute of Coastal Research, concluded that "these results... seem to suggest that consensus is not all that strong and only 9.4 per cent of respondents 'strongly agree' that climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes".

Perhaps Mr Miliband feels he needs to make such claims in order to justify the new range of "green" taxes which he has proposed to the Chancellor. I am little more impressed by David Cameron's remarks at the same time on a different television channel, that "I don't actually want to stop people going on a family holiday, to restrict air travel, but we have to look at transport as one of the areas and if that means putting a tax on air travel, then yes, that's something we'd be prepared to do".

If the Conservatives' putative new tax on air travel won't prevent some people from taking the cheap flights they previously enjoyed, what on earth would be the point, apart from satisfying the politician's vanity of being seen to "do something"? Mr Cameron may yet prove me wrong, but I don't think the British public is willing to give up the pleasures of cheap flights in order to shame China and India into cutting their surging carbon emissions so that sub-Saharan Africa might possibly endure less ferocious temperatures later this century. Presented with such a manifesto, they might think that they were being taken for idiots. They would be right.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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