Dominic Lawson: The dangers of crying wolf over the climate

The climate change debate has taken on a pantomine character, with lurid plots and stage villains
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The studio audience of The Late Edition, the BBC's only live comedy show, last week witnessed the following elevated debate between the host, Marcus Brigstocke, and your columnist. Brigstocke: "All those who question the extent of manmade climate change are in the pay of the oil companies." Self: "Oh no, they're not." Brigstocke: "Oh yes, they are!" Self: "Oh no, they're not!" At this point I half-expected the audience to start chanting along with us, in the manner of a Christmas panto.

At times it has seemed as if the entire British debate on climate change has taken on the character of a pantomime, with lurid plots, grotesque caricatures, and stage villains. Indeed, some of the outfits worn at the Stop Climate Chaos rally in London on Saturday looked as though they had been hired from theatrical costumiers.

In the world of grown-ups, the man who has probably thought more deeply than anyone else in this country about climate change is distinctly unamused. Professor Mike Hulme is the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the co-ordinating lead author of the chapter on "climate-change scenarios" for the third assessment of the International Panel on Climate Change. On the day that 22,000 supporters of Stop Climate Chaos rallied in Trafalgar Square, Professor Hulme delivered a thunderous rebuke, which was posted to the Green Room, the BBC's website for "thought-provoking environmental opinion pieces".

"Over the past few years, a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country - the phenomenon of 'catastrophic' climate change,'" wrote Professor Hulme. "The increasing use of this term and its bedfellow qualifiers 'chaotic', 'irreversible' and 'rapid' has altered the public discourse [which] is now characterised by phrases such as 'irreversible tipping in the Earth's climate' and 'we are at the point of no return'.

"Some recent examples of the catastrophists include Tony Blair, who [states] 'We have a window of only 10 to 15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing a catastrophic tipping point.' Why is it not just campaigners, but politicians and scientists too, who are openly confusing the language of fear, terror and disaster with the observable physical reality of climate change, actively ignoring the careful hedging which surrounds science's predictions?

"...By 'sexing it up' we exacerbate ... the very risks we are trying to ward off. The careless (or conspiratorial?) translation of concern about Saddam Hussein's putative military threat into the case for WMD has had major geopolitical repercussions. We need to make sure the agents in our society which would seek to amplify climate change risks do not lead us down a similar counterproductive pathway."

Professor Hulme's climate-change catastrophists are fond of citing "the precautionary principle". It is exactly that principle which Mr Blair used to persuade parliament to back his demand that we join the Americans in the invasion of Iraq. Blair's "precautionary" argument went like this: "Following 9/11, and the discovery of Al-Qa'ida documents in Afghanistan, we know that Osama bin-Laden and his followers want to use chemical and biological weapons against us. We know that Saddam Hussein was the only government leader who publicly endorsed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

"We also know that he has used such weapons in the past, and that he denied to UN inspectors that he possessed them, only subsequently to admit it after his son-in-law defected. Now he says he has no such weapons. But he has lied in the past and cannot be trusted. It might cost us blood and treasure to remove him as a threat now, but that is as nothing to the blood and treasure we shall risk if we fear to act."

It is essentially the same type of argument which Mr Blair is now using to persuade the world to spend trillions of dollars weaning itself off carbon. That's not something we should do unless the arguments are indeed as overwhelming as Mr Blair claims: after all, carbon dioxide is not itself a pollutant. Indeed, without its emission in vast quantities there would be no life on earth, either animal or vegetable.

A former editor of The Economist has argued that the Stern report is the climatological equivalent of the "dodgy" intelligence dossier which Mr Blair used to convince MPs to back his "precautionary" argument for backing Bush over Iraq. For Weapons of Mass Destruction, read Weather of Mass Destruction. Although millions of people argued at the time that Blair was wrong to support the invasion of Iraq, there was remarkably little contemporary criticism of the dossier. Very few people dared to question the expertise of Sir John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee. So far, very few in this country have questioned the "facts" assembled by Sir Nicholas Stern.

One of his fellow economists abroad has, however. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bjorn Lomborg made the following observations. The cost of hurricanes in the US appears as both 0.13 per cent of GDP and also as 1.3 per cent in Stern's report. Stern declares that the "social cost" of carbon is $85 a ton.

Yet one of the world's most distinguished environmental economists, Yale's William Nordhaus, praised in the Stern report as having the "approach closest in spirit to ours", insists that the social cost of carbon is $2.50 a ton. Stern tells us that the cost of flooding in the UK will quadruple from 0.1 per cent to 0.4 per cent of GDP. Yet the British Government's figures, which take into account a small increase in flood prevention measures, say the cost will decline sharply to 0.04 per cent of GDP, despite climate change.

One of the more entertaining aspects of the current "climate catastrophe" caterwauling is that some of the scientists who are most alarmist - such as the brilliant James Lovelock - were 30 years ago warning that we were on the verge of a new Ice Age. One reason was that between 1945 and 1975, global temperatures fell. Between 1975 and 1998, global temperatures rose slightly - and set off a symmetrically divergent panic. Over the past eight years, global temperatures have been as close to stable as makes no difference.

I can therefore understand Professor Hulme's agitation. He knows the alarmists have based their scare tactics on a dramatic rise in temperatures across the world in the very near future. That won't happen. When that fact dawns on most people, they will begin to ignore all experts' warnings about the weather. Then, if a serious figure such as Professor Hulme discovers a genuine reason to panic, he will be dismissed as yet another Chicken Little, who thought that because an acorn dropped on his head, the sky was falling in.