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Giddens, Lawson argue quite sensibly on climate change

Where was the hysteria?

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

It's rare for a climate debate not to descend into acrimony, but I attended one last week that didn't.

This one pitted against each other the sociologist and New Labour philosopher king Anthony 'Third Way' Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics, and former Chancellor Lord Nigel Lawson. Giddens was speaking at the invitation of Lawson's new climate policy think tank. This doesn't have a collective view and won't challenge the "science" and so won't be boxed in by the "skeptic" label, which it rejects - but wants to provide a focus for some analysis of the policy.

And it was very well timed, because the public debate is in a kind of paralysis. During the election, the issue was almost completely absent, while in the debates, it merited one question, prompting identical pledges of self-sacrifice from the three party leaders.

Although the political elite is almost entirely signed up to mitigation policies, the reality is that they can't introduce them, because it means electoral suicide. Mitigation entails a world of pain - with jobs lost, higher energy costs and a lower standard of living. This appeals to a few puritans - the kind of people who mourned the end of rationing, perhaps - but not the general public. So we've seen Australia drop its emissions trading scheme, and in the US, the only Republican backer of a climate bill change sides.

Benny Peisar, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, suggests another reason for the lack of momentum. Up until about two years ago, he points out, environment ministers would regularly meet at global conferences, and make grand proclamations. They set the policy. But since then, finance ministers and prime ministers and presidents have taken control of the policy, and they've done the maths. So what pledges politicians continue to make, are ever more meaningless.

A recent poll here failed to show an increase in the number of self-described "skeptics", but agnosticism and indifference rule. Which, when you think about it, is a very pragmatic and typically English response to religious or political ideologues.

The debate

First their positions, in a nutshell, then their responses to an interesting set of challenges from the audience.

Giddens said "the science" showed humans were wreaking terrible havoc on natural systems, that this science was robust, and the science also had a clear policy message: we must change our ways. "We're interfering in the climate in a radical and irreversible way ... We must take action now," he said. But Giddens had a Plan B. He added that even if all this was mistaken, oil prices would rise in the future, and energy conservation and "energy security" were key policy areas. These provided alternative justifications for his desired policies, which were pretty much the same either way.

Lawson said the science was anything but robust ("It's more uncertain the more you look"), but that didn't matter so much as choosing the right policy responses. For Lawson, efforts to reduce CO2 emissions were all futile gestures - they wouldn't work, and they'd only end up costing us dearly. That's because China and India will not halt economic development, which for now, is largely dependent on abundant and cheap fossil fuels. He described the UK Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to tough reduction targets, as a piece of "post-Imperial arrogance."

"CND was a more intelligent form of unilateralism than carbon unilateralism," said Lawson.

You can see the weaknesses. For Giddens, the scientific elite makes the policy: and the One True Policy is to stop emitting carbon now! But the science doesn't really favour any policy - that will be for us to decide democratically, presumably after we've weighed up the costs and risks of all the policies. Believers in radical and irreversible anthropogenic climate change like Giddens view Lawson's adaptation-first argument as reckless and insane, and probably morally negligent, too - although if Giddens holds this view, he was too polite to express it here. But the adaptationists' argument is based on the premise that future generations will be wealthier than we are, so the costs of adapting will be lower as each year passes.

Adaptation is winning, and it's gained some surprising support recently - even from some academics who raised the climate alarm in the first place, in the Hartwell Paper.

So I could sense some hedging of bets. Giddens said the value of adaptation policies had been underestimated, and he was surprisingly wary of many of the environmentalists' emblems - particularly wind power. At the same time, he had a hunch that things would be far worse than predicted, based on the idea that the IPCC was a bureaucratic process that needed to compromise, and tended to play down the scariest scenarios.

Lawson chuckled and disagreed, pointing out that the IPCC had ceased being an independent body and become a political one: its goal was causing governments to change policies. He recommended that after the next climate jamboree in Cancun in December the coalition government take a completely fresh look and rethink its policies.

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