Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/11/giddens_lawson_debate/

Giddens, Lawson argue quite sensibly on climate change

Where was the hysteria?

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 11th June 2010 14:23 GMT

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.

Both found the energy choices being made today unrealistic. "Wind power would only ever be marginal," agreed Giddens.

Lawson was typically dismissive of the LibDems' position - that nuclear power must receive no subsidy, but that wind power would be allowed "massive and exorbitant subsidies … it's a curious prejudice that leads to this doctrine". Wind power is really as carbon intensive as anything conventional, because it needs fossil fuels as a backup for when the wind doesn't blow - a point Giddens acknowledged. Lawson pointed out the pioneers of wind power had all stopped: Denmark, Spain and now Germany - as all had to admit it didn't make sense. Giddens sort of agreed:

"The knock-on effects were complicated, but wind had not paid back the investment. There was a net cost to the German economy". Giddens thought money would be better spent researching other areas - such as energy storage. Lawson agreed - it had been almost thirty years since he'd been energy minister, and there had been no progress in energy storage since then.

In response to the concerns raised by retired engineer Bill McAuley, editor of Imperial Engineer, Lawson regretted that the carbon obsession was crowding out other research, even environmental research. Lawson told the story of a researcher who wanted to look into the issue of toxic waste, but was told he wouldn't get funding unless he could find a connection to climate change. Of course, there was no connection, and he didn't get his funding. Additional concerns were raised about the costs for industry and business. These rarely get a look-in on mainstream environmental coverage.

An environmental lawyer rose to his feet and attempted a grand summing up. Couldn't we all conclude, he claimed, that everyone agreed on one thing: that we all had to lower carbon consumption, and without pausing for punctuation, he continued that we would then need global legislation to enforce this, and "international courts" too.

Imagine - a lawyer calling for international eco-courts. Think of the air miles for environmental lawyers!

That's what you call chutzpah, and you don't really pull one like this over on Nigel Lawson. He thanked the lawyer for his creative interpretation, but said it didn't reflect his position at all.

And all too soon, the debate had to end.

Bootnote

One thought that occurred to me, listening to the mitigation vs adaptation argument, was much how the label "denier" betrays an almost existentialist fear. The adaptationists' argument is powerful precisely because it illuminates a fatal weakness in the approach that environmentalists had adopted throughout the past 15 years, and which until recently. had been so successful. The Achilles heel is the presumption that "the science" dictates "the policy", and we must all accept their (mitigation) policies without question.

Adaptation is a very well-aimed bullet indeed: if you shoot the "scientific" case, or merely question the logic, then the whole cut-carbon mitigation strategy loses its justification. And it isn't just the specific policies but perhaps an entire belief system and world view that dies with it. ®