Climate change is an uncertain science

For many who advocate costly responses to “irrefutable evidence” that the world’s climate faces catastrophe, global warming has become a substitute religion. Increasingly offensive language is used: the most egregious example being the term “denier”. We all know the particular meaning that word has acquired in contemporary parlance. It has been employed in this debate with malice aforethought.

The mantra of “the science is settled” is often invoked, as if there is no room for argument. Scientists are experts in science. Judges are experts in the law. Doctors are skilled at keeping us healthy. And elected politicians are experts at policy-making. It is their job to reflect community attitudes on such matters. Global warming is a quintessential public-policy issue. Understanding the science is crucial; so is understanding the economics.

By 2030, there will be 2.2 billion more middle-class consumers in the world than now – a quarter of the world’s population lifted out of poverty, through economic growth, in less than 20 years. Surely this should appeal to all our moral instincts. So it should be hard to justify anti-global warming policies standing in the way of growth in developing countries.

In the past five years, the dynamic of the debate has shifted from exaggerated acceptance of the worst possible implications of what most climate scientists tell us, towards a more balanced approach. There are a number of reasons for this. The global financial crisis played a decisive role, and the collapse of the Copenhagen Summit, in December 2009, dealt a blow to the cause of a worldwide agreement on global warming. Countries such as China have watched Western industrialised nations achieve the high per-capita GDP to which they rightly aspire, through energy usages presently condemned as harmful to the environment. What right has the already affluent West to deny them this?

Meanwhile, the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia, the errors over the Himalayan glaciers, and the nakedly political agendas of some of those giving “impartial” scientific advice have degraded the image of the IPCC as the unchallengeable body of scientific experts on global warming. Moreover, technology has altered the parameters of the debate. The extraction of oil and gas from shale has had a huge impact on the US energy scene. Gas emits 45 per cent less carbon dioxide than coal, and costs far less than wind and solar power. In 2012, US emissions of carbon dioxide dropped to their lowest level in 20 years. Sunday Telegraph readers will be aware of the potential benefits of shale exploitation in Britain.

I have always been an agnostic on global warming. I never rejected completely the concerns of many eminent scientists, but history tells me of mankind’s capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Australia is a resource-rich country, and Australians have now elected a government with a pragmatic attitude on global warming. The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on the issue has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the matter. Of course, the climate is changing. It always has. There are mixed views about how sustained that warming is and about the relative contributions of mankind and natural causes. The views are anything but mixed about the soaring cost of electricity bills, with a growing consciousness that large subsidies are paid for renewable energy, placing an increasingly heavy burden on the poor.

From this agnostic’s viewpoint some broad conclusions can be drawn. Never accept that all the science is in; remain open to the relevance of new research. Keep a sense of proportion, especially when it comes to generational burden-sharing. Lord Lawson’s compelling point in his book, An Appeal to Reason, that the present generation should not carry too heavy a burden so that future generations are only 8.4 times better off rather than 9.4 times wealthier, should be heeded by all policy-makers. Renewable energy sources should be used when it makes economic sense to do so. And nuclear energy must be part of the long-term response.

I doubt whether the word “fracking” was widely known, let alone used, five years ago. Yet “the shale revolution” now under way in the United States has the potential to be a game changer. Technology will continue to surprise us.

John Howard was prime minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007; this is an edited version of a speech he gave to the Global Warming Foundation.

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