|Speech given by Rupert Darwall at the GWPF Book Event on 27 March 2013:Thank you, Nigel.
It is a particular honour for me to speak to the GWPF and to repay an intellectual debt to you as one of the very first to shine light into the darkness of what is climate change.
I vividly recall listening to your CPS talk some 6 years ago. Global warming was a problem identified – I’m tempted to say invented – by scientists.
But you argued, global warming policies are a matter for economists and, pre-eminently, for democratically elected politicians.
Second, using the IPCC’s own numbers, the case for drastic action rested on people in the developing world being 9.5 times better off than they are today rather than 8.5 times better off if climate change was left to its natural course – a patently absurd proposition to impoverish the present for the benefit of the future.
And third, the superiority of adaptation over trying to cut emissions, because with adaptation you can pocket the benefits of warmer temperatures while reducing the costs of coping with them.
I would like to suggest a slight modification to the case for adaptation which I’ll come back to at the end of my talk.
It was Georges Pompidou, the most neglected of president of the 5th Republic and perhaps the most interesting, who said:
‘There are 3 roads to ruin. Women, gambling and technicians. The most pleasant is with women. The quickest is with gambling. But the surest is with technicians.’
I wonder what he would have said if he had met a climate scientist.
For what distinguishes the age of global warming is that scientists — particularly climate scientists — had more impact on public policy and on the destiny of nations than in any other era. Karl Marx wrote that great world historic events happen twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. With global warming and the role of scientists in directing the future of society, Marx’s formulation can be reversed: First the farce, then the tragedy.
It was in the 1960s and the early 1970s that scientists first staked their claim to political power, when the West experienced its first Environmental Wave. Scientists were among the most prominent riding it. Economic growth was in conflict with nature and the environment, they argued.
In 1972, 37 eminent experts, including 5 Fellows of the Royal Society and 16 holders of science chairs at British universities predicted the termination of industrial civilization within the lifetime of people then living. A choice had to be made, the scientists said, between famine, epidemics and war on the one hand, or a succession of what the scientists called
‘thoughtful, humane and measured changes.’
Few groups have collectively a worse predictive record than scientists when it comes to the future of society.
‘Nothing discredits modern bourgeois development so much as the fact that it has not yet succeeded in getting beyond the economic forms of the animal world.’- Friedrich Engels wrote in the 1860s.
Engels had a point, because it is not too much of a generalisation to say that the economic forms of the animal world represent the level of understanding of natural scientists when they opine on economic processes.
Fortunately, first time around, scientists’ advice was ignored. Although in many ways the rhetoric of alarm was more extreme then than it is now, the First Environmental Wave peaked too quickly and broke even more rapidly. In October 1973, Egyptian tanks crossed the Suez Canal. OPEC’s oil price shocks did what the scientists advocated: The economies of the West stopped growing. When growth disappeared, so too did the limits to growth debates of the early 1970s.
Unfortunately for us, the long tail of the Second Environmental Wave, propelled by global warming, carries the active debris of militant green policies to decarbonise our economies, in effect, trying to repeal the industrial revolution with the colossal costs involved in trying to do so.
Because every discussion on global warming at some point comes back to the science, that is where I would like to start – specifically, with scientists. I have already made one observation about scientists and their reliance on what Engels called the economic forms of the animal world.
The second relates to the philosophy of science and the crucial question as to what constitutes scientific knowledge. More surprising than scientists’ lack of understanding of established economic concepts is their unfamiliarity with the epistemological bounds of their field of knowledge. In his 1962 classic, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, Thomas Kuhn observed:
‘Though many scientists talk easily and well about the particular individual hypotheses that underlie a concrete piece of current research, they are little better than laymen at characterising the established bases of their field, its legitimate problems and methods.’
Nearly half a century later, in one of his last lectures, the climate scientist Stephen Schneider made the same point somewhat differently:
‘Very few people learn about the basic philosophy of science and how it works,’ Schneider said.
As he put it:
‘Universities were handing out PhDs in science with no Ph. in them.’
A couple of years ago, the climate scientist Mike Hulme wrote an interesting book ‘Why we disagree about climate change.’ I emailed Mike to say it missed out the most fundamental disagreement – its epistemological basis.
According to Karl Popper, the 20th century’s leading philosopher of science, the essence of the scientific method is critical argument and genuine attempts to refute theories with empirical tests yielding reproducible results. Because we cannot be certain of the truth, but can know what is false, in science, the truth is approached by discarding what has been proved to be false. From this, Popper derived the criterion of falsifiability – the quality of a scientific theory is its capacity to give rise to experiments that in principle could yield empirical evidence that refutes it. Thus the more a theory precludes, the stronger a theory is.
On that basis, what hardened into the scientific orthodoxy underpinning global warming does not meet the threshold of being a scientific theory. It would be more accurate to describe it as a conjecture or speculation. Instead, global warming must depend on the preponderance of scientific opinion.
In turn, maintaining the scientific consensus had profound consequences, for it brought global warming into conflict with what Popper called the essence of the scientific method – critical argument and attempts to overthrow it — a conflict between the advocacy requirements of ‘state science’ and the epistemological demands of the real thing.
I would like to re-frame the issue of the science in a different way than usual:
How was it that what was little more than a scientific curiosity for much of the 20th century, come to define an age?
As climate scientists like to remind us, the basic physics were established in the 19th century. A few months before Charles Darwin published ‘The Origin of the Species’, John Tyndall demonstrated the radiative properties of carbon dioxide in his basement laboratory at the Royal Institution not far from here. In 1896, the Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, wrote his famous paper estimating the effect of industrialisation on atmospheric temperature.
And the climate seemed to respond.
The Central England Temperature series shows temperatures rising from the middle of the 1890s, followed by a partial decline in the first decade of the twentieth, followed by a significant rise. In the 1920s, the Arctic appeared to be warming up.
‘So little ice had never before been noted,’ a newspaper reported in 1922.
The dustbowl of the 1930s was the most extreme climatic event in American history. And in 1938, Guy Stewart Callendar quantified the effect of a 10% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide on global temperatures.
All the scientific and geophysical pre-conditions were there for global warming. But the elements which turned out to be decisive were not. Science alone cannot explain how global warming became a political phenomenon. The explanation must be found elsewhere.
Without wishing in any way to discourage you from buying my book, I would like to share with you its conclusion in its most condensed form. Just eight words, in fact:
The science is weak. The idea is strong.
When we are talking about science, we are not talking about what John Tyndall found in a test tube, but predicting what happens to temperatures in response to small changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The science is inherently weak because it is not capable of being falsified in the here and now. It is weak because it doesn’t appear to preclude several years of standstill in average global temperature, or even, for all I know, declines in average global temperature. Neither does it preclude it snowing in March – contrary to one of the most famous prophecies made by any climate scientist.
‘Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,’ predicted David Viner of the University of East Anglia in March 2000.
Voluminous evidence is itself testament to global warming’s weakness as science. As Karl Popper argued in the 1920s, it is almost always possible to find evidence to support a proposition. Come rain or shine, drought or storm, global warming came to acquire the characteristics of phlogiston in the 18th century theory of combustion.
‘Chemists have made phlogiston a vague principle, which is not strictly defined and which consequently fits all the explanations demanded of it,’
the great French scientist Lavoisier wrote.
‘Sometimes it has weight, sometimes it has not … Sometimes it passes through the pores of vessels, sometimes they are impenetrable to it …
‘It explains at once causticity and non-causticity, transparency and opacity, colour and the absence of colours.’
It must be conceded that proponents of phlogiston explained their ideas with rather greater elegance than 21st century believers in global weirding. So the science is inherently weak.
Now to the idea.
Or rather the ideas, because global warming is a confluence of ideas into one Big Idea. Scratch the surface of global warming, and you’ll invariably find concern about there being too many people in the world. Indeed, earlier this week, the government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, took to the air waves to talk about global warming and population growth.
Alarm about population growth was popularised by Thomas Malthus at the beginning of the 19th century – a century in which Britain’s population nearly quadrupled; cash wages for factory workers rose 50%; the purchasing power of money doubled; and life expectancy began its long-term increase.
Despite the failure of Malthus’s prediction that population growth would be repeatedly checked by famine, disease and war, for true believers, the idea that there are or will be too many humans is an article of faith.
In 1865, the brilliant economist William Stanley Jevons modified the Malthusian construct. Resource depletion in the form of exhaustion of cheap coal meant the prosperity of Victorian Britain could not last.
Jevons made the mistake that every one of his depletionist successors makes. He had not factored in the impact of new technologies and new discoveries. Jevons convinced himself that the steam engine was the farthest mankind could progress. Electrical power was a delusion and petroleum was merely the liquid essence of coal – and an expensive one at that.
Keynes wrote that Jevons’s conclusions were influenced by a psychological trait which many shared but was unusually strong in him, of a certain hoarding instinct and readiness to be alarmed by the idea of exhaustion of resources.
By contrast, Marx and Engels utterly rejected the notion of capitalist economies being constrained by a fixed resource endowment and static technology.
‘We start from the premise that the same forces which have created modern bourgeois society … will also suffice … to raise the productive powers of each individual so much he can produce enough for the consumption of two, three, four, five or six individuals’,
Engels wrote, to contrast with his criticism of those subscribing to the economic forms of the animal world.
Then there is the entry of nature into politics. In Britain, its entrance occurred between the two world wars. And what a strange entrance it was. There were the distributists, prominent among them GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who believed every family should have three acres and a cow. Then there were these folk…
the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.
Those of you familiar with the ancient Kentish language will know what Kibbo Kift means. For the rest, it means – allegedly – proof of great strength. Note the North American Indian totem poles, the authentic Anglo-Saxon hoody and the interesting footwear …
… they had not progressed to wearing sandals.
In the 1930s, the Kibbo Kift started championing economic salvation in the form of Major Douglas’s cranky A+B theorem….
and morphed into the Green Shirt movement. They went on marches through London calling for the stringing up of bankers and the payment of the national dividend.
It is amazing how little has changed since the 1930s.
The Green Shirts were opposed by Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts. There were clashes and scuffles between them, leading Parliament to pass the Public Order Act of 1937 which banned uniformed marches. Proto-environmentalism also existed among the Black Shirts and the pre-war circle of Nazi sympathisers. Moseley’s agriculture adviser, who penned this pamphlet for the British Union of Fascists …
… after the Second World War edited the Soil Association’s journal ‘Mother Earth.’
The sudden emergence of environmentalism as a political movement in the post-war world can be dated with precision – to 1962 and publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. In reality, ‘Silent Spring’ is a work of fiction – and all the more powerful for that. The political impact of environmentalism following ‘Silent Spring’ was immense. I would go so far as to say that ‘Silent Spring’ is the most consequential book of the post-war era. Just ten years separate ‘Silent Spring’ from the first major UN conference on the environment at Stockholm in 1972.
So here is the moment to introduce perhaps the most influential person you have never heard of.
I had not heard of Barbara Ward until I started researching the book. Other than the Queen, Barbara Ward must have been the best connected woman of the 20th century. Friends with Hebert Morrison and Ernest Bevin, she escorted a young American Naval officer – John F. Kennedy during the 1945 general election. Lyndon Johnson said hers were the only books he ever read. Harold Wilson and Ted Heath were both fervent admirers. She was friends with the first generation of African leaders and with Indira Gandhi. And she helped write Papal encyclicals. Ward believed in planning and she believed in world government. If you are in to all that sort of thing, you would love her.
If you are not, you might be surprised at just how much she has shaped the world in which we live.
To avert a threatened Third World boycott of the Stockholm conference, Barbara Ward – sipping Dom Perignon with the conference organiser Maurice Strong –
devised a political formula to insulate the Third World’s development aspirations from First World environmentalism. The essence of what they came up with is that economic growth is double-edged.
In the case of rich countries, growth harms the environment.
In the case of developing nations, growth improves the environment.
After Stockholm, Barbara Ward fleshed out an alliance of convenience between environmentalism and the Third World, which today the world knows as sustainable development. In return for participating in, but not being bound by, international environmental initiatives, the Third World would receive copious flows of development aid. Whilst professing a wish – it was not put more strongly than that – to avoid the developed world’s pattern of industrialisation, each country retained its sovereign right to determine for itself the trade-off between development and the environment. In the 1970s and 1980s, this agenda was crystallised in the New International Economic Order.
It was further developed in the Brandt Report of 1981 and the Brundtland Report of 1987. An early and persistent critic of Ward’s approach down to the present day was and, I am glad to say, is David Henderson. Writing on the Brandt report, Henderson criticised the report’s view that poor countries couldn’t grow without massive flows of aid from North to South. Evidence to the contrary was treated as an ‘unfact’ by the Brandt commission. The belief that economic problems had determinate solutions embodied a definite magical element in which, Henderson wrote,
‘Events are treated as though they could be made predictable and manipulable by formulae or spells.’
The final idea is the pre-eminent role of science – that science should be mobilized to save the planet – science as global therapeutics. It was pithily expressed by the first political leader of undoubted world stature to embrace global warming,
‘The problems science has created, science can in fact solve.’
That was in a 1989 BBC television interview entitled ‘The Greening of Mrs Thatcher.’
During the age of global warming, this had a number of undesirable consequences. Despite their abysmal predictive record and their predisposition to unwarranted pessimism about the future of humanity, it gave scientists an enormously enhanced political role. Because climate science became the leading branch of global therapeutics, it made climate science too big to fail. And in becoming a tool of political advocacy, the nature of climate science became antithetical to science itself.
‘What is called objectivity consists solely in the critical approach,’ Popper wrote.
Because criticism risked undermining the consensus needed to save the planet, evidence was withheld and criticism delegitimized as serving the interests of malign fossil fuel corporations. It also blinded scientists and governments alike to the inescapable logic of global warming. A tonne of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere has the same physical impact irrespective of who put it there. Absent a global agreement covering the world’s largest economies, even if the scientists are right, decarbonising the British economy is entirely pointless. Given all the history, the biggest surprise about the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference is that anyone was remotely surprised at the outcome.
When global warming first entered international politics in 1988, it was into a pre-existing set of Third World demands and conditions, the most important being that their economic development should not be constrained by environmental obligations. Belief that the Third World would agree to limit their use of fossil fuels ignores the history of the developing world’s strictly conditional involvement with First World environmentalism going back to the 1972 Stockholm conference. There was never a chance.
The leaders of the developing world understood better than Western politicians what the French economist Frederic Bastiat found in the 19th century. Bastiat asked: Why is it famine in Europe had become a thing of the past?
The answer: The means of existence rise far above the means of subsistence. When years of scarcity come, we can give up some enjoyments before encroaching up the necessities of life.
So to my final thought:
The best defence against capricious nature and the best global warming policy is: Economic growth – and do not do anything that stops us and the developing world from growing.