I have written five articles on climate change science and policy in the past week, for Scientific American, The Times (twice), the Wall Street Journal and the Spectator. They follow here in the form of a lengthy essay. Sentences in square brackets have been added back in after being edited out when the pieces were shortened for publication.
First, on the science – from Scientific American:
The climate change debate has been polarized into a simple dichotomy. Either global warming is “real, man-made and dangerous,” as Pres. Barack Obama thinks, or it’s a “hoax,” as Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe thinks. But there is a third possibility: that it is real, man-made and not dangerous, at least not for a long time.
This “lukewarm” option has been boosted by recent climate research, and if it is right, current policies may do more harm than good. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and other bodies agree that the rush to grow biofuels, justified as a decarbonization measure, has raised food prices and contributed to rainforest destruction. Since 2013 aid agencies such as the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have restricted funding for building fossil-fuel plants in Asia and Africa; that has slowed progress in bringing electricity to the one billion people who live without it and the four million who die each year from the effects of cooking over wood fires.
In 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was predicting that if emissions rose in a “business as usual” way, which they have done, then global average temperature would rise at the rate of about 0.3 degree Celsius per decade (with an uncertainty range of 0.2 to 0.5 degree C per decade). In the 25 years since, temperature has risen at about 0.1 to 0.2 degree C per decade, depending on whether surface or satellite data is used. The IPCC, in its most recent assessment report, lowered its near-term forecast for the global mean surface temperature over the period 2016 to 2035 to just 0.3 to 0.7 degree C above the 1986–2005 level. That is a warming of 0.1 to 0.2 degree C per decade, in all scenarios, including the high-emissions ones.
At the same time, new studies of climate sensitivity—the amount of warming expected for a doubling of carbon dioxide levels from 0.03 to 0.06 percent in the atmosphere—have suggested that most models are too sensitive. The average sensitivity of the 108 model runs considered by the IPCC is 3.2 degrees C. As Pat Michaels, a climatologist and self-described global warming skeptic at the Cato Institute testified to Congress in July, certain studies of sensitivity published since 2011 find an average sensitivity of 2 degrees C.
Such lower sensitivity does not contradict greenhouse-effect physics. The theory of dangerous climate change is based not just on carbon dioxide warming but on positive and negative feedback effects from water vapor and phenomena such as clouds and airborne aerosols from coal burning. Doubling carbon dioxide levels, alone, should produce just over 1 degree C of warming. These feedback effects have been poorly estimated, and almost certainly overestimated, in the models.
[In AR5 it says: “The ECS can be estimated from the ratio of forcing to the total climate feedback parameter.” And Table 9.5 of AR5 WG1 gives, for the CMIP5 multimodel mean, forcing for a doubling of CO2 as either 3.7 or 3.4 W/m2 depending on estimation method, and the Planck feedback as -3.2 W/m2/°C. That is the basic negative feedback from the Earth warming in response to forcing, so in the absence of any other feedbacks (water vapour, lapse rate, cloud, albedo and any others) sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 in models (and presumably reality) is 3.4/3.2 or 3.7/3.2, i.e. just over 1°C.]
The last IPCC report also included a table debunking many worries about “tipping points” to abrupt climate change. For example, it says a sudden methane release from the ocean, or a slowdown of the Gulf Stream, are “very unlikely” and that a collapse of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets during this century is “exceptionally unlikely.” [The IPCC also stated that there is no evidence of a change in cyclones, floods or droughts. On droughts see here.]
If sensitivity is low and climate change continues at the same rate as it has over the past 50 years, then dangerous warming—usually defined as starting at 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels—is about a century away. So we do not need to rush into subsidizing inefficient and land-hungry technologies, such as wind and solar or risk depriving poor people access to the beneficial effects of cheap electricity via fossil fuels.
[The cold-weather death toll is higher than the hot-weather death toll in most parts of the world. Carbon dioxide emissions enhance plant growth and studies have concluded that they are responsible for a significant increase in green vegetation in all ecosystems, but especially arid areas, over the past 30 years, as measured by satellites. Crop yields are also higher than they would be without carbon dioxide emissions, to the tune of at least $100 billion a year, as calculated by Craig Idso of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change.]
As the upcoming Paris climate conference shows, the world is awash with plans, promises and policies to tackle climate change. But they are having little effect. Ten years ago the world derived 87 percent of its primary energy from fossil fuels; today, according the widely respected BP statistical review of world energy, the figure is still 87 percent. The decline in nuclear power has been matched by the rise in renewables but the proportion coming from wind and solar is still only 1 percent.
Getting the price of low-carbon energy much lower will do the trick. So we should spend the coming decades stepping up research and development of new energy technologies. Many people may reply that we don’t have time to wait for that to bear fruit, but given the latest lukewarm science of climate change, I think we probably do.
Next a preview of the Paris climate meeting itself, published in The Times:
Monday’s meeting in Paris of the “Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” (COP-UNFCC) is the 21st such meeting. The first was in Berlin in 1995 and since then the circus has travelled to Geneva, Kyoto, Buenos Aires, Bonn, The Hague, Bonn again, Marrakech, New Delhi, Milan, Buenos Aires again, Montreal, Nairobi, Bali, Poznan, Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban, Doha, Warsaw and Lima. Not to mention quarterly subsidiary meetings in between.
The stated aim of these meetings is to agree to set limits on the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In this they have wholly failed. There are no internationally agreed limits on emissions (Kyoto only applied to a minority of nations and was never ratified by the United States). Yet here’s a funny thing: virtually every one of those 20 meetings has ended with announcements of triumphant success.
Yes, even Copenhagen in 2009, which everybody now agrees was a chaotic fiasco, was at the time reported by the media as ending in success. President Obama announced that a deal had been done: a “meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough”. Gordon Brown agreed it was a “vital first step”. But just like the Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan and the Cancun Agreements, the “Copenhagen Accord” has melted away like snow in summer.
Two years later in Durban, world leaders triumphantly announced that they had agreed to adopt a binding international legal agreement on emissions “no later than 2015” as if this was a victory in itself. Hence the significance of Paris when this deadline expires. There is now less prospect of agreeing legally binding carbon dioxide targets in Paris than of a snowball fight in Hades, so you might think that next week’s meeting will be a failure. Don’t be so silly. They have moved the goal posts so as to be able to declare success again.
The decision was taken months ago to abandon any attempt at a binding agreement as impossible. Countries like India simply won’t agree to bind themselves to stay in relative energy poverty by giving up their plans to extend the use of cheap coal, gas and oil. Nor will China, though it plays the game of vague promises well enough to hoodwink some wishful westerners. And other poor countries will not agree to limiting anything until they get a promised $100 billion per year from the rich west in compensation – that’s a trillion dollars a decade. The US Congress, among other bodies, won’t write such cheques.
Instead, each country has announced its own “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”. Unfortunately, as Bjorn Lomborg has calculated, these INDCs add up to the square root of nothing. If implemented they would prevent about one-fifth of a degree of global warming by the end of this century. But worry not, for there is also to be a five-year review process (which may be legally binding), in which the INDCs can be adjusted in line with the latest science. And the beautiful thing about five-year review processes is that they require conferences to assess them. So the real success of Paris is already in the bag: to ensure that the meetings, with their tens of thousands of participants on expense accounts, continue ad infinitum.
Next, a discussion of why world leaders consider climate change such a high priority, published in the Wall Street Journal and co-authored with Benny Peiser:
Back in February, President Obama said, a little carelessly, that climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. In a few weeks’ time he will fly into Paris, a city terrorized yet again by mass murderers, for a summit with other world leaders on climate change, not terrorism. What precisely makes these world leaders so convinced that climate change is a more urgent and massive threat than the incessant rampages of Islamist violence?
It cannot be what is happening to world temperatures, because they have gone up only very slowly, less than one-half as fast as the scientific consensus predicted in 1990 when the global warming scare began in earnest. Even with this year’s El Nino-boosted warmth threatening to break records, the world is barely half a degree warmer than it was about 35 years ago (the surface data sets say nearly 0.6 degrees, the satellite data sets about 0.4 degrees of warming since 1979). Also, it is increasingly clear that the planet was significantly warmer than today several times during the last 10,000 years. [An excellent source of charts and data on climate is at: http://www.climate4you.com]
Nor can it be the consequences of this recent temperature increase that worries world leaders. On a global scale, as scientists keep confirming, there has been no increase in frequency or intensity of storms, floods or droughts, while deaths attributed to such natural disasters have never been fewer, thanks to modern technology and infrastructure. Arctic sea ice has recently melted more in summer than it used to in the 1980s, but Antarctic sea ice has increased, and Antarctica is gaining land-based ice. Sea level continues its centuries-long slow rise – about a foot per century – with no sign of recent acceleration.
Perhaps it’s the predictions that worry the world leaders, then. Here, as we are often told by journalists, the science is “settled” and there is no debate. But scientists disagree: they say there is great uncertainty, and they reflected this in their fifth and latest assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It projects that temperatures are likely to be anything from 1.5C to 4.5C degrees warmer by the latter part of the century – that is to say, anything from mildly beneficial to significantly harmful.
As for the impacts of that future warming, a forthcoming study (accepted for publication) by the leading climate economist, Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University in the UK, concludes that warming may well bring gains, because carbon dioxide causes crops and wild ecosystems to grow greener and more drought-resistant. In the long run, the negatives may outweigh these benefits, he says, but “the impact of climate change does not significantly deviate from zero until 3.5°C warming.”
Professor Tol summarises the effect we are to expect during this century: “The welfare change caused by climate change is equivalent to the welfare change caused by an income change of a few percent. That is, a century of climate change is about as good/bad for welfare as a year of economic growth. Statements that climate change is the biggest problem of humankind are unfounded: We can readily think of bigger problems.” No justification for prioritizing climate change over terrorism there, then.
The latest science on the “sensitivity” of the world’s temperature to a doubling of carbon dioxide levels (from 0.03% of the air to 0.06%) is also reassuring. Several recent peer-reviewed studies of climate sensitivity based on actual observations, including one with 14 mainstream IPCC authors, conclude that this key measure is much lower – about 30-50% lower – than the climate models are generally assuming.
And a key study of the cooling impact of sulfate emissions has concluded they have held back global warming less than thought till now, again implying less sensitivity. So the high end of the IPCC range is looking even more implausible in theory as well as in practice. When politicians intone that, despite the slow warming so far, “two degrees” of warming is inevitable and imminent, remember they are using high estimates of climate sensitivity.
Yes, but if there is even a tiny chance of catastrophe, should the world not strain every sinew to head it off? Better to decarbonize the world economy and find it was unnecessary than to continue using fossil fuels and regret it. If decarbonisation was easy, then sure, this would make sense. But the experience of the last three decades is that there is no energy technology remotely ready to take over from fossil fuels on the scale and at a price the public is willing to pay.
Solar power is cheaper than it was, sure, but even if solar panels were free, the land, infrastructure, maintenance and back-up power (for night-time and cloudy days) would still make it more expensive than gas-fired electricity. Solar provides about 0.5% of our total energy. Wind has expanded hugely, but at massive cost, yet still supplies only just over 1% of global primary energy. Nuclear is in slow retreat, and its cost stubbornly refuses to fall.Technological breakthroughs in the production of gas and oil from shale have outpaced the development of low-carbon energy and made it even less competitive.
Meanwhile, there are a billion people with no grid electricity whose lives could be radically improved – and whose ability to cope with the effects of weather and climate change could be greatly enhanced – with the sort of access to the concentrated power of coal, gas or oil that the rich world enjoys. Already aid for such projects has been constrained by Western institutions in the interest of not putting the climate at risk. So climate policy is hurting the poor.
To put it bluntly, climate change and its likely impacts are proving slower and less harmful than we feared, while decarbonisation of the economy is proving more painful and costly than we hoped. The mood in Paris will be one of furious pessimism among the many well-funded NGOs who will attend the summit in large numbers: decarbonisation, on which they have set their hearts, is not happening, and they dare not mention the reassuring news from science lest it threaten their budgets.
Casting around for somebody to blame, they have fastened on foot-dragging fossil fuel companies and those who make skeptical observations about the likelihood of dangerous climate change, however well founded. Scientific skeptics are now routinely censored, or threatened with prosecution. One recent survey shows that 27% of US Democrats are in favour of prosecuting climate sceptics. This is the mentality of religious fanaticism, not scientific debate.
So what kind of deal will emerge from Paris, when thousands of government officials gather in two weeks to agree a new UN climate deal with the aim of replacing the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2020? Expect an agreement that is sufficiently vague and noncommittal for all countries to sign and claim victory. Such an agreement will also have to camouflage deep and unbridgeable divisions while ensuring that all countries are liberated from legally biding targets a la Kyoto.
The political climate is conducive to such a toothless agreement. Concerns about the economy, terrorism and international security have been overshadowing the climate agenda for years. The fact that global warming has slowed significantly over the last two decades has reduced public concern and political pressure in most countries. It has also given governments valuable time to kick painful decisions into the long grass.
The next 10-15 years will show whether the global warming slowdown continues or whether a strong warming trend terminates the current pause for good. If the climate is less sensitive to carbon dioxide emissions than climate models assume, a deal with a 5-yearly review process should allow for the possibility of CO2 pledges to be relaxed in line with empirical observations and better scientific understanding.
Despite its rhetoric, the Obama administration is sufficiently concerned about the impact of unilateral decarbonisation policies on business to demand a transparency-and-review mechanism that can verify whether voluntary pledges are met by all countries. Developing countries, however, oppose any outside body reviewing their energy and industrial activities and CO2 emissions on the grounds that such efforts would violate their sovereignty.
They are also resisting attempts by the United States and the European Union to end the legal distinction (the so-called fire-wall) between developing and developed nations. China, India and the “Like-Minded Countries” group are countering Western pressure by demanding a legally binding compensation package of $100 billion per year of dedicated climate funds, as promised by President Obama at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.
However, developing nations are only too aware that the $100 billion p.a. funding pledge is never going to materialize, not least because the US Congress would never agree to such an astronomical, annual wealth transfer. This failure to deliver is inevitable, but it will give developing nations the perfect excuse not to comply with their own national pledges.
Both India and China continue to build new coal-fired power stations. China’s coal consumption is growing at 2.6% a year, India’s at 5%: which is why coal was the fastest growing fossil fuel last year. China has pledged to reduce energy and carbon intensity, but that’s just another way of saying it will increase energy efficiency—it does not mean reducing use.
For the EU, on the other hand, a voluntary climate agreement would finally allow member states to abandon unilateral decarbonisation policies that have seriously undermined Europe’s competitiveness. The EU has offered to cut CO2 emissions by 40% below the 1990 level by 2030. However, this pledge is conditional on all nations represented at the Paris summit adopting legally binding CO2 emissions targets similar to and as a carry-over of the Kyoto Protocol.
According to the EU’s key demand, the Paris Protocol must deliver, “legally binding mitigation commitments that put the world on track towards achieving the below 2°C objective…. Mitigation commitments under the Protocol should be equally legally binding on all Parties.” Yet the chances of such an agreement are close to zero. If there are no legally binding CO2 targets agreed in Paris, the EU will be unlikely to make its own conditional pledges legally binding.
A “lukewarm” climate agreement should be flexible enough so that voluntary pledges can be adjusted over the next couple of decades in the light of what the global temperature does. The best we can hope for is a toothless agreement that will satisfy most governments yet allow them to pay lip-service to action. In all likelihood, that’s exactly what we can expect to get in Paris.
Next, a column on why today’s temperatures are not unprecedented and the harm from climate change lies in the future, published in The Times:
Today in Paris, 147 heads of government will give speeches on what they agree is the world’s most pressing problem, climate change. Today is expected to be comparatively mild in Paris but cold and snowy in Scotland. Nothing especially unusual for 30th November over the last few centuries.
So the problem they are discussing — not warming, but dangerous warming — has not yet manifested itself. It lies in the future. The climate has changed, for sure, as it always does — but not yet in a way that is harmful or unprecedented. As far as we can tell from satellites, global average temperatures are less than half a degree warmer than they were in 1979, when satellite data became available, though surface thermometers suggest a bit more warming.
This year looks likely to be a lot warmer than last, though still not as warm in both standard satellite data sets as 1998, the last time that a strong El Nino in the Pacific Ocean boosted the global air temperature a lot (surface thermometers sets say it will be warmer than 1998, once adjusted in various ways). The average trend over the past 35 years is 0.1 degrees of warming per decade according to the satellite data, less than 0.2 per decade according to the surface thermometers. Neither trend is fast enough to produce significantly dangerous climate change even by the latter part of this century.
The warming has been much slower than was predicted when the scare began. Nor is it evenly spread. The Antarctic continent has warmed hardly at all, and the entire southern hemisphere has warmed about half as fast as the northern. The Arctic has warmed more than the tropics, night has warmed more than day and winter has warmed more than summer. Cities have warmed faster than the countryside, but that’s because of local warming factors, not global ones: buildings, vehicles, industry, pavements and people trap warmth.
How unusual is today’s temperature? As I did this weekend, you have no doubt had conversations along the following lines recently: “Hasn’t it been mild? End of November and we’ve hardly had a frost yet!” All true. But then be honest: can you not recall such conversations throughout your life? I can. And here’s what the Met Office had to say about November 1938, long before I was born: “The weather of the month was distinguished by exceptional mildness: at numerous places it was the mildest November on record.” In 1953, November was even milder and there was no air frost recorded in Oxford in the last four months of the year at all.
I am not saying it has not generally become warmer, but that the variation dwarfs the trend. Let’s go back a little further, to the Middle Ages. It used to be argued by some that the “Medieval Warm Period” of about a thousand years ago, when mountain glaciers retreated, vines grew further north and Iceland was widely cultivated, was confined to Europe. We now know from multiple sources of evidence that it was global. Tree lines were higher than today in many mountain ranges, for example. Both North Pacific and Antarctic Ocean water temperatures were 0.65C warmer than today.
Go back yet further, still within the current interglacial period, to the so-called Holocene Optimum of 6,000-9,000 years ago. Ocean temperatures were up to two degrees warmer than today, the Arctic Ocean was nearly or completely ice-free at the end of summer in many years, and the boreal forest in Siberia extended 150 miles further north than today. July temperatures were up to six degrees warmer than today in the Siberian Arctic.
Was this Holocene Optimum a horrible time of droughts, storms, disease and famine? Not especially. It was the period when agriculture spread rapidly across the globe from five or seven centres of invention. Abundant rainfall in Africa led to lakes in the Sahara with crocodiles and hippos in them, surrounded by green vegetation in the monsoon season.
Today’s gentle warming, progressing much more slowly than expected, is also accompanied by generally improving conditions. Globally, droughts are declining very slightly. Storms are not increasing in frequency or intensity: this year has been one of the quietest hurricane seasons. Floods are worse in some places but usually because of land-use changes, not more rainfall. Death rates from floods, storms and droughts have plummeted and are now far lower than they were a century ago. Today, arid areas like western Australia or the Sahel region of Africa are getting generally greener, thanks to the effect of more carbon dioxide in the air, which makes plants grow faster and resist drought better.
Besides, we have to make allowance for a human tendency to read far too much into short-term weather changes — and to assume that all change is bad. Consider this newspaper cutting: “The Arctic ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot. [There are] hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone.” It’s not from recent decades at all, but from 1922. Or this one: “The ice of the arctic ocean is melting so rapidly that more than one third of it has disappeared in fifty years”. From 1940.
In fact, the Arctic, and the world as a whole then cooled between 1950 and 1970, which then led to these headlines, all from 1970: “Scientists See Ice Age in the Future” (Washington Post), “Is Mankind Manufacturing a New Ice Age for Itself?” (Los Angeles Times), “Scientist predicts a new ice age by 21st century” (Boston Globe), “U.S. and Soviet Press Studies of a Colder Arctic” (New York Times) and (my favourite) “Dirt Will Bring New Ice Age” (Sydney Morning Herald).
The 40,000 people meeting in Paris over the next ten days are committed to the view that the weather is certain to do something nasty towards the end of this century unless we cut emissions. In this they are out of line with scientists. A survey of the members of the American Meteorological Society in 2012 found that only 52% agree that climate change is mostly man-made, and as to its being very harmful if unchecked, only 34% of AMS members agree. The rest said they think it will be either not harmful or not very harmful.
Finally, a Spectator essay on the dubious morality of putting posterity’s interests before that of poor people today:
The next generation is watching, Barack Obama told the Paris climate conference this week: “our grandchildren when they look back and see what we did in Paris they can take pride in what we did.” And that, surely, is the trouble with the entire climate change agenda: putting the interests of rich people’s grandchildren ahead of those of poor people today.
Unfair? Not really, when you look at the policies enacted in the name of mitigating climate change. We’ve diverted 40% of America’s maize crop to feeding cars instead of people, thus driving up the price of food worldwide, a move which killed about 192,000 poor people in 2010 alone, according to one study, and continues to impact nutrition worldwide. We’ve restricted aid funding for fossil-fueled power stations in developing countries, leaving many people who would otherwise have had access to electricity mired instead in darkness, and cooking over wood-fires – the single biggest cause of environmental ill health in the world, responsible for more than three million deaths every year.
Closer to home, by pushing up energy prices with climate policies, we’ve contributed to the loss of jobs of steel workers in Redcar and Scunthorpe, and of aluminium workers in Northumberland (where I live and where coal from under my land has supplied the now-closed Lynemouth smelter — whose power station announced this week that it will reopen as a “biomass” plant, that is to say burning wood from American forests, producing more carbon dioxide per unit of energy and at twice the price of coal). We’ve also worsened fuel poverty among the poor and elderly and we’ve damaged air quality in cities. These human costs are not imaginary or theoretical: they are real.
But ends can be used to justify means, and omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs. We justify these painful impacts of policy by saying over and over that it helps to avert a far greater threat that faces “our grandchildren”. So exactly how great is that threat?
Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University, a lead author of the IPCC and one of the world’s most respected climate economists, has had a stab at answering this question in a new paper accepted for publication in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, which takes all 22 published studies of all the impacts of climate change, good and bad, economic and environmental, and generates an average effect on welfare. This is what he has to say:
“Global warming of 2.5C would make the average person feel as if she had lost 1.3% of her income…That is, a century of climate change is about as good/bad for welfare as a year of economic growth. Statements that climate change is the biggest problem of humankind are unfounded: We can readily think of bigger problems.”
Up till 2.2C, he says, our grandchildren will actually still be better off as a result of global warming. When I first reported in the Spectator in 2013 that the balance of evidence suggests that mild global warming will do more good than harm and that this would continue till the later decades of this century, I was subjected to torrents of abuse in the Guardian and other house organs of wealthy greens. Yet it has now come to be accepted as conventional wisdom.
Yes, but what if climate change proves worse than we expect and the century sees more than 2.5C of warming? (Actually, given what we now know about climate sensitivity, that’s very unlikely: the probability density function for such rapid warming is very slim and depends on unrealistically large net-positive feedbacks.) Professor Tol says the following: “the impact of climate change does not significantly deviate from zero until 3.5°C warming.”
And remember that “our grandchildren” will on average be much richer than we are today. If they are not, then there’s not much of a problem because they won’t be generating emissions at a worrying rate.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assumes in its various scenarios that the people of 2100 will be 3-20 times as well off in income terms as the people of today – and that’s despite climate change. In the “middle-of-the-road” scenario prepared by the OECD for the IPCC, which sees generally disappointing global economic progress, the average Indonesian, Brazilian or Chinese will earn at least twice as much as today’s American does. That’s how rich “our grandchildren” will be, never mind Barack’s. In causing pain today for benefit tomorrow, we are transferring money from the poor to the rich.
So let’s just pause to reflect what is going on here. President Obama, President Putin, Prince Charles, Ban Ki-Moon and the Pope are urging us to worry about what will probably be a 1.3% fall in the income (or about 3.5% if we get 3.5C of warming) of a person who is at least three times as well off as we are today. That is to say, they would be at least 196.5% richer, instead of 200%. And yet world leaders are prepared to adopt and defend policies that hurt poor people today in order to try to avert this very slight pay cut for the very wealthy of tomorrow. In what universe does this entitle them to occupy the moral high ground?
Oh and by the way, perhaps we should ask the poor people of the world themselves what they think about this? On Monday Mr Obama quoted an Indonesian girl he met recently who was worried about climate change. I wonder how he managed to find her. The United Nations is carrying out a huge online survey of people’s priorities. Called My World, it allows people to rank 16 categories of things they care about. So far more than 8.5 million people have voted, mostly from poorer countries, and the number is growing all the time. Education, health, jobs and good governance come top. Action on climate change comes last – and not by a narrow margin either: it lags well behind the second-least popular priority (phone and internet access). Even among people of 15 years or younger, it comes last.
Climate change is an obsession of the rich not shared by the global poor, who care more about everything, even getting online. They can see all too well that a slight diminution of income in two generations’ time is not as important as decent health, education and a better living standard today. So let’s cut the humbug about speaking on behalf of poor posterity, please. Though they might not mean to, the Green Great and Good are on the side of the rich.
Not that the inhabitants of rich countries are any longer much enamoured of such policies. As Gallup reports: “warming has generally ranked last among Americans’ environmental worries each time Gallup has measured them with this question over the years.” In another poll last week just 13 percent of Canadians chose climate change as one of their top three concerns.
In Globescan’s poll for the BBC of 20 countries, there has been a marked decline in concern about climate change, and in enthusiasm for climate policies, since 2009: only four countries now have majorities in favour of their governments setting ambitious targets at a global conference in Paris, compared with eight before the Copenhagen meeting in 2009. Just under half of people in these countries consider climate change a “very serious” problem, compared with 63% in 2009.
The Paris climate has attracted about 40,000 conference delegates and camp followers, ranging from politicians and civil servants to journalists and campaigners. I don’t have the numbers, but I would be willing to bet that a very small number of them paid their own air fares or hotel bills. A goodly proportion will have sent the bill to taxpayers in various countries, either directly or via the grants that governments give to green pressure groups.
Perhaps the politicians should stop listening to the vested interest of the Green Blob begin asking what long-suffering taxpayers and real voters think about hitting poor people today so as to raise the incomes of very rich people by 1.3% in 2100?