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I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind paywall)



I call it my tourniquet theory and it goes like this: if you are bleeding to death from a severed limb, then a tourniquet may save your life, but if you have a nosebleed, then a tourniquet round your neck will do more harm than good. This metaphor can be applied to all sorts of scares and their remedies, but it is climate change that I have in mind. Over the past few years it has gradually become clear to me that climate change is a nosebleed, not a severed limb, and that the remedies we are subsidising are tourniquets round the neck of the economy.

Last month, the Government’s plan for a job-deterring carbon price floor, and an Australian official’s admission that even if the world stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, the temperature would not drop for several hundred years, reminded us that the pain could well outweigh the gain. Two new peer-reviewed scientific papers ram the point home. The first makes it clear just what a mild nosebleed climate change is proving to be; the second just what a lethal tourniquet climate change policy is. Note that this is different from arguing about whether climate change is real. Nosebleeds are real.

The nosebleed paper appeared in the Journal of Coastal Research (salute the web, in passing, for its extraordinary capacity for giving us access to such sources) and it concludes: “Our analyses do not indicate acceleration in sea level in US tide gauge records during the 20th century. Instead, for each time period we consider, the records show small decelerations that are consistent with a number of earlier studies of worldwide-gauge records. The decelerations that we obtain are . . . one to two orders of magnitude less than the +0.07 to +0.28 [millimetres per year squared] accelerations that are required to reach sea levels predicted for 2100 by [three recent mathematical models].”

To translate: sea level is rising more slowly than expected, and the rise is slowing down rather than speeding up. Sea level rise is the greatest potential threat to civilisation posed by climate change because so many of us live near the coast. Yet, at a foot a century and slowing, it is a slight nosebleed. So are most of the other symptoms of climate change, such as Arctic sea ice retreat, in terms of their impact. The rate of increase of temperature (0.6C in 50 years) is not on track to do net harm (which most experts say is 2C) by the end of this century.

The tourniquet paper is from the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons; its author, Indur Goklany, concludes: “The production of biofuels may have led to at least 192,000 additional deaths and 6.7 million additional lost disability-adjusted life years in 2010. These estimates are conservative [and] exceed the World Health Organisation’s estimates of the toll of death and disease for global warming. Thus, policies to stimulate biofuel production, in part to reduce the alleged impacts of global warming on public health, particularly in developing countries, may actually have increased death and disease globally.”

In short, biofuels are doing more harm than good by pushing people into malnutrition, which makes them more vulnerable to disease: a tourniquet round the neck of the poor. Not far from where I live, there is a biofuel plant on Teesside, and to my disgust I find that some of the wheat grown on my farm goes there after it’s sold. About 5 per cent of the world’s grain production is now going to make motor fuel rather than food, with the result that rich farmers like me get better prices, but poor Africans pay more for food.

Yet that 5 per cent of world grain has displaced just 0.6 per cent of world oil use, so biofuel is hurting the patient without even stopping the nosebleed.

Almost every other climate change policy suggested so far is similarly futile. Wind: costs a fortune, kills eagles and does not even reduce carbon emissions because of the need for fossil fuel back-up. Solar: the tariff paid for energy fed into the grid is so high that you might even make money if you shine off-peak electric lamps on your panels at night. Tidal, hydro: far greater impact on natural habitats than climate change. Wave: does not work.

As the world begins an historic switch from coal and oil to abundant natural gas (which the International Energy Agency now says will last for at least a quarter of a millennium), carbon emissions are bound to start falling in a decade or three. Electricity from gas produces 37 per cent of the carbon dioxide that electricity from coal produces, and cars running on natural gas produce 25 per cent less carbon emissions, not to mention costing half as much to run.

As the climate nosebleed dribbles down our collective chin, we will look back in horror on those who proffered a tourniquet for our collective neck.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  the-times