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(This debate is closed and is a read-only archive)
Kyoto institutionalises restraint
[9-Dec-2001]
The public profile enjoyed by the Kyoto Protocol is symptomatic of a shift in attitudes towards what determines our prosperity. Historically, people have moved from a state of vulnerability to fluctuations in the natural environment to circumstances where we can take more in our stride. We no longer suffer famines and drought as facts of life. Of course we are still dependent on nature, but our dependence is less direct. It is mediated through our technologies and social organisation. But, by contrast, as environmentalists we now feel our fortunes are directly determined by the forces of nature. The range of climate change realistically suggested by the IPCC would have been seen in the past as a relatively insignificant factor, as compared to the gains from economic and technological development.

Today natural science takes over where politicians and economists have given up. The downplaying of development is reflected in David Viner's comments: 'Arguments regarding the economic costs and adaptation measures that can be implemented will hold little sway with a Bangladeshi whose village has just been lost to a storm surge, or with somebody in a developed nation who can no longer insure their house against flooding....Adaptive responses are beyond the resources of most developed countries.' (Expert responses, 4 December)

Did Viner really mean to argue that vulnerability to flooding is more a function of the weather than of development? The pressing question that needs to be addressed is why Bangladeshis are still living in such primitive conditions. Viner's approach here sits well with the broader environmental agenda, which sees development as both undesirable and unsustainable. But if he wants to tell Bangladeshis that proper housing, running water, electricity, roads and the other benefits of modern life which allow us to cope with the weather are 'beyond' available resources he will have to do better than rely on the authority of climate science.

Those worried about flooding in the developed world, too, would do better to demand more engineering work and flood control. (They should also be wary of opportunistic insurance companies.) Critics of Kyoto need not publish better science than the IPCC. Scientific facts do not prescribe the way society should respond. Instead they should be a starting point for an informed debate.

However, it is important to emphasise the uncertainty in climate science. To a first approximation, the IPCC represents the best science on climate change. But the best is still very uncertain. We must ask: how reliable are the predictions of our best climate science? As Philip Stott has pointed out, climate science is a dynamic field (Reader responses, 4 December). Important studies appear every few months. The uncertainties are well known. Nobody believes that the effects on climate of, for example, clouds and aerosols are well understood or insignificant. Computer models are still inaccurate. In The Skeptical Environmentalist Lomborg quotes the IPCC conclusion that 'the choice of model makes a bigger difference to the simulated response than the choice of [policy] scenario' (p272).

This uncertainty is one more reason science cannot give definite guidance. Kyoto should be rejected not because it is based on 'bad science', but because it institutionalises economic and political restraint.

Joe Kaplinsky, UK

Archived list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
Professor Bjørn Lomborg
Author of The Skeptical Environmentalist
Dr Mike Hulme
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia
Commissioned responses
John Gillott
Margaret Mogford
Philip Stott
Charles Secrett
Dr David Viner
Peter Sammonds
Reader responses
View the list of responses

Useful resources
Climate change: scientific certainties and uncertainties
NERC

Climate change 2001: the scientific basis
IPCC

UK government publications on climate change
Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions

Guide to the New Kyoto Rulebook
Lycos News


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