Shooting down the enemies of progress

Environmentalists argue that the debate about global warming is done and dusted, and we now have no choice but to rein in development and shrink the ‘human footprint’. Two powerful new books beg to differ.

Tony Gilland

Topics Books

An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming is a concise and interesting contribution to the debate about the significance of global warming. According to its author, Nigel Lawson, the former British chancellor of the exchequer in the Thatcher years, it was a major struggle to find a publisher willing to publish something that ‘flies so much in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy’. Nevertheless, since finding a publisher, Lawson has done a reasonable job of attracting coverage for his arguments about the exaggerated, unnecessarily fearful stance that many are adopting with regard to the issue of global warming.

His message that human beings are more adaptable than they are being given credit for in the current global warming debate is the most convincing part of the book, and the one that has received most favourable coverage in the press.

Referring to the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its attempt to predict what the impacts of global warming might be by 2100, Lawson undoubtedly has a point when he argues that ‘there is something inherently absurd about the conceit that we can have any useful idea of what the world will be like in a hundred years time’. As Lawson points out: ‘We have only to ask ourselves whether the Edwardians, even if equipped with the most powerful modern computers, would have been able to foresee the massive economic, political and technological changes that have occurred in the past hundred years’. For Lawson, combining the ‘uncertainties of long-range weather forecasting’ with those of ‘long-range economic forecasting’ and ‘long range population forecasting’ does not provide a sound basis for ‘seriously expensive’ long-term policy decisions.

The book is at its best when simply raising commonsense points about the scale of the problems that may be posed by global warming in the context of future economic and technological development and man’s adaptive capabilities. For example, using the IPCC’s own assumptions that have shaped their various future scenarios about economic growth, population growth and growth in carbon emissions, coupled with the IPCC’s associated projections about the range of possible average temperature rises associated with these different scenarios, Lawson demonstrates why people in the year 2100 (the time span the IPCC focuses on) should in general be well able to cope with any necessary adjustments that society will need to make in the face of warming.

According to Lawson, using the IPCC’s own assumptions, even under its gloomiest scenario with the lowest assumed rate of technological advance and the highest assumed rate of population growth (15 billion by 2100, nearly 50 per cent higher than the United Nation’s own highest projection for that year), the costs associated with coping with the consequences of the 3.4 degrees Celsius best estimate rise in temperature made by the IPCC will mean that people in the developing world will, on average, be ‘only 8.5 times as well off as people in the developing world today, instead of 9.5 times as well off’.

Similarly, people in the developed world will be ‘only 2.6 times as well off as we are today, instead of 2.7 times’. According to Lawson, if you take the IPCC’s most optimistic growth scenarios, then the corresponding figures would be 4.7 times as well off for the developed world compared to 4.8 times as well off, and 45 times as well off in the developing world compared to 50 times as well off.

Thinking about these widely varying assumptions and their lack of any real grounding in reality makes one very aware of the futility involved with predicting the future in this way. But this number-crunching exercise does help to put the scale of the problem of global warming into perspective. As Lawson readily admits, global warming may well present people with challenges and problems to overcome – whether through impacts on water supply and food production, sea-level rise in low-lying areas, or the spread of some diseases. But none of these problems need be catastrophic, and in some instances the advantages of warming are likely to be greater than the disadvantages. If we prioritise continued economic growth and technological development, there appears little reason to believe that, in general, we cannot take the challenges posed by warming in our stride as we march towards greater prosperity.

The more relaxed perspective on global warming argued for by Lawson is out of kilter with much of what we hear about the issue in the media or from politicians, business leaders and pretty much everybody else these days. According to Robin McKie, reviewing Lawson’s book for the Observer, this is because Lawson ‘simply piles up scientific howlers’; McKie accuses Lawson of using ‘cherry-picked’ and ‘distorted data’. He particularly objects to Lawson’s focus on the static average global temperature increases recorded for the years 2001 to 2007. McKie says: ‘The Met Office states clearly: “The temperature change over the latest decade [1998-2007] alone shows a continued warming of 0.1 deg. C per decade.”’ (1)

Indeed it seems quite reasonable to object to the level of attention Lawson pays to a very short period of time when the science of global warming is about longer-term trends. However, given that the science of global warming is often presented as much more accurate and well understood than it actually is, in order to use ‘the science’ to push through political objectives and specific policy responses, it seems quite reasonable for Lawson to point out that this period of roughly static temperatures, much commented upon within the scientific community recently, was not predicted by any of the clever computer models wheeled out to tell us why we must all start doing our bit to reduce our carbon footprint.

The strength of Lawson’s book is probably not in his presentation of the science of global warming, though he does do a reasonable job of pointing out that the science is less certain and clear-cut than it is frequently portrayed to be. The reason to read this book is because, in the context of all the hype and hyperbole about this issue, his pragmatic and sober approach to examining the potential impacts of global warming against the potential for mankind to adapt, and weighing these up against the cost of expensive and drastic action now, is quite refreshing.

The weakness of Lawson’s book is his political analysis of the situation. To explain the meteoric rise of the green movement, he gives the simplistic pat explanation ‘with the collapse of Marxism … green is the new red’. Anybody who remembers the Thatcher administration, in which Lawson was a central influence, might balk at the rosy-eyed view of the forward march of economic growth that he puts across. During that Conservative administration, mass unemployment was an ever-present feature. Moreover, blaming the left is rather one-sided; it was Thatcher herself who was the first major leader to raise the issue of global warming, at a speech to the Royal Society in 1988 (see Digging up the roots of the IPCC, by Tony Gilland).

Nonetheless, when it comes to the issue at hand, Lawson does an admirable job of demonstrating that there is a profoundly important debate to be had about how we respond to global warming that is simply not being properly had out today.

Equally refreshing is Austin Williams’ polemic against the tediously self-righteous orthodoxy that has grown up around the sustainability agenda. Williams’ The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability is a romp of a read. The author does not mince his words. ‘Sustainability is an insidiously dangerous concept at odds with progress’ and ‘a pernicious and corrosive doctrine that has survived primarily because there seems to be no alternative to its canon’, he writes.

Across eight well-argued chapters, Williams hangs out to dry those who view humankind as our biggest threat and who celebrate the curtailment of human activity in the name of saving the planet. He also offers up some interesting insights and questions to explore if we are to properly understand the stranglehold sustainability has over society (as Williams notes, ‘nowhere is the word “development” printed without its adjectival corrective’), and how we might begin to cut loose from it.

The Enemies of Progress starts with two hard-hitting chapters, one on transport and mobility (‘The New Parochialists’) and one on energy provision (‘The Opt-Outs’), which take up the central tenet of sustainability: the idea that we need to make do with less and curb our ambitions and desires. ‘The New Parochialists’ begins with a wonderful early nineteenth-century quote from Dr Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School, who, upon seeing a Victorian steam train travelling across the countryside, stated: ‘I rejoice to see it, and think that feudality is gone forever.’ Contrast this to Tony Blair at the beginning of his premiership in 1997, when he suggested that ‘a new approach to transport may mean sometimes not travelling at all’, or the fact that in 2005/06 the UK managed to complete ‘a meagre 22 miles of road network’, and you can begin to see where Williams is coming from.

With irony, the author notes that the Chinese, ‘with fewer qualms about the human efficiency gains resulting from swapping their bikes for motor cars, have recently announced that they will be building 5,500 miles of new roadway in the next five years’, while India has initiated a ‘15-year project to widen, resurface and maintain over 40,000 miles of national highways’. Contrast this to the UK, which added a mere 6.3 miles of road improvements between 2006 and 2008!

Williams is scathing of the impact of ‘carbonistas’ (translation: obsessive carbon counters and moralisers) on transport policy, pointing out how ‘sustainable transport has won a considerable pyrrhic victory; undermining the legitimacy of mobility and the sociability, aspiration and inquisitiveness which are contained within the desire to transport ourselves beyond the local’. He is equally scathing of the drive towards ‘microgeneration’ to meet energy needs and the ‘constant subliminal drone of public service broadcasting all directed cynically to encourage civic engagement in an “energy dialogue”’ where, he argues, ‘the mere process of people getting involved in deciding which jumper to wear while the thermostat is turned down a degree or two is the real victory for sustainability devotees’.

The seriousness with which all of this is taken is well-illustrated by an amusing quote from the chairman of America’s Edison Electric Institute, stating that ‘the most efficient and environmentally responsible (power) plant you can build is the one that you don’t build’. That such a comment can be made in seriousness demonstrates the strength of the problem that Williams rightly rails against when he argues ‘human time spent on these penny-pinching activities is automatically deemed to be worth it’, when in fact ‘it is the minimisation of human effort, not external energy, that is the key to progress: the freeing up of labour so that humans can do other things’.

The book continues with, among others, interesting chapters on the subversion of education in the cause of propagandising to the young about sustainability and green issues; sour-faced attitudes towards the remarkable economic development taking place in China and India; and the dressing up of reactionary attitudes about what the Third World should aspire towards as enlightened thinking in the guise of sustainable development. The chapter on education, ‘The Indoctrinators’, is particularly worth reading. The tedium that is being inflicted on our children’s minds when the same old green agenda is stuck in front of them at every opportunity becomes obvious when you reflect on how many extra-curricula initiatives choose to orient themselves towards the sustainability agenda.

Children’s Book Week, a national students’ entrepreneurship and technology competition and a national poetry competition are just a few examples of initiatives that have chosen the environment as the theme or focus for their activity in the past couple of years. And the way in which the integrity of education itself becomes undermined as even the basic teaching of subjects becomes subverted by the environmental cause is drawn out by a nice example from Beech Hill Primary School. Apparently, with assistance from the World Wildlife Fund, music lessons at this school involve children matching different rhythms to suit pictures of nature and of people such that the resulting cacophony provides ‘a springboard to consider the effect that humans have on the environment’. No longer, it would seem, are students simply allowed to learn music; rather, they now need to demonstrate due deference to the sustainability agenda while listening to a tune.

The Enemies of Progress concludes by addressing the growing tendency for some environmentalists to react against the doom and gloom associated with environmentalism. For example, leading environmentalists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger worry about environmentalism’s ‘failure to articulate a positive and inspiring vision’, while Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government and leading advocate of drastic reductions in carbon emissions, has worried about a sense of despair dissuading people from taking action over climate change.

But for Williams the corresponding and growing emphasis on ‘techno-optimism’ among some environmentalists does not wash. Their fundamental point and approach still views human beings as the problem and seeks to curtail our ambitions: ‘What does ambition mean if we allow humanity to be represented as the biggest problem on the planet, rather than as creators of a better future…? If our ambition is to put nature first, humans come second. Period.’

For those excited about the potential of humanity to shape the world, Williams’ book is a refreshing and useful polemic.

Tony Gilland is science and society director at the Institute of Ideas.

An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, by Nigel Lawson is published by Gerald Duckworth & Co. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability, by Austin Williams is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Talk about hot air, Robin McKie, Observer, 20 April 2008

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Topics Books


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