An insult to humanity

Given humankind’s ingenuity, we would have no trouble adapting to a possible rise in global temperatures.

Dominic Lawson

Topics Science & Tech

What is one to make of the result of the UN Copenhagen climate summit? It’s not a treaty. It’s not even an agreement. It’s certainly not a verifiable commitment. To use the technical term in the documents, it’s just a ‘taking note’. And ‘taking note’ is what you do when you haven’t got anywhere. It just reiterates what many politicians call ‘the science’ – and the claim that it would be tragic for the world if global temperatures rose by more than two degrees.

The problem is that, first of all, to see a significant temperature rise as an apocalyptic disaster is just a statement of opinion. Second, because of what’s happened over the past 10 years, when global average temperatures have been static against a background of inexorably and dramatically rising man-made co2 emissions (since the industrial revolution in fact) we have got to the stage where what we’ve discovered about climate science is that we don’t really know enough about weather systems to make any kind of confident prediction.

That’s not a criticism of the scientists; it’s just unbelievably complicated. There are so many variables that they just don’t fully understand – and the most honest of them admit it. As a result, nobody can know what sort of behaviour would stop temperatures going to a certain level, if they don’t know to what extent man is putting them in a particular direction in the first place. Intellectually, the whole concept of climate change is up for grabs.

It’s partially this uncertainty that underlies the complete lack of any kind of real action in Copenhagen. There is an increasing degree of unease about the omniscience of the so-called scientific consensus, which itself underpinned all the politics. It’s like an upside down pyramid. You’ve got this relatively small group of climate modellers – about 30 or 40 people at best – and they’re supporting this vast edifice of carbon markets, of politics, of so-called environmental action, and of incipient massive state control of a vital aspect of our lives. This upside-down pyramid is therefore highly vulnerable because it is resting on that very small point, and if that point crumbles, the whole political superstructure comes crashing down. I think that we’re quite near that point now.

The talk of the scientific consensus was always an odd thing anyway. Not only is there a minority of highly qualified academics who clearly disagree, but we are also dealing with theory, not with mathematical formulas which you could prove on paper as simply right a priori. The theory is one concerning greenhouse gases, of which CO2 is one, albeit a very minor one, and the effect of a purely anthropogenic increase of that gas on temperatures.

The basic idea as to how greenhouse gases could lift temperatures has been around since the nineteenth century. But the problem is that nobody really understands in that immensely complicated experiment known as Earth the effect a particular level of CO2 emissions from man has on something called global temperatures. The more we look at it, the more uncertain it appears. It’s not that there isn’t a theoretical basis to the climate change consensus; but in practice it’s a question of quantifying the significance of man’s contribution to greenhouse gases and its effect on the Earth as it combines with all the other vast numbers of variables which are uncontrollable. So this whole attempt by man to control the weather through a subset of a particular trace gas, namely the reduction of our own CO2 emissions, looks, at the very best, to be completely hubristic.

That isn’t to say that those advocating ‘action’ overestimate man’s ingenuity. Quite the opposite in fact. There are two ways of looking at a change in global temperature. Either you say that ‘we fear temperatures are going to rise, so we must do something to stop it happening’. Or you say ‘we fear temperatures are going to rise, and we must find ways of adapting to that’. The second approach is far more likely to be successful in achieving its objectives – not least because it is in line with what we know about the way we are as humans.

Humans are an intensely adaptive species. That, if you like, is the reason for our evolutionary triumph. Darwin is often misquoted as envisaging ‘the survival of the fittest’. I don’t think he ever said that; what he said was that the most adaptive survive and prosper. And man is the most adaptive of all species. Just to take a very trite example: you have humans living in sub-arctic conditions, which are apparently deeply inhospitable to any living mammal except polar bears. Yet still, societies such as the Inuits have flourished there. And you also have places like Singapore, where the average mean temperature is about 28 degrees Celsius. Humans are the one species that survives and prospers in all climates, at all temperatures, at all times. And the reason for this is our adaptive ingenuity.

The idea that man could not adapt – by technological innovation in particular – to the kind of changes people are talking about is, to put it at its most simple, an insult to humanity. The people who back the kind of 19th century solutions currently being promoted by the UK Government – windmills, for heaven’s sake! – are the same full-time misanthropes who think that the Rev Thomas Malthus was a great prophet. They really believe that man is a blight on the world – whereas in fact we are its glory.

Dominic Lawson is a columnist for the Independent and The Sunday Times, and a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. He was talking to Tim Black.

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Topics Science & Tech


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