Matt Ridley: Scathing on Climate Alarmism

On March 11th, I wrote glowingly about Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist”.  But I admitted that in my enthusiasm I’d put pen to paper before I’d finished the book.  I said I was looking forward to his chapter on climate change.  And it was worth waiting for.

The overall theme of Ridley’s book is that pessimism is always fashionable, while optimism seems trite.  Ever since Malthus (and indeed before), there have been queues of philosophers, sages and scientists lining up to warn us that the world is approaching a tipping point, that progress cannot be sustained, that disaster looms, and that we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket.  These people seems cautious, serious, wise and well-advised.  They are fêted, and they sell books.

Meantime those who take a more optimistic line are seen as simple, shallow folk with rose-tinted glasses, unable to see the horrors that loom ahead.  Or else they have a commercial interest in optimism.  Question the idea of “peak oil”, or climate change, and you must be a venal individual in the pay of “Big Oil”.  Yet  as H.G. Wells put it, “It is the long ascent of our past that gives the lie to our despair”.

At the heart of the pessimist fallacy, argues Ridley, lies an implicit assumption that the world, and technology, are static.  Given the agricultural technology of his time, Malthus was right.  Population growth was geometric, food production growth only arithmetic, so on that basis we would indeed reach “The Limits to Growth” (the title of an infamous and hugely mistaken 1972 tract by the Club of Rome).  But technology is not static.  The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones — it ended because we discovered metals.

Ridley quotes many examples of dire predictions which now seem laughable — yet they provide a direct read-across to today’s shock-horror predictions of tipping points, runaway global warming and peak oil.

Paul Ehrlich was perhaps the most prolific author of dire predictions which now look daft.  His 1968 book “The Population Bomb” predicted that India would never feed itself.  But in the 70s we had new varieties of wheat and India became a net exporter of wheat.  In the 70s, Ehrlich proposed compulsory population control.    Again in the 70s, Ehrlich predicted that world population would reach 20 billion by 2100.  (It is currently expected to peak below 10 billion in the mid 21st century, and then decline).  Ehrlich predicted “In the 70s and 80s, hundreds of millions will starve to death … nothing can prevent a huge increase in the death rate”.  In fact, both life expectancy and nutrition have improved in most countries.  Whipping up a scare about chemicals in the environment, he confidently predicted that “life expectancy in the USA will drop to 42 years by 1980, due to cancer epidemics”.

Ehrlich and others argued that oil, gas, food and most commodities would run out in the 80s or 90s.  And they were gloriously, spectacularly wrong.

Ridley is an optimist on climate as well.  And critically, he is an optimist despite accepting (or at least not disputing) the IPCC/global warming orthodoxy.  Indeed he bases most of his comments on IPCC scenarios — all of which, he notes, involve most of the world becoming rapidly richer.  Even if the Warmists are right about the economic impacts of climate change, it means our great grandchildren will be only eight times richer than us, not nine times.  And he recalls that richer societies are much more resilient than poor ones in the face of climate challenges.

But perhaps his own words express his position best.

“Extreme climate outcomes are so unlikely, and depend on such wild assumptions, that they do not dent my optimism”. “Ocean acidification looks like a back-up plan by environmental pressure groups in case the climate fails to warm”.  “If climate change proves to be mild, but cutting carbon causes real pain, we may find we have stopped a nose-bleed by putting a tourniquet round our neck”.   “The way to (choose low carbon technologies) is not to pick losers like wind and bio-fuel, to reward speculators in carbon credits, and to load the economy with rules, restrictions, subsidies distortions ands corruption”.  “The probability of rapid and severe climate change is small; the probability of net harm from the most likely climate change is small; the probability that no adaptation will occur is small; and the probability of no new low-carbon energy technologies emerging in the long run is zero”.  “You cannot on the IPCC’s figures make it anything other than very probable that the world will be a better place in 2100 than it is today”.

The Rational Optimist.  Well worth reading.


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4 Responses to Matt Ridley: Scathing on Climate Alarmism

  1. RobH says:

    Matt Ridley’s main experience is as chairman of Northern Rock until 2007, at the time it was being ruined by its reckless borrowing and lending, ending with its collapse. Why do you think it is worth paying attention to what he has to say about assessing and managing risk? Also, do you think he is more likely to be correct on climatology and oceanography, areas well outside his competence, than researchers within those areas?

  2. No, it wasn’t his main experience. He had a long career as a scientist and economist. Northern Rock didn’t turn out well, but I guess we’re all allowed one mistake in life!

  3. RobH says:

    And the pinnacle of his long career as an economist was to crash the bank he was chairman of. To repeat my questions:
    [1] Why do you think it is worth paying attention to what he has to say about assessing and managing risk, given his performance at Northern Rock?
    [2] Do you think he is more likely to be correct on climatology and oceanography, areas well outside his competence, than researchers within those areas?

  4. James P says:

    Perhaps he’s better at science than economics! I can imagine that his experience at the bank (which relied heavily on investment models) might make him an ideal critic of climate modelling, which is equally suspect.

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