I normally have a great deal of time for Philip Johnston, a columnist with the Daily Telegraph. But his piece on December 1st, “The climate argument may never be won, but we can’t ignore it” is wrong on so many levels that I have to respond.
He starts out well enough, reflecting that the lefty eco-warriors who turned out in London on the last weekend in November to demand climate action and the closure of coal mines are (to a large extent) the very same lefty agitators who thirty years ago marched against mine closures. He goes on to recall Margaret Thatcher’s brief flirtation with climate alarmism – but failing to add that if she was one of the first to recognise the warmist argument, she was also one of the first to see through it.
Johnston goes on to cite the failure of successive Global Climate Jamborees – Rio 1992; Kyoto 1997; Copenhagen 2009. He asks why the alarmist predictions have failed. They said there would be more hurricanes in the Caribbean (in fact there are fewer). Pacific islands would drown (they haven’t).
But he then falls into perhaps the worst possible mistake: the argument from authority: “The vast majority of climate academics subscribe to the idea that global warming is man-made, and every political leader in the world accepts this idea”. I think that Nigel Farage might be a little surprised by that proposition.
“We are going” (he says) “to move to a lower-carbon future whether it is needed or not, because 150 countries have pledged… etc etc…”. Behold the triumph of hope over experience! And he has listed the previous failures, so he has no excuse for this blind faith in Paris and 150 pledges. First, many of these pledges are conditional on Western funding. Second, many of the pledges fall far short of the UN’s demands. Third, the pledges might not be there come the end of the Conference. Finally, even if the pledges and the funding are agreed (a big IF), they will certainly not be delivered. China, India and other developing countries are not going to sacrifice the dream of economic progress on the altar of speculative theories and aspirations.
Mr. Johnston maybe needs to study the projections of the International Energy Agency. Fossil fuel use and CO2emissions will increase for the foreseeable future, Paris or no Paris. Under the IEA’s “New Policies Scenario” (incorporating the mitigation measures currently envisaged), global coal use grows at an annual rate of 0.4% until 2040. Under its much more probable “Current Policies Scenario”, coal use grows at 1.3% per annum (no link – you have to buy the report). “The direction of travel is clear and irreversible”, says Johnston. And he’s right – but not in the way he thinks.
Then he claims, bizarrely, that it is “actually a good thing” (in moral terms) “to stop burning fossil fuels. “Not only is it wrong to dig a finite resource from the earth and expect our grandchildren to do without”, he says, “It is also daft”. Yet later he answers his own point: “If capitalism is the problem, it is also the solution”. It will find the best response to future resource issues.
For Johnston to fret over leaving our grandchildren short of fossil fuels is rather like a 17th century charcoal-burner worrying about how we shall keep the home fires burning when we’ve used up all the trees – oblivious of new technologies: coal, gas, oil, and eventually nuclear. The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. It ended when we developed better technologies.
His other “moral” argument against fossil fuels is that we shouldn’t leave our children dependent on politically unstable areas like Russia or the Middle East. Has he entirely forgotten that Britain is an island founded on coal – and that we also have massive gas (and possibly oil) resources underfoot that we have hardly started to exploit?
“Nuclear and solar are much more sustainable”, he says, implying the horrible newspeak meaning of “sustainable”. Currently solar and wind are unsustainable in economic terms, though I accept that solar will become price competitive (even allowing for back-up and distribution and storage costs) in perhaps a decade or so. But it will not be sufficient. Johnston is right that capitalism provides the answer – and when “renewables” are truly competitive, the market will adopt them. But they will not fully replace fossil fuels for many decades.
Johnston’s final (and very grave) error is the old canard that “On the insurance risk principle, there is sufficient worry to mean that mitigation is a rational, even a necessary, response”. Not if the insurance premium exceeds the cost of foreseeable damage, Philip. And pace Stern, most economic analyses are clear that mitigation, with its massive up-front costs, is a more expensive option that “wait-and-see and adaptation”. Especially when we finally realise that climate alarmism was so much nonsense to start with.