A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Full Stern Ahead to Much Waffle and Weeping, Hype and Hubris.....

My apologies for not having commented on the Stern report - I have been immensely busy, including broadcasting and writing about the report in the press. At last, however, I have a moment, stimulated also by what must surely be the nadir of tear-stained right-on comment, inevitably by Our Madeleine of the Sorrows in today's The Guardian [Madeleine Bunting: 'It's hard to explain, Tom, why we did so little to stop global warming' (The Guardian, November 6) - my good wife just burst out laughing when she read this piece over her muesli].

I trust the following comment is a tad less tear-stained:

Stott on Stern

In approaching Sir Nicholas Stern's 700-page doorstopper on the apocalyptic economics of climate change, it is important to place his report in political context. The report was partly commissioned to counter the so-called Copenhagen Consensus of eminent economists brought together by the sceptical environmentalist, Professor Bjørn Lomborg. This group placed 'global warming' low down a list of world priorities and they argued that most actions, such as Miliband-style 'Green' taxes and carbon trading, would have only a negligible effect at the margins of climate change.

Secondly, even before last year's G8 summit in Scotland, Tony Blair had learned first hand that stirring the world on this subject would not be as easy as he first imagined. Moreover, unilateral action in the United Kingdom would resemble little more than a snowflake in a burning hell. Blair therefore wanted to persuade world leaders that not only the science was 'settled' - a dangerous conceit - but that the economics were even more crucial - not to act now would have significant negative economic repercussions for all countries, but especially for that recalcitrant backslider, the US. He further knew that, unless developing countries like China, India, Brazil, and Mexico were fully on board the Good Ship 'Global Warming', his best efforts in this sea of troubles would be torpedoed. His climate-change legacy would be truly scuppered. Hence the Stern report.

Will Stern work? Sadly, I believe it to be misguided, both in terms of practical economics and politics but also on many points of science.


We should remember that Sir Nicholas was chief economist at the World Bank and that he was heavily involved in trade issues. It is thus hardly surprising that carbon trading is presented as one of the key measures for mitigation. Unfortunately, all the evidence to date, especially from Europe, shows that carbon trading is great for capitalists, but that it does absolutely nothing effective about reducing carbon emissions. Indeed, EU emissions are now so disastrous that it is deeply embarrassing for Mr. Blair. Europe is falling woefully short of its targets for cutting greenhouse gases, so much so that the EU's original 15-member states are currently likely to achieve a miserly 0.6 per cent cut on 1990-levels (the target was 8 per cent). Even more embarrassing is the recent prediction that emissions in 2010 will be 0.3 per cent higher than they were in 2004. Moreover, setting caps for carbon emissions has been widely abused, countries merrily electing for soft, undemanding targets that can then be easily achieved without any pain to the national economy. I fear carbon trading on a world scale will become a black-market paradise, siphoning off much-needed wealth to where it is least needed.

Not going to happen

In essence, Stern is not going to happen. Countries like China will happily go along with the ideas in principle, while - and who can blame them? - developing as fast as they can, although at the moment they appear not even to have heard of Sir Nicholas! They will delight in producing all the world's solar panels for a gullible West, while still opening a coal mine per week (they have 30,000 already). Like it or not, carbon dioxide is a proxy measure of economic growth, and that is not going to alter for a long time.

We urgently need some sense of realism in the UK about all this. Cameron's windmill on his roof and (proposed), rather complacently, at No. 10, 'Ming' Campbell's puppet-like animation over 'the need to do something', and Tony Blair's earnest exhortations will do nothing but encourage a 'Little Britain' mentality. Yet, the more we act unilaterally, the more we will undermine our competitive edge. It is thus vital to remember that the UK accounts for a mere 2 per cent of world energy demand, and, because of exponential growth in the developing world, that this will fall to less than 1.5 percent by 2020.

Untoward faith in models

Yet, even more worrying is the fundamental idea behind Stern, namely that, by enforcing such drastic economic measures, we will be able to control climate predictably. Climate is the most complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system known, and it is intrinsically unlikely that climate change can be predicated on a single variable, or factor, however politically convenient. Moreover, what climates are Tony Blair and Sir Nicholas hoping to produce? Will they be better? And when we get there, won't they too change?

Therein rests the real inconvenient truth. Climate is like Glasgow on a Saturday night – a wee bit chaotic. We cannot manage it predictably by fiddling at the margins, however well-meaning Sir Nicholas' efforts.

I believe Stern sets the wrong agendas, in that he mistreats uncertainty, so that the absence of knowledge justifies alarm, and he places an untoward faith in computer-generated prognostications rather than in real-world data and history. For the last 10 years, there has been no statistically-significant change in global mean temperature. Moreover, doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would, if all other factors remained constant, lead to only 1 degree C of warming. It is thus vital to remember that Stern's panics reside with Lara Croft and the virtual world of the computer, and that climate models have overestimated the real-world warming by a factor of three. The models seem unable to cope with the key factors of water vapour and clouds.


First in our priorities must be dealing with poverty, dirty water, and disease. And then we must establish a world order that can support all, but especially the poor, to cope with, and to adapt to, inexorable change whatever its causes or directions. The rest, I fear, as with Madeleine's tear stains for Tom, is the dangerous and misguided ecochondria of a rich North.

Stern has built a mighty economic edifice on shifting and unmanageable sands.

I predict that Stern will sink quite quickly to join the now-forgotten Population Bomb and Limits to Growth, and many other such doomsday tracts.
Philip, lovely chilly day. Calls for a sunny disposition rather than a stern outlook. Tea anyone?

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