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When it comes to global warming, rational debate is what we need

31 March 2011

3:37 PM

31 March 2011

3:37 PM

We had a sell-out debate on global warming at The Spectator on Tuesday and, as I found
out this morning, the debate is still going on. The teams were led by Nigel Lawson and Sir David King, and I was in the audience. I tweeted my praise of Simon Singh’s argument as he made it: it was a brilliant variation on the theme of "don’t think
– trust the experts". He seems to have discovered the tweet this morning, and responded with a volley of five
questions for me. Then David Aaronovitch weighed in, followed by Simon Mayo. At 8.35am!

I had the choice between replying, or carrying on with my gourmet porridge. I chose the latter, and promised to blog my response later on to Simon Mayo and the Breakfast Crew. So here goes. Simon
Singh tweeted me five questions:

1. Do you agree that increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases lead to an increase in the global temperature?

2. Do you agree CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from 280ppmv to 380ppmv (35%) during period of industrialisation?

3. Do you agree that the Earth’s climate has warmed by 0.6 degrees in the last 50 years?

4. Do you agree human contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is major factor in the warming over the last century?

5. Do you agree best scientific predictions estimate further rise of 1.1 to 6 C over 100 yrs based on good (not perfect) models?

Simon may be disappointed to know that I don’t have a problem with any of the above. But this is not the whole argument. As far as I see it, there are four stages of the global warming
orthodoxy:

1. That the planet is warming

 

2. That manmade activity is, in some part, responsible

3. That decarbonisation is the only effective solution

4. There is a degree of urgency to it. Some will disagree with all of the above.

Many people agree with all four. Personally, I am persuaded by the first two: that the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to the problem. Simon’s five questions fit into
these categories. But thereafter, I’m not yet persuaded. How much is man’s activity contributing to global warming? Is it 20 percent? 80 percent? I haven’t seen a proper paper
that attempts to quantify it — perhaps Simon can find me one. If any CoffeeHousers can point me to a paper on this, I’d be grateful.

Also, why the urgency? Every energy summit that comes up is billed as a last chance saloon, with a Flash Gordon-style “we only have 14
hours to save the earth” warning. As Nigel Lawson said in the debate, Cancun was supposedly the last chance saloon — so which saloon are we drinking in now? For example: I may be
persuaded that my house is subsiding. But if I was charged £thousands to put golden matchsticks under my house, I would not agree. What good would that do? I’d want to know that the
expensive solution would actually solve the problem. Same with global warming. You know that green taxes will put up energy prices, make the poor poorer — and in a country where at least
20,000 pensioners die from the cold each winter.

But what good will it do to the overall problem? The Stern Review outlined a problem: that global warming will cost 10 percent of GDP each year. It outlined a solution, that would cost 2 percent of
GDP. But suspiciously, it does not say to what extent the solution would address the problem. Would the 2 percent eliminate the problem that was going to cost 10 percent? Or halve it to 5 percent?
It didn’t say. This 700-page report suspiciously did not include a cost-benefit analysis.

Singh was brilliant in our debate, and I’m sorry that he took my tweet as a criticism. Climate science is hideously complicated, he said, so what is the average bloke to think in such
circumstances? You look at who is saying what, and judge how credible they are. Singh then displayed a grid. On the X-axis he had sceptics and orthodox believers, and the y-axis was their level of
credibility. So the IPCC had maximum credibility, and is really worried about global warming. Singh found no one of maximum credibility who was not worried about global warming. Think tankers (on
both sides of the debate) were given less credibility, politicians even less, journalists and bloggers even less. Even Geri Halliwell featured.

It was a powerful way of making the case. There’s plenty to be said for the "trust the expert" case. Cancer is the classic example. Those diagnosed normally do what oncologists
recommend. We do so knowing that mankind’s understanding of cancer is in its infancy, and the treatments are brutal, blunt instruments. But they’re the best we have available at this
time. There is debate about the merits of chemotherapy, there are dissenting oncologists. But if you’re diagnosed, you’d be pretty likely to go with the mainstream. But in most other
examples, you want these experts to be prodded and questioned. If they stand up to scrutiny, then fine. But the argument "trust the experts" is becoming less persuasive as the information
revolution progresses. Hierarchies are being flattened in every walk of life, and this includes intellectual hierarchies. As Mark Penn says, elites are more impressionable than the masses — so more likely to be persuaded by a scientific
consensus. The public want to be persuaded, not told that they should believe the Clever People.

In science and medicine, there is all too little of that. That’s why I think that the solution is rational debate. We held one last week, and it is what The Spectator does as a magazine. We
have given space to minority voices — because we believe that one voice in a thousand can often be right. Going back to Simon’s grid: I’m more than prepared to believe that all
the clever people are capable of being wrong, and the dotty dissenting scientist can be right. From Newton onwards, the history of science is studded with examples of the minority voice proving
right.

Finally, what is The Spectator’s position? We seek to be nothing more than the still, small voice of calm in the middle of a hysterical debate. Simon Mayo tweeted that he stopped buying us because of what he saw as an anti-science bias: I was heartbroken by that, and not just because I
admire him so much as a broadcaster. When we ran our global warming special we had pieces written by people whom Singh would rank as high in credibility: scientists, academics, statisticians.
We’re very pro-science, but real science invites refutation. As Sir David King said on the night, with science debate never stops.

The Spectator has a bias towards robust debate: on stage, and in the magazine. And if we’re one of the few publications that gives space to those who dissent from the climate orthodoxy, it
fits a long tradition. The Spectator, alone in Britain, supported the north of America against the slave-owning south. We called for the legalisation of homosexuality in 1957, ten years before it
happened. We alone opposed Britain’s entry into the ERM. The Spectator is a magazine that gives space to well-made, minority arguments. As a Gershwin once put it, they all laughed at
Christopher Columbus:

UPDATE: My colleague James Delingpole – a far closer follower of the climate debate – has responded to Singh’s five points here, and finished off with a splendid quotation from Karl Popper which I’d like
to reproduce.

‘Today, the appeal to the authority of experts is sometimes excused by the immensity of our specialised knowledge. And it is sometimes defended by philosophical theories that speak of
science and rationality in terms of specializations, experts, and authority. But in my view, the appeal to the authority of experts should be neither excused nor defended. It should, on the
contrary, be recognized for what it is – an intellectual fashion – and it should be attacked by a frank acknowledgement of how little we know, and how much that little is due to people
who have worked in many fields at the same time. And it should also be attacked by the recognition that the orthodoxy produced by intellectual fashions, specialization, and the appeal to
authorities is the death of knowledge, and that the growth of knowledge depends entirely upon disagreement.’

Karl Popper, Author’s Note, 1993, The Myth of the Framework.

PPS: Simon Singh replies here. He seems to be anxious to have a ding-dong with someone who doesn’t think the planet is warming and that mankind
is, at least in part, responsible. I’m afraid I can’t help. My problem is with the political response to the science. I fear that Simon and I are talking at cross-purposes, so I won’t continue our
joust (it is, after all, a lovely Sunday) but his post is certainly worth reading.


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