Despite doomsday prophecies, there is still room for debate around the impact of climate change, writes Matt O’Keeffe
While it may suit some people to label those who adopt less of a doomsday attitude to climate change as ‘deniers’, the reality is that there is some room for debate on the likely outcome of the warming of the earth. The latest summary report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is full of the kind of misery we have come to expect from that body. If we don’t fry to death, we will surely drown – that is if we haven’t starved to death first. However, the debate around this latest IPCC report, the fifth one, shows clearly that not everyone agrees with the conclusions reached. These are not just the ignoramuses who don’t believe the evidence at hand. One notable dissenter is a respected economist. Another, James Lovelock, is a man who has given his entire adult life to promoting the well-being of the planet. Nevertheless, he has criticised what he sees as the scaremongering being promoted on foot of the latest data on climate change published by the IPCC.
A Statistical Error
Let’s start with the economist. Richard Tol is a Dutchman well known in Irish economic circles from his years with the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). Speaking his mind has landed Richard in hot water before and his involvement in compiling the latest IPCC report places him in a good position to deliver some positive criticism. He was unwilling to have his name associated with the IPCC report summary as a result of the manner in which the document manipulated the content of the report. A headline grabber in the document summary suggested widespread famine and food scarcity in the years ahead, with a 2 per cent fall in food production coinciding with a peak of the earth’s population at 9bn. While this may sound plausible, the report itself did not quite say that. What the report did say, however, was that there would be a reduction of 2 per cent in the amount of food produced, compared to what would be produced if there was no impact from climate change.
Deeply embedded in the report is the truth – not quite as simple, but a lot more factual. The expectation is that over the next few decades, food production will increase by as much as 20 per cent, driven by new production technologies and smarter farming. The 2 per cent reduction caused by expected climate change should be deducted from that overall 20 per cent increase in food output giving a net gain of 18 per cent (17.6 per cent if you use the expanded food production figure as the base line). Either way, the reality is that advanced agricultural practices are likely to keep up with increased food demand. That would be quite an achievement, given the many other factors, apart from global warming, will impact adversely on food production. These include: ongoing desertification; increased urbanisation; further reducing the amount of fertile land available for growing food; and, the increasing demands for animal proteins, which require proportionately more land per kilo produced, compared to vegetables and grains.
But, of course, an 18 per cent increase in food output might not scare society enough, so the blunt 2 per cent reduction statistic is highlighted in the report summary. All the better to frighten the general public into adopting the kind of actions those who know best deem to be necessary.
Richard Tol exposed this travesty of the truth and will not, most probably as a result, be asked to contribute to any further IPCC reports. He is just not willing to play the game. Worst of all, Richard cannot be categorised as a denier. He is a Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex and also Prof of the Economics of Climate Change at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Richard has a clear vision of the likely impact of climate change, but is unwilling to scare people with half truths and exaggerated headline figures. His comments: ‘’The new report by the UN was alarmist and focused on scare stories,’’ says it all.
A Lifelong Environmentalist
For those who have an interest in environmental issues, James Lovelock is a familiar name. Some of his theories that he has brought forth over the decades of his writing have been, to say the least, controversial. He believes that the earth and all connected to it are part of a single organism, called Gaia, after a Greek goddess. While scientific proof of this organism has been hard to track down, his general hypothesis is that all aspects of the earth - animal, vegetable and mineral, as well as climate, weather and the environment - are interconnected in many ways. This is hard to dispute. A forthright prophet of doom and a believer in the negative impacts of climate change, James is, nevertheless, willing now to admit that, bad as things may get, a doomsday scenario of mass extinction is no longer probable, or even likely.
Lovelock has a number of reasons for his belated change of heart and mind. Firstly, while he believes that global warming is all but certain, almost 95 per cent certain as he puts it, he also notes that the original theory that temperatures would rise in tandem with increases in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not proven to be the case.
High pollution levels in the atmosphere, including aerosols and nitrous oxides, have tended to have a cooling effect because sunlight is being reflected back into space. He still believes that global warming is happening, but has a more nuanced view as to the time-scale of fundamental climate change and the actual ways in which that change will manifest itself.
Inefficient Wind Energy
James is not an advocate of wind energy as the solution to our energy problems. He describes wind turbines as inefficient and notes that, even if wind blew steadily all of the time, it would take an astronomical number of turbines to provide adequate electricity for our needs. The lifelong environmentalist sees alternative energy sources, such as wind power, as merely interim options. He believes that fracking should be adopted as another interim energy source. Describing nuclear power as the almost ideal form of energy – and the safest – James has revised his attitude towards climate change from catastrophic to challenging. Perhaps there is a need for more people to adopt such an attitude.