Book Review: An Appeal to Reason


12-22-08, 9:46 am

An Appeal to Reason, A Cool Look At Global Warming By Nigel Lawson Overlook Duckworth, 2008

Nigel Lawson, former British Energy Secretary in the Thatcher government and “Lord Lawson of Blaby,” has written a book that, like some others which minimize global warming, uses partial truths, baldfaced lies, and specious reasoning to make his case. This is one example of a new variation on global warming denial a more sophisticated version, one we will see more of over the next few years. It wraps itself in faux-scientific garb and minutia, in argumentation about abstract, mechanistic logic.

For example, to counter the vast preponderance of scientific consensus on global warming, he points out times when the conventional wisdom was wrong. This is a partial truth – the scientific consensus has sometimes been wrong and sometimes has been true in only limited ways. However, this correct observation that scientific consensus is not absolute truth tells us nothing about global warming, it is only an argument against absolutism. It disproves nothing about climate science. It can just as justly be pointed out the many, many instances of the scientific consensus being correct.

Lawson’s know-nothing attitude is exemplified by his dismissal of a particular concern: “So far as the Greenland ice sheet is concerned, there is no evidence that melting, or rather net ice loss, is occurring to any significant extent.” He boldy asserts this, as if it was beyond question. However, there is such evidence – the Greenland ice sheet is shrinking, there is measurable and visible net loss of ice, the ice sheets are speeding up their decent to the ocean, there are already provable negative impacts on the human population, and all of this evidence is increasing with each new study and measurement.

Just because the Greenland ice sheet is not going to disappear in the next decade is not an excuse for inaction, for ignoring the increased speed of glacial melting there (as with almost all glaciers in the world, the source of much of the fresh water humanity depends on). The melting of such a massive ice sheet is a prolonged process, and action to slow or stop it requires thinking and acting using a long time frame. The longer we wait, the more we guarantee the worst results.

A confusion which Lawson promotes is to obscure the difference between uncertainty about details of climate change on the one hand, and uncertainty about the basic underlying reality of global warming on the other. Most climate scientists have a great deal of the first kind of uncertainty, and very little to none about the second kind.

Another partial truth is that there is considerable variation in the weather, and predictions about the weather (particularly predictions longer than a week or two) are notoriously unreliable. But these sophisticated deniers, including the better known Bjorn Lomborg (“The Skeptical Environmentalist”, “Cool It”), use our uncertainty about short term, transitory weather to cast doubt on the growing certainty about longer term climate change.

Another partial truth (wrongly ignored by some global warming scientists) is that there are many challenges facing the world, and there are other important issues to address besides global warming. This much is certainly true – we shouldn’t become monomaniacal about climate change and CO2 emissions to the point that we ignore these other issues, such as growing global poverty, growing water stress, declining agricultural yields, or the increase in strains of communicable diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. But none of this is a reason to postpone action on global warming.

Yet another partial truth Lawson uses confuses time frames. While the currently observable impacts of global warming are growing rapidly, the most dire consequences are many decades or even centuries away. This is used as an argument to delay taking any action. However, each year we wait while continuing to increase humanity’s output of greenhouse gases will make solutions more difficult, complex, expensive, and painful.

Unlike earlier deniers (such as Michael Crichton in his “State of Fear” and Senator Inhofe of Okalahoma), this more sophisticated crop concedes some of the reality of global warming, or at least of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere which are the result of human activity. But they then use every uncertainty, every partial truth, to urge us to postpone taking any decisive action. He goes on to say that even if it is necessary to take serious action on global warming, it is politically impossible.

If we must take action but it is not yet politically feasible, our job is to work to challenge and change those limitations on action.

Such a book review is not the place to debate at great length the details of these arguments. For those interested in a more in-depth discussion of climate change, there is a rapidly growing literature, such as “The Long Thaw” by David Archer, or “The Rough Guide to Climate Change” by Robert Henson, among many others.

There is also a growing alarmist literature, given to dire predictions such as that of James Lovelock in Rolling Stone several months ago of six billion people dead from global warming by the end of this century, or the near apocalyptic predictions of “The Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler.

But our tasks today are not to imagine the worst nor to delay while hoping for the best. Our job is to act based on the best current knowledge, flawed and limited though that is. Our knowledge about global, human-caused climate change is incomplete, but that knowledge is real, independently verifiable, with increasing immediately observable and measurable impacts.

This leads to another set of arguments Lawson makes at some length. He argues, in his concluding chapter, that global warming isn’t really happening, but if it is, it’s not as bad as some predict, but if it is we can’t be absolutely positive it will keep getting worse, but if it does we can’t do anything about it because it is too expensive. Besides all that, enough people haven’t elected enough politicians who will take action. So let’s delay, delay, delay.

This is akin to the attorney who argues that his client is not guilty of murder, but if he is it was self-defense, but if it wasn’t self-defense it was temporary insanity, besides which we can’t be absolutely positive since none of the jurors were actually in the room at the time.

Lawson goes on to say there is an “ethical issue . . . not just about how much we care about future generations; it is also about how much we care about the present generation, not least in the developing world, and its children.” In other words, let’s do other things (which currently are just as politically unlikely) like reducing worldwide poverty and disease. Let the future worry about its own problems. This is a false choice—either do something about poverty or do something about global warming which may not really hurt for a long time. We have to do many things at once, and in reality, many of the issues the world faces are interlinked—like the increasing water crises in many parts of the world, exacerbated by global warming.

Lastly, Lawson argues that it is all a matter of blind devotion and senseless belief. “With the collapse of Marxism . . . those who dislike capitalism . . . have been obliged to find a new creed. For many of them, green is the new red.” In other words global warming science is all hysteria caused by a left-wing conspiracy.

So rather than being an appeal to reason, this book is an appeal to ignorance, inaction, incomplete knowledge, and anti-communism. It is an appeal to do nothing until it is much later, when the problems will be much worse, and the actions we will have to take will be more painful, more expensive, and less effective.