How Nigel Lawson Got Global Warming Wrong



Just because the Greenland ice sheet is not going to disappear in the next decade is not an excuse for inaction or for ignoring the increased speed of glacial melting there (since glaciers are 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.

Another 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 that 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 (author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It ), use our uncertainty about short-term, transitory weather patterns 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 employs 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 book State of Fear and Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma), this more sophisticated crop concedes some of the reality of global warming, or at least the 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. Lawson goes on to say that even if it is necessary to take serious action on global warming, it is politically impossible. Contrary to Lawson's opinion, 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.

A book review is not the place to debate at length the details of these the arguments about climate change. For those interested in a more in-depth discussion of climate change, there is a rapidly growing literature, such as The Long Thawby 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.

Our task today is 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 the knowledge is real, independently verifiable, and concerns a process that is having increasing, immediately observable and measurable impacts.

This point leads to another set of arguments Lawson makes at some length. He argues, in his concluding chapter, that global warming isn’t really happening on the scale its advocates claim, and that to the degree it is happening, it is not as bad as some maintain. Lawson believes, however, that even if it is as bad as they say, we cannot be absolutely positive it will keep getting worse – and even if it does, we cannot do anything about it because it would be too expensive. Besides all this, enough voters 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 there was a murder it was self-defense, or, if not self-defense, temporary insanity – besides which, we cannot be absolutely positive about what happened 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 global warming is really 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.

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.