The Pickett’s Charge of Climate Alarmism

The release on June 8 of a statement signed by 11 separate national science Academies on global warming represents the Pickett's charge of climate alarmism. Not only has it dashed against the rock of the defensive position of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United States, but the attempt has also needlessly thrown away the academies' reputations for unbiased information, just as Pickett's charge threw away General Lee's reputation for invincibility. Climate alarmists in the scientific community now face a long retreat, while the victory of the President Bush's position on the issue seems assured. Even the hopes for European intervention are dashed.<?xml:namespace prefix = u1 />

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The statement, co-signed by the national academies of the G8 nations plus China, Brazil and India, not only lays out uncontroversial scientific findings such the increase in carbon dioxide levels since 1750 and the warming of the earth by 0.6°C over the last century, but goes beyond that to demand urgent policy action. This is an unfortunate development. By urging political action the scientists are either attempting to assert that their knowledge of this issue trumps other political considerations and dictates that certain actions must be taken—a view that is incompatible with democracy—or are knowingly engaging in the democratic political process as policy advocates. Either view speaks badly of the academies' judgment.


This is because science academies enjoy their prestige and privileged position due to the assumption that policy makers can turn to them for advice on scientific issues. That means that, if a policy maker were to ask an academy for advice on global warming, it should respond with a summary of the state of the problem, a due warning as to the uncertainties inherent in the summary and perhaps a range of options, if requested, for actions that might be taken to mitigate the potential problem. It goes beyond its remit if it says that action must be taken, if it says that certain actions must be taken and if it outlines a strategy for taking the actions, for those would not be advice, but advocacy.


The national academies have committed all three of these sins of advocacy. It is akin to an academy being asked about an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and advocating a cull of all potentially infected animals now, without also suggesting that a vaccination strategy could be progressively employed. By taking such a bold advocacy position, the academies have taken on the role of an environmental advocacy group. That is at the very least damaging to and at worst a significant distortion of the position of science in relation to public policy.


For, it has to be asked, what were the academies trying to achieve? The timing of the release—coincident with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to discuss global warming with President Bush in advance of the G8 summit—seems clearly aimed at altering US policy. The President said, standing beside Mr. Blair, that, “I've always said [global warming is] a serious long-term issue that needs to be dealt with.” He therefore acknowledges the threat of climate change as the academies demand. It is only the President's policies that the academies can object to.


The President has made it clear that he is not going to accept targets for greenhouse gas emissions, as the academies implicitly demand. They should realize why when they talk about “cost-effective” steps. The injection of this one ounce of economic sense into the debate reveals why the academies' charge was doomed. Rational nations will not take action if the costs of the action outweigh the benefits. There is no doubt that simple emissions caps will bring severe economic hardship to the world's leading economies, which will make the entire world poorer. A poorer world is a less healthy world. Emissions reduction of the amount the academies seem to want now would literally impoverish the world.


This is all rather a gamble when one considers that even the academies admit considerable uncertainty over how much the world is going to warm, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimating increases of between 1.4° and 5.8° C over the next century. To be frank, this is an unacceptably vague basis on which to take the actions recommended. It is not unreasonable for the President to say, “Easier to solve a problem when you know a lot about it” when the margin of error of predictions is some 400 percent. Increasing our knowledge over how much the world is likely to warm will, to use the academies' phrasing, “enable nations to avoid economic impacts deemed unacceptable.”


The scientists also point out that delayed action may incur a greater cost. The reverse is, of course, also true. Expenditure now for benefits in the future means foregoing potentially long-lasting benefits that can be bought now. Eradicating malaria now, for instance, would be a much better use of the world's money than spending large amounts to slightly reduce its incidence in the future by indirect means.


The academies' statement is not going to change any of this. Only better information about likely (not possible) effects than we have at present will change minds. That is why the statement represents the high-water mark of climate alarmism. The statement is strongly worded. Yet if this is the best advocates of urgent greenhouse gas emissions limitation can do, they stand no chance of changing the current Administration's mind.


For that matter, the Europeans may well be thinking again. Tony Blair, who needs some sort of agreement to announce at the G8 meeting, will almost certainly make all the concessions to America, rather than the other way round. European nations like Spain who are suddenly realizing that meeting their Kyoto targets will involve real hardship, are almost certain to miss them, contributing to the EU as a whole missing its collective target. In Germany, Angela Merkel, likely to be the country's next chancellor, has questioned the value of the Kyoto protocol and stated that she wants to reduce the eco-tax and energy prices. Climate alarmists can hope for no relief from Europe.


The scientists should retire from the battlefield now. They have picked the wrong fight at the wrong time. Their intervention has done nothing to alter the political landscape except confirm that it is economists, not scientists, who are the most important figures in deciding whether anything will be done now about global warming. The alarmists will fight on, as Lee did after Gettysburg for two more years, but barring unforeseen political events, their war is lost.