Human folly is all too common. But in a long life I have never come across anything remotely as bad as the current climate scare. The government’s COP26 targets are ambitious (and eye-wateringly expensive). Amid the debate, one important question seems to be missing. Are we really facing an existential threat? Or might the climate change ‘crisis’ in fact be quasi-religious hysteria, based on ignorance?
It is true that, since the industrial revolution, when we began to use fossil fuels — first coal, then oil and gas — as our source of energy, this has led to a steady, albeit gradual, increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The know-nothings (notably but by no means exclusively the BBC) customarily refer to this as pollution. In reality, it is the very reverse: so far from carbon dioxide being pollution, it is the stuff of life. It is the food of plants, and without plants there would be little animal life and no human life.
The principal effect of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to stimulate plant growth, known as the fertilisation effect. Careful studies have shown that the planet is indeed becoming greener thanks to increased CO2. And yet we’re told that we need to prevent any further increase in CO2 in order to become ‘green’.
A secondary effect of increased CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is to warm the planet slightly. This is no bad thing: many more people die each year from cold-related illnesses than from heat-related ones. And the warming is very slight indeed. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an offshoot of the United Nations, the Earth is warming at a rate of at most one-sixth of a degree per decade, a barely perceptible amount.
And of course we don’t experience the mean global temperature anyway: we experience the temperature in our own neck of the woods, which varies enormously. Humankind is nothing if not adaptable. For example, the difference between the mean annual temperature in Finland, a cold place, and that in Singapore, a warm place, is some 22 degrees. And both these countries are pretty successful.
The climate hysteria is by no means a harmless folly. The reason the world uses fossil fuels is that they are far and away the cheapest source of large-scale reliable energy. Nuclear power is reliable, but not cheap. Renewables — wind and sun — are not particularly cheap and certainly not reliable (the wind doesn’t always blow, nor does the sun always shine).
The economic cost of abandoning fossil fuels — what is nowadays known as net zero — is massive: even the Treasury admits that it will cost the UK tens of billions of pounds a year. That is why China, by some distance the world’s largest emitter of CO2, while paying lip service to the net-zero target, continues to build new coal-fired power stations hand over fist (and not just in China: it is also building them throughout much of the developing world).
Decarbonisation, in short, would be an unparalleled economic calamity. So how is it that the UK and most of the western world have signed up to it? The answer can only be conjectural. I suggested at the start that the current climate scare is a quasi-religious hysteria. Mankind seems to have a psychological need for a belief system. Traditionally in the West, this has been Christianity; but with the waning place of Christianity in the modern world, climate catastrophism has emerged to take its place.
And needless to say, it is particularly convenient for our political leaders, who will be gone before the full extent of the economic damage caused by the measures they advocate becomes apparent. Meanwhile, whatever errors they may commit in this non-deferential age, they can pass themselves off as saviours of the planet.
But whatever the cause of the climate change madness, the effect is clear. While global warming is not a problem, the policies intended to prevent it are a disaster.
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