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I feel the urge to put down on paper my views on what we now call “climate change” and used to call “global warming”. Why this urge? It has been triggered by the various demonstrations in central London and, in particular, the adulation accorded to the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. The public reaction to all this, followed by politicians of almost every creed, seems to me quite irrational – and frankly harmful.

But first, let me state the obvious. I, like most people, have a concern about the bad things we humans are doing to the planet. Many of us live in polluted cities; in many places we are endangering the survival of (other) animals; we are discharging massive quantities of waste into the environment; the plastic waste finding its way into the oceans is only one example; the list is endless. Something must be done, as the banners say. Of course it must.

The question is: should we focus on climate change? Or will this actually stop or hinder us doing what we should? Is it actually having harmful results? An example of this occurred in recent years. Climate change concerns caused European countries, including the UK, to encourage a switch from petrol to diesel cars, because diesel produces less carbon dioxide (CO2). However, it is more polluting, as must have been known at the time. So now, common sense has prevailed and diesel is out – at some cost (including a political cost, as evidenced in France where the change triggered the gilets jaunes protests).

What are the concerns that normally come under the heading of climate change? The main concern is, first, that the planet is getting warmer and, second, that this is being caused by the increasing emissions of CO2 from human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

I am certainly no denier about the scientific facts. Indeed I follow them perhaps more closely than many people do. Yes, the planet is getting warmer. In the past 150 years, average global temperatures have risen by about 0.8 of a degree centigrade – which doesn’t sound much, but might of course be significant, particularly if it continues.

Also, there is no doubt that CO2 emissions are on the increase. These emissions are mostly caused by natural processes that have nothing to do with human activity – the latter apparently only represent 3% of the total. The amounts seem to the non-scientist miniscule but, again, they could be significant. CO2 is a so-called “greenhouse gas”. The greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere prevent heat escaping and therefore indirectly keep us all warm. (If it were not for greenhouse gasses we would presumably freeze to death.) As I say, the amounts involved are so small as to make it difficult to comprehend the points involved. Well over 90% of the atmosphere is composed of nitrogen and oxygen (neither being a greenhouse gas). The greenhouse gasses make up around 5% or maybe less. Over 90% of the greenhouse gasses are water vapour, but in addition CO2 is one of them. CO2 apparently represents about 0.04% of the atmospheric total, with the man-made component being a small fraction of that. Please forgive this tiresome detail; but the concern is that a few years ago it was only 0.03%. Thus, there is no doubt that the amounts are increasing, even though the amounts (certainly to a non-scientist) seem relatively very small. The key questions are obviously: do these changes matter? And what can we do about it if they do?

To answer both questions we need to try and work out why the planet is getting warmer. Is it because of CO2 emissions, particularly those caused by humans? And crucially, if we reduce these emissions, will the climate changes slow down, stop or even be reversed? It’s been the answers given to these questions, and particularly the last one, that have made me a sceptic. Not a denier of anything, but a sceptic about the policies involved.

We need some more facts. The global warming that we have been experiencing started over 200 years ago. As is well known, England was colder in the 17th century when there were ice fairs on the Thames. The warming started probably in the middle of the 18th century. It has not been a constant process. It increased during some of the 1970s and 1980s (this is what caused the original global warming alarms). Since then, it has seemed to come to a halt: there has been almost no warming during the last 20 years - except for what was certainly caused a few years ago by the El Nino event in the Pacific and which is now over.

(We need to add two footnotes. First, this halting of the global warming gave rise to a debate among scientists about whether it was a permanent change or, as those who had been behind the alarmist concerns wanted us to believe, just a “hiatus”. It also gave rise to the naughty emails from scientists in East Anglia discussing how they could massage the facts to keep the alarmist narrative alive. It was also the reason that we were all encouraged to talk about climate change rather than global warming. The second footnote is that we in Europe, and elsewhere, have experienced a heat wave during the summer of 2019, causing the media to talk endlessly about climate change, despite scientists telling us that extreme weather events of all kinds are not on the increase.)

Back to the big picture. CO2 emissions caused by human activity in the volume we worry about obviously didn’t start back in the 18th century; they really only started around the middle of the 20th century and are certainly increasing now. There is no doubt that they are continuing now, largely because China and India feel the need to power their industrial expansion.

So, what are the conclusions? It follows from the facts that I have set out that, even if human CO2 emissions are a cause of the warming, they absolutely can’t be the only cause. To my non-scientific mind, they can hardly be the main cause. They can’t have been any part of the cause of what was happening to the climate in the late 18th and in the 19th century. And it’s at least curious that the changes seem to have come to a halt, maybe temporarily maybe not, even during recent years when human-caused CO2 emissions have been increasing. It follows from this that any attempt to reverse the adverse effects of climate change is almost certain to be doomed. The climate has changed, is changing and is likely to go on changing, whatever we do.

However, let’s look at it another way: Does this matter? Surely reducing our reliance on coal, oil and gas is good. Eventually they will presumably run out. And burning these fossil fuels, discharging pollutants into the atmosphere, can’t be good.

The problem is that the policies being adopted and proposed have serious negative aspects: cost obviously, but also environmental. This has led Dr Matt Ridley, the distinguished science writer and journalist, to summarise the situation by saying that climate change policies are doing more harm than good, at the same time as pointing out that climate change itself is actually doing more good than harm. Not a message that gets much coverage in the media, although he is able to maintain that it is based on established facts that informed scientists are unable to deny.

How so? To start with, how is climate change doing good? Dr Ridley points to various factors, including longer growing seasons, milder winters (more people die of cold than of heat), slightly higher rainfall and the faster growth rate of crops and forests because of CO2 fertilisation. On the latter point, plants benefit from levels of CO2 much higher than the very slightly higher levels we are now seeing as a result of climate change. But even at the levels we have recently been seeing, there have been massive increases in green vegetation. This increase, on a worldwide basis, has been put (amazingly) at 14% over the last 30 years. Why, one wonders, is this good news seldom broadcast? No one seems to deny the facts.

Why are climate change policies doing harm? Mainly because land that would otherwise be used for producing food is being diverted to producing such things as ethanol to power motorcars. Ethanol conversion consumes about 5% of the world’s grain crop, pushing up food prices. It has displaced only about half a percent of world oil use. It’s the same story with biodiesel programmes for making motor fuel from palm oil in the tropics and rapeseed oil in Europe, all subsidised by the EU. Similarly, solar farms (which apparently produce so little energy that, rounded to the nearest whole number, the total percentage of global energy is zero!) cover what would otherwise be agricultural land. All of these things indirectly increase food prices, affecting poorer people more than the rich – for minimal, or no, effect on CO2 emissions.

An interesting aspect of climate change politics is that the IMF and the World Bank have stopped giving aid for the building of fossil-fuel plants in the poorest countries. Some three million people a year die as a result of cooking on open wood and dung fires. Investment in gas fired electricity generation would save lives. Climate change policies prevent these people getting it. They therefore continue to chop down forests and, to be frank, die prematurely.

The victims of so many of the climate change policies are the poor – by having to pay higher food prices and by paying more for energy – and, in places like sub-Saharan Africa, those struggling to survive at all. The beneficiaries include landowners, investors, scientists and the employees of NGOs. How is it that the policies tend to be adopted by those who perceive themselves to be on the political left? And that the sceptics are often vilified and accused of being immoral?

Tony Herbert

18 September 2019

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