The Age of Global Warming: A History
By Rupert Darwall
(Quartet Books, 448 pages, $45)
Who can forget it? In April 2008, as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president, Barack Obama intoned that history would say of his election, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” The messianic declaration sounded over-the-top laughable, political theater meets theater of the absurd. But the future president was completely serious. He was pledging to treat man-made climate change as a real and present danger to the United States and the world.
Mr. Obama assumed office almost a year after delivering those remarks. Bringing with him a nearly filibuster-proof Senate in a Congress of his own party, perhaps the most left-liberal national legislature in American history, he rushed to make good on this declaration of priorities. He vaulted cap and trade, the domestic policy nirvana of global warming activists, into the top tier of his legislative agenda, together with Obamacare and expiration of the Bush tax cuts. The environmental community rallied behind him, throwing its full and considerable weight into the effort.
And then…and then, nothing happened. Or rather, nothing that the president and his allies had expected happened. In mid-summer 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew a climate bill co-sponsored by, among others, Senators Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and Lindsey Graham from the floor of the Senate, accepting that, with a number of Democratic senators lined up with Republicans in opposition, the proposal had zero prospect of passage.
No wonder either. Climate change advocates have blamed their defeat on evil corporations in league with right-wing, anti-science ideologues. But by 2010 we were 12 years into what is now a 15-year halt in global temperature increases. One year earlier, emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit had mysteriously materialized on the Internet. They revealed a global scientific community of stunning intellectual corruption, and perhaps financial corruption too, given the vast amounts of grant money distributed annually for climate change studies.
The month following the East Anglia scandal came the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the first meeting since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 for the world’s top national leaders to discuss global warming. It proved a fiasco: China and other developing countries made it clear that they had no intention of agreeing to any of the substantive proposals on the table. Their position was not all that different from the U.S. government’s, if one includes Congress. Like China and many developing countries, Congress was utterly unwilling to buy the climate change policies that the Obama administration and the environmental community were peddling: rapid and radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The measures needed to implement such pledges would have cost trillions of dollars, frozen national and global economic growth, and have had, as it turned out, almost no impact on the planet’s average temperature.
European governments could dismiss such catastrophic costs. They were prepared, their representative acknowledged, to ignore sweeping international declarations almost as quickly as they signed them. But, as Rupert Darwall notes in his comprehensive new account of this march of folly, The Age of Global Warming: A History, the United States, with its separation of powers, must take the ratification of treaties and passage of laws seriously to a degree that Europeans do not.
Darwall is a prominent British policy intellectual. A member of the Conservative Research Department (the program-development arm of the UK’s Conservative Party) during the later Thatcher years, he served in 1993 as special advisor to the chancellor of the exchequer and went on to help found Reform, a London-based market-oriented think tank. As its name suggests, Reform is dedicated to making the case for sweeping public-sector and economic-policy changes in the UK. As with recent initiatives in the United States, Darwall’s institute seeks to transcend partisan divides. Members of Parliament from all three major British parties sit on its advisory board. In this volume, Darwall—who is affiliated with the consulting firm I head—takes the same independent approach. He tells a multifaceted story, relating not one history but four—scientific, economic, diplomatic, philosophic. Like a James Bond movie, his tale moves quickly from one continent to another, is full of world-class intrigue, and comes to an indeterminate end. The villain may have been slain, but who knows what the next episode will bring.
THE GIST OF THE scientific history is pretty well captured in the scandal now known as Climategate. The University of East Anglia had been designated the central repository of climate change data, and, as such, its Climate Research Unit had assumed considerable power in that corner of the scientific world. At the time rumors circulated that the Climategate hackers might have been Russian government operatives. In global warming diplomacy, Russia was a skeptic. Its representatives doubted that man-made climate change existed, but added that if it did, they were all for the thawing of Siberia. Reading Darwall’s account, though, I wondered whether the hackers might actually have been members of the Western scientific community. As the East Anglia postings revealed, there had effectively been a conspiracy to suppress and discredit the work of even the mildest climate change doubters. Weren’t those whose work was squashed the most likely to grasp the dirty dealing and want the truth out?
Much is made in the scientific community of the peer-review process. But peer reviewers who asked for longer-term data sets that would not support climate change theories found their requests rejected as “inappropriate.” Meanwhile, to the disgust of scientists who took part in the investigation of East Anglia, computer simulations were regularly advertised as “experiments.” One University of Cambridge physicist and investigator commented that the practice “does a disservice to centuries of real experimentation and allows simulations output to be considered as real data…a very serious matter, as it can lead to the idea that ‘real data’ might be wrong because it disagrees with models!” He added, “That is turning centuries of science on its head.”
A British parliamentary hearing followed the Climategate revelations. The authority of science depends upon making data and methods public and the ability of scientists to reproduce one another’s findings by following their methods. As Darwall notes, the most astonishing admission at the inquiry came from an East Anglia researcher who confessed that key findings could not be reproduced at all. Why? Computer programs had been changed.
Darwall’s economic story is as tawdry as his scientific one. With all the implications that the international climate change initiatives had for national economies, you would think that economic ministries all over the world would have been pushing numbers like wild. And yet, in the run-up to the Rio conference, a seminal diplomatic event in the history of global climate policy, only the U.S. government under George H.W. Bush bothered to conduct an economic analysis of the proposals.
The fact is, as Darwall reports, that not until 2005, a full 13 years after the Rio meeting, “did any national body outside of the US begin to consider the economic dimensions” of the Kyoto Protocol or any other aspect of international climate policy. A British House of Lords investigation that year concluded, “we do not see how the Government can argue that it has adequately appraised its long-term climate targets in terms of likely costs and benefits” when it had no real data and had conducted no real analysis.
But no analysis is better than a truly incompetent one. In 2006 the British Treasury published what must rank among the most inept policy studies from a major government in modern history. Dubbed the Stern Review after the senior bureaucrat who oversaw its creation, it purported to measure the costs and benefits of sharply cutting greenhouse gases. The finding, “couched firmly within a collectivist perspective,” Darwell tells us, was that failure to act “could create economic and social disruption on a scale associated with the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s.” These apocalyptic conclusions made global headlines and gave new life to climate change activists, including in the United States, where it helped to build momentum that ultimately led to the Obama cap-and-trade bill.
And yet, as it turned out, to reach its conclusion, the Treasury had simply ignored basic rules of economic analysis, allowing it to count costs to be incurred in the nearly infinite future as if they were being faced today. So more than half the damages it attributed to global warming came after 2050? No.…2100? No.…2200? No.…Try after 2800.
I can’t say that before reading Darwall, I ever anticipated thinking, “Thank God for Chinese leadership.” But that was how I felt as he detailed China’s role at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. Thanks to China, the meeting proved more or less the end of the diplomatic line for the once unstoppable juggernaut of international climate standards. Darwall takes his readers through a long train of diplomatic meetings in exotic locales, beginning in the late 1980s in Montreal and Malta. Early on, it became evident that developing countries would not accept the limits on growth that reductions in carbon emissions implied. So diplomats did what diplomats do and concocted a nonsense verse that they called a compromise. It went: “Growth in developed world bad; growth in developing world good.”
The far-flung meetings repeated this slogan like George Orwell’s barnyard population in Animal Farm (“four legs good; two legs bad”) until 1997. That November, in a 97–0 vote, the U.S. Senate put the Clinton administration on notice that it would reject the Kyoto greenhouse gas–limiting protocol, at the time in draft but nearing agreement, if the president were to seek ratification. He never did. Later diplomatic meetings tried to obfuscate the divide and railroad the next president, George W. Bush. He would not be moved. But his team’s skillful diplomacy at the 2007 Bali Conference shielded the United States from global blame for a breakdown in the climate discussion process. Given all the other challenges facing U.S. diplomacy at the time, it was as good an outcome as the nation could have hoped for. But at Copenhagen, the fantasy would not hold. Darwall’s assessment is that President Obama grasped that fact, worked with the Brazilian and Chinese presidents (cutting out the Europeans) to cobble together a non-statement, and got out of town.
HOW DID A PROPOSITION based on tendentious science and economics, requiring a global consensus that no diplomacy could achieve, come to the center of the international agenda? Darwall points to a disposition in Western thought that begins with Thomas Malthus and continues to this day. We all know Malthus’ warning: population grows exponentially, food arithmetically, leading to mass starvation. The prediction seized a certain sector of the intelligentsia in his time and still holds it tight today, even though by Malthus’ death, the facts of Europe’s experience had not borne out his theory. Since then, the same plausible but ultimately crank hypothesis has reemerged repeatedly. At one point the catastrophic crisis was said to be in coal, at another in oil; today it is in air and water.
For generation after generation, diligent but unimaginative minds have contemplated humanity’s expanding material wealth and found disaster in the offing. The great danger now is that these narrow thinkers will take control of public policy and stifle the processes of innovation and growth that have put the lie to so many past predictions. In The Age of Global Warming: A History, Rupert Darwall has told a story of frauds and fools thoroughly and well. His truth may be inconvenient for some. For the rest of us, it is a breath of fresh air.
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