Selective precaution

Lawrence Solomon
National Review Online
June 3, 2008

How does the third world insure itself against Lieberman-Warner?

Senators Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) and John Warner (R., Va.) base their proposed Climate Security Act legislation on two fundamental premises: That there is a scientific consensus on global warming and that, even if the scientists are wrong and the global-warming risk never materializes, we will at least have aided the environment.

Both premises are wrong. Not just wrong. The premises could well have it exactly backwards.

First, consider the alleged scientific consensus. Nearby you’ll find the cover page from the 2006 press announcement from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body coordinating the worldwide effort to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. The cover page offers this impressive claim:


Impressive, isn’t it? You may be even more impressed if you see the accompanying press materials. And you can forgive the press for being impressed, too, at the intellects assembled to establish that global warming is real and manmade. After all, 2,500 expert scientists can’t be wrong.

That figure of 2,500 scientists received saturation media exposure, and then it was amplified by environmental groups, bloggers, and others. A Google search of “IPCC” and “2500” produces almost 250,000 results, the vast majority of them references to the scientific consensus. Senators Lieberman and Warner can be forgiven for believing, as the press did, in the existence of a consensus.

But what did those 2,500 scientists actually endorse? To find out, I contacted the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and asked for the names of the 2,500. I planned to canvas them to determine their precise views. The answer that came back from the Secretariat informed me that the names were not public, so I would not be able to survey them, and that the scientists were merely reviewers. The 2,500 had not endorsed the conclusions of the report and, in fact, the IPCC had not claimed that they did. Journalists had jumped to the conclusion that the scientists the IPCC had touted were endorsers and the IPCC never saw fit to correct the record.

There is no consensus of 2,500 scientist-endorsers. Moreover, many of those 2,500 reviewers turned thumbs down on the studies that they reviewed — I know this from my own interviews with them, conducted in the course of writing a book about scientists who dispute the conventional wisdom on climate change.

From my interviews, it also became clear to me that, if a consensus exists, it exists on the other side. For instance Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute, a former peer reviewer for the IPCC’s work on the spread of malaria and other diseases due to warming says, “I know of no major scientist with any long record in this field who agrees with the pronouncements of the alarmists at the IPCC.” Other scientists also told me that, in their particular discipline, the IPCC’s position was the outlier, far from the mainstream.

“So what?” many say. “Even if there is great uncertainty about the science of climate change, what harm will come of reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide? If it turns out that global warming is a natural phenomenon, we will have gained for ourselves cleaner air and less dependence on foreign oil.” As Sen. Lieberman put it in a PBS interview, “we ought to buy an insurance policy to deal with it. You know, I buy an insurance policy on my house. I don’t know there’s going to be a fire or a pipe is going to break, but I spend the money on it because the consequences of not having insurance are worse. And that’s what we’re doing here.”

This view finds favor with people across the ideological spectrum. Environmentalists, public-health advocates, and planners recognize an opportunity to lower emissions while promoting lifestyle changes; security hawks seize on the prospect of energy self-sufficiency; others see an opportunity to make common cause with Europe. All justify the expense of meeting Kyoto’s emissions targets as an insurance policy of sorts.

The problem is that far from being an insurance policy, Kyoto represents the single greatest threat to the global environment today and its scheme for using carbon credits and carbon offsets to reduce CO2 emissions comes with horrible human costs.

When we in the West purchase carbon offsets, typically someone, or some government, in the third world is paid for providing a “sink” for the carbon we’re emitting. Often that sink will be an industrial eucalyptus plantation, planted on what had been farmland or old-growth forest. Apart from the environmental amenities lost, personal tragedies abound. The former inhabitants of that land — either peasant farmers or forest peoples — will have been evicted from their lands, generally without fair compensation. Mass evictions are also the rule with new large-scale hydro dams, which can appear to become economically feasible only because of carbon credit schemes. China’s Three Gorges Dam, touted for being carbon-free, is uprooting some two million peasants and townsfolk. Nuclear power, too, is enjoying a renaissance due to carbon pricing — nuclear reactors have never been commercially viable without subsidies, and coming back now only because of a perceived carbon crisis.

The third-world suffers from Kyoto in other ways. With farm lands in the west converted to ethanol and other biofuels, world grain prices have doubled, leading to food riots in Mexico, Egypt, Indonesia, and elsewhere. While many have criticized the economic costs of Kyoto, the treaty’s cruel social and environmental consequences represent far greater tragedies.

Environmentalists could once be counted on to insist that sound science be brought to bear on projects or policies that carried the potential for social harm, often through open processes called environmental assessments. In the rush to solve a carbon-dioxide problem that may not exist, many environmentalists have abandoned the science they once held dear and thrown precaution to the wind.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based environmental group, and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud, and those too fearful to do so (Richard Vigilante Books). His next book The Carbon Catastrophe is due out from Richard Vigilante Books in January 2009.

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