My Spectator article on the IPCC's new emphasis
Nigel Lawson was right after all. Ever since the Centre for
Policy Studies lecture in 2006 that launched the former chancellor
on his late career as a critic of global warming policy, Lord
Lawson has been stressing the need to adapt to climate change,
rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it.
Until now, the official line has been largely to ignore adaptation
and focus instead on ‘mitigation’ — the misleading term for
preventing carbon dioxide emissions.
That has now changed. The received wisdom on global warming,
published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was
updated this week. The newspapers were, as always, full of stories
about scientists being even more certain of environmental
Armageddon. But the document itself revealed a far more striking story: it emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt
to climate change. Even in the main text of the press release that
accompanied the report, the word ‘adaptation’ occurred ten times,
the word ‘mitigation’ not at all.
The distinction is crucial. So far, the debate has followed a
certain bovine logic: that global warming is happening, so we need
to slow it down by hugely expensive decarbonisation strategies —
green taxes, wind farms. And what good will this do? Is it possible
to stop global warming in its tracks? Or would all these green
policies be the equivalent of trying to blow away a hurricane? This
question — just how much can be achieved by mitigation — is one not
There is an alternative: accepting that the planet is warming,
and seeing if we can adjust accordingly. Adaptation means investing
in flood defences, so that airports such as Schiphol can continue
to operate below existing (and future) sea level, and air
conditioning, so that cities such as Houston and Singapore can
continue to grow despite existing (and future) high temperatures.
It means plant breeding, so that maize can be grown in a greater
range of existing (and future) climates, better infrastructure, so
that Mexico or India can survive existing (and future) cyclones,
more world trade, so that Ethiopia can get grain from Australia
during existing (and future) droughts.
Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, in
repeatedly emphasising the need to adapt to climate change in this
way, has been something of a lone voice in the government. But he
can now count on the support of the mighty IPCC, a United Nations
body that employs hundreds of scientists to put together the
scientific equivalent of a bible on the topic every six years or
so. Whereas the last report had two pages on adaptation, this one
has four chapters.
Professor Chris Field is the chairman of Working Group 2 of the
IPCC, the part devoted to the effects of climate change rather than
the cause. ‘The really big breakthrough in this report,’ he says, ‘is the new idea of thinking about
managing climate change.’ His co-chair Vicente Barros adds: ‘Investments in better preparation can
pay dividends both for the present and for the future … adaptation
can play a key role in decreasing these risks’. After so many
years, the penny is beginning to drop.
In his book An Appeal to Reason, Lawson devoted a
chapter to the importance of adaptation, in which he pointed out
that the last IPCC report in 2007 specifically assumed that humans
would not adapt. ‘Possible impacts,’ the report said, ‘do not take into account any changes or
developments in adaptive capacity.’ That is to say, if the world
gets warmer, sea levels rise and rainfall patterns change, farmers,
developers and consumers will do absolutely nothing to change their
habits over the course of an entire century. It is a ludicrous
But this assumption was central, Lawson pointed out, to the
estimated future cost of climate change the IPCC reported. A
notorious example was the report’s conclusion that, ‘assuming no
adaptation’, crop yields might fall by 70 per cent by the end of
the century — a conclusion based, a footnote revealed, on a single
study of peanut farming in one part of India.
Lawson pointed out that adaptation had six obvious benefits as a
strategy, which mitigation did not share. It required no
international treaty, but would work if adopted unilaterally; it
could be applied locally; it would produce results quickly; it
could capture any benefits of warming while avoiding risks; it
addressed existing problems that were merely exacerbated by
warming; and it would bring benefits even if global warming proves
to have been exaggerated.
Ask yourself, if you were a resident of the Somerset Levels,
whether you would prefer a government policy of adapting to
anything the weather might throw at you, whether it was exacerbated
by climate change or not, or spending nearly £50 billion (by 2020)
on low-carbon technologies that might in a few decades’ time, if
adopted by the whole world, reduce the exacerbation of floods, but
not the floods themselves.
It is remarkable how far this latest report moves towards
Lawson’s position. Professor Field, who seems to be an eminently
sensible chap, clearly strove to emphasise adaptation, if only
because the chance of an international agreement on emissions looks
ever less likely. If you go through the report chapter by chapter
(not that many people seem to have bothered), amid the usual
warnings of potential danger, there are many sensible, if
jargon-filled, discussions of exactly the points Lawson made.
Chapter 17 concedes that ‘adaptation strategies … can yield
welfare benefits even in the event of a constant climate, such as
more efficient use of water and more robust crop varieties’.
Chapter 20 even acknowledges that ‘in some cases mitigation may
impede adaptation (e.g., reduced energy availability in countries
with growing populations)’. A crucial point, this: that preventing
the poor from getting access to cheap electricity from coal might
make them more vulnerable to climate change. So green policies may
compound the problem they seek to solve.
In short, there is a great deal in this report to like. It has,
moreover, toned down the alarm considerably. Even
the New Scientist magazine has noticed that the report ‘backs off from
some of the predictions made in the previous report’ and despite
the urgings of Ed Davey to sex up the summary during last week’s
meeting in Yokohama, New Scientist noticed that
‘the report has even watered down many of the more confident
predictions that appeared in the leaked drafts’.
For instance, references to ‘hundreds of millions’ of people
being affected by rising sea levels were removed from the summary,
as were statements about the impact of warmer temperatures on
crops. The report bravely admits that invasive alien species are a
far greater threat to species extinction than climate change
itself. Even coral reefs, the report admits, are threatened mostly
by pollution and overfishing, which might be exacerbated at the
margin by climate change. So why don’t we have intergovernmental
panels on invasive species and overfishing?
As these examples illustrate, perhaps most encouraging of all,
the report firmly states that the impact of climate change will be
small relative to other things that happen during this century:
‘For most economic sectors … changes in population, age structure,
income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation and
governance will be large relative to the impacts of climate
change.’ So yes, the world is heating up. But in many ways, it will
be a better world.
The report puts the global aggregate economic damage from
climate change at less than 2.5 per cent of income by the latter
years of the century. This is a far lower number than Lord Stern
arrived at in his notorious report of 2006, and this is taking the
bleak view that there will be a further 2.5˚C rise from recent
levels. This is the highest of nine loss estimates; the average is
only 1.1 per cent.
And the IPCC is projecting two thirds more warming per increment
of carbon dioxide than the best observationally based studies now
suggest, so the warming the IPCC outlines is not even likely with
the highest emissions assumption.
In other words, even if you pile pessimism upon pessimism,
assuming relatively little decarbonisation, much global enrichment
and higher climate ‘sensitivity’ than now looks plausible — leading
to more rapid climate change — you still, on the worst estimate,
hurt the world economy in a century by only about as much as it
grows every year or two. Rather than inflict an awful economic
toll, global warming would make our very rich descendants — who are
likely to be maybe eight or nine times as rich as we are today, on
global average — a bit less rich.
To avoid this little harm, we could go for adaptation — let poor
people get as rich as possible and use their income to protect
themselves and their natural surroundings against floods, storms,
potential food shortages and loss of habitat. Or we could go for
mitigation, getting the entire world to agree to give up the fossil
fuels that provide us with 85 per cent of our energy. Or we could
try both, which is what the IPCC now recommends.
But the one truly bonkers thing to do would be to go
unilaterally into a policy of subsidising the rich to install
technologies that drive up the cost of energy, desecrate the
countryside, kill golden eagles, clear-cut swamp forests in North
Carolina, turn grain into motor fuel, so driving up the price of
food and killing people, and prevent poor people in Africa getting
loans to build coal-fired, cheap power stations instead of inhaling
smoke from wood fires cut from virgin forests.
All this we are doing in this country, with almost no prospect
of cutting carbon emissions enough to affect the climate. That’s
the very opposite of adaptation — preventing the economic growth
that would enable us to adapt while failing to prevent any climate
The report is far from ideal (don’t worry, Professor Field, I
know that endorsement from the likes of me would kill your career).
As Rupert Darwall, author of The Age of Global
Warming, has pointed out, it systematically ignores the
benefits of climate change and makes the unsupported claim that
crop yields have been negatively affected by climate change, its
only evidence being recent spikes in crop prices — a big cause of
which was climate policy, not climate change, in the shape of
biofuels programmes that diverted 5 per cent of the world’s grain
crop into fuel.
Did you gather from the press that the report warns of rising
deaths from storms and droughts, falling crop yields, spreading
diseases, and all the usual litany? Did you conclude from this that
deaths from storms will increase, crop yields will fall, and
diseases will kill more people? Oh, how naive can you get!
No, no, no — what they mean is that the continuing fall in
deaths from storms, floods and disease may not be as steep as it
would be without climate change, that the continuing rise in crop
yields may not be as fast as it would be without climate change,
and that the continuing retreat of malaria might not be as rapid as
it would be without climate change. In other words, the world will
probably heat up — but it’s not going to end. It’s going to be
healthier and wealthier than ever before, just a tad less wealthy
than it might otherwise have been. Assuming we do not adapt, that
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