Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Monbiot's error

George Monbiot's attack on me in the Guardian is very misleading

George Monbiot's recent attack on me in the Guardian is misleading. I do not hate the state. In fact, my views are much more balanced than Monbiot's selective quotations imply. I argue that the state's role in sometimes impeding or destroying the process that generates prosperity needs to be recognised, as people from enslaved ancient Egyptians to modern North Koreans could testify. But as I mention in my book, I don't think that free markets, especially those in assets, should be completely unregulated. I do argue that free and fair commerce has the power to raise living standards.

Unlike Monbiot's article, my book isn't about me. It's about the billions of other people in the world who, through ingenuity, exchange and specialisation, have generated remarkable prosperity.

Monbiot, remember is the man who once wrote: ``every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.'' (see, George, two can play at selective quotation).

Still, Monbiot goes on to make a number of specific charges against things in my book that he thinks are wrong. Here are my replies:

First Monbiot claims that the economic success of South Korea and Taiwan was down to protectionism and industrial strategy rather than free trade. Yet, as this article demonstrates, these two countries not only adopted more modest, more market-friendly and more progressively dismantled intervention than Latin American or East European countries, and found that many of their interventions failed to produce the desired results (ever heard of Taiwanese cars?), but in fact they probably thrived despite, rather than because of their industrial policies:

However, no matter how the relative weights are assigned, the experience of East Asia, supported by recent research on growth, has convinced many observers that an outward-looking development strategy, particularly a dynamic export sector, is conducive to growth.

It is clear from the East Asian experience that economies that have adopted sustained outward-oriented trade strategies have experienced economic performance superior to those that have not. This suggests that other emerging markets should pursue a development strategy that relies on integration with the world economy, rather than one that relies on insulation.

Next Monbiot claims that he cannot find evidence that Enron funded climate alarmism. Perhaps this email, cited in the source I quoted, helps. It is from an Enron official who attended the Kyoto climate treaty talks in 1997:

Through our involvement with the climate change initiatives, Enron now has excellent credentials with many "green" interests including Greenpeace, WWF, NRDC, GermanWatch, the US Climate Action Network, the European Climate Action Network, Ozone Action, WRI, and Worldwatch. This position should be increasingly cultivated and capitalized on (monetized).

Next, Monbiot claims that Howard Friel's book attacking Bjorn Lomborg proves that there are significant errors in Lomborg's work. Friel's book is itself packed with significant errors and is easily answered in Lomborg's rebuttal, available here. Lomborg's conclusion is as follows:

By his own account, Friel was aiming to write a book that would show that my work "is grounded in highly questionable data and analysis, and that there is little if any factual or analytic basis" for it.

In his longest chapter, Friel attempted to argue that my arguments were not supported by my source material. He claimed that endnotes were "missing" when they clearly exist, misread source figures and tables, relied on a misrepresentation of both my text and source material, and tried to shift the argument by claiming that I should have written about topics that he personally found more salient.

Next, Friel attempted to engage with my arguments on climate change. He did not participate in the relevant, constructive discussion about the economic arguments central to Cool It, but instead made a series of confused and confusing arguments. I was disturbed by his reliance on cut-and-pasted source material that often did not even match the topic that he was responding to. It was troubling to find that he was unable to differentiate between different sources of information. This was why he placed such great stock in news reports rather than peer-reviewed pieces, and is also why he placed credence in arguments such as the now debunked claim that the Himalayan glaciers would entirely disappear before 2035. I was alarmed to find that Friel was unfamiliar with economic basics such as the discount rate, but was more alarmed that his demonstration of this lack of knowledge could make it to print.

Monbiot should be embarrassed to be relying on a source of this quality.

Next Monbiot claims that recent temperature rises are the most rapid since instrumental record began. Notice the word `instrumental'. My point was partly that ice cores reveal much, much faster natural temperature rises in the past, during Dansgard Oeschger episodes in Greenland, for example. Yet even with this let-out Monbiot is wrong. Here is Dr Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia, answering a question from the BBC's Roger Harrabin:

A - Do you agree that according to the global temperature record used by the IPCC, the rates of global warming from 1860-1880, 1910-1940 and 1975-1998 were identical?

An initial point to make is that in the responses to these questions I've assumed that when you talk about the global temperature record, you mean the record that combines the estimates from land regions with those from the marine regions of the world. CRU produces the land component, with the Met Office Hadley Centre producing the marine component.

Temperature data for the period 1860-1880 are more uncertain, because of sparser coverage, than for later periods in the 20th Century. The 1860-1880 period is also only 21 years in length. As for the two periods 1910-40 and 1975-1998 the warming rates are not statistically significantly different (see numbers below).

I have also included the trend over the period 1975 to 2009, which has a very similar trend to the period 1975-1998.

So, in answer to the question, the warming rates for all 4 periods are similar and not statistically significantly different from each other.

Here are the trends and significances for each period:



(Degrees C per decade)


















Next, Monbiot claims that I am wrong to say that 11 of 13 polar bear populations are not declining. The trouble with polar bears is that nobody really knows the truth and lots of different claims are out there. Monbiot cites one study, more recent than the one I relied on, but it's hotly disputed by many. Here is the view of Daniel Shewchuk, environment minister of the Canadian Nunavut territory:

Shewchuk said while the Nunavut government originally agreed with the special-concern listing, it changed its position after consulting with Inuit hunters and others on a recent community tour.

"Through direct consultation, they are unanimous in their belief that polar bears have not declined," Shewchuk said.

Scientists on the committee have argued that although Canada's polar bear population has improved over the last 50 years, the future of the species could be threatened by climate change and receding sea ice.

Furthermore, I know of nobody who disputes the polar bear numbers have hugely increased (from maybe 5,000 to over 20,000) since the 1960s.

Next Monbiot accuses me of `blatant cherry-picking' when I cite examples of how the environment has improved. Here is what I actually said so the reader can judge if I am doing anything other than claiming that `in many places' environmental trends are positive.

` Well all right, says the pessimist, but at what cost? The environment is surely deteriorating. In somewhere like Beijing, maybe. But in many other places, no. In Europe and America rivers, lakes, seas and the air are getting cleaner all the time. The Thames has less sewage and more fish. Lake Erie's water snakes, on the brink of extinction in the 1960s, are now abundant. Bald eagles have boomed. Pasadena has few smogs. Swedish birds' eggs have 75 per cent fewer pollutants in them than in the 1960s. American carbon monoxide emissions from transport are down 75 per cent in 25 years. Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.

Readers may be curious why I chose Lake Erie's water snakes. Because they were cited by Paul Ehrlich, who himself did research on them, in The Population Bomb in 1968 as follows: 'You see, Lake Erie has died…the snakes are almost gone.' Yet, the US federal government is considering whether to remove the Lake Erie water snake from the endangered list, not because it is extinct, but because its numbers in Ohio have rocketed from less than 2,000 in 1999 to more than 12,000 today.)

Monbiot is entitled to his opinions but he has found precisely zero `excruciating errors' in my book.