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Barun Mitra: Environmental ‘Crisis’ And Government Power

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admitted for the first time last month that it is facing a crisis of confidence. But the IPCC’s failings go far beyond the recent spate of errors identified in its reports. The problem began with the global political climate that led to the formation of the IPCC two decades ago.

Contrary to popular perception, the IPCC is not a scientific organization. It does no research of its own. Composed of scientists nominated by different governments, its key function is to collate evidence of human-induced climate change, not just changes in climate.

It is hardly surprising that with such an inherently biased objective the scientists lost their objectivity. Many of them went on a crusade to support the political goal of proving anthropogenic global warming. Concerns about scientific objectivity and critical discourse were thrown overboard.

Why did political masters set such a nonscientific mandate for their scientists at the IPCC? Because over the past half century, governments have often ridden the green bandwagon to justify public-sector expansion.

Almost every decade we have witnessed the birth of a new green scare, apparently based on new scientific findings. First came the campaign against the pesticide DDT in the 1960s, followed by the population bomb in the 1970s. Then we had the campaign to protect forests and species in the 1980s, the ozone hole in the 1990s, and most recently the crescendo over climate change leading up to last year’s Copenhagen summit.

Each time, the scare was shown to be false or overhyped. For instance, millions of people in the developing world died of malaria because DDT was wrongly vilified. It took decades to overcome the blanket ban of the chemical, and now it is once again being used to control mosquitoes in Africa.

Predictions of a rising population depleting the world’s resources have proven equally false and destructive. India today is enjoying the demographic dividend of a young workforce, while China is getting worried at the prospect that it may become the first society in history to grow old before it becomes rich. Likewise, forests are making a surprising comeback in many parts of the world, as the rise in agricultural productivity and economic growth are lowering demand for agricultural land.

Clearly, the track record of green prophecies has been pathetic. And with the collapse of the Soviet empire, and periodic economic turmoil, (such as the Asian economic crisis in 1997, and the dot-com bust in 2000), the public’s confidence in their leaders’ capacity to make effective economic policies has been shaken. It is in this context that climate change provided a new opportunity for many governments to legitimize their role, and expand their scope.

The formation of the IPCC and its apparent focus on the science of climate change allowed the political establishments to claim science as the basis for proposed climate policies that increased the power of government and curtailed the private sector. The time frame of the projected climate change was longer than earlier green crusades, typically from 50 to 100 years. This allowed policy makers to escape accountability for their misguided policies since they would be out of office by the time the consequences became apparent.

The relationship between a section of political leaders and scientists turned out to be mutually reinforcing. Policy makers justified their empire building on the basis of “scientific consensus,” and scientists found a very profitable avenue for political influence and access to funding.

To sell this climate strategy, political leaders and scientists adopted the classic carrot-and-stick approach. The rich countries offered money to the poor ones in an attempt to buy support for the climate policies. More recently there is the threat of trade sanctions, which reflect the stick.

This approach was apparent in the build-up to the Copenhagen summit last December. The distinction between scientists and activists virtually disappeared as the scaremongering reached a new depth. The rich countries’ carrots virtually broke the Group of 77 developing-world nations, as some of the poorest countries found the lure of easy money in hand more attractive than the fruits of economic growth in the future.

The grand design failed on three counts, and the world was saved from the onslaught of the climate crusade. Copenhagen coincided with the global economic slowdown, and therefore the promise of money seemed more like a mirage. Second, the scientific authority of the IPCC collapsed. And finally, deepening developmental aspirations in some of the major developing countries, such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa, meant that the leadership in these countries could not afford to barter their economic future for the sake of some small change today.

The current crisis in the environmental movement is not limited to a few leading climate scientists; its root lies in the political shifts taking place in many countries. Leaders are being forced to take their responsibilities more seriously, and not to outsource it to scientists. And scientists will have to regain public confidence by returning to their traditional values of objectivity and intellectual rigor.

Mr. Mitra is director of the Liberty Institute, an independent think tank in New Delhi, and a columnist for

The Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2010