Dr. Benny Peiser is the director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a British think tank, which challenges a wide range of policy measures to combat global warming. In an interview with Ökowatch he talks about the links between the environment, economics and government policies.
Dr Peiser, you run the popular and informative website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. What does the Global Warming Policy Foundation hope to achieve?
BP: We are an educational think tank. We are entirely independent of any political party. Our Board of Trustees includes members of all three major parties here in Britain: Labour, Liberals and Conservatives. Our main goal is not to run or participate in political campaigns but to educate the interested public. We want to bring balance to the whole climate and energy debates. All reasonable arguments should be heard and expressed without any taboos. We want to enable people who have been unsettled by the controversies in recent years to better inform themselves and in a more comprehensive way.
You are a social scientist. How qualified are the members of your foundation to get involved in the debate about the scientific issues surrounding climate change?
BP: Primarily, our focus is not on the science of climate change. Our main focus is on economic, social and political issues, which is why we are called the Global Warming Policy Foundation. It is not our objective to challenge the basic science of global warming. Members of our foundation come from all sections of this debate, both advocates and sceptics of the thesis of anthropogenic global warming. We are not a climate sceptics organization. Our foundation does not take a collective stance on the issue of climate science. Our Academic Advisory Council comprises researchers with different views on this question. Our scepticism as an organisation is directed primarily against government policies on climate change and their associated costs.
Is it possible to give economic and policy recommendations without committing oneself to a specific position in the scientific debate?
BP: Of course it is. Even if one accepts the so-called IPCC consensus it does not follow, by any means, that one also has to accept the climate policies of governments that do not make economic sense. The question of what governments should do is independent of the question of climate science. The sooner climate scientists recognise that they cannot determine policies on the basis of their research, the better. Such political measures must be based on a cost-benefit analysis – and it is already becoming apparent that many governments simply do not follow the advice by climate scientists, but those of their economic advisers.
Can you give an example of a measure to reduce CO2 emissions under the assumption that CO2 is really as harmful to the climate as claimed by the IPCC, but which does not make sense?
BP: Yes, of course. It does not make sense, for example, for Germany and the United Kingdom to decarbonise unilaterally while the rest of the world does not follow suit. If one really wants to reduce CO2 emissions this would have to be done globally.
But there are international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol.
BP: Yes, but it was only signed by European and a few other states. And even the Europeans are not able to put into practice significant decarbonisation because the costs are simply astronomical. We need to take into account the economic consequences of this whole policy approach. Developing and emerging countries simply cannot afford to participate in this effort.
In this case, would not the developed countries have to make sure that all countries sign the Kyoto Protocol or a similar international agreement?
BP: If they really wanted to reduce CO2 emissions, this would be the required consequence, yes. But the reality is different. The developed countries have been trying this approach for years and it is quite clear that other countries will not sign any binding agreements. No one believes that China or India will be willing to give up cheap energy resources or limit their use in the foreseeable future.
What would be the alternative?
BP: Our recommendation is simple: instead of following a failed policy that does not work – adapt to climate change. We should be prepared for a situation in which it might get a little warmer in the next 100 years. No one knows how much warmer it will be as there are different estimates. But most likely it will get a bit warmer. Some regions will benefit while for others this warming may cause problems. But those are not problems one could not live with if one is prepared for it.
This is a very different approach which makes a lot more sense in my eyes than a decarbonisation strategy. That’s because no matter whether climate change is man-made or not, and no matter what its consequences will be, floods, droughts, storms and the like will always happen. Thus, storm-proof houses, for example, are always beneficial. If you compare the impact of natural disasters in developed countries with that in developing countries, you will see how important the preparation for such events is.
Nevertheless, in developing countries, especially if they are already located in hot or arid regions, there is the question of how further warming would affect agricultural yields, which are very important for these countries.
BP: This problem does exist; but as a result of technological advances and improvements yields can be increased. The use of genetic engineering already facilitates the growth of drought-resistant crops in arid regions. In the worst case, agricultural land will have to be given up in some locations. On the other hand, new regions will become available for agriculture. Particularly hard-hit countries could and should get international assistance.
On a different note: You have expressed concerns that excessive statements about adverse effects of climate changes could advance new forms of terrorism. Can you elaborate?
BP: Environmental hysteria screams that we are facing global catastrophe. This can generate an apocalyptic mindset comparable to the mental state of terrorists. The belief that we are on the verge of bringing about doomsday is not only common among religions. It leads to radicalisation and extremism. This creates a dualistic world view that pits evil industry on one side against those people and organisations which consider themselves saints who are engaged in a mortal battle.
Do international environmental organisations play a role in this development?
BP: Yes, some do because they tend to exaggerate certain predictions. For example, the nonsensical claim that the Himalayan glaciers will disappear completely within 25 years originated from a brochure of an environmental campaign group.
Which countermeasures do you suggest?
BP: This is hard to say because arguments are no longer listened to when hysteria proliferates.
Despite your concerns about exaggeration and hysteria, is it not reasonable to reduce CO2 emissions and to invest in renewable energy to save resources?
BP: The problem with this idea is that the so-called renewable energy sources are currently twice or three times as expensive as conventional energy. When conventional resources eventually become scarce, they will automatically become more expensive so alternative energy sources will become competitive. However, it does not make sense to artificially force this process because those nations that do so will not remain competitive. After all, it is not just energy but also all the products from these countries that will become more expensive.
But does it not make sense in the face of a possible shortage of resources to invest early in the development of alternative technologies to make them work better?
BP: There will always be people who will try to generate electricity by alternative means. But if it is forced through by governments then, as I said before, the competitiveness of entire countries will be ruined. It would be politically and economically suicidal to behave in this way.
Nevertheless, nuclear power has been heavily promoted by governments.
BP: Yes, but that was not an economic decision. Originally it was a purely security consideration. And let’s not forget that nuclear power is still more expensive than fossil fuels and cannot be sustained without government subsidies.
So how should we organise our energy supply?
BP: I am of the opinion that energy supplies work best if you let the market decide. Everyone should simply buy the energy which is the cheapest available and the government shouldn’t get involved in this process.
As far as you are concerned, what are the most important elements of a truly sustainable environmental protection policy?
BP: The number one priority is economic growth. It is quite obvious that the most developed countries can afford the best environmental protection. And this prosperity was created as a result of a free market economy.
But even in highly developed countries environmental obligations are state interventions.
BP: Of course. I am not opposed to states enacting certain laws in areas of environmental protection and health. What I am saying is it costs money. And only wealthy countries can afford it.
Dr. Peiser, thank you for the interview.
Translation: Philipp Mueller