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Andrew Montford: Did The Church Of Scotland Just Dodge A Climate Change Bullet?

Andrew Montford, Think Scotland

A decision to sacrifice all those millions who are suffering in the here and now, in order to avert some hypothetical harm a century hence would have been nothing short of inhuman.

Yesterday, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debated a motion on the subject of climate change and, more specifically, how quickly to divest themselves of investments in fossil fuels.

In the event, wisdom prevailed, the motion falling with only 24 per cent support, but it may be that the Assembly just dodged a bullet. The harms that the motion’s proposers were seeking to avert are hypothetical, and pencilled in for a timeslot that is far in the future – but lack of access to fossil fuels causes harms that are immediate, and very, very ugly.

Here at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, we have recently published a pair of briefing papers written by Dr Mikko Paunio, an eminent Finnish epidemiologist. Paunio’s powerfully worded case is that for millions of people around the world, getting their hands on fossil fuels is their onlyhope of escape from lives that are nasty, polluted, and short.

For instance, one of the biggest causes of premature death in the developing world is diarrhoea, and the best way to fix this is to improve domestic hygiene. For that, you need convenient and abundant water supplies, which in turn depend on the availability of a reliable electricity supply. For the time being, that almost certainly means fossil fuels.

In the same countries, untold millions of lives are also blighted by indoor air pollution, mostly caused by having to cook on open stoves fuelled by crude biofuels – wood or animal dung – or by coal. The resulting death toll runs into millions every year. A decision to divest would have hindered these poor people’s chance of following the well-trodden path to cleaner air: from biofuels, to coal, to kerosene, and ultimately to grid-based energy, either electricity or natural gas.

Of course, some will object to this analysis. The other day, the BBC’s Roger Harrabin wondered why people like me don’t support the expansion of solar power in Africa. However, once you have considered the cost and the lack of availability at night, the idea becomes a bit silly. And once you further consider the cost of adding battery storage, it borders on the ridiculous.

Similarly, the “what about modern cookstoves” objection that is often bandied about is given short shrift by Mikko Paunio. In the second of his papers, he notes that “No large-scale cookstove program to date has achieved reductions in [indoor air pollution] or provided any health benefits”.

There are no simple choices here, but only a trade-off, between, on the one hand, deaths that are happening here and now, can be quantified, and for which there is a well-understood path to prevention, and on the other, a vague idea of future trouble that emerges from a series of computer simulations of the climate of the distant future.

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