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Fraser Nelson: When It Comes To Global Warming, Rational Debate Is What We Need

We had a sell-out debate on global warming at The Spectator on Tuesday and, as I found out this morning, the debate is still going on. The teams were led by Nigel Lawson and Sir David King, and I was in the audience. I tweeted my praise of Simon Singh’s argument as he made it: it was a brilliant variation on the theme of “don’t think – trust the experts”. He seems to have discovered the tweet this morning, and responded with a volley of five questions for me. Then David Aaronovitch weighed in, followed by Simon Mayo. At 8.35am!

I had the choice between replying, or carrying on with my gourmet porridge. I chose the latter, and promised to blog my response later on to Simon Mayo and the Breakfast Crew. So here goes. Simon Singh tweeted me five questions:

1. Do you agree that increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases lead to an increase in the global temperature?

2. Do you agree CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from 280ppmv to 380ppmv (35%) during period of industrialisation?

3. Do you agree that the Earth’s climate has warmed by 0.6 degrees in the last 50 years?

4. Do you agree human contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is major factor in the warming over the last century?

5. Do you agree best scientific predictions estimate further rise of 1.1 to 6 C over 100 yrs based on good (not perfect) models?

Simon may be disappointed to know that I don’t have a problem with any of the above. But this is not the whole argument. As far as I see it, there are four stages of the global warming orthodoxy:

1. That the planet is warming

2. That manmade activity is, in some part, responsible

3. That decarbonisation is the only effective solution

4. There is a degree of urgency to it.

Some will disagree with all of the above. Many people agree with all four. Personally, I am persuaded by the first two: that the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to the problem. Simon’s five questions fit into these categories.

But thereafter, I’m not yet persuaded. How much is man’s activity contributing to global warming? Is it 20 percent? 80 percent? I haven’t seen a proper paper that attempts to quantify it — perhaps Simon can find me one. If any CoffeeHousers can point me to a paper on this, I’d be grateful. Also, why the urgency? Every energy summit that comes up is billed as a last chance saloon, with a Flash Gordon-style “we only have 14 hours to save the earth” warning. As Nigel Lawson said in the debate, Cancun was supposedly the last chance saloon — so which saloon are we drinking in now?

For example: I may be persuaded that my house is subsiding. But if I was charged £thousands to put golden matchsticks under my house, I would not agree. What good would that do? I’d want to know that the expensive solution would actually solve the problem. Same with global warming. You know that green taxes will put up energy prices, make the poor poorer — and in a country where at least 20,000 pensioners die from the cold each winter. But what good will it do to the overall problem?

The Stern Review outlined a problem: that global warming will cost 10 percent of GDP each year. It outlined a solution, that would cost 2 percent of GDP. But suspiciously, it does not say to what extent the solution would address the problem. Would the 2 percent eliminate the problem that was going to cost 10 percent? Or halve it to 5 percent? It didn’t say. This 700-page report suspiciously did not include a cost-benefit analysis.

Singh was brilliant in our debate, and I’m sorry that he took my tweet as a criticism. Climate science is hideously complicated, he said, so what is the average bloke to think in such circumstances? You look at who is saying what, and judge how credible they are. Singh then displayed a grid. On the X-axis he had sceptics and orthodox believers, and the y-axis was their level of credibility. So the IPCC had maximum credibility, and is really worried about global warming. Singh found no one of maximum credibility who was not worried about global warming. Think tankers (on both sides of the debate) were given less credibility, politicians even less, journalists and bloggers even less. Even Geri Halliwell featured.

It was a powerful way of making the case. There’s plenty to be said for the “trust the expert” case. Cancer is the classic example. Those diagnosed normally do what oncologists recommend. We do so knowing that mankind’s understanding of cancer is in its infancy, and the treatments are brutal, blunt instruments. But they’re the best we have available at this time. There is debate about the merits of chemotherapy, there are dissenting oncologists. But if you’re diagnosed, you’d be pretty likely to go with the mainstream. But in most other examples, you want these experts to be prodded and questioned. If they stand up to scrutiny, then fine. But the argument “trust the experts” is becoming less persuasive as the information revolution progresses. Hierarchies are being flattened in every walk of life, and this includes intellectual hierarchies. As Mark Penn says, elites are more impressionable than the masses — so more likely to be persuaded by a scientific consensus. The public want to be persuaded, not told that they should believe the Clever People.

In science and medicine, there is all too little of that. That’s why I think that the solution is rational debate. We held one last week, and it is what The Spectator does as a magazine. We have given space to minority voices — because we believe that one voice in a thousand can often be right. Going back to Simon’s grid: I’m more than prepared to believe that all the clever people are capable of being wrong, and the dotty dissenting scientist can be right. From Newton onwards, the history of science is studded with examples of the minority voice proving right.

Finally, what is The Spectator’s position? We seek to be nothing more than the still, small voice of calm in the middle of a hysterical debate. Simon Mayo tweeted that he stopped buying us because of what he saw as an anti-science bias: I was heartbroken by that, and not just because I admire him so much as a broadcaster. When we ran our global warming special we had pieces written by people whom Singh would rank as high in credibility: scientists, academics, statisticians. We’re very pro-science, but real science invites refutation. As Sir David King said on the night, with science debate never stops.

The Spectator has a bias towards robust debate: on stage, and in the magazine. And if we’re one of the few publications that gives space to those who dissent from the climate orthodoxy, it fits a long tradition. The Spectator, alone in Britain, supported the north of America against the slave-owning south. We called for the legalisation of homosexuality in 1957, ten years before it happened. We alone opposed Britain’s entry into the ERM. The Spectator is a magazine that gives space to well-made, minority arguments. As a Gershwin once put it, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round:

The Spectator, 31 March 2011