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The moral issues surrounding UK climate policy, as well as the underlying scientific and economic issues, are much more complex than is usually acknowledged. It is time for the Churches to recognise this, and to lead a debate which helps our society to a more sensible set of policies.

In 1900, the most distinguished British scientist of his day, Lord Kelvin addressed his fellow scientists: ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement’. Yet, within a few years, relativity and quantum physics had revolutionised our understanding of the world.

The history of science is full of examples of established beliefs, which at the time were held with great conviction, being overturned. It looks increasingly as if the certainty with which global warming and climate science has been viewed for the past couple of decades may be the latest example.

The Royal Society, under pressure from 40 of its own members, accepted in 2010 that the connection between climate change and anthropogenic increases in CO2 levels is much less certain than previously thought. As Lord Broers, one of our leading scientists today, has put it, there is a ‘lack of an adequate quantitative relationship between the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere and warming’ (Hansard, 24.11.09, col.308).

The Churches have tended to follow climate alarmism with uncritical enthusiasm, but it is now time to take stock.

One of the now discredited views is that the increase in global temperatures (of only about 0.8º C over the past 100 years) has come after many centuries of a stable climate. In its Third Assessment (2003), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change compared its analysis to an ice hockey stick, with 1000 years of stability leading to the recent increase. The IPCC had simply airbrushed out the medieval warm period, when vines grew in Britain, and the later post-Tudor period (1550-1850) when the Thames regularly froze over.

A closer look at the historical record suggests that populations and civilisations actually tend to flourish during warmer periods, as set out in Professor Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth (Connor Court, 2009). Also, increased levels of CO2 help plants and trees to grow more quickly, as horticulturalists know.

Global warming alarmism has been driven forward in an emotive, even quasi-religious way, with the object of ‘saving the planet’. Christians should be cautious before they make common cause with such utopian aspirations, just as scientists need to be cautious about turning possible scientific theories into cast-iron certainties.

There is every reason for the responsible use of limited natural resources, and not least oil and gas, but that remains true whatever the scientific position on global warming turns out to be. We should acknowledge that Western society, in particular, does not have a good environmental record, although this is now improving. But contemporary claims that human beings can manage fundamental features of the earth’s environment, such as its climate, need to be approached with great caution.

The very idea that human beings can control the planet’s climate seems doubtful in scientific terms, and is likely to derive from the modern myth of human power. But there is also a compelling economic reason for doubting that we could stop global warming, even if it is driven largely by CO2 increases.

Any country with fossil fuel reserves will exploit them, whether this is Sudan or the United States. Realising the value in fossil fuels unavoidably means for coal its conversion to CO2 and, in the case of oil and gas, also water.

Imagine that the richer countries did cut back their consumption. All that would happen is that the world price would fall, enabling higher consumption by poorer countries. The net effect will be more-or-less the same, unless large amounts of the CO2 can be sequestered and stored permanently.

It would be a great act of faith to believe that this is going to happen. As yet, despite years of discussion, CO2 capture and storage has not been commercially demonstrated, although several pilot projects are at an advanced stage of planning.

CO2 capture will be scientifically feasible, but at what additional cost? In order to meet UK targets, all gas-fired, as well as any new coal-fired, power stations will need to be equipped with CO2 capture, but our international competitors have no such commitments in place.

Public policy in the whole area is in a mess in the UK. The previous government set in law a unilateral commitment to reduce UK carbon emissions by 2050 to a mere 20% of the 1990 levels. Given the unavoidable use of hydrocarbons for some purposes, such as air travel, this will require the total decarbonisation of electricity generation. The investment required would run to hundreds of billions of pounds.

As a start, there is a large programme to promote so-called renewable energy sources, especially wind turbines. Those who own the turbines are currently paid more than twice as much for their electricity as the cost of coal or gas generation, the subsidy being loaded on to everyone’s electricity bills.

Absurdly, this represents a considerable transfer of wealth from the poorer families to rich landowners or businesses. And if the net result, as is bound to happen, is higher electricity prices in the UK compared with our competitors, it will result in higher unemployment as energy-intensive jobs are exported.

Even if it proves to be the case that CO2 increases will produce a significant rise in the average global temperature, there is a strong case for directing investment towards adaptation, rather than to a probably futile attempt to prevent the underlying climate from changing. For example, there might be a global fund, to help poorer nations with flood defences, agricultural adaptation, and other measures, if in the event the climate does change very significantly during this century.

The moral issues surrounding UK climate policy, as well as the underlying scientific and economic issues, are much more complex than is usually acknowledged. It is time for the Churches to recognise this, and to lead a debate which helps our society to a more sensible set of policies.

Church Times, 21 October 2011

Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester and a Trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation