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Friday, August 01, 2003

Warming Risks

John Kay, who I often disagree with (his book The Truth About Markets, while good in some areas, is either weak or poorly argued in others) has a good column on global warming in Thursday's Financial Times:

Carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming. But we have no firm evidence of the size of the effect. Nor do we know what is happening to the background temperature, which fluctuates considerably through natural causes. A climate change industry of environmentalists, scientists, politicians and bureaucrats has come into being, demanding attention and funding. They describe the future with a certainty they cannot legitimately have.

But they may be right, and the consequences of a rapid rise in world temperatures are sufficiently grave for us to take the issue seriously. The measures in the Kyoto protocol, even if they were implemented, are virtually irrelevant. If there is a problem, they are wholly inadequate; if there is not, they are a costly waste of time.

If there is a 20 per cent chance of rain, you do not wear 20 per cent of an overcoat. You keep an umbrella handy. And we should respond to the threat of global warming in the same way - by giving ourselves options. The environmental equivalent of the umbrella is an alternative technology that can be economically deployed on a large scale.

Kay is right to say this, as he is when me maintains that "the history of modern applied science is that when it is necessary to find alternatives, human ingenuity and commercial incentives fund them." The practical impact of such a strategy on global warming is given in an Economist survey article (link courtesy of Brad DeLong) on the need to promote science and technology:

That means encouraging basic climate and energy research, and giving incentives for spreading the results. Rich countries and aid agencies must also find ways to help the poor world adapt to climate change. This is especially important if the world starts off with small cuts in emissions, leaving deeper cuts for later. That, observes Mr Wigley, means that by mid-century “very large investments would have to have been made—and yet the ‘return' on these investments would not be visible. Continued investment is going to require more faith in climate science than currently appears to be the case.”

Much has been written about climate change, and (though this is often unacknowledged) much uncertainty remains. Those who advocate drastic action (or inaction) need to understand this, and adjust their positions accordingly.