Last night (Thursday 8 March) saw the airing of a television documentary with the title of “The Great Global Warming Swindle” on the UK’s Channel 4. The documentary argued that “global warming” is neither driven by greenhouse gases produced by human activity, nor a threat to society. Rather, the programme argued, the warming of the Earth observed over the past century was simply a manifestation of natural climatic cycles, and would not continue to the extent indicated by climate models and assumed by most climate scientists. Another pillar of the programme’s argument was that global warming was being used to deny development to poor countries, which need to increase their fossil fuel use in order to combat poverty and poor health.
The scientific arguments were those routinely deployed by climate change sceptics, and routinely refuted by mainstream climate scientists. I’m not (for the moment, at least) going to get involved in all these tired old arguments about the science, which have been well rehearsed over and over again elsewhere. I don’t need to go into these in detail, as most if not all of the “scientific” arguments used in the programme are dealt with on the website www.realclimate.org, a website set up by climate scientists to respond to the assertions of climate sceptics and provide information on climate change direct from climate scientists themselves. If anyone reading this is wondering how mainstream climate scientists would respond to the arguments in the documentary, they should take a look at www.realclimate.org, where they will find the answers.
The suggestion that the global warming “industry” (and there certainly is an industry emerging around the issue) is bent on denying development to poor nations turns the reality on its head. In this respect the programme was as misleading as it was about the science. The main concern about the relationship between climate change and poverty is that the impacts of climate change are likely to be devastating in many parts of the developing world, resulting in a reversal of development and reinforcing poverty and ill health in poor countries. Of course if you believe that the science has all been fabricated and that climate scientists, politicians and environmentalists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to deceive the public, you will dismiss this as nonsense – no global warming means no adverse impacts on developing countries. However, if you accept the science (and I’m hoping that a look at realclimate.org will persuade you), it soon becomes apparent that the developing world will suffer hugely if nothing is done to slow or halt global warming.
Here is one very small example. Moroccan scientists have calculated that a 1 degree C increase in temperature is likely to lead to a reduction in surface water runoff of 10 % in the catchment of the Al Wahda dam, Morocco’s largest dam, even if there is no change in rainfall. If this pattern is repeated across the country it is estimated that the effect will be equivalent to losing one dam per year (1). All the evidence from climate models and observations indicates that the Mediterranean region and the coastal areas of North Africa are already becoming drier, and that this drying is likely to continue as a result of human-induced climate change. Climate projections for the 2080s predict decreases in rainfall of over 20% for this region, and increases in temperature of over 3 degrees (2). The consequences of such changes for water resources in Morocco, and in the Maghreb region as a whole, are likely to be catastrophic, and the social, political and security implications are potential very worrying. (Those of you who have read my other posts will know that Morocco is not my favourite country, as a result of its continued occupation of Western Sahara. However, no-one will benefit from chronic water shortages, food insecurity or social breakdown anywhere in the Maghreb).
The suggestion that developing countries are being told they cannot develop is both reprehensible and bogus. One of the most widely applied principles when it comes to discussions of how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is that industrialised countries should bear the brunt of any cuts, at least initially. Developing nations were excluded from the first round of cuts due under the Kyoto Protocol. Of course, this has been used as an excuse for inaction by some in the industrialised world, who maintain that their nations should not have to cut emissions of greenhouse gases if developing countries are not obliged to do the same. The issues of equity and the right to development are at the heart of climate negotiations, and it is generally accepted that developing countries have the right to develop, even if that means their emissions increase in the short term as new, cleaner energy technologies are developed. Ultimately the aim is to develop technologies that can support development without contributing significantly to climate change. In the meantime no serious commentators are suggesting people in poor countries should be denied electricity or clean water. Organisations such as the United Nations are working not to undermine development by denying energy to the poor, but to safeguard the Millennium Development Goals against the impacts of climate change that could make poverty reduction and gains in living standards unachievable for hundreds of millions of poor people. Whatever the drawbacks of solar or wind power, these are technologies that can be used at the micro level without the need for costly distribution networks, and which are therefore particularly appropriate for developing countries with only basic infrastructures. This is not to say that developing nations should not use fossil fuels at all. Unfortunately, successive attempts to get the UN to support investment in renewable micro-generation in order to bring the benefits of electricity directly to the world’s poor have been blocked consistently by both OPEC and certain non-OPEC nations with significant interests in the oil sector (specifically the US, Canada, Australia and Japan) (3).
It’s also worth looking at the history of those behind the Channel 4 documentary. The director, Martin Durkin, was responsible for a series of anti-environmental documentaries on Channel 4 in 1997, with the title “Against Nature”, which attacked environmentalism, denied the existence of global warming, compared environmentalists with Nazis, and made a special effort to promote biotechnology and genetic modification (4).
Durkin is part of the group of like-minded individuals (or sinister conspiracy depending on your point of view) who orbit around the Institute of Ideas, the online Magazine “Spiked” and a cluster of related organisations, and who are often referred to collectively as the “LM Group” (5). These organisations, and the people behind them, grew out of the magazine LM, a reincarnation of Living Marxism, the organ of the UK Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RCP held anti-environmentalism close to its heart, and its ex-members still believe that environmentalism is anti-progressive and anti-human, aiming to attack and defeat it at every opportunity. One of the bodies in the constellation of RCP-inspired organisations is the Future Cities Project (http://www.futurecities.org.uk/), which “challenges risk-aversion and the precautionary principle”, “believes that environmentalism is driving down social aspirations”, and “fights for development instead of sustainable development” (6). This cocktail of straight-down-the-line RCP positions epitomises the collective approach of Durkin and his ex-RCP fellow travellers such as Claire Fox, director of the IoI, who claimed on BBC Radio 4 that “you can’t be progressive if you believe in the ecological limits to growth” (7).
This then is the legacy of the Revolutionary Communist Party that informed Thursday’s piece of climate propaganda. Driven by an ideology that demands a separation of humanity from the environment in which it exists, and which demands the pursuit of technological innovation at all costs without any consideration of risk, the rabid prometheans from the old RCP are left with no choice but to deny the reality of global warming. To do anything else would be to undermine their faith in industry and technology, which they see as inherently good and incapable of resulting in negative consequences. In order to prop up their own insupportable ideology they are playing politics with the lives of millions, and shamelessly exploiting the world’s poor for their own dubious “revolutionary” agenda.
My guess when it comes to global warming? For what it’s worth, I suspect we’ll carry on increasing our consumption of fossil fuels for some time to come, and this will lead to an increase in global mean temperature of around 2 degrees C by 2050, and 3 degrees by by 2100. If we’re lucky we might avoid warming above 3 degrees, but this will take more action that we’re seeing so far, and quickly. If I lived in Morocco, I’d be thinking about emigrating.
1. Agoumie, A. 2003. Vulnerability of North African Countries to Climatic Changes Adaptation and Implementation Strategies for Climate Change. IIED and the Climate Change Knowledge Network.
2. Various sources, synthesized in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, released in April 2007.
3. http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0904-04.htm ; http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/17576/story.htm ; http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2002/09/15/fea09.html
4. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/1997/12/18/the-revolution-has-been-televised/ see also http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Against_Nature
6. Future Cities Project home page (www.futurecities.org), accessed on 9 March 2007.
7. Claire Fox, Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 6 January 2006.