Luke Warming: Pan European Networks Interview With Benny Peiser
Pan European Networks speaks to the director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation about the findings and implications of the IPCC’s 2013 Report
The 2013 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has argued that humans are the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming since the 1950s, and that without ‘substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions’, further warming and changes in all aspects of the climate system can be expected.
The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) is an all-party and non-party think tank and a registered educational charity which, while open-minded on the contested science of global warming, is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.
Following the publication of the IPCC’s new report, Pan European Networks spoke to the GWPF’s director, Dr Benny Peiser, to discuss the findings and implications of the report.
Dr Peiser is the founder and editor (since 1997) of CCNet, a leading climate policy network, and a visiting fellow at the University of Buckingham, and after whom a 10km-wide asteroid, Minor Planet (7107) Peiser, was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union, to discuss the findings and implications of the report.
Full interview here
Pan European Networks: How would you describe your own position the ‘climate debate’?
Benny Peiser: I am critical of the more hysterical sides of the debate, but I think that it is important to try and understand why the climate alarm exists. I have my own interpretation of the scientific data, and while I don’t see any significant signals that any of the big, looming disasters that some people have predicted are set to happen any time soon, I am not ruling them out, either.
I oppose the hysterical and apocalyptic tone that the debate seems to sometimes take on. This is bad for climate policy, and bad for society as a whole. Perhaps it is now time to add an element of calm and to restore a sense of reason, because a calm and balanced assessment of the entire situation seems to have been lacking in recent years.
PEN: This certainly seems to have been the case, with immediate disasters being predicted by some, while others make claims of corruption and of scientists tampering with data in order to fabricate fake warming trends.
BP: Absolutely, this happens on the other side of the debate as well, with some people arguing that climate change is a hoax. While those who deny that CO2 has had any effect on global warming are relatively few in number, they do exist, and they are often used as straw men by the media, while those raising reasonable questions and arguments are all but drowned out.
PEN: According to the IPCC’s new report, ‘substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions’ is required to contain future warming trends. Is this achievable?
BP: Firstly, I think that it should be asked whether the IPCC is the right body to prescribe which policies governments should approach, and that arises from the fact that there are, broadly speaking, two possible approaches to the issue of climate change: one, that decarbonisation is urgently needed, which is the central argument of the IPCC, and secondly that it is more cost effective to adapt to the effects of global warming, which in my view makes more sense, because while it is likely that the warming trend will continue at some point, the extent to which this will happen is, as yet, unknown.
In any case, the IPCC’s call for decarbonisation appears to be unrealistic. There is little doubt that, from a technological perspective, the significant reduction of greenhouse gases could be achieved, through, for instance, the construction of thousands of new nuclear power plants around the world, which produce real and reliable energy and do not therefore rely on a conventional back up.
Economically and politically speaking, this is wholly unrealistic. There is a very simple reason for this: quickly developing economies such as China and India simply cannot afford to radically change to significantly more expensive forms of energy production, such as renewables. Indeed, it is already evident that those countries that began down the renewables path are cutting back on subsidies and funding, and many are facing a public backlash.
In the UK, the big issue now is energy prices, and Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, recently announced at his party’s conference that if he wins the general election he will freeze energy bills, while Germany is also facing significant problems as energy prices are rising rapidly.
There is thus a political and economic cost to decarbonisation policies of this type, and it is therefore necessary to be realistic about what is politically and economically viable.
PEN: Do you think, then, that Europe should look to an American-style shale gas revolution?
BP: Absolutely, because this is a very important but unexpected development in the debate, in that the renewable agenda was based on two primary assumptions: that we are facing rapid and dangerous warming, and that we are running out of conventional fossil fuels. On the basis of these two assumptions, the push for renewables seemed to make sense prima facie because it was feared that, as we run out of fossil fuels, their price will rise significantly. It was also thought that while renewables may be expensive now, at some point they will become competitive.
The shale revolution in the USA has changed this, and the irony here is that CO2 emissions in the USA have fallen significantly – faster than anywhere else in the world – because they are switching from coal to abundant and cheap shale gas.
Nevertheless, there does not appear to be any international political will to actually adopt what the IPCC is advocating; international negotiations have reached a deadlock, and there is no appetite for any form of a legally binding agreement. Even Europe is increasingly divided over energy and emissions policies, because Eastern European countries are reluctant to give up on cheap forms of energy, particularly cheap coal.
Substantial and sustained CO2 reductions, then, are not really achievable.
While some claim that there is a green industrial revolution in China and other emerging economies, one has to look very carefully at what they are actually doing. For instance, the Chinese are doing what could be termed ‘green washing’, in that they are trying to portray themselves as taking a green approach, but in reality they are actually planning to invest very little in the green energy sector (less than 5%) in the next 20 years, with much of this (80%) coming from hydroelectricity.
China has, of course, developed a huge solar industry, but this was mainly for export purposes. Now that they are facing tariffs in Europe and the USA, they have begun to use the panels on their own buildings.
However, China is also sitting on abundant deposits of shale gas, but they lack the infrastructure to extract it – the drilling and energy companies that abound in the USA – and while they may not be ready to offer contracts to the Americans, they may not have much choice if they want to tap into this resource at short notice.
Despite such potential developments, there is no real sense that we will see a stabilisation of CO2 content in the atmosphere any time soon. Things might change completely, of course, if we were to see a strong and manifest warming trend in the coming decades, because the debate might then be re-opened with a new vigour, but in the meantime it seems that most governments have now adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach and, as such, will not see the new IPCC report as an immediate issue.
PEN: How significant is the change of the equilibrium climate sensitivity figure to 1.5-4.5°C from the 2007 range of 2-4.5°C?
BP: A number of UK policy makers have made an interesting point about this, arguing that the IPCC’s reduction of climate sensitivity means that we have more time to get our policies right – and cost effectively so. Indeed while the change is minimal (it is really more of a cosmetic thing), it ties in to other research which has come to suggest that climate sensitivity might be less significant than originally feared, and therefore that more extreme scenarios are unlikely.
This alteration of the equilibrium climate sensitivity figure is therefore good news, and can also be seen as an indication of how the IPCC has begun to adopt a less alarmist tone in their latest report.
PEN: Much has been made of the apparent pause in the increase in temperatures in the period since 1998 by both the media and those members of the scientific community sceptical of climate change arguments. What are your thoughts on this?
BP: From both a scientific and a policy point of view, this is by far the biggest problem facing the IPCC, because this global temperature standstill was not predicted by climate scientists, or indeed their climate models, and the IPCC has admitted that they don’t really know what is causing it.
It is now widely understood that if this standstill in the increase of the global surface temperature continues for much longer, then the models used by the IPCC will have to be re-assessed. After all the new report has predicted that manifest warming will soon recommence and continue in the next 20 years.
PEN: Given the fact that this hiatus is currently unexplainable and presents an argument against significant warming trends, do you feel that this furthers the call for more to be spent on adaptive strategies?
BP: Trillions of euros and dollars have been invested in various climate policies, despite the fact that, even if global warming were to continue, the extent to which it will happen is unknown.
An argument I have been making for some time now is that there will always be flooding, heat waves, hurricanes and other extreme weather events, regardless of who is right and who is wrong on climate science, and by investing in resilience and adaptation, in making cities more prepared and communities more resilient, this will be an effective and cost effective investment no matter what.
With the publication of the new IPCC report, there is now more time for policies to evolve; we have more time to discuss what appropriate measures and investments need to be made.
PEN: Do you think, then, that the new report will influence policy?
BP: I don’t think that this report will have any significant policy effects – it has just confirmed the arguments that have been made since the IPCC’s first report in 1990, but its overall tone is more moderate. Thus, if it does have any influence at all it will likely be a moderating one.
Indeed, the fact that the UK’s Environment Minister, Owen Patterson, has said that moderate warming might be good for the world – something no politician would have said six years ago – is an indication of the more cautious tone of this new IPCC report when compared to its 2007 previous versions.
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