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The Age of Global Warming: A History

Rupert Darwall

Rupert Darwall is like a hyena in pursuit of his quarry — it may take time, but his bone-crushing jaws offer no escape. He is relentless. The ironclad scientific consensus long ago convinced me that human-induced climate change is a reality. It aligns me with environmentalists and political leaders across (most of) the world. But Darwall is not of our kind. He thinks we are deranged, and he won’t rest until he has proved it. Like the Chinese delegates at the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit, he has a pedant’s mastery of textual and historical detail, reinforced by 66 pages of notes. Every scrap of the warmist agenda (and he really does mean agenda, in the sense of a political purpose) is seized by his crunching molars.

First up for a chewing is Thomas Malthus, whose An Essay on Principles of Population in 1798 famously predicted that the world’s population would outstrip the production of food. It didn’t happen. In 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons foresaw the end of cheap coal and the collapse of the British economy. That didn’t happen either. Nor did American oil run out in the middle of the 20th century as Theodore Roosevelt thought it would, and the same goes for all the other “depletionist” scares with which doomsayers of various generations have sought to rattle us. Darwall’s point is that predictions about the future, and most especially predictions of doom, are always wrong. Life not only goes on, it goes on getting better.

This brings him neatly to the subject of global warming. There is much here to disconcert the consensualists. It is not just the “Climategate” embarrassment of 2009, when emails leaked from the University of East Anglia hinted at bent data. It is the whole business of “prophecy” and the facts on which it rests. Even the best friends of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have trouble in acquitting it of error. It has overstated the proximity of global catastrophe and been too reluctant to discard discredited research (most obviously the notorious “hockey stick” graph, which too conveniently erased the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age and showed a sudden upward flick at the end of the 20th century).

Darwall heaps contempt on the whole enterprise. Nobody in the past has had any success in predicting the future, so why should this lot be any different? Global warming, he argues, if it is happening at all, could all be within the range of natural fluctuation or margins of error in the computer models. In any case, there has been no warming since the turn of the millennium.

There is nothing new in these arguments — you hear them from every dinner-party sceptic — but Darwall has heavy forensic back-up and can’t be dismissed simply by reference to the scientific consensus, or political consensus as he is more likely to see it. The IPCC’s “close and pervasive relations” with its sponsoring governments, he believes, have made it more an instrument of policy than of proper scientific inquiry. “After Rio, debating the science became superfluous. Politics had settled the science.” Environmentalism had “found its killer app”.

He invites us to imagine what the world would be like if global warming had been identified at the beginning of the 19th century and governments had decarbonised their economies. Several metres deep in horse manure is the likely answer. George W Bush for once gets bouquets rather than brickbats — America was the only country to analyse seriously the economics of global warming — while high scorn is reserved for the preaching of Al Gore, the “messianic salvationism” of Tony Blair, the pulpit-thumping of Gordon Brown, and David Cameron’s husky-hugging.

Unlike them, Darwall sees environmentalism as anti-human and self-defeating. It regards the very existence of homo sapiens as the world’s worst problem. By inflating the cost of food and energy it is anti-poor, and by converting land and forest to biofuels it is anti- environment. The best defence against climate change, he argues, is wealth, not the stifling of economic growth.

Did he convince me? Yes, the politics of climate change have been botched. Yes, scientists have damaged their own cause. Yes, green economics is often naive and contradictory. But no, my belief in human-induced ­climate change has been formidably challenged but still survives. I wish it were otherwise.

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