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August 05th 2011 print

Peter Smith

The Spectator Climate Debate

Wednesday’s climate debate in Sydney demonstrated that we need more of these kinds of debates; and particularly more in which scientists are prepared to debate the science in plain English.


The “Do we need this carbon tax?” climate debate


For such a far-reaching policy issue there has been a marked lack of open public debate on climate science and its implications. The Sydney debate on 3 August on the proposed carbon tax, organised by The Spectator (Australia) and the IPA, was therefore a welcome and timely event.

The well-attended debate was moderated by Tom Switzer, editor of The Spectator. Judging from the tone of the questions and the vote at the beginning and end opposing a carbon tax, the audience was generally sceptical in its orientation, but this was incidental to the substance of the debate.

The protagonists for the ayes (“Yes, we need a carbon tax”) were John Hewson and Mark Latham, and Benjamin McNeil, senior fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

The protagonists for the nays were Lord Nigel Lawson, Gary Johns, and Ian Plimer.

The climate debate has two parts. The first is the scientific one about whether human-induced warming is a serious problem and the second is about the appropriate policy responsive, assuming that it is a serious problem. Unfortunately, there was no debate about the first part; or at least there was only a one-sided debate which, when you think about it, is a contradiction in terms. Plimer did his best to debate the science. McNeil was having none of it and preferred to don the garb of economist. While McNeil has economics in his academic background, as well as climate science, there was an evident expectation – dashed – that he would talk about the science.

John Hewson kicked the debate off. It was familiar stuff. He was convinced by the weight of scientific opinion that the problem was real and that there was a moral imperative to deal with it. However, the main thrust of his argument was that there were great opportunities for Australian businesses in embracing new clean technologies. Although he favoured some direct action, including regulation, he said that as an economist he must look to pricing as the most efficient way to steer the economy away from fossil fuels.

Nigel Lawson opened for the opposition. The only merit he could find in the Australian government’s approach, he said, was that it was less stupid than the British government’s. While clearly doubting the science, his views were informed by practicality. The costs of decarbonisation were very high and exceeded any benefits that might result from ameliorating climate change. In these circumstances, he saw no realistic chance of forging any effective global agreement. He saw the answer, if there is a problem, in adaptation rather than in forlorn attempts at prevention.

While Benjamin McNeil entered the debate at this point; I will leave both scientists till last.

Mark Latham made the same kind of arguments as Hewson, though in a more direct language. He is swayed by the science and did not shy away from the word “denier” for those not so swayed. Why, he asked, would we accept scientific advice as a matter of course in medicine, in agriculture, and the like, and reject it when it is about climate. He regarded it as a pre-enlightenment kind of thinking. This aside, he is no fan of the currently proposed carbon tax. He said it was rather like a tax on cigarettes where the revenue was used to compensate smokers and tobacco companies. It was hard to fault his logic, if his premise of dangerous warming and an attendant need to price carbon was accepted.

Gary Johns brought a political perspective to the debate. Why, he asked, are we in this position; and answered: because politicians think they can do anything, including controlling the weather. His argument was consistent with Lord Lawson’s. When you look at Hewson’s and Latham’s arguments you have a decarbonisation express train moving quickly from Hicksville to LA and you better be on it or be left behind. Lawson’s and Johns’ arguments are that this express train will fall off the tracks and never get to LA.

According to Johns there is no way China and India, and other developing countries, will embrace clean technologies to anywhere near a sufficient extent to counter rising emissions. To do so would keep their populations impoverished and leave them susceptible to insurrection. Johns favours the Lomborg approach of R&D; if, in fact, there is what he called a “Goldilocks” threat. That is one where temperatures are not going to rise too much very soon (when we can’t do anything about it) or too far into the future (when we don’t need to do anything about it) but rise just right – in the middle – requiring mitigating action.

The scientific debate was a non-starter.

Benjamin McNeil’s only scientific point was that there was no scientific conspiracy; that scientists were not telling lies, as he put it. He spent his time on the same express train that Hewson and Latham were on. He had lots of numbers about investment in China on clean technologies; that other countries were already pricing carbon, and that we had to get on board.

Ian Plimer was impressive in going through various periods of ice ages and warming and their disconnection with carbon dioxide levels. I found it convincing to an extent, though I admit to a tendency to glaze over a bit when I am taken back thousands of years BC. Clearly McNeil did not find it convincing; jousting with Plimer during question time by suggesting he was not a climate scientist. Plimer did not take kindly to that. The debate got briefly heated. But, it was generally quite civilised under Tom Switzer’s guiding hand.

We need more of these kinds of debates; and particularly more in which scientists are prepared to debate the science in plain English.

It is not good enough to keep the science to the laboratory and to professional inaccessible journals, when it is having such profound implications for ordinary life. On the non-science side, we need more exposure to the arguments not only about the best way to decarbonise economies but, critically, also on whether it is feasible to reduce global emissions or whether we are tilting at windmills.

Hopefully The Spectator and the IPA have opened the door to more debates.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics