Friday, April 27, 2007

Doomsayers should stick to the facts

By economist ALAN WOOD

A fog of green hysteria has descended over the global warming debate -- at home and abroad

Playwright David Williamson has taken the odd shot in his time at political correctness, but he is a zealous convert, it seems, to the new green religion. Williamson's Australia Day oration is laced with the usual green litany of looming disaster: powerful corporations in the US and Europe run the world; growth is god; galloping GNP growth means a galloping rate of increase in the rate at which the world's resources are consumed and a galloping rate of increased pollution and environmental degradation.

He accepts uncritically that the severity of the current drought and bushfires is partly due to global warming, and thinks worse is to come, thanks largely to President George W.Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. ``In effect he's declared that if there's a choice between slowing economic growth rates in the US and increasing floods, droughts, fires, cyclones and rising sea levels over the rest of the world, then to hell with the rest of world,'' according to Williamson. There are, however, some things about Australians Williamson likes -- our black sardonic humour, our energy, our directness and honesty, our hatred of pretentiousness. Any country with a keen eye for spotting wankers has to be way ahead of countries where the aforesaid activity is a prerequisite for social and political success, he says.

If Williamson was watching television on Australia Day morning he might have seen a program made by an Australian with all the characteristics he admires -- Phillip Sawyer, a retired abalone fisherman. Called In Flinders Wake, it was ostensibly the story of the mapping of the coast of South Australia by Matthew Flinders and French explorer Nicolas Baudin. But Sawyer, who gained a BSc before he went fishing, made it much more than that. His program was a celebration of the values of confidence and optimism in the future held by Flinders, the scientific community of his time and all the pioneers (such as Sawyer's own family) that followed them. He fears these values and the spirit of progress they embodied are being threatened by a green religion that focuses not on progress but on an apocalyptic spectre of environmental doom and a static paradigm of sustainability.

A long-time Labor Party member and activist, Sawyer sent a video of the program (which was made last year) to the Hawke-Wran review of the ALP, with a warning. Those in the ALP who saw the green movement as progressive were wrong. The green agenda often meant the extinction of workers' jobs and lifestyles, the greens were often unscientific and in fact antiscientific, and the movement ``was shot through with Trots and New Age religious freaks who used pseudo-science to bluff politicians and journalists, who don't know any science''. As a fisherman, Sawyer no doubt has first-hand experience of what uncritical acceptance of the green agenda by Labor can mean for jobs, just as timber workers have. He sees it as a battle between green science and green religion. His faith in science is a touch naive.

Scientists are among the leading preachers of the new green gospel. This has become disgracefully evident in the debate over a book by a Danish statistician, Bjorn Lomborg. The book -- The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001) -- sets out, using mainstream data sources such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the UN, to test the various claims made about the deteriorating world environment made by the greens.

He finds many of these claims don't stand up. The world isn't running out of energy or natural resources, poverty has been reduced more in the past 50 years than the previous 500, air pollution has declined, less people are starving and food is more plentiful. Lomborg's aim is to ensure that important policy choices are made on the basis of the best available information. An example he gives is that economic analyses show it would be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to higher temperatures. While Kyoto would have negligible impact on climate change, the cost to the US per year of implementing it could provide access to basic health, education, water and sanitation for everyone.

Lomborg invites debate about the statistics and the claims he makes based on them, but what he has got in return is assertion and abuse, not objective examination of his claims. The latest outrage is a finding by a body known as the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty that Lomborg's book ``falls within the concept of scientific dishonesty''. This curiously medieval sounding body has behaved much like an inquisition. Its inquiry was at the urging of some scientists who had already attacked Lomborg in the journal Scientific American last year. The DCSD made no attempt to check the validity of Lomborg's findings, nor does it offer any example of dishonesty or distortion. Instead it simply reproduces a summary of the articles in the Scientific American. It virtually ignored Lomborg's detailed reply to those articles.

Patrick Moore, a co-founder and a former international director of Greenpeace, called that reply brilliant, and went on to attack the unbridled conceit of the extreme environmental movement. ``They are convinced the world is coming to an end and no amount of facts or statistics will sway them from their self-righteous dogmatism,'' he said. The Economist has called the panel's ruling shameful and incompetent, as it is. So far Lomborg's criticism of the greens' litany of doom remains far more substantial than any of the attacks on it. And the available evidence is that economic growth in the developed world leads to environmental improvement and in the developing world to less poverty and starvation.

The above article originally appeared on Jan. 28 2003

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