There has been some growing anticipation in recent weeks about the speech that John Howard was to give in London for the Global Warming Policy Foundation. After all, it was arguable that he finally paid the price for not jumping on the AGW bandwagon early enough. What would he say about that? What would he say about Mr Abbott’s stance? Well, the speech has been given, and I was just a tad disappointed with it.
I liked the title: ‘One Religion is Enough’: I chose the lecture’s title largely in reaction to the sanctimonious tone employed by so many of those who advocate quite substantial, and costly, responses to what they see as irrefutable evidence that the world’s climate faces catastrophe, against people who do not share their view. To them the cause has become a substitute religion. I liked his statement that he was an agnostic about it all, because that is my position, and I think the only possible position for some who does take science seriously, because the science is all over the place, and still has large gaps in it.
I thought he gave global warming the right place in his account of the rise of Tony Abbott within the Opposition:… a little under four years ago he challenged what seemed to be a political consensus on global warming; won the leadership of his party by one vote; had it expressly confirm a change in its policy on the issue, and then confronted the incumbent government on global warming, with quite dramatic results…
And I thought he crisply summarised the ‘politics of the science’ here: An overriding feature of the debate is the constant attempt to intimidate policy makers, in some cases successfully, with the mantras of “follow the science” and “the science is truly settled”. The purpose is to create the impression that there is really no room for argument; this is not really a public policy issue; it is one on which the experts have spoken, and we would all be quite daft to do other than follow the prescriptions, it is asserted, which flow automatically from the scientific findings.
Thereafter I read on with less interest, and some preparedness to argue. For example, while I agree with the beginning of the next paragraph, I have some reservations about the end: Scientists are experts in science. Judges are experts in interpreting the law and doctors are skilled at keeping us healthy — provided we take their advice. But parliaments — composed of elected politicians — are the experts at public policy making, and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others. Are politicians really expert in policy-making? I doubt that anyone is, and politicians do so much on the rebound, and for special interests, and because of a deal they made with a different faction, and because the real alternative seems so hard.
Nowhere does he make the valid point (for him) that there was pressure within the electorate for ‘doing something’ about global warming, and that was why he set up the Australian Greenhouse Office. Yes, he remained adamant that Australia should not sign up to the Kyoto Protocol until the 2007 election was very close, but if the electorate wants something, you have to be adept at dealing with it. I don’t think that he was, on this one, and he probably had anxiety within his Ministry and the Coalition that they had to match Labor on global warming.
The rest of the Lecture is a history of what then happened in Australia, when he was out of politics and observing from the sidelines. None of it is really contentious, in my view, and I would think that Australians interested in the issue would do little more than nod. What his London audience would have thought of the recounting of Australian political history is another matter. At the end he offers ‘some broad conclusions’, and they go like this.
1. First principles tell us never to accept that all of the science is in on any proposition; always remain open to the relevance of new research.
2. Keep a sense of proportion, especially when it comes to generational burden-sharing. Nigel Lawson’s compelling point in his book An Appeal to Reason, that the present generation should not carry too heavy a burden so that future generations are only 8.4 times better off rather than 9.4 times wealthier, should be heeded by all policy makers. Even the IPCC estimates that global GDP per capita will increase 14 fold over this century, and 24 fold in the developing world.
3. Renewable energy sources should always be used when it makes economic sense to do so. The less that governments intervene the more likely it is that this will happen.
4. Nuclear energy must be part of the long term response. It is a clean energy source, has the capacity to provide base load power as an alternative to fossil fuel, and modern nuclear power stations have a sophisticated level of safety.
5. Always bear in mind that technology will continue to surprise us. I doubt that the expression “fracking” was widely known, let alone used five years ago.
Again, I wouldn’t dispute any of them, but they are not at all new, and would get just a brief nod from his audience. I’m not sure why John Howard was asked to give the Lecture, but at the end of it I rather wondered whether the Global Policy Warming Foundation thought it had got its money’s worth.