Damaged credibility doesn't alter climate facts


ANALYSIS:It used to be cool to be a climate-change crusader. Now the sceptics are in fashion

IT HAS been a bad winter for the environmental movement. It started with climategate. Hacked or leaked e-mails from prominent climate scientists revealed a clique of academics who were sloppy with the science, tried to hide from outside scrutiny and worked hard to suppress contradictory evidence.

These scientists had made only minor contributions to the science of climate change. Climate change is as real now as it was before climategate. At the same time, these people were prominent in the public image of climate change and so climategate has shaken the public confidence in the impartiality of academics and the reality of climate change. A few months ago, one would rather admit to eating babies for breakfast than to any doubt about global warming or the need for drastic emission reduction. Climategate has changed all that. Climate doubt has become fashionable.

Climategate was followed by Copenhagen. Hopes for swift and drastic multilateral action on emissions reduction shattered on the rocks of realpolitik. But Copenhagen was more than the usual slow going of the United Nations. The US seemed to walk away from the UN and really talked with the other big boys only. While South Africa sat at that table, the EU did not. The self-proclaimed leader of international climate policy had put all its cards on the table months before the negotiations started – and was largely ignored as a result. European environmentalists were irrelevant in Copenhagen and will lose influence in Brussels as a result.

In the wake of Copenhagen, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Dr Rajendra Pachauri, was accused of conflicts of interest.

The IPCC summarises the science of climate change, its impacts, and possible countermeasures. It enables politicians to make informed decisions. The IPCC is not allowed to recommend any course of action. Dr Pachauri has increasingly used the platform he was given as the chairman of the IPCC to act as an advocate for climate policy.

This is deplorable. It degrades the IPCC from an honest broker of the scientific facts to yet another advocacy. Climate policy creates very substantial business opportunities for new energy companies. If the allegations of a conflict of interest are true, Dr Pachauri’s relationship with such companies is too cosy to be appropriate.

November brought rain and floods. Climate change will bring more winter rain in Ireland. The floods, however, were quickly blamed on bad planning and on faults in the response to the emergency. What could have been a rallying cry for emissions reduction became a call for reform in flood management policy.

The Budget brought cuts for all, but the Environmental Protection Agency was hit harder than most national agencies. Most Government bodies saw a budget cut of 5 per cent or so. The EPA’s budget was cut by 18 per cent. In recent years, the EPA has been one of the few national agencies to insist that county councils stick to the rules, taking court action when needed. While the EPA has a programme for climate change – a problem that is firmly beyond the control of Irish policy-makers – it also keeps an eye on environmental problems that are local and can only be solved by ourselves, such as waste management and water quality.

And then there was the big freeze. An unusual amount of snow and untypical frost brought the country to a standstill and wrought havoc on water supplies. As with the floods, individual emergency workers excelled in their duties but the system faltered.

The same characters that see a nice summer day as a harbinger of impending climate catastrophe were quick to point out that the cold spell was just weather. In their definition, it’s climate when it’s hot and weather when it’s cold. Such blatant inconsistency means a further loss of credibility. The big freeze and the ensuing chaos did remind us, however, that climate change is not all doom and gloom – and this is before people have seen their heating bills for last month. Fewer cold spells like this would be welcome.

Although the bad news is relentless for environmentalists, the same is not true for environmental policy. The carbon tax helps to fill the holes in the Budget and will not be abolished. There may now be an opportunity to reduce the overly generous but not very effective subsidies on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Policy-makers may choose to spend less time pretending to save the planet and focus on the (environmental) problems at home instead.

Richard Tol is research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute and professor of the economics of climate change at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

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