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Too late for renewables: By 2050 half the world’s population will be living in megacities like Tokyo (pictured), powered mainly by fossil fuels (photo: Morio CC BY-SA 3.0)

During a period as a scientific adviser in Whitehall, I quickly learned the elements of sound advice given to politicians — a process that is quite distinct from lobbying. A well-briefed minister knows about the general area in which a decision is sought, and is given four scenarios before any recommendation. Those scenarios are the upsides and the downsides both of doing nothing and of doing something. Those who give only the upside of doing something and the downside of doing nothing are in fact lobbying. 

This flaw is well exemplified by Nicholas Stern in his latest book Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change (MIT Press, 376pp, £19.95), which is based on lectures given in 2012 at the London School of Economics. In his introduction he makes it clear that he has consulted many scientists, businessmen, philosophers and economists, but in his book I find not a single infrastructure project engineer asked about the engineering reality of any of his propositions, nor a historian of technology about the elementary fact that technological breakthroughs are not pre-programmable. Lord Stern’s description of the climate science is an uncritical acceptance of the worst case put by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), one from which many in the climate science community are now distancing themselves. There is no other complex, multi-component, closely coupled, highly non-linear and chaotic system for which we make any forward predictions, let alone those of 35 years ahead, and the poor record to date is no surprise. The absence of the promised temperature rises over nearly 20 years now is blunting the credibility of their longer-term predictions in the eyes of the public, as many polls show. The response to all this is not more science — it is engineering and technological reality, as well as economics and ethics.

Indeed, it is worse than that. Those of us who doubt this catastrophic scenario are not sceptics of climate change, as history and geology give the clearest evidence that the climate has changed continuously. But Stern accuses us of being selective in examining the data, when he is guilty of just the same. For example, the IPCC report on extreme weather, on which he relies, chooses to start its data baseline in 1960, conveniently overlooking the wealth of empirical data showing that extremes of almost all forms of weather were much worse in the first half of the 20th century than the second, before the onset of man-made climate change. 

Nor does Stern look at the data that is in on the physics of renewable energy sources, which shows that they will never be more than a bit player (of the order of 10-20 per cent) in providing the world’s energy. David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air (UIT, 2008), makes this abundantly clear for the UK; where the data is in for Germany and Spain, a dispassionate analysis undermines much of Stern’s tendency to see renewables through rose-tinted glasses. There is no counter-example to the fact that government subsidies for the premature roll-out of these new technologies have been a disaster. In the past, hard times have resulted in a roll-back of these subsidies, as in Spain, Portugal and Greece. Spain, for example, is indebted by €100 billion because of energy subsidy commitments, a sum three times greater than the €36 billion bail-out of its banks a few years ago. Now the UK, Germany and others are rolling subsidies back because they threaten both social cohesion (through the rising cost of energy for the poor) and industrial stability. The Green Deal and other subsidies for which Stern pleads are already being dismantled. Technology historians will show that energy and other major infrastructure projects develop on a 40-year timescale. Even if there was a technical breakthrough today to tame nuclear fusion — and we have been seeking one for 60 years now — it would be 2050 before 10 per cent of the world’s energy supply came from that source.

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James H. Rust
September 26th, 2015
11:09 PM
Why do the names of those who preach bad advice go down in history--like the names at the start of this article. We reward incompetence and ignore those who give good advice. Unfortunately the engineers are not given attention in this global warming fiasco. James H. Rust, professor of nuclear engineering

Bryan Leyland
September 25th, 2015
10:09 PM
Deadly accurate and right on the mark. Everything he says can be backed up with analysis and evidence. Increasing the price of power to poor people to pay subsidies to those rich enough to install solar panels is scandalous beyond belief. For sure, dangerous man main global warming and the blind belief that expensive renewable energy has some virtue are the biggest hoaxes in the history of the world.

September 25th, 2015
10:09 AM
What an excellent assessment, let's hope those who are about to embark on yet another costly "carbon cutting" feast, read this and have an epiphany.

September 25th, 2015
8:09 AM
You can't say things like this. It's heresy.

John B
September 24th, 2015
1:09 PM
How very true. The green eco loons claiming the high moral ground are in fact the scourge of the poorest in society. The policies which they have foisted on us have done nothing but harm and for no net gain.

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