Sunday, July 18, 2004

Global warming – it’s the Sun wot done it!

The Sunday Telegraph today offers an account of some intriguing research which indicates that increased solar activity may be responsible for global warming.

According to Dr Sami Solanki, director of the renowned Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, the Earth is getting hotter because the Sun is burning more brightly than at any time during the past 1,000 years.

Although he concedes that the higher levels of "greenhouse gases", such as carbon dioxide, also contribute to the change in the Earth's temperature, it is impossible to say which had the greater impact.

Nevertheless, this research has important implications, not only for the environment, but for environmental politics – which are altogether a different thing. Secretary of state for the environment, Margaret Beckett’s, for instance, relies heavily on the phenomenon of global warming to justify further European integration, on the basis that the challenge can best be handled at a European rather than a national level.

Thus, in her speech to the Green Alliance Speech at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Tuesday last, she argued:

…there are few areas where that is more self-evidently relevant than on the environment where action so obviously transcends not only national but geographic boundaries.
This trans-border approach is highly convenient for the EU, as it both justifies the supranational approach to problems of common interest, and plays to its greatest strength.

In the latest Eurobarometer Survey entitled "The attitudes of Europeans towards the environment," published last year, 33 percent of "Europeans" regarded the EU as the best level for taking decisions about protecting the environment, as against 30 percent who favoured national governments.

On the face of it, there is a certain logic in seeking to deal with global problems on a wider basis than at national level, but co-operation can surely only be valid if one’s partners are following a logical policy which will address the problems encountered in a constructive manner. To co-operate in implementing a disastrous policy is surely worse than going it alone.

And it is here that co-operation with the EU must be questionable. Member States – including the British, under a Labour government – have pinned their faith on Kyoto, agreed in 1997, promising to limit greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012. Britain ratified the protocol in 2002 and said it would cut emissions by 12.5 per cent from 1990 levels.

But critics of the Kyoto Agreement point out that all climatic models demonstrate that, even if implemented fully, the effect on the climate will be minuscule. One such model, by a lead author of the UN’s Climate Panel (IPCC) shows that an expected temperature increase of 2.1°C in 2100 will be slowed down to only 1.9°C, effectively buying a delay of six years. Against that is the extraordinary cost of this achievement, estimated to approach $1 trillion, affecting the growth of every developed country.

Pundits such as Bjørn Lomborg, author of the book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, argue that we would be better off promoting growth in developed countries, and then using the increased wealth (or some of it) in assisting developing countries to deal with the effects of global warming. Shackling our own economies with increasingly expensive burdens helps neither us nor the developing countries.

In a paper published by the Guardian, he points out that funding the provision of clean water and sanitation throughout the world would cost about $50 billion annually – a fraction of the cost expended on Kyoto, and would save two million deaths each year and prevent half a billion people each year becoming seriously ill.

But what he also sees in Kyoto is not so much a means of handling the problem efficiently, but an opportunity to use global warming as "a stepping stone to other political projects". In the case of the EU, that "political project" is European integration.

If, as Dr Solanki's research team now indicates, a significant contribution to global warming is made not by the burning of fossil fuels, but by increased solar activity, the Kyoto agreement is even more irrelevant – and damaging – than its critics make out.

But that will not stop the EU pursuing it, as the agreement affords it a unique opportunity to pursue its own agenda - with the apparent support of "European citizens".

Given that Margaret Beckett argues that a "no" vote in the EU referendum will detach us from EU environmental policy, it would thus seem that if this is indeed the case, then we have another admirable reason for voting no. Freed from the shackles of Kyoto, and all that comes with it, we would be free to follow a more rational policy which would assist not only the UK but also the developing countries which are most at risk from increasing temperatures.

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