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Global Warming, Environmentalism and Related Issues: The Other View

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • February 11, 2010

    Governments, as members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), acknowledge that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of human kind. Countries are concerned that human activities have substantially increased the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases leading to additional warming of the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere which may adversely affect natural ecosystems.

    The sloppy work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in noting that Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035 has raised many questions, with even the credibility of scientific opinion coming under doubt. In this context, it is useful to revisit some of the arguments and debates of climate deniers and those who have critiqued the environmental movement in the past.

    Debates in the United States

    According to one report, trees, contrary to popular perception, are actually the culprits in water depletion. Another popular topic is that in a geological time frame global cooling and warming are natural phenomena. So why worry? In February 2005, sceptics like David Belamy (a botanist), Richard Lindzen (Professor of Atmospheric Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Benny Peisner (a social anthropologist) noted that climate change has been subject to widespread misrepresentation and politicisation. They argued that war and disease are bigger threats to civilisation and thus deserve greater priority.

    Besides scientists, some economists also differ on the anthropogenic causes of global warming. Cornucopians point out how Malthus’ prediction about a population bomb went wrong and technology came to the rescue of mankind and provided food security. In the 1980s, Julian Simon’s book The Ultimate Resource challenged the conventional belief that consumption, population, and mindless growth were eroding the very fabric of our lives. A similar view has been projected in recent years by the Copenhagen Consensus pioneered by Bjorn Lomborg (Director, Environmental Assessment Institute, Copenhagen) who has authored the controversial Skeptical Environmentalists (2001) and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. His argument is based on the correct prioritising of expenditure and notes that the Kyoto Protocol, if fully adhered to, will delay global warming only by a mere six years by 2100, though the costs of doing so would be very high. Instead, he advocates that money be spent on clean drinking water. In 2004 some of the worlds’ top economists like Jagdish Bhagwati and Thomas Schelling were assembled by Lomborg and The Economist. This group came to be named the Copenhagen Consensus. It prioritised the list of solutions to the world's great challenges like climate change, communicable disease, conflict, education, financial instability, governance and corruption, malnutrition and hunger, population migration, sanitation and water, and subsidies and trade barriers. Its conclusion was that “combating HIV/AIDS should be at the top of the world's priority list. About 28 million cases could be prevented by 2010. The cost would be $27 billion, with benefits almost forty times as high.”

    In addition, some gifted novelists have also added their sceptical voice. Michael Crichton, author of State of Fear (2004) posits that politicising science is dangerous and that the “scare” of global warming or resource scarcity is a big hoax, with environmental communities fabricating the threat to make big money.

    This trend, in various shades, of the anti-environmental movement is predominantly a Western phenomenon. The environmental movement in a way began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which exposed the dangers of pesticide to life. Today, in a post-materialistic society, one section of the political class has classified hardcore environmentalists as “eco terrorists”. A Cato Institute book authored by Steven J. Scams titled Junk Science Judo: Self Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (2001) argues that junk scientists rush to answers without addressing the question. The author criticises the proponents of organic food, and challenges what he call as myths such as Agent Orange, DDT or Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear plant disaster causing cancer. Richard O’ Leary in his book Environmental Mafia – The Enemy is Us (2003) calls global warming a myth and ozone depletion over-exaggerated. He attacks environmentalists such as Al Gore, James Lovelock and Lyn Margulis (the latter two are the originators of the Gaia hypothesis). Some of the environmental groups that are a part of the problem have been listed out by the author. These include National Resource Defence Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, World-Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. The author lists likeminded pro-Right organisations as including Cato Institute, Paragon Foundation, America Policy Centre, Ayn Rand Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute and Hudson Institute. Paul Driessen’s Eco – Imperialism: Green Power Black Death (2005) reveals the “dark secrets” of the “ideological environmental movement” which imposes views of the wealthy West on developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

    In the American experience - as the widely quoted essay The Death of Environmentalism authored by Michel Shellenbergger and Ted Nordhaus suggests - environmentalists have regressed to become just another interest group and they need to perform better by being in touch with reality. Their next book Break Through suggests huge investments in alternative energy.

    The Work of Economist Deepak Lal

    US-based Indian economist Deepak Lal, the author of In Praise of Empires: Globalisation and Order (2004) is a proponent of globalisation. He terms the non- governmental organisations (NGOs) as the storm troopers of anti-globalisers. He terms the agenda of the NGOs as of the new left. He is critical of the famous Brundtland report Our Common Future (1987) of the United Nations World Commission of Environment and Development as a form of NGO agenda which recommended sustainable development as a global objective. He charges that the UN and its organs have provided the anti-globalisation environmental NGOs an institutional framework to push their agenda. He argues that global warming is a natural process and it is better to adapt rather than mitigate at huge cost. The greens, according to Lal, have historically raised scares and are hysterical without any foundation. He gives the example of the scare of food shortages of the 1960s and 1970s that ended with the Green Revolution as a counter. He argues that the Greens persist with their crusade because like any religion their beliefs are not based on reason but on faith. He further argues that the Greens would like to perpetuate the ancient poverty of the great Eurasian civilisation – India and China - since they would emit green house gases at par with the West in their quest for prosperity. As an economic historian he reminds us that the successful foundation of the Industrial Revolution was based on transforming the traditional organic rural economy that used energy derived from land into a mineral energy based economy that uses fossil fuels; and fossil fuel is not running out. Basing his arguments on capitalism of free trade as propounded by Adam Smith and continued burning of fossil fuel, Lal commends the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol by the United States and the firm stand of India and China against any restriction being imposed on them to cap GHG emissions. In his later work Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the Twenty First Century (2006), he questions the empirical evidence in support of global warming.

    Like minded Indians columnists in the English media are Gurcharan Das and Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar. The latter quotes Crichton’s State of Fear as a good text to expose the Greens. Aiyar pleads for impartial research, funded neither by MNCs, governmental groups or NGOs with private agendas. He further urges the media to stop highlighting disaster scares while at the same time ignoring exposes of the scares.

    Oil and Energy Lobby

    The Economist in 2001 had quoted figures of Booz, Allen & Hamilton to say that the turnover of the global energy business amounts to at least $1.7 to $2 trillion a year. Energy business dominated by hydrocarbons is the currency of the world economy. The groups who oppose the science of global warming are dominated and funded by the oil and energy lobby. Oil exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia also support these groups. They counter the argument that global warming is mainly due to fossil fuel use. The end of oil is nowhere in sight and with better technologies, extraction would become easier. They strongly believe that “the stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Oil will remain according to them a fuel of choice for the 21st Century.

    Freeman Dyson

    Freeman Dyson is a scientist author best known for his book Weapons and Hope (1984). He is a humanist. In a review essay “The Question of Global Warming” in the New York Review of Books in 2008, and in his book Many Coloured Glasses: Reflections on the Place of Life in Universe (2007), Dyson feels comfortable to be a called a heretic. Science, he feels, is mixed up with politics. He dismisses Al Gore and NASA scientist James Hansen as alarmists. The fuss about global warming is exaggerated as computer models have ignored dynamics of clouds, dust, chemistry/biology of fields, farms and forests. He suggest that in the natural cycle of 100,000 years, ice age is for 90,000 years followed by a warm interglacial period of 10,000 years. The present period of warming began 12,000 years ago. Therefore onset of the next ice age may be overdue. (William F Ruddima, in an article in the Scientific American of March 2005, proposed the hypothesis that suggests that our ancestors’ farming practices have in fact kept the planet warmer than it would have been otherwise and possibly even averted the start of a new ice age). Recalling that the Sahara desert was lush and wet 6,000 years ago, Dyson wonders if this may recur with global warming. In his view, a wet Sahara may well be better. With respect to carbon sinks, he argues that proper land management like no till agriculture and “low cost backstops” like genetically engineered carbon eating trees or phytoplanktons could utilise the surplus carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Moreover, the global average is misleading. One observation of his is very important to the current debate and that is that the warming effect of CO2 is strongest where the air is cold and dry. This means that cold places/times like the Arctic, mountains, winters or nights will get warmer rather than hot places getting hotter.

    Glacier Melt in Himalayas

    For reasons of inaccessibility, ruggedness of the terrain and sparse network of gauging sites, the hydrology of the rivers and the nature of climate change in the Himalayas has not been studied adequately. It is lonely, time consuming work, equally demanding of body and mind. As of 2007 out of 9,575 glaciers in India, research had been conducted only on around 25 to 30. Ever since release of a discussion paper by V.K. Raina, former Deputy Director General Geological Survey of India, titled “Himalayan Glaciers: A State of Art Review of Glacier Studies, Glacial Retreat and Climate Change” (Ministry of Environment and Forests Discussion Paper, 2009), a lot of interest and debate has been generated on the science of glaciers and climate change. The discussion paper mentions that it is premature to make a statement that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating abnormally because of global warming.

    Doubts have been raised on IPCC reports which were based on scant Himalayan specific studies like pointing out that by 2035 glaciers will be gone leading to disasters such as drought in the plains below. The media even carried news that the organs of IPCC made a 300-year error while editing by stating 2035 instead of 2305. At present the IPCC has admitted this particular error. It needs to be noted that the Himachal Pradesh Development Report (2008) admits that global warming is hastening the process of glacier melt and is a major cause of flash floods. The premier magazine of the Planning Commission Yojna likewise on its cover of June 2008 issue had shown a time series of glacier melt to get the message across.

    It is obvious that like in any social cum economic activity beliefs and opinions emerge out of ideology, funds available and the size of the economy it commands. Oil and gas industry is at par with the arms industry in its size. Environmental goods and services as an industry overtook the US arms industry export market a few years ago. The market for environmental goods and services was $ 4 billion a few years ago and is growing.

    The case of climate change also indicates the need to understand the convergence of science with politics. Liberal publications in the West such as The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune, Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books and so on voice concerns on climate change. So do popular magazines like Newsweek, Time, National Geographic, Scientific American and so on. The conservative UK-based Economist was critical of the greens in the past, but post COP11 held at Montreal in November 2005 and with additional scientific evidence of climate change it has subdued its criticism. It sees a fusion of ecology and business practices for a better future. Its comment on the glacier melt controversy was apt: “good news (within limits) for India farmers – and bad news for IPCC.” (January 23, 2010)

    Case of Bird Flu and Interest Groups

    An interesting case study of interest groups is on the political economy of bird flu. India’s former Minister for Environment Maneka Gandhi, in an essay in the weekly Tehelka (December 17, 2005), says that avian flu is a Bush neo-con design to feed American money interests like pharma companies on whose boards neocons were well represented. The New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment, in its fortnightly journal Down to Earth (30 November 2005), also blamed corporate profit making motives of a dominant hatchery to use the scare of bird flu to make huge profits marginalising and pauperising millions of small poultry farmers in the process.


    Public opinion is again having doubts on the phenomenon of climate change. Some argue that the Little Ice Age, a temporary return to colder conditions from 14th to the end of the 19th centuries may also happen. Climate change as is well known has been attributed to natural internal processes or external forcing or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use. The anthropogenic part is again under question.

    In any event, it is also a matter of priority. The Bill Gates Foundation feels that spending by rich countries aimed at combating climate change in developing nations could mean dangerous cuts in aid for heath issues.

    Only future historians will be able to solve the puzzle on the present confusion over the science of climate change, loss of credibility of a UN body such as UNFCC on alarmist glacier melt and the like. The business that will be generated through carbon free technologies is the next industrial revolution. Surely the oil and gas rich countries may not carry the same discourse or the scientific outlook on fossil fuel related emissions or climate change.

    In the past India had challenged West-generated research which claimed that Indian rice fields were to blame for 38 million tons (MT) of methane. The data was brought down to between 2 and 6 MT by India-specific research. The next similar challenge is on the non-green house gas emission called Atmospheric Brown Cloud. Its contribution to glacier melt is yet to be proved. This time around it was the Indian government which pointed out insufficient research and grey data for an alarmist glacier melt proposition. If this had been done earlier, it would have made researchers rely on authentic primary data. Can a citizen of India now trust the GDP data, or the Human Development Index? A lot of effort now needs to be devoted for transparent scientific research.

    India has set up an Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCAA) to measure, model and monitor climate change. This is good news. However, it also needs to consolidate impact studies of the local narrative of climate change by the people. “I am the scientific data,” quips Chewang Norphel of Ladakh who over the last few decades has been building artificial glaciers because due to their retreat apple orchards have migrated to higher altitudes in Himachal.
    Researchers need to follow Gandhi’s advice in Hind Swraj (1938), where he says that:

    “(W)hen anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject.”

    What therefore is the conclusion? Due to the complex nature of the science, uncertainty will remain. Energy efficiency, renewable energy, non-polluted air and water, sufficient food with preservation of forests and biodiversity are all desirable goals. These could well be understood as manifestations of good governance. With the current public doubts on the inadequacies and common sense errors in the science of climate change, it may be worthwhile to first have India specific data on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change. The other seven missions of the National Action Plan on Climate Change – Solar, Enhanced Energy Efficiency, Sustainable Habitat, Water, Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-system, Green India, and Sustainable Agriculture – may well be considered under routine delivery and governance.