The man-made climate guilt trip

For the past couple of weeks, many big-wigs are meeting in Copenhagen for a chit-chat about climate change. This happens against the backdrop of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit email hacking. This is said by some to offer evidence that climate scientists have manipulated data in order to boost the case that climate change is man-made.

The emphasis on whether or not climate change is man-made confuses me. For instance, the Met Office’s response to the hacking seeks to underline the fact that climate change is man-made: “The bottom line is that temperatures continue to rise and humans are responsible for it.”

Why is there so much concern over whether or not changes in temperature, and the knock-on effects that result, are man-made? Would climate change really be any less of a problem if it were caused by, say, volcanoes, sunspots, or other natural phenomena? The flood would come anyway.

Surely the correct question is not whether climate change is man-made. The correct questions are:

  • Is climate change happening?
  • What effects will it have?
  • What will be the net cost of these effects?
  • What actions can be taken to guard against these effects?
  • What will be the cost of taking these actions?
  • Is the cost of taking these actions greater than the net cost of the effects of climate change? (i.e. can the resources be better spent elsewhere, for instance on alleviating poverty, etc.)

If I see that it is raining, I don’t just stand there for ages pondering over whether or not the rain is man-made. I just put up an umbrella.

  • Is it raining? Yes.
  • What effects will it have? It will make me wet.
  • What will be the net cost of these effects? I will feel uncomfortable and may become ill.
  • What actions can be taken to guard against these effects? I can put up an umbrella.
  • What will be the cost of taking this action? I will have to carry my umbrella around with me.
  • Is the cost of taking this action greater than the net cost of the effect of rain? No.

Voila — I have successfully guarded myself against the effects of rain in the most efficient manner, without worrying about what caused the rain. So why worry about what causes climate change? As far as I am concerned, if the flood is coming, the flood is coming and that is the only information I need to know.

Granted, the causes of climate change are a pretty important thing to know. If you know the cause, you know what you can do to help prevent it.

But the debate over whether or not climate change is man-made implies that, even if climate change is happening, it doesn’t matter if it’s not man-made. But that is surely not true. The effects will be just as devastating whether it turns out climate change is caused by man-made or natural causes.

It just seems to me that the focus on whether or not climate change is man-made suits both sides of the debate rather too much. Climate change sceptics will apparently view any evidence that climate change is not man-made as a signal that climate change is nothing to worry about (which is surely not true).

Meanwhile, left-wing environmentalists love the focus on the man-made aspect because it gives them an excuse to lecture people on their behaviour. This can be seen in the ever-growing list of human behaviours that are said to cause climate change — everything from taking the car to eating meat and even — can you imagine? — having children.

I would like to hear a bit more emphasis on the effects of climate change in the event that it is not man-made. Otherwise, the anti-environmentalists seem like all they care about is their cheap flights and fast cars. And the moralising environmentalists come across as wanting to take us all on one big guilt trip for having the temerity to exist.


  1. I have pondered over the same issue and have came to the conclusion that interest over whether it is ‘man made’, revolves around the ‘truth’ that if it is then it was caused by the western world, i.e. the developed world,

    Probably largely Britain & Europe in the 17th & 18th centuries and it’s us rather than others you should therefore pay to resolve it.

    I think that’s the big bone of contention between the Western democracies and fast developing states like china, india and africa.

    Copenhagen resembled a trade talks summit rather than a real opportunity to tackle climate change, link it to energy security and decentralisation of power production & industrial investment.

    It’s a pity that Scotland couldn’t have played a bigger role (and I don’t specifically mean Salmond et al), but the targets set by parliament and the current implementation plan adopted really are quite significant models. Proper representation at the talks may well have helped accelerate a European inter-connector from our considerable renewable ‘wealth’ and progress the north sea carbon capture discussions.

    Unfortunately it appears that Brown was yet again hoping to come out of as ‘world saviour’ and so avoided talking about that at all within the UK’s brief, instead focusing on paying off the developing countries.

    On realising that the ‘saviour’ role wasn’t on the table he seems to have disappeared as usual like McCavity, though Salmond doesn’t seem to have faired much better with some fringe meetings and missed opportunities to get better publicity for Scotland’s lead in this area.

    Of all the issues that challenge the status quo, renewable energy must be the one with the biggest potential global impact, maybe with growing tax raising & possibly borrowing powers, Scotland can really start to accelerate renewables investment.

    There is massive potential here but as many have said, it’s looking like we’ll squander it like oil and wind power in the past.

  2. I think the point as to whether or not it’s man-made is important in terms of the question you pose. They key is that most of the effects we can identify at present are in the future if the current warming trend continues. If it is man-made (or humans are a significant cause of that trend), then we can estimate what the effects would be. So we can predict (in a grossly simplified example) that using current trends, that by Year X we will have produced amount Y of greenhouse gases causing the temperature to rise by Z degrees which will have effects A, B and C.

    However, if the rise isn’t caused by human activity and by some natural process that we can’t understand and thus predict, then we can’t make those sort of predictions with the same accuracy. For instance, if the process is being driven by solar cycles, we don’t know when or how the cycle will reach its peak, and what rise in temperature that would cause. So, you can worry about what it might cause, but you don’t have to change your lifestyle/economy to deal with it…

  3. There’s an easy answer. Follow the money. Money that just wouldn’t be there if it was natural and therefore seen as out of our control (the conceit of man).

    Such as all those pies the chair of the IPCC has not only his fingers but his toes in, with all his training as a railway engineer and economist.

    Along with all the research grants from the tax payer, all those nice trips to sunnier climes for conferences and their fizzogs in noted scientific journals for previously unheard of lab coat wearers.

  4. Good post, Duncan.

    You’ve picked out a nail that’s been waiting to be hit on the head.

    The world does seem to be hotting up so do we just sit around and wait for it to happen or do we try to do something about it?

    The trouble is people don’t like to change their habits and are nowadays extremely unwilling to be asked to do something they don’t like.

    I’m guilty myself. I drive a car and have two (adult) children who were brought up in a western life style.