Sunday, December 12, 2004

Michael Crichton

Philip Stott comments on Crichton's new book, State of Fear, which I plan to read in paperback (£13 for a novel is steep).
It got a surprisingly balanced reception on Newsnight review, although the experts were unsure who would buy the book because since it isn't the type of book they buy, they couldn't imagine who would buy it.

I was disappointed to hear Crichton say he doesn't believe in the greenhouse effect (if I remember correctly) because without the greenhouse effect, Earth would be uninhabitable. He obviously meant the enhanced greenhouse effect but it is careless use of language that has so confused the debate. We are now at the point where most people seem to believe that climate change is bad, and that we ought to stop the climate changing. Anyone with even a basic understanding of climate science knows this is complete rubbish. Abuse of scientific concepts and language by the media and pressure groups, innocently and deliberately, has lead to a meaningless debate that will result in badly inefficient policies, such as Kyoto.

In a generation or two, when we look back at why and how we put in place such a costly and ineffective policy as Kyoto, we will need to look no further than the misuse and simplification of scientific concepts so common in the media today. This erroneous framing of the debate will cost us dear in the future.

In today's Telegraph, Bjorn Lomborg succinctly frames the real policy options: Of course, in the best of all worlds, we would not need to prioritise. We could do all good things. We could win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking, step up education and halt climate change. But we don't. And we have to ask the hard question: If we don't do it all, what should we do first?
Some of the world's top economists – including three Nobel Laureates – answered this question at the Copenhagen Consensus last May, prioritising all the major requirements for improving the world. They found that dealing with HIV/Aids, hunger, free trade and malaria were the world's top priorities. This was where we could do the most good for our dollar. Equally, the experts rated urgent responses to climate change at the bottom. In fact, the panel called these ventures – including Kyoto – "bad projects", simply because they cost more than the good they do.

The more important debate is how to allocate scarce resources (given that they are up for re-allocation), but this is a debate too nuanced for the media and leaves pressure groups with less room to manoeuvre. It is therefore a debate doomed before it starts.

Crichton's infamous "environmentalism as religion" speech is here.


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