While last week the best minds in climate science were gathering in Copenhagen, the previous week the finest minds in climate scepticism gathered in New York for the 2008 Heartland Institute International Conference on Climate Change.

Heartland is a conservative US thinktank with extensive ties to tobacco companies. This year’s conference was its second effort on climate change, and attracted representatives from smaller conservative and free enterprise groups around the world, but few of the higher-profile sceptics like David Bellamy that attended its first effort. Many of the attendees came from bodies funded by fossil-fuel companies, although Heartland itself refuses to reveal its funding sources.

As usual with any gathering of climate sceptics, there were plenty of cranks and wingnuts. John Dale Dunn MD, Medical Officer, Brown County Sheriff’s Office and Physician, Fort Hood, Texas, argued that a global increase in temperature would be a good thing and not dangerous at all because old people move to warmer climates all the time. Benny Peiser, Ph.D., “Social Anthropologist” at Liverpool John Moores University, advocated a vast space-based “climate shield”. And there were plenty of speakers keen to defend the poor carbon atom from being maligned as the cause of the whole problem in the first place. Others stuck to the more traditional sceptic line that there was no warming at all.

However some speakers raised issues that any serious advocate of addressing climate change has to consider, and for which there are no easy or comfortable answers.

Former environmental lobbyist, John A. Charles, described how the city of Portland, Oregon had made a convenient error in its calculation of the city’s carbon emissions, allowing it to declare itself as having reduced its CO2-equivalent emissions and met its self-imposed Kyoto target. The example shows that, in the absence of a commonly-agreed and transparent emissions measurement methodology, carbon accounting under any international emissions agreement could be subject to the sort of rorting that goes on with non-tariff trade barriers under WTO guidelines.

Alan Moran from the Institute of Public Affairs, who presented a paper on the economic implications, noted a paper by Spanish economist Gabriel Calzada on the extraordinary cost of Spain’s subsidies for wind and solar power and the lack of permanent new jobs they had provided. 11% of Spain’s energy is generated by wind and solar (nearly all the former), but at a cost of €28.6b. The program is now shedding jobs because of the unsustainability of the subsidies.

Then there are the larger issues, particularly relating to equity. Several speakers discussed the impact of carbon abatement both across income groups and across the developing world, and the extent to which lower-income communities in developed economies and developing countries would bear the burden of curbing emissions.

This is a key problem and is the flipside of local sceptics’ argument that Australia should not act until other countries act. Capitalism and trade has lifted hundreds of millions of people, especially in our own region, out of abject poverty in recent decades, but there remain billions more whose standard of living, and carbon emissions, remain far below our own, and whose efforts to escape poverty will dwarf our own efforts to reduce emissions. Ross Garnaut argued that there needs to be a long-term equalisation of emissions per capita, with emissions in effect shifting from developed to developing countries to enable poorer countries to improve their citizens’ standard of living.

The question is, are western voters prepared to accept the resources shift that this equalisation entails? Or do they prefer that people in developing countries remain mired in poverty in order to curb global carbon emissions?

Another speaker, British conservative Iain Murray, was one of the few to address the problem of responding to climate change impacts, arguing technology, resilience and adaptation were essential, especially for developing countries that had limited resources to handle problems like more extreme weather.

It may smack of defeatism but any except the biggest sceptic or greatest optimist on climate matters should accept that adaptation is a critical issue, especially given Australia is more vulnerable, and vulnerable earlier, than most countries to climate change impacts. As another speaker noted, the key impacts of climate change, like more extreme weather, increased disease and greater numbers of heat-related deaths, are all problems that have to be managed now, regardless of whether they are increasing in frequency.

The conservative position is that the richer, more entrepreneurial and better governed societies are, the more effective they will be at adapting to climate change and handling its impacts. It is hard to fault that position, except to note that it’s being rich and entrepreneurial that has engendered the problem in the first place.

Many environmental groups, particularly more left-wing ones, have responses to each of these issues. They support a massive increase in assistance from the developed to the developing world. They support large and ongoing subsidies for renewable power, regardless of its viability. They support welfare programs for low-income earners. They support international structures that can intervene within national borders to check carbon emissions.

Many of the rest of us, however, struggle with these issues. How many comfortable middle-class city dwellers have thought through the trade-off between developed and developing countries, or the need for higher taxes to support renewable like wind that might never be commercially viable? How many of us just hope that a few green light bulbs, a few thousand less cement and aluminium jobs and a technological breakthrough or two will do the trick?

Sometimes it pays to consider your opponents’ arguments carefully. They can tell you things about your own views that you would never have thought of.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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