Hugo Rifkind

Get ready: these climate change talks might actually do something

My hope is that the conference in Paris next week will focus less on tub-thumping, more on practical solutions

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

The Prince of Wales is right, and I appreciate that this isn’t something people say very often. Now and again, certainly, Prince Charles does turn out to be right about things, such as the need for interfaith dialogue or the horrors of some modern architecture, but the manner in which he tends to be right about them does rather have the feel of happy coincidence. In the future, as Warhol didn’t quite say, we will all be right for 15 minutes. Unless it’s about homeopathy.

This week, you see, the Prince told Sky News that the war in Syria may be linked to climate change. Not, please note, that it was caused by climate change, let alone man-made climate change. His view is very much not that, if more of us drove electric cars, Raqqa would be at peace. Rather, he argues that a contributory factor in Syria’s instability was a long-running drought between 2006 and 2011, which prompted a massive influx of farming folk into the cities.

This is a theory which has been floating around for a few years now, based on a study conducted by the University of California in Santa Barbara. Normally, to be honest, it floats around quite annoyingly, generally cited by people (such as Charlotte Church, on Question Time last month) who give the impression of having already decided that climate change is the world’s greatest evil, and are prepared to overlook tyranny, jihadism, barrel bombs and the entire Arab Spring if it allows them to feel superior to anybody who doesn’t drive a Prius. Yet the frequent overstating of HRH’s case doesn’t entail him being wrong. In reality, the effects of climate change are not neat. They are not linear. They represent an added complication in an already complicated world.

Pretty much everybody, of course, is bored with climate change by now. Next week, global leaders will meet in Paris for COP21, the 21st United Nations climate change conference, and the overall vibe is one of weary angels dancing on a pinhead. Particularly with everything else that has been happening in Paris lately, it feels meandering, lofty and somewhat airy-fairy. Possibly this -sensation will be stronger in Britain than almost anywhere else, even France. For, as a political motivation for anything, climate change is dead in the water over here. Conservatives don’t even pretend to care about it any more. Jeremy Corbyn wants to reopen coal mines. The SNP, which used to make a lot of noise about wave power being Scotland’s glorious, world-leading patriotic future, has recently been looking the other way and whistling, as that fledgling domestic industry has largely collapsed. Even the Green party needs to wang on about Palestine for anybody to pay attention. Nobody cares about this stuff now.

At least, not over here. Yet, amid this indifference, the bigger picture is that Britain is actually starting to feel a little provincial. Germany’s big push for renewables (which was admittedly predicated on an hysterical and frankly stupid post-Fukushima fear of nuclear) is surging ahead, in precisely the manner that Scotland’s could be if anybody still gave a damn. Barack Obama treats climate considerations as a priority, and has taken the radical step of roping American industry into the deal he wants to strike in Paris beforehand, rather than following the past practice of striking one, and then trying to sell it at home. China now worries enormously about CO2 emissions, and doesn’t just pretend to in order to stop Europe shouting so much. With far less fanfare, Morocco is opening a vast solar plant next month in its otherwise useless desert, and aims to get 42 per cent of its energy from renewables (far more than us) by 2020. In the Philippines, meanwhile, coal use is set to surge, but the country is on the edge of a political crisis as a result.

None of this is about hippies waving banners. Not that you’d know it over here, but the global debate on climate change has moved on from whether past increases were mankind’s fault or not. They happened; frankly who cares? Rather, in an overcrowded world, governments are thinking about the future. Bluntly, the more vulnerable you are to change, the less likely you are to want to risk it. We will probably never know how much of a direct impact rising CO2has on temperature, just as we may never know how much drought contributed to the Syrian civil war. Certainty is an armchair luxury, whether it be of impending apocalypse or impending nothing at all. You weigh up the likelihood and you act accordingly, as much as you can.

My fervent hope is that the upshot of this, in Paris, will be a dearth of drivel. Less table-thumping, less brinksmanship, fewer pious declarations of ‘It’s now or never, or else we need to move to the moon’. Fewer sad, traditionally dressed chieftains from atolls you have never heard of being patronised at supposedly non-hierarchical roundtable discussion forums of regional interested parties, which achieve nothing, and aren’t even meant to. A complete absence of workshops about the virtues of life in a yurt.

Rather, a lot of sober talk about solar and wind and wave, and a focus on how you keep the lights on without sea levels — if only potentially — rising, and a complex world — if only potentially — getting more complex still. And sure, the usual suspects on both sides will shriek that it all goes far too far, or not far enough, but prepare to ignore them, if you don’t already. Maybe this stuff is finally about to get practical. About bloody time.

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  • blandings

    “Morocco is opening a vast solar plant next month
    in its otherwise useless desert, and aims to get 42 per cent of its
    energy from renewables (far more than us) by 2020.”

    Vast solar plant.
    Comedy gold.
    Morocco could get 42% of its energy needs from two camels on a treadmill.

    • Klint

      And to think people claim Spectator comments are full of Little Englanders….

      • blandings

        Yup I’m a Little Englander ok.
        I do not approve of empires.
        I do not approve of invading other countries.
        and I do not presume that other, inferior countries, should feel obliged to do as I tell them because, you know dude, I set them an example – yeah.


      The 42% is installed capacity. Given the lack of sun at night etc. The output will be less than half of this.

      • RS

        UK wind power has around a 30% capacity factor – that is how much power do we get from the theoretical capacity.

        • DAVID WATT

          Yes of course. Except that in the UK it is more like 25% and is so highly variable that it commonly produces no power at all and needs continuous fossil fuel backup. .

  • gerronwithit

    Stop overbreeding.

  • CheshireRed

    If people are put off from renewing their subs due to drivel of this nature appearing in a supposedly credible organ, then we can also link the demise of the Speccie to ‘climate change’.

  • Marcus

    Climate change may have forced people from the countryside in to the towns in Syria.

    The question is:

    1. Was that change caused by man made CO2, or was it a natural phenomenon; just like
    the many similar changes observed throughout time all over the world?

    2. Does that in anyway explain ISIS?
    The US jails incubating Jihadists in post-invasion Iraq is a far stronger culprit.
    And Assad being so corrupt.

    • Goinlike Billio

      If Syria wants to get greener then we need an increase in co2. You would have thought this Rifkind fellow would have grasped that by now.Or has he not been following the debate ?

      • David S

        No he hasn’t. He feels that he can be paid for writing articles on a subject of which he freely admits he knows little or nothing, being an arts grad and therefore happy to outsource his thinking to the scientists.

  • Gilbert White

    These areas sustained massive populations in Roman Times. After the muslim invasions they atrophied. Arrested development coupled with unsustainable population growth sends people marching?

  • Rog Tallbloke

    There was no drought 2006-2011. Look. At. The. Data.

  • Mc

    Oh, the virtue signaling! I’m shivering with excitement of having read another deeply intellectual discourse from the Rifkind line.

  • CO Jones

    “My hope is that the conference in Paris next week will focus less on tub-thumping, more on practical solutions”

    What possible “practical solution” can there be to a problem that doesn’t exist?


    The satellite measurements show almost no global warming. The ground stations the IPCC depends on do, but this is only because so called “scientists” do not take proper account of urban heat islands around their stations and massage their scabby data to show enough warming to keep their grant funding coming in

    • RS

      I recommend Paul Homewood’s blog for evidence of the temperature massaging being conducted in support of AGW theory. Mind you massaging is a serious understatement for what they are up to.

  • rbw152

    You’d be right on all counts if AGW was a real problem. But it very probably isn’t

    a) because we simply don’t know how much is caused by humans (and I challenge anyone to tell me just how much) so we’re wasting billions on something we’re not even sure about
    b) because increased CO2 is having beneficial effects such as increased crop yields and greening deserts.
    c) because new data seems to be showing that the earth’s climate is much less sensitive to CO2 than was thought – and which is programmed into all the computer models that foretold climate doom.
    and finally d) because, ALL of the above climate models have been wrong and all in the same direction i.e. warming.

    But what worries me far more than climate change itself are all the measures undemocratic and hysterical groups of people are trying to force upon us, such as thousands of useless wind turbines.

    The undeniable fact is that the whole subject has become so politicised – the Left particularly bolting it on to their bandwagon as a useful tool to usher in their socialist utopia – that you can’t trust a word any ‘warmists’ say – including scientists.

    Faced with all that I’d rather fry thanks very much.

  • John Byde

    It won’t achieve a thing because (in no particular order):
    1. “AGW” is not happening
    2. Even if it was, it’s a problem we can survive
    3. Trying to deal with it will ruin the global economy and change nothing
    4 .Up and coming nations like India and China are not going to halt their economies just to please rich environmentalists like Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio
    5. Most ordinary folks don’t give a toss

    Bring on the next catastrophic scenario, please!

    • RS

      2.5 Even if it were this were the apocalyptic problem it is made out to be, subtly reducing or curtailing CO2 emissions is not going to allow us to turn the AGW catastrophe on and off like gas hob.

  • TTTrog

    Man made climate change
    Man made water pollution
    Man made air pollution
    Man made deforestation
    Man made species extinction
    Man made natural resources depletion
    Man made water shortages

    Could there be a connection to 2.5 more people on the planet every second?

    • Gilbert White

      The Daily Mail even tried to link plain habitat destruction with species decline and climate change. Experts are deliberately lying?

  • mikewaller

    Did Rifkin really have to throw Charles to the wolves before he, Rifkin, could build up his nerve to even hint that the many Spectator climate change deniers are an unmitigated crowd of prats?

  • Merry Kanawyer Clingen

    People who buy this nonsense probably cut science class, or fell asleep. For example, if you payed attention in basic Biology, you would have learned that CO2 is what plants “eat” in order to make Chlorophyll, Carbohydrates, and Oxygen! In other words, CO2 makes Planet Earth GREENER! And for those of you who were smoking doobies with President Obama during History class, the Earth is warming at the end of an ice age. In fact, it was extremely cold during the American Revolution, when Washington’s troops nearly froze to death. The Earth warmed more in the following 100 years than it did in the subsequent century, after the Internal Combustion Engine was invented. And here’s some more REAL basic science for you: 96% of Earth’s water is already in the oceans. Of the remainder, which is on land, only a small fraction is bound up in ice. If all of that melted,and ran into the sea, the vast oceans might become 1% fuller – a drop in the bucket! Oh, yes, if all the Icebergs melted, the sea level would remain unchanged. Why? Because when water freezes, IT EXPANDS, and when it thaws, it becomes smaller in volume. Try this experiment, which every child tried at home until the Gore-Bull Warming propaganda took over. Fill a glass with ice so that the cubes come above the rim by an inch. Next,put the glass on a saucer and then fill the air spaces inside the glass with water until the liquid is exactly to the brim. Carefully mop up any spilled water inside the saucer or on the table. Go away for two hours, and when you return, you will find the water will have remained the same. So stop frightening little kids with this nonsense – it is all a fraud.

  • AlecM

    Real CO2-AGW is near zero. Because Sagan’s aerosol optical physics is wrong, positive feedback in the climate models does not exist. They also underestimate low level cloud negative feedback by a factor of ~4. As for the rest of the mistakes, in time the Science will correct.

    The ability of HRH and the other science-illiterates to understand such details is infinitesimally small.

  • RS

    China measures CO2 cuts ‘as per unit of GDP’ at a time when GDP is rising at something like 8% a year. They are clearly fooling some people, but their economy comes first, second and third. Of course they are happy to sell solar panels and other green technology to those of us gullible enough to fall for blatant ‘adjustment’ of raw temperature data to fit the global warming yarn.

    • Mr B J Mann

      Yes, and a large part of their dirty, polluting, toxic, unsustainable economy is devastating the planet to extract the scarce metals and rare earths vital to making solar panels and the supermagnets used to give the impression wind turbines aren’t quite as inefficient, uneconomic and unviable as they are.

      So much for the warmers main argument that climate “science” is win-win because even if there isn’t warming up least we’ll have cleaned up the planet!

  • itdoesntaddup
  • John Dowling

    Estimates from the IPCCs own figures indicate it will cost between 10 and 40 times more (note the uncertainty) trying to reduce so-called AGW instead of dealing with its consequences. Not even about the science or economics but about the gathering of money and power into the hands of the corrupt bureaucracy known as the United Nations.

  • lojolondon

    And what about the fact that there was no drought in Syria, especially in the farming areas, does that blow your whole article up?