Guest opinion by Frits Bolkestein
In the early seventies, the world must have looked frightening to Dennis Meadows and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when they dealt with limits to growth. This was the title of their study, which was released in 1972 and which has become known as “The Report to the Club of Rome”.
According to the Report the world was in a mess because of environmental degradation, excessive bureaucratization, unbridled urbanization, widespread unemployment, alienation of youth, inflation and rejection of value systems. Profound adjustments had to be made before it was too late.
The Report dealt with the interaction of five critical factors: population growth, food production, industrialization, natural resource depletion and pollution. The conclusion was that mankind was heading for a period of great suffering because of lack of food, lack of raw materials and too much pollution.
In the Netherlands the report was followed in February 1972 by a study of the commission Mansholt, named after its president Sicco Mansholt (1908-1995). It consisted of members of ‘progressive’ parties: PvdA (Labour Party), D66 (Democrats 1966) and PPR (Radical Christians). The committee dealt with three central crises: nuclear war, the gap between the rich North and the poor South, and the finite nature of the earth or limits to growth. Half of the members of the committee would later become members of the Den Uyl government (1973-1977).
The commission Mansholt wanted a revaluation of the concepts prosperity and growth. The Netherlands had to set an example and learn to live within the limits that were inherent in the finite nature of our planet. Of course, this would mean a decline of our standard of living. But that was believed to be inevitable.
What has happened since? The “Report to the Club of Rome” predicted the imminent depletion of nonrenewable resources. Copper would be depleted in 36 years, gold in 11 years, lead in 26 years, mercury in 13 years, tin and zinc in 17 and 23 years respectively. However, this did not happen. Also oil, which according to the Report, would be depleted in just 31 years, is still produced. Thus, the Report had apparently seriously underestimated the potential of technology. But the media fell for it. NRC Handelsblad (a Netherlands quality newspaper), for instance, wrote about the Report under the headline “Disaster threatens the world”. (August 31, 1971).
Equally, the report by the commission Mansholt had little impact, because on the opening day of the session of the Netherlands Parliament in 1974, the Finance Minister, Wim Duisenberg (PvdA), called upon the population to spend more in order to sustain the economy. And the “New International Economic Order”, which was the “baby” of his comrade Jan Pronk, minister for development, perished ingloriously and had to give way to the “Old National Economic Disorder”.
A decade later we were alarmed that the soil under the dying forests in Germany was severely acidified. It was believed that this would also happen in other parts of Europe. This fear was reenforced by the emotional bond of the Germans with their forests. “Das grosse Waldsterben” caused panic, which also reached The Netherlands. The RIVM (National Agency for Public Health and Environment) and the environment ministry claimed that large parts of the forests were beyond saving. But an “ecological Hiroshima” has never happened. We know now that the forests in the Erzgebirge were exposed to extremely high SO2 concentrations. The trees, however, do not seem to suffer much from acidification. Anyhow, they are now in a better condition than ever.
Many doomsday scenarios circulated and were emphatically propagated by the media. I mention a few. (1) Global famine was inevitable. (2) A cancer epidemic caused by pesticides would shorten our lives. (3) Deserts would extend by 2 miles per year. (4) The mad cow disease would kill hundreds of thousands of people. (5) Computers networks would break down because of the millennium bug. (6) Nanotechnology would run out of control. (7) Glaciers would disappear (although more than half of their reduction dates back to the pre-1950 period). All this did not happen.
UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) predicted in 2003 that there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010. In 2010, the organization retracted this prediction. Ten years ago, Al Gore predicted in “An Inconvenient Truth” that we would have reached a point of no return within ten years. But the global warming projected by the vast majority of climate models by far exceeded the observed rise in temperature.
Why do so many intellectuals take pleasure in predicting catastrophes? As regards scientists the reason is clear: he or she who predicts a catastrophe, will receive funds to study how to avoid such a disaster. According to the IEA (International Energy Agency) we will spend 2.3 trillion euro in the next 25 years to reduce the global temperature by less than 0.02 degrees Celsius.
Moreover, there are important industrial interests involved in investments that are supposed to combat global warming. But I suspect that these two causes, although true, do not offer the whole explanation. Two thousand years of Christianity has deeply implanted a sense of guilt and repentance in the psyche of Western man. We are guilty, so we deserve the disasters to which we are exposed. Unless we repent and follow the instructions of the prophets of doom.
In the seventies and eighties of the past century, many people, at least in the West, were very much concerned about all sorts of negative developments. Now, 35 years later, this is less the case. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and child mortality decline faster than ever before. Outside the Middle East there are hardly any wars. Guerrilla movements seek peace. Our most important problem today is migration.
And what about global warming? During the first half of the twentieth century the temperature has risen by half a degree Celsius. Since 1950 the atmosphere is warming at a rate of 0.13 degree per decade. But between 1998 and 2013 the temperature of the atmosphere increased with only 0.04 degree. And the temperature has hardly risen over the past decade. The UN Climate Panel (IPCC = Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) calls this a warming pause or hiatus – a pause which has not been predicted or projected by climate models. In any case, we are not on the verge of disaster, as is often claimed.
But is there no problem then? Vast amounts of anthropogenic greenhouse gases are annually released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of such a greenhouse gasses, although not as strong as water vapor. Incidentally, the “greenhouse” is a godsend. If it did not exist, the average temperature on earth would be 18 degrees below zero. Moreover, CO2 is a building block of life. Without CO2 no plants, no animals and no people.
Analysis of data provided by satellites has shown that over the last thirty years the Earth has been greening – the vegetation on Earth has increased by 14 percent, half of which is believed to be caused by the increase of the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere.
If one wants to reduce CO2-emissions, the use of fossil fuels should be diminished and substituted by renewables. Wind turbines could provide renewable energy. But there is a snag: the European Emission Trading System (ETS) allows CO2 emission savings by one party to be offset by other parties, so that the total amount of CO2-emissions remains the same. This is called the “waterbed effect”.
What about the costs? The Netherlands National Energy Agreement was concluded in September 2013 between many interested parties, except engineers with know-how of the the technical options at hand and representatives of energy consumers and taxpayers who had to foot the bill. The costs are estimated to amount to 72 billion euro, of which 31 billion euro for wind energy.
Other experts have arrived at higher estimates. As far as wind energy is concerned, one should also take into account the cost of new infrastructure and back-up. If the wind does not blow or if there is too much wind, security of supply requires fossil-fueled back-up capacity. Moreover, according to the Netherlands “Green Court of Auditors” the turbines at sea deliver in 60 percent of the time no electricity. On land it is 75 percent. Anyhow, it is big money. Will it be used effectively?
In a letter to Parliament (File 32813, no. 121 of April 9, 2016) the Junior Minister for environment and climate, Sharon Dijksma (PvdA), has confessed that the billions invested in climate policy will have no measurable effect. This was stated in her reaction to a request by the climate lobby ‘Urgenda’ to the court in The Hague, to summon the government to an additional reduction in CO2 emissions than had been planned. The court conceded to this request. Apart from the fact that this is a constitutional monstrosity, what would be its effect? According to the government it would have resulted in an additional reduction of 0.000045 degree Celsius of global warming to 2100. That effect is too small to be detected.
The billions that are needed to realize the plans of the government with regard to wind energy, do not figure in the national budget. Energy consumers will have to pay for them through their energy bills. Users now pay an average of 40 euro per month. That contribution will progressively increase to 63 euro per month in 2020. In addition, the Energy Agreement imposed a contribution of 36 euros per month on citizens. Together is about 100 euro per month. These expenditures have not been discussed in Parliament. This means that the usefulness and necessity of these measures have not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
The climate summit in Paris (December 2015) was meant to “save the planet”. But it will fall short of its own targets. If all participating countries would do what they have promised the temperature in 2100 will be reduced by only 0.17 degrees. Will participating countries live up to their promises? The sad experience with the Kyoto Protocol tells us that this isn’t necessarily so.
The climate discussion is very politicized. A French proverb says: ‘Du choc des opinions jaillit la vérité” (“The truth emerges from the clash of opinions.”). So far the partisans of the AGW hypothesis (AGW = Anthropogenic Global Warming) have not been willing to engage in an open an frank dialogue. For example, the IPCC claimed in 2007 that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by warming in the year 2035. It proved to be an alarmist typo. Such a typographical error could have been regarded as a peccadillo. However, the Chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, dismissed the criticism of the Himalayas prediction as “arrogant” and “voodoo science.”
Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and Special Representative of the UN on climate change, said in 2007: “It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation.
The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act.” It basically says: “I have made up my mind, do not confuse me with the facts.”
Many scientists and non-scientists would like to suppress a debate on climate. IPCC chairman Pachauri is just one of them. Some scientists have lost their funding and even employment because of their climate skepticism. Other scientists are afraid to come “out of the closet”. Censorship looms large in the field of climatology, which is not conducive to balanced decision-making. This is even more harmful, since there is a lot of money involved.
But perhaps change is imminent. The Netherlands Physical Society (NVV) held a meeting at the KNMI (the Netherlands Royal Met Office) in De Bilt in October 2015 with the intention to draw up a common statement. What was the outcome of this meeting? Its chairman Jan van Ruitenbeek decided not to make any public announcement, because due to differences of opinion in formulating a common position, the outcome would haven been a vacuous compromise. Indeed, a show of hands to establish scientific facts is absurd. Even the IPCC itself admits that there is a variety of possible outcomes.
Thomas Henry Huxley, a nineteenth-century scientist, said: “The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”
The construction and installment of wind turbines costs a fortune. It is obvious that lobbies try to influence the outcome of the political decision-making process. The German TV channel ARD has criticized the unprecedented political influence of the wind energy lobby on government policy. According to the ARD, people who resist the installation of wind turbines are put under heavy pressure to give up their opposition.
All in all, this whole discussion is similar to a religious dispute between climate alarmists as believers and skeptics as heretics. Why do so many intellectuals take pleasure in predicting catastrophes? Is it because they relish attention by the media? Or has it anything to do with Christian guilt feelings?
The author, Frits Bolkestein, was leader of the Dutch liberal party, minister of Defense and Eurocommissioner. He is a political ’eminence grise’ in the Netherlands.
Translation courtesy of Hans. H.J. Labohm