Interviews with Richard Tol
There’s an interesting blog based in Belgium called Trust, yet verify. If you’re not familiar with it, do take a look, there are plenty of good posts there. The blogger, Michel, describes in a series of posts starting here how he started out as a devout believer in what we were being told about the climate crisis, then started to look into it in more detail, asked questions, was not satisfied by the answers and the tone in which they were delivered, and gradually became more sceptical – a very familiar story.
Just before Christmas, he posted up a translation of an interview with Richard Tol, done by a Belgian newspaper. Tol is an economist whose research focuses on economy-related aspects of climate change and climate policy. He’s one of the most highly cited researchers in the field and an IPCC author, writing for WG2 about economic impacts. He is not a climate sceptic (he accepts IPCC projections of temperature rise), but is often painted as such, since he departs from the climate activist line that climate apocalypse is close unless we all take action now. His views are of interest partly because he doesn’t fit into the polarised “us vs. them” story that so many in the media and academia like to tell.
The translation of the interview is not perfect (“He sits comfortably sagging in a canteen…”) but neither is google’s translation of the original (“He sits slumped in a lovely canteen of the University of Sussex”). I have tweaked the English slightly in the excerpts below:
The world is in uproar about the climate, but you claim that climate change is not a problem?
“There is no reason to believe that climate change is so terrible at the moment. Unless you raise funds for Greenpeace or are a politician who presents themself as the savior of mankind: then you gain by exaggerating things. The reality is that the climate hardly affects our wellbeing and our prosperity. There are happy and rich people living in boiling hot Singapore, but also in freezing cold Canada. There are unhappy and poor people in boiling hot Kenya but also stone cold Mongolia. Climate change is not the main environmental problem. Dirty air causes currently roughly four million deaths each year.”
Are you concerned that the future of your children is at risk due to climate change?
“Not for a moment. It disturbs me hearing people like Al Gore say that he is worried about the future of his grandchildren. Complete madness. The best estimate is that sea level will rise half a meter this century. That is from the ground to our knees. The Netherlands has the money and the knowledge to do something about it. It is the poorest who are affected by climate change. It is the grandchildren of the people in a country like Bangladesh who are at risk from rising sea levels. But why are we suddenly concerned about the grandchildren of people that we care little about? Poverty is a bigger problem than climate change. Do you help the poor by reducing greenhouse gas emissions or by fighting poverty? An important question for which no one has a clear answer yet.”
There is also a follow-up post on a short response in the same newspaper in which an environmental activist attacks Tol, falsely claiming that he thinks only money matters and that his views contradict common sense.
Another much longer interview with Tol was carried out by BBC correspondent Roger Harrabin for his pre-Paris series on Radio 4. The full transcript is available at Carbon Brief. This interview also illustrates the bias and prejudice of Harrabin: he illustrates my point about painting, by noting that Tol is on the advisory panel of GWPF, but incorrectly describing GWPF as “a climate skeptic lobby group” (in fact they are a think tank, not a lobby group, with no official or shared view, as Harrabin could have found out if he had looked at their website). Then there’s this question from Harrabin: “Just looking at you now and from the point of view of the listeners, you look rather different from the average climate contrarian. They tend to be suited and booted and you have long hair and beard and a t-shirt. It’s a different look.” Again, from the point of view of activists like Harrabin, anyone who dares to question imminent disaster is a ‘contrarian’. But “suited and booted”? Has Harrabin met the pony-tailed Jonathan Jones? Or any members of the Cliscep team?
From this interview we learn that
- Richard Tol used to be a member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
- His early research was on the statistical link between greenhouse gases and climate change.
- He set out to prove Nordhaus’s low carbon price argument wrong – but ended up proving Nordhaus right.
- There is huge uncertainty in the impact and economic cost of carbon dioxide emissions.
- The UK is a model for how not to implement climate policy.
- He supports a modest carbon tax, and opposes subsidies for green energy systems.
- Many of the more dramatic impacts of climate change are really symptoms of mismanagement and poverty.
There’s also quite a bit about his withdrawal from the IPCC Summary team, on the grounds of their excessive alarmism, and his view on the benefits of warming, and much more. Other points of amusement are repeated questions from Harrabin that try to make Tol feel guilty for providing arguments for ‘contrarians’, and the mis-transcribing of Marseille as Masai.
Climate contrarians in my experience tend to be Conservative. There’s no value judgement in that – it’s merely an observation. I really enjoyed my interview with Richard – he is a fascinating and charming man.
As to GWPF, it is either a pressure group or a think tank depending on whether it’s Global Warming Policy Foundation or Forum. The Charity Commission said it must make this clear on its website.
Roger, thanks for commenting. Yes, the various ‘chuckles’ in the transcript suggest the interview went well.
There is a tendency towards conservatism but it is exaggerated in the media. Geoff Chambers of this parish campaigns for the Communist Party in France! We have a draft post in preparation on this topic.
I laughed the other day, when I found the Climate Outreach (formerly COIN) – described themselves as a non partisan thinktank. Delusional, or just lying?
Hi Roger – what to make of Piers Corbyn then…. another exception.. the video of him singing the Red Flag (louder than with Jeremy is quite amusing..
The idea that climate ‘contrarians’ are conservative as a rule was one of the motivating ideas behind this site – to try to dispel that narrative. The BBC’s own prickly filmmaker Adam Curtis was onto something in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace I believe, when he painted a picture of environmentalism as actually stemming from a very conservative elite. Ben Pile frequently makes similar observations, that it’s an exhaustion of politics, of visionary, optimistic politics that leads to the conservative mediocrity of environmentalism and its manichean scare-tactics. There are more things in climate and politics, Lewandowsky, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Roger.
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The Harrabin/Tol transcript at Carbon Brief is most interesting, for the form as much as for the content. There’s an awful lot of “No, no, I agree”, and “Well, yes, but..” as in the kind of drama where people’s real motivations emerge between the words. Harrabin’s introductory “You don’t look like a tinfoil-hatted rightwing denialist” is high comedy. (OK, he didn’t quite say that, but when the Cliscep team write this up as a Noël Coward musical, he will.)
Harrabin sometimes moves the conversation off in odd directions, as when Tol mentions the possibility that current energy policy might result in power cuts, and Harrabin says “OK. Let’s go back slightly to the start. So we talked about energy…”. I mean, an energy expert suggesting that current government energy policy may lead to disaster – that’s definitely not the sort of scoop we want.
I got two positive impressions from the interview. First, the view frequently expressed that the BBC is a bunch of raving Green Trots took a battering. Journalists, whatever their political opinions, are bound to look for a story, and “everyone agrees..” is not a story. You’re allowed to disagree with the IPCC and not be banned from the airwaves.
Second, there’s a readjustment of terms going on. Sensible sceptics like Ridley and Montford are already defining themselves as lukewarmers, and maybe they’ll be allowed to debate with warmists (if any can be found to debate). And then maybe the more loony doom and gloomers will be banned along with us hardline denialists. That would be a reasonable solution, and very BBC.
Thanks for participating.
In re: Tories vs Whigs (approximately),
Do you have a personal guess as to what might make Individualists (in Dan Kahan’s political taxonomy) and Communitarians respond divergently to the climate “message,” i.e. the message that “the overwhelming percentage of scientists in field X believe Y, so you should believe Y”?
Is there, perhaps, something about Individualism / Communitarianism in and of itself that might predispose a person to dismiss / accept the argument from scientific consensus (respectively)?
Or is it an elaborate accident of cultural cognition, history and world politics like Kahan believes?
Sorry that this is long and relates more to the comments than the article.
In this day and age left and right are indefinable (at least in the UK). We all vary our political colour on individual issues. Look at what’s happening to the Labour party. Since they had no clear cut identity, Corbyn has revealed a massive series of splits. The Conservatives are similarly rent by other issues like the EU referendum. Things that are now considered conservative, were where the left principles began. The Catholic church used to gather in all the product of its people and then redistribute it where it was needed. What is that but pure socialism? Now being a Christian is considered a right wing feature and the toffs are as likely to show left tendencies as right. It was capitalism not socialism that broke the stranglehold that religion and the aristocracy had over the British people. The bulk of Guardian readers are not the working poor but the wealthy. Those who the left was supposed to represent are as likely to agree with the Sun or the Daily Mail or UKIP.
In the same way there should be no typical sceptic or believer in AGW or what we do about it. Ignorance of the issues and the early politicisation of the subject is what formed most of the automatic division along traditional left, right lines. Before most of us had ever heard of greenhouse gases, industry and oil companies had been made the enemy and green organisations (as hard left as it gets) had wriggled their way into the politics, the solutions and even the science. The last group of people invited to the table were the public and then only as observers. The group that actually has to act has zero representation in the debate, while their ‘betters’ decide their fate. They’ve got their revenge by ignoring it and doing good impressions of immovable rocks when it comes to cutting CO2.
The political Left and Right have abandoned their traditional supporters. The Right is blithely making CO2 reduction promises that industry and generators can’t keep to or afford. The Left have found their voting supporters insufficiently needy or poor and have set them aside for the deserving in other countries and/or wildlife. All that, despite CO2 being the least tangible thing that threatens the poor people or wildlife on this planet for the next 50 years at least. In other words, our wealthy leaders are indulging in their philanthropic fancies and neglecting the very people they have been elected to serve.
Too many people have seized upon climate change as a tool to further their personal view point. They forget that for action to work, the system has to work for all political colours and for all social strata. For those that care about reducing CO2, they should worry less that the grass roots right will reject it and more that it always was only ever designed to sway the left and right elite who neither know nor care what impact it will have on those they govern. That it is now souring for the right elite too is just a side issue comparable with the defections of people like Patrick Moore from Greenpeace.
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It is tempting but wrong to try and affix climate change to any pre-existing ideology. Some people love nature and worry about what climate change would do to their favourite ecosystems. Others love nature and worry about what climate policy would do to their favourite landscapes. Some are concerned about poverty and worry about what climate change would do to the poor, others worry about what climate policy would do to the poor. Climate policy may imply greater government intervention, or less. Climate change is a-moral and climate policy is morally ambivalent.
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I’m actually quite liberal socially and find Tol’s remarks incredibly lucid. We are dealing with an entirely different animal with the recent “cataclysmic climate, the end is nye” group, of which we all need to be wary and particularly cautious of.