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Munk Debate: Skeptics score a win against alarmists

By Terence Corcoran

The audience shift at the Munk Debate followed a global trend

On Tuesday night about 1,100 people participated in a sold-out global warming debate that, in the end, turned downtown Toronto’s new concert hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music into a microcosm of a larger tranformation that is sweeping the world. The debate pitted two well known global warming activists of international repute against two well-known skeptics. The skeptics won, shifting the audience’s support away from the drastic global warming action demanded by activists and toward the moderate reponse of the skeptics, a move that is rapidly becoming a trend everywhere. If global warming is a problem — and many have growing doubts about that — it is not a crisis that warrants draconian policy intervention in Copenhagen or anywhere else.

In polls and in science debates, in political discourse and in the buildup to Copenhagen, the foundations of support for global warming action are in decline. A new Harris Poll yesterday found a big drop, from 71% to 51%, in Americans who believe that the release of carbon dioxide and other gases will lead to global warming. While many people are not sure, those who do not believe that carbon dioxide emissions will cause global warming have increased from 23% to 29% since 2007.

Australia is in political turmoil over carbon emissions policy. In the United Kingdom, the leading scientist charged with assembling temperature data has resigned pending an investigation. The recent leak of emails from Britain’s Climate Research Unit, at the University of East Anglia, where the words “trick” and “hide the decline” are found, is gradually snowballing from being a skeptical bloggers’ dream event into a mainstream political scandal. From Daily Show host Jon Stewart to Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice, there is a sense that all is not right with the global warming file. “I take from what’s happened at the East Anglia institution is that there were some serious allegations of impropriety and some serious questions about the quality of the scientific work that was done there,” said Mr. Prentice yesterday.

At the Munk Debate in Toronto Tuesday night, the email scandal was barely mentioned and so had little direct impact on the results. Before the debate, the 1,100 people in the audience cast ballots, with 61% supporting the resolution that “climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and demands a commensurate response.” At the end of the debate, support had fallen to 53%.

Had the email exchange among leading scientists been explored, the outcome might have been even more significant decline in support for extreme climate action. Support might have collapsed completely had there been a way to have a fact checker interrupt the debate to review the various clashes over science and the statistics.

On the activist side were two leading climate activists, Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and British author and columnist George Monbiot. The miracle is that these two grandstanding professional agitators held on to as much of the audience as they did after two hours of cheap theatrical tricks, ad hominem attacks, dubious science claims and frequent dips into Stephen Lewis’s tear-filled pool of emotive personal anecdotes of poverty and disease. They rarely got the science or the economics right.

Trying to bring rational argument to all this were Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool it: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide To Global Warming, and Lord Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s former finance minister and also the author of An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming. They stuck to their core arguments and, for the most part, successfully defended their positions against exaggerated claims and counter arguments that were questionable or just plain wrong.

Too bad the audience had no way of knowing what was fact and fiction. A fact-checking referee would have helped verify Mr. Monbiot’s and Ms. May’s frequent stretches and exaggerations.

Peer reviewed economics: Mr. Lawson, for example, got into a slugging match with Mr. Monbiot over a British economic report, the Stern Review, which claimed that climate change would bring massive economic decline. The report, said Mr. Lawson, was politicially generated rubbish that had never been peer reviewed and had been dismissed by all serious economists. Mr. Monbiot then introduced the preposterous idea that while the Stern Review had not been peer reviewed, it was itself a summary of a lot of other peer reviewed papers, and therefore was above reproach, an “uber-peer reviewed” report.

Global water stress: The Lomborg argument is that while global warming is a real global issue, it is not one that should be allowed to divert attention and money away from more pressing and real crises. Mr. Monbiot claimed global warming would only make the plight of the world’s poor all the worse. He said — citing official United Nation’s science reports — that 2.3 billion people would be subject to new “water stress” as warming advanced, meaning they would not have access to minimum quantities of water. Mr. Monbiot reacted vehemently when Mr. Lomborg said the opposite was true — that studies showed that global warming would also relieve water stress on 3.3 billion people.

The audience had no way of knowing that Mr. Lomborg was right. The official UN report says that “using the per capita water availability indicator, climate change would appear to reduce global water stress.” The research paper supporting that finding shows, for example, that while as many as 2 billion people might experience more water stress by 2050, as many as 4.3 billion will experience reduced water stress.

Food production: The audience also had no way of knowing that Mr. Monbiot was also wrong when he clashed with Mr. Lawson over the theoretical impact of global warming on food production. Mr. Lawson said the UN reports that food production would increase if the global temperature rose by 3 degrees Celsius. Mr. Monbiot disputed the number, claiming that the world food production would begin a “net decline” if the temperature rose above 3 degrees. The actual report is far from categorical, although the general conclusion is that climate change is not a major driver of food production (relative to technology and economic and social factors).

The audience did see through Ms. May’s antics. Many groaned when she tried to link climate change with AIDS in Africa. At one point the moderator, Rudyard Griffiths, had to cut Ms. May’s sound off when she would not stop one of her many attacks on Mr. Lomborg, who is obviously still a thorn in the sides of green activists. For a while, it looked like Ms. May was going to do a page-by-page assault on Mr. Lomborg’s books, which she had piled up on a nearby table along with other material.

The declining alarmist case hit bottom in the dying minutes when Mr. Monbiot, in Stephen Lewis mode, brought in a personal story that linked climate change with the slaughter of 96 people in Kenya (see Mr. Monbiot’s closing statement). Nobody groaned.

The debate, on the whole, was a conceptual and disjointed mess, as are most global warming debates. Which may be why the activists lost the Munk event and are losing the global event.

To be published in tomorrow's National Post.