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Drastic and immediate cuts in carbon emissions, as advocated by most of the green lobby, are an expe

There is a disturbing tendency among many in the climate debate today to deride as "deniers" anyone who does not advocate making huge and immediate carbon cuts. The framing began nearly a decade ago with discussions about the science of climate change. People who questioned the link between carbon emissions and warming were branded "deniers".

The semantic similarity to Holocaust denial was made overt when several prominent environmental campaigners suggested a need for Nuremberg-style trials for their opponents. Such rhetoric was deeply unfortunate. However, one could at least argue that the resulting fiery debate achieved one positive thing: it played a role in rousing most climate scientists to join together to underscore the message that global warming is largely man-made.

We have long since moved on from any mainstream disagreements about the science of global warming. Now, the crucial conversation is about the economics of our response. Today, the labels "denier" and "sceptic" are hurled at anyone who does not fervently argue for drastic, immediate carbon cuts. There is no possible justification, given that so many climate economists - the specialists in this field - recommend very different policies from those being advocated by the zealous carbon cut lobbyists.

In my book, first published in Danish in 1998, and then in English as The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, I wrote that man-made global warming exists. I could not have been clearer; the introduction to the section on climate change states: "This chapter accepts the reality of man-made global warming." My position has not changed. Thus, when I am labelled a "long-time climate sceptic" or "climate change denier" by
bloggers and activists, it is not based on any suggestion I have ever declared that the science of global warming is wrong. Rather, it is the campaigners' heated response to my pointing out that drastic carbon cuts don't make sense and that smarter policy responses should be considered.

It is understandable that emotions run high in such a defining discussion. I can appreciate, even in those who disagree with me, a moral intent to do good for humanity. But I cannot see how responding to empirical economics with slander will ever be helpful. Much worse than that, I believe that ignoring - or, indeed, denying - basic economic reality is a shoddy way of helping the planet.

In July, the G8 agreed to make carbon emission cuts to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This would be the most costly public policy humanity has ever enacted.

The Copenhagen Consensus Centre recently asked top climate economists to explore the benefits and costs of different responses to global warming, to prompt a discussion about the solutions that would have the biggest impact on climate for the lowest cost. We convened a second stellar group of top economists, including three Nobel laureates, to examine independently all of the research and rank the proposals in order of desirability.

One research author, the prominent climate economist Professor Richard Tol, who has been a contributing, lead, principal and convening author for the IPCC, strikingly showed that grand promises of drastic, immediate carbon cuts are a hugely expensive way of doing very little good. Reducing emissions by 80 per cent by mid-century (to achieve the 2°C goal) would avert much of the expected damage of global warming; based on conventional estimates, it would avoid climate damages of about £1.9trn a year by 2100. However, the cost of this would be a reduction in growth - particularly damaging to the world's poor - to the tune of around £25trn a year. Moreover, the costs would come much sooner than the benefits. Every pound spent on this grand plan would achieve twopence worth of good.

Put starkly: drastic carbon cuts would hurt much more than climate change. Cutting carbon is extremely expensive, especially in the short term, because the alternatives to fossil fuels are few and costly. Without feasible alternatives, we just hurt growth, which would be especially damaging for countries such as Brazil, China and India, dependent on fossil fuels to lift millions out of poverty.

It is important to emphasise that Tol's figures are based on projections from all the major economic energy models of the Stanford Energy Modelling Forum. Around half of the models found it impossible to achieve the target of keeping temperature rises lower than 2°C with carbon cuts. The £25trn price tag is optimistic because it comes only from the models that project the target is even possible.

The cost assumes that politicians everywhere in the world would, throughout the entire century, make the most effective, efficient choices possible to reduce carbon emissions. Dump that far-fetched assumption and the cost could be ten or even 100 times higher.

The Copenhagen Consensus on Climate's expert panel considered Tol's research - along with other proposals for responses to global warming - and concluded that drastic carbon cuts would be the poorest approach. The economic lessons are underpinned by real-world experience. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, politicians from wealthy countries promised to cut emissions by 2000, but did no such thing. In Kyoto in 1997, leaders promised even stricter reductions by 2010, yet emissions have kept increasing unabated. It is little wonder that politicians are backing away from promising that they will be able to broker a new deal on carbon cuts in Copenhagen this December.

Despite the shambles of the Copenhagen negotiations, many carbon cut campaigners refuse to discuss alternative approaches. By dismissing critics as "deniers" and "sceptics", they commit the planet to the poorest policy choice - and one with very little chance of succeeding in controlling temperature rises. We could and should do better. The expert panel of Nobel laureate economists, working for the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, revealed smarter solutions.

The panel recommended immediate research into climate engineering technology and a substantial increase in research and development of green energy alternatives. The two approaches complement each other. Climate engineering has the advantage of speed. There is a significant delay between carbon cuts and any temperature drop - even halving global emissions by mid-century would barely be measurable by the end of the century. And making green energy cheap and prevalent will also take a long time. After all, electrification of the global economy is still incomplete after more than a century of effort.

Climate engineering has a lot of potential as a way for us to buy more time - but it does not appear to be a long-term answer. We could gain time to ensure that we can shift sustainably and efficiently away from reliance on fossil fuels, which requires the investment in researching alternatives to these fuels.

Many of us fear climate engineering. But the groundbreaking research paper by Eric Bickel and Lee Lane at the University of Texas - one of the first studies of the costs and benefits of these technologies - offers compelling evidence that a tiny investment in climate engineering might be able to reduce as much of global warming's effects as trillions of pounds spent on carbon emission reductions.

The most attractive technology Bickel and Lane examine appears to be marine cloud whitening, where boats spray seawater drop-lets into clouds at sea to make them whiter and thus reflect more sunlight back into space, so reducing warming. This augments the natural process whereby sea salt from the ocean is whipped up and provides cloud condensation nuclei. Marine cloud whitening would not lead to permanent atmospheric changes, and could be used only when needed.

The researchers conclude, remarkably, that we might be able to cancel out this century's entire global warming with 1,900 unmanned ships spraying seawater mist into the air, at a total cost of about £6bn. When the benefits from averted warming are calculated, this is the equivalent of doing more than £2,000 worth of good with every pound spent.

President Barack Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, has said that climate engineering has "got to be looked at", and many prominent scientists agree. Concerns about the ramifications of this technology are a reason to research now to identify all of the limitations and risks. If it turns out that this is not a feasible or sensible approach, we need to have that information as soon as possible.

Marine cloud whitening would obviously not solve every aspect of global warming. But it would achieve more, much faster, than any plausible carbon cuts could ever do, and at a fraction of the price. If we are concerned with solving global warming, then we have a moral obligation to research what we could achieve with this technology.

But there is no point in using climate engineering to buy more time if we do not use it effectively. Since politicians started negotiating carbon agreements, we have wasted nearly 20 years without making any significant progress in reducing global warming. Focusing primarily on how much carbon to try to cut through taxes, rather than on how to achieve this technologically, puts the cart before the horse.

Global energy demand will double by 2050, according to research by the respected climate change economists Chris Green and Isabel Galiana from McGill University in Montreal. Use of fossil fuels remains vital for our development, prosperity and survival. Alternative sources of energy are unfortunately far from ready for widespread use. Green and Galiana show that, to reduce carbon emissions by three-quarters by 2100 while maintaining reasonable growth (a less ambitious goal than the G8's), non-fossil-fuel-based sources of energy will have to be an astonishing two and a half times greater in 2100 than the total level of global energy consumption in 2000.

If we continue on our current path, technological development will not be anywhere near significant enough to make non-carbon-based energy sources competitive with fossil fuels on price and effectiveness. Green and Galiana examine the state of non-carbon-based energy today - nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, etc - and find that, taken together, alternative energy sources would get us less than halfway towards a path of stable carbon emissions by 2050, and only a tiny fraction of the way towards stabilisation by 2100. The technology will not be ready in terms of scalability or stability. In many cases, there is still a need for the most basic research and development. We are not even close to getting this revolution started.

Current technology is so inefficient that we would have to blanket most countries with wind turbines to power everybody's needs, and even then we would have the problem of storage when the wind doesn't blow.

Many environmental campaigners lauded China's ambition to create "green cities", powered by huge wind farms. But China plans to build dozens of new coal-fired power plants for these cities, too: otherwise, there will be blackouts every time there is not enough wind. The vast majority of Chinese cities will still rely on electricity from coal.

If governments try to cut carbon through taxes and trading schemes without effective replacements, we will make virtually no difference to climate change in the future, while in the shorter term there will be significant damage to economic growth.

Public funds on research and development also need to increase dramatically. We cannot rely on private enterprise alone. As with medical research, early innovations will not reap significant financial rewards, so there is no strong incentive for private investment today. While many of us assume that green research and development must have increased dramatically over the past decade, the actual numbers from the International Energy Agency show that not only has this spending not risen, but it has actually declined significantly since the early 1980s.

Policymakers should abandon fraught carbon reduction negotiations and instead make agreements to invest in research and development to get this technology to the level it needs to be. Provided that this spending doesn't go into subsidising existing, inefficient technology, but is instead put towards promoting innovation, this would have a far greater chance of tackling climate change - and a far greater chance of political success.

The biggest carbon emitters of the 21st century, including India and China, are understandably unwilling to sign up to tough, costly emission targets. They would be much more likely to embrace a cheaper, smarter and more beneficial path of innovation. Ultimately, we will not succeed politically or economically in tackling climate change by making fossil fuels so expensive that nobody will use them. However, if we forge onwards with dramatically increased research and development, towards the middle of the century we could make green energy so cheap that everyone will use it.

Discussions about solving the planet's problems will always be emotional. But they should also be reasoned. The most reasonable response to global warming is to change our course and focus on an approach that would actually work.

Bjørn Lomborg is the director of the think tank the Copenhagen Consensus Centre at Copenhagen Business School and the author of "Cool It: the Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming"

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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains