POLITICS:

Climate campaigner shifts from skeptic to 'agnostic,' urges caution

LONDON -- At the age of 52, Israeli-born Benny Peiser has become something of an institution in the combat-prone world of climate change politics. He is welcomed warmly by the skeptics and is rejected with equal fervor by the mainstream environmental movement.

Peiser's CCNet climate news service has become required reading in recent years -- not least of all to find out what the skeptics are saying -- with close to 8,000 subscribers, including many U.S. scientists.

A social anthropologist by training and a part-time lecturer at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at John Moores University in Liverpool, Peiser has been dismissed by environmentalists as a skeptic with no scientific background. He himself describes his role in somewhat different terms.

"I always thought there was a lack of balanced debate, of balanced reporting," he told E&E. "I never took any strong position myself, on the science, definitely not. On the policies, I have always been skeptical that the conventional approach would work. It is now becoming obvious that it is not working."

As proof of his assertions, he points to the near collapse of last month's U.N. climate talks in Denmark and the resulting weak Copenhagen Accord instead of the legally binding, ambitious and all-inclusive agreement the previous two years of talks had been expected to achieve.

"There is a deadlock. All of the policies over the last 10 to 15 years have basically come to a standstill, and there is no chance of this international stalemate being overcome," he said. "The reason that it is not going to happen is that people underestimate the costs and the economic implications of the idea of decarbonization."

Adaptation, not mitigation, moves to the front

Now, Peiser has a new vehicle -- the Global Warming Policy Foundation -- a body set up last November by former U.K. finance minister Nigel Lawson. Lawson is a staunch critic of man-made climate change who has argued strongly that adaptation to the effects of climate change matters far more that attempting to mitigate its causes.

It is a theme Peiser as the foundation's director adheres to with vigor as he dismisses what he calls the alarmist nature of the warnings of imminent climate catastrophe coming from many scientists and politicians.

He points to the apparent attempt by climate scientists at the University of East Anglia to suppress debate, revealed in some data and e-mail messages stolen last year from the university, and by the more recent admission by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that its finding in 2007 that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 was completely wrong and not based on any evidence.

"We are not climate skeptics. We don't question the basic physics of the greenhouse effect or what CO2 does in the atmosphere. That is not our issue. The issue we have is that we do question the exaggerated claims that you often hear ... the alarmist claims that are not backed by solid, scientific, empirical observation," he said.

"Even if you take the IPCC as the basis of policymaking, it is unrealistic to expect decarbonization to happen in the near future."

A 'moderate warming' might be beneficial

"First of all, there is no alternative technology that is actually able to meet the energy demand that is growing astronomically -- forget solar and wind. But even if you take the IPCC assumptions as the basis of your policy, what it says is that even in the worst-case scenario of [an average temperature rise of] say 4 degrees Celsius, the ... world will only be 20 percent less rich than it otherwise would have been," Peiser said.

Instead of cutting emissions, he argues that what is needed now is adaptation to the climate change that will happen because of the carbon gases already in the atmosphere. Mitigation can be attempted when the technologies become available and affordable.

If the skeptics are right and the "alarmists" wrong, then vast sums of money will not have been wasted on needless emission cuts, but necessary money will have been spent on aiding those countries bearing the brunt of whatever changes have happened, says Peiser.

"Some countries will be detrimentally affected more so than others who will benefit. In that case, there will be a need for support. There can be no question about supporting countries that will be adversely affected. But a moderate warming has helped us over the centuries and has been extremely beneficial to society," he said.

"Every country has to do what they consider is right for them. Everybody should act unilaterally, because there is no chance of an international agreement ... and I don't see one in the foreseeable future."

Geoengineering as an 'insurance policy'

Needless to say, Peiser and his views are not handled gently by environmentalists.

"He is an idiot. He is not dangerous, although Nigel Lawson is," said Tom Burke of the E3G climate think tank. "This is pure politics. They want small government and believe that the markets are always right. Climate change doesn't fit into that view. This is all about ideology. It is about the corruption of science by politics."

Greenpeace campaigner Ben Stewart was equally dismissive.

"Peiser is an out-and-out climate change denier who is trying to reinvent himself as an agnostic," he said. "The Global Warming Policy Foundation is adopting a relatively sophisticated approach, appearing to be evenhanded while actually being anything but."

"This is about political posturing to bring about inaction. They are incapable of recognizing that we have to cut carbon emissions now. If and when they do finally recognize that we have to act, they will jump immediately to geoengineering," he added.

Indeed, geoengineering -- which even proponents say should be treated with extreme caution because of potential catastrophic unintended consequences to the global climate and the world's more than 6 billion inhabitants -- is a topic Peiser mentioned twice during an interview.

"These are the issues which we support so that you have at least some kind of insurance policy if the alarmists turn out to be right -- which we don't think. But at least there is something that you can actually invest in and can actually research and try to find out if there are other means, perhaps more cost-effective, to prevent potential climate disaster from occurring," he said. "It all boils down to 'what if' ... and nobody knows. I don't know. That is why I am not a skeptic. I am a complete agnostic."

"I doubt that within the next 20 years we will know who is right and who is wrong," he added.