A few weeks ago there was a debate on the proposition that “Global warming is not a crisis” that featured scientists and authors on both sides. More of the audience left the debate supporting the proposition than did at the start partly due to the complexity of the issue playing into the hands of the doubters of anthropogenic global warming. The team arguing against the proposal lost the audience mostly due to the climate modeller, Gavin Schmidt, coming across as condescending to the wider public:

Brian Lehrer: But Gavin Schmidt, you seem to suggest that the other side does not have a real scientific argument, but a culturally or politically constructed one. You don’t think they’re sincere?

Gavin Schmidt: I don’t think that they are completely doing this on a level playing field that the people here will understand.

Gavin Schmidt should take a few lessons from Bill Chameides, Chief Scientist, Environmental Defense. Listen to Bill Chameides, when challenged on a phone-in radio show by a caller with 3 well known contrarian talking points (20 minutes 45 seconds into the podcast), in a very respectful but authoritative manner deliver reasonable but brief explanations. A few of these classical talking points featured in the debate. Philip Stott brought up the global cooling myth and cosmic rays. Richard Lindzen hightlighted uncertainties and questioned whether consensus was meaningful. However, what was really revealing was how much ground the no-crisis supporters had given up over the past couple of years. Michael Crichton, whose book, State of Fear, was filled with bad climate science, brought up very few of these arguments now that he was faced with a climate scientist. What is remarkable was the emphasis on non-climate science arguments:

Michael Crichton: And so if – if it were only gonna do symbolic actions, I would like to suggest a few symbolic actions that right – might really mean something. One of them, which is very simple, 99% of the American population doesn’t care, is ban private jets. Nobody needs to fly in them, ban them now. And, and in addition, [APPLAUSE] let’s have the NRDC, the, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace make it a rule that all of their, all of their members, cannot fly on private jets, they must get their houses off the grid, they must live in the way that they’re telling everyone else to live. And if they won’t do that, why should we. And why should we take them seriously. [APPLAUSE]

This is the well known “He who is without sin” argument for not even taking the first tentative steps toward a solution. We’re all living in the same greenhouse so no one is allowed to throw stones. A similar strategy is being deployed to counter Al Gore.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) attempts to silence Al Gore by highlighting his above average energy use. The rightwing media outlets have orchestrated a similar attack against Gore. The hypocrisy argument is an emotionally satisfying way to justify inaction, but it is counter-productive in practice. Imagine if the US was asked by other UN members to halt all trade with nuclear weapon capable countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (India, Pakistan and Israel has yet to sign up) before they would participate in sanctions against Iran. One may think this a flawed analogy since nuclear proliferation is different in nature from pollution. However, since fossil fuels are fungible resources in the global economy, Jevons Paradox comes into play. If a minority stop buying gas, the price of gas drops due to lower demand which makes it more affordable to the majority who are still burning the stuff so they end up burning more of it. Maybe this is the real reason behind Crichton’s and Inhofe’s demands.

Even if Gore jumped through these arbitrary hoops, the denialist can always move the goal posts or point to other hypocritical environmentalists. This childish playground attitude has been used against other celebrity figures who raise the issue of poverty and unfair trading practises. Those opposed to Bono’s Make Poverty History public awareness campaign attack his wealth and refusal to take a vow of poverty. What is obvious about these demands is that the real intent is not for the celebrity take a vow of poverty, but a vow of silence.

In addition to silencing critics, The Poor Excuse is also used to justifying inaction through a prioritisation argument:

Michael Crichton: This doesn’t need to happen. We’re allowing it to happen. And I don’t know what’s wrong with the rich self-centered societies that we live in in the west that we are not paying attention to the conditions of the wider world. And it does seem to me that if we use arguments about the environment to turn our back on the sick and the dying of our shared world, and that’s our excuse to ignore them, then we have done a true and terrible thing. And it’s awful, thank you.

Philip Stott: Everyday 30,000 people on this planet die of the diseases of poverty. There are, a third of the planet doesn’t have electricity. We have a billion people with no clean water, we have half a billion people going to bed hungry every night. Do we care about this? It seems that we don’t. It seems that we would rather look a hundred years into the future than pay attention to what’s going on now. I think that’s unacceptable. I think that’s really a disgrace.

This argument parallels that of statistics professor, Bjorn Lomborg, who poses the question: “If we had $50 billion to spend over the next four years to do good in the world, where should we spend it?”

Small wonder that under these restrictive spending conditions global warming is at the bottom of a list of priorities. But this question can be turned on its head. If the lowest priority problem in the world has such dire consequences to civilization why do we limit ourselves to $50 billion? This is less than one tenth of that spent on the war in Iraq over the last 4 years. Lomborg also wishes we would spend this much on the big problems as this removes some of the tough choices from his prioritisation issue. Perhaps he should stop attacking Al Gore and instead help him to convince governments to free up the funding necessary so all problems can be given priority. Richard C. J. Somerville, debating on the pro-crisis team, would agree:

“You know, I cannot imagine why Philip Stott and Michael Crichton seem to think that doing something about these terrible crises is impossible if you do something about climate change, or even made more difficult, climate change need not be in competition with or be an alternative to doing something about the terrible toll that poverty and preventable disease take.”

Furthermore, Lomborg’s higher priority problems are not independent of climate change. Poverty, malaria and AIDS may be more difficult to solve in a warming world due to displacement of populations and regional changes in the ecology. Further justification for inaction arises from his view that robust economies can insulate against any climate calamity:

To finally answer the question, let me repeat a story told by Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling. The UN climate panel expects that the average person in the developing world will be much richer in 2100 than the rich world is today (just like a hundred years ago, Denmark was a poor, peasant state.)

So, imagine an average Chinese, Congolese or Columbian in 2100 thinking back on 2007. Maybe he will be amazed we cared so much about him that we were willing to spend vast sums of money to curb global warming, helping him out just a little bit. But he will likely also think: “How odd that they cared so much for me, who is now rich, but cared so little for my grandfather and my great-grandfather, whom they could have helped so much more, at so much lower a cost. These were the men who needed help most desperately.”

Indeed, Thomas Schelling does think the effects of climate change are best mitigated by rapid economic development:

“What we must recognize is that the real victims of climate change are going to be in the developing countries, where a third of the gross national product may be agricultural and maybe half the population practices subsistence agriculture,” Schelling said. Probably the best way for them to defend against the adverse effects of climate change is to develop as rapidly as they can, he said. The sooner Malaysia can become like Singapore, the sooner it can worry less about the impact of climate change on health, comfort, and productivity.

Echoing Thomas Schelling, Richard C. J. Somerville:

“in fact, it’s exactly the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet who will suffer the most from the consequences of global warming which goes on unabated.”

And this maybe in some perverse way be the real reason behind the unwillingness of richer nations to act on climate change. It is seen as a problem primarily affecting the poor. There are two important questions one must answer if the Lomborg-Schelling vision is to come to pass:

  1. Is it necessarily true that given enough economic development, all countries can adapt to climate change and minimise it’s effects?
  2. Is it even possible for all poorer nations in 100 years time to become as rich as today’s wealthy?

Jorgen Randers, coauthor of Limits to Growth, attempted to answer both questions in the 2006 Templeton Lecture at Sydney University:

This is what I wanted to get to, the boring thing of self-reinforcing effects of climate gas emissions.

So the second reason why it is dangerous to have delay in strong action on climate is that the world, sadly, includes what are called self-reinforcing mechanisms, that, once triggered, start driving up the temperature, basically, of the ecosystem and the atmosphere, and there is nothing you can do to stop it once it starts.

He is refering to the real risk of breaching climate tipping-points that may initiate a run-away greenhouse effect. It has happened before.

Sadly, even the poor do not seem to be a high enough priority today to warrant heroic actions from wealthy nations. The unwillingness to seriously pursue the UN Millennium Developmental Goals was the subject of a speech by the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren, at the AAAS Annual Meeting in January:

For example, he said, efforts to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals have been uneven, at best. Child mortality levels show improvement, but remain “really appalling.” And he described the United States as the “second stingiest” among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in providing assistance as a percentage of gross domestic product. [Only Italy ranks lower, he said.]

But in addition to the problems of developing nations, John Holdren also mentions climate change, the liquid fuels crisis and nuclear proliferation. Any one of the three has the potential to limit economic growth to a crawl over the next century, even send it into reverse. It seems dubious to claim that all of the worlds poor today will be in 100 years time as rich as today’s wealthy. The common wild card that the cornucopians love to trumpet in support of unending growth is the limitless potential of human ingenuity and advances in technology. They will probably find that they have something in common with those that believe Singularity is near which requires one accept Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. Near the opposite end of the technological spectrum is David Edgerton, author of Shock of the Old, who sees the vast majority of inventions as making only trivial to very modest steps toward the advancement of civilization. What advances he considers as truly significant or revolutionary will be surprising to many.

Despite Jorgen Randers holding views on global warming that the denialists would consider alarmist, he does believe that economic and technological growth will overcome the challenges of peak oil:

that sooner or later if this transpires, namely the decline in oil consumption, oil availability and oil consumption, prices will gradually increase and gradually they will fund a transition into alternatives and I think this will happen in a manner where the total energy available every year will not decline and so we will not have collapse, not even in the oil consumption. It will be a flat portion before it rises.

However, he seems to have a high threshold on what would classify as disasterous. He considers 30-50% increase in energy prices to scrub the CO2 from power plants as being easily affordable. (He does live in Norway.)

In the big picture in my book the only thing that really matters, and I am pushing as hard as I can, is carbon capture and storage. It’s technologically simple, the only thing it does is increase the cost of power by something between 30 and 50 percent, which actually doesn’t matter an iota at our income levels.

Thomas Schelling would be the first to admit difficulties in economically quantifying the consequences of global warming: “We’re still trying to learn how to think about – especially to think collectively about, internationally – how to deal with global warming and the impending climate change and some of its consequences.” One of the first attempts at this, the Stern Review recommends, “There’s still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we take strong action now.” The longer we wait the more costly it will be. Unlike the climate science behind global warming, such policy reviews
are easier to pick apart

Will economies and technology develop rapidly enough to counter the negative effects of that development? Or will nature eventually overtake our ingenuity and overwhelm our own inventiveness? My humble blog cannot possibly have a conclusive answer to so important a question, so I shall conclude with the wise words of author, Arthur C. Clarke, who once posited the following three laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The first two can equally apply to technology as it can to climate, but the last law is revealing. Investing all our faith on a future possessing technology sufficiently advanced to effectively tackle the consequences of climate change is little different from a belief in magic.