Monday, October 30, 2006


Stern Sceptic Gang fail to see other reasons for changing our lifestyles

The Guardian today runs an article on the groundbreaking Stern Report(Sir Nicholas, chief government economist, is pictured right) which details the attacks already being made upon it by rightwing sceptics who say, like Lord (Nigel) Lawson, that it 'can lead to no useful outcome'. It is truly beyond belief that there remain people unconvinced by the mountainous evidence arguing in favour of a causal link between global warming- which no-one denies- and the annual gouting of 33,000 million tons of carbon emissions resulting from humankind's economic and other activities.

I happen to agree with Will Hutton that, at last Stern has charted a coherent way out of the impasse we face with only a decade to go before it becomes too late. I hope he is right that the 'tipping point' in world attitudes is currently taking place. Stern's idea of employing market mechanisms is especially subtle and appealing. The former head of the World Bank suggests the embryonic carbon trading system pioneered in Europe should be extended worldwide so that virtuously green carbon cutting countries can sell their quotas to those less virtuous with the result that the former prosper and the latter do less so. As Hutton expresses it:

If it becomes clear that the risk of climate change is overtstated, the price of carbon will sink, but if it is as bad as some fear, the price will rocket. Markets will signal the risks.'

Sceptics seem so determined to be thick they would probably find reasons to deny the other major reason for cutting emissions and generally reining back economic activity. Back in 2002 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) produced a report detailing the excessively high consumption of raw materials from the earth caused by the voracious appetites of modern day living. The report warned that the human race is plundering the planet at a pace that outstrips its capacity to support life.

In a damning condemnation of Western society's high consumption levels, it adds that the extra planets (the equivalent size of Earth) will be required by the year 2050 as existing resources are exhausted.

Naturally, western countries consume more and deal out more damage to the environment than developing nations:

America's consumption 'footprint' is 12.2 hectares per head of population compared to the UK's 6.29ha while Western Europe as a whole stands at 6.28ha. In Ethiopia the figure is 2ha, falling to just half a hectare for Burundi, the country that consumes least resources.

I also agree with jackie Ashley that this report will do Gordon Brown some good as the putative incoming PM. His ability to absorb Stern's 700 pages-remember it's his report- will give him the edge over Cameron and Campbell in debate and its reliance on US cooperation will provide him with a moral mission abroad which will help broaden his appeal when re-election comes around.

Yes, let's hope it's not another false warning like weapons of mass destruction. But if you read my post on this subject yesterday, there is a very illuminating comment posted from Australia about how the rivers are drying up there and children have never seen rain fall, it is truly worrying and puts it all in perspective. We are just lucky it hasn't happened here yet, though it has because the weather we are having now is so unseasonably warm.
I don't even want to hear about political manipulation, WMD, Iraq, SUVs, free markets, sceptics or anything else. Just look at satellite pictures (freely available on the internet) of the Greenland ice sheet, the ice shelves around Antarctica, the ozone hole over Antarctica (which reached a new record size this September) etc, etc. Climate change is real and happening now.
The problem with climate change is that it requires a political solution. And this creates a further problem - perhaps insoluble - that politicos and hacks and people like us simply don't have the know-how to proffer workable suggestions. Dreadnought asks us to look at pictures of an ozone hole - but this doesn't mean anything. As laymen we can't follow causation; we don't have the expertise. I suspect that climate change is real because scientific wisdom tells me it's real, but I can't possibly know for myself.

Another difficulty is implied here: just as politicos are ignorant of the science, scientists are ignorant of the politics. This is exemplified by Lovelock's book, The Revenge of Gaia. Lovelock's science is sound (probably), but his religious rhetoric and political suggestivity is clumsy and unhelpful. Thus, with scientists like Lovelock, we are in our current state of (apparent) crisis.

But perhaps, as with everything, we'll just muddle through.
You're right of course, but I think we can accept the manmade causation thesis because:
a) 16 out of the last 20 years have been the hottest since records began, indicating an acceleration of the rate at which things are heating up.
b) we know greenhouse gases heat up the earth, otherwise we it would be too cold for us to have survived.
c)The vast majority of scientists tell us that the 30trillion tons of CO2 which we emit into the atmosphere each year is having the additional heating effect we currently observe.
d) scientists who deny this are often funded by oil companies and therefore have a vested interest.
e)even if the case is not 100 poer cent proven there are other reasons for reducing our consumption of energy and material resources.
f) the penalties for doing nothing are too horrendous to contemplate.
Conclusion? Reduce emissions, rein in lifestyles of excessive consumption.
Absolutely – as you present them, the arguments are convincing. But just as science has helped identify the problem (relatively) early, scientists should be best placed to come up with the most effective solutions. But what do they propose? "Rein[ing] in lifestyles of excessive consumption", as you say, Skipper. Trouble is, we won't get very far by asking consumers to stop consuming non-essentials; nor will consumers take kindly to the implied image of consumerism as bloated selfishness. This image may be right, or it may be wrong; but this isn't the point. More important is the detrimental effect of blatant coercion in the name of environmentalism.

A better solution would be more subtle. It would involve incentives through taxation which more accurately reflects true environmental externalities. And - most importantly - it would involve changing the type of goods to be consumed, rather than the quantity. Modern science surely has the capacity to render the vast majority of goods environmental. Taxation is able to incentivises R&D, but such taxation will not come into existence if the environmental lobby/eager Labour government go around with the slightest pretence of pseudo-fascism. People generally don’t like being told what to do, especially by do-gooders; so we should perhaps be a little more gentle.
I suspect most people are sceptical of the pseudo science because nothing recently has been unprecedented. The left have tried to destroy our freedom in many guises before. Most will just see this as the latest attempt. The fascist manner in which dissenting voices are silenced will further allow people to see "human causes" for the con it is.
I agree we need to be subtle especially as disengaging the public from their comfort zones of eating, travelling etc will not be easy though crucially necessary. Taxation is a clear way to begin to change the culture- though enforcement is clearly the instrument used there. The key is to making it clear this course of action is in the public interest.
like nanny giving us our milk? Will people be asked to vote for the kid gloves? Should be interesting that...
“Dreadnought asks us to look at pictures of an ozone hole - but this doesn't mean anything. As laymen we can't follow causation; we don't have the expertise. I suspect that climate change is real because scientific wisdom tells me it's real, but I can't possibly know for myself.”
SPL - this is a ridiculous argument. Following this line you mean that unless you understand science you can’t accept anything that science says. Do you understand why we get light from a light bulb, or do you just accept that we do? Do you understand why we get a moving image on a TV screen or do you accept that we do? Even as ‘lay people’ we know that ozone is broken down by various manmade greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere thus allowing unchecked UV radiation to enter. We also know that the Earth’s atmospheric temperature is rising because of the huge quantities of carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere every year by human activity, traps heat radiation from the planet. If physical and photographic evidence of melting ice caps, ozone holes or south pacific islanders being washed away is not enough, well frankly we might as well not bother.
I think climatology might be a little more complex than the science of light-bulbs.
Typically vacuous.
With all due respect one is disputing that icecaps are melting and all the rest of it. We don't however, know for certain, that is it because of what you call "huge quantities of carbon dioxide" being sent in the atmosphere. I disagree profoundly with him on almost every issue, but SPL's point is well made. If you lecture and coerce people, they won't respond, especially when the science is so dubious. Maybe if you were less paranoid about a debate, ordinary people would be more ready to embrace sacrifices for the environment. For the moment I won't be making these sacrifices.

In the long run the market will solve any issue here, but only if enough people believe the scientific basis of your argument. But you have a long argument ahead of you on that score, and so far I have not been impressed with the environmental advocates.
Michael Oakeshott – Thank you for your constructive comments. I think we will have to disagree on this because to my mind the science is conclusive. Additionally, logic tells me that pumping 33 trillion tonnes of a stable molecule like CO2 into the atmosphere each year, and which will incidentally be increasing year on year, is bound to upset the delicate environmental balance.

I do agree with SPL and yourself that a political solution is required and lecturing people will not work but I think this goal is beyond reach simply because the people in the West understandably don’t want to change their lifestyles especially if is going to cost them and the developing world want a similar lifestyle to the West. I don’t believe that either is sustainable.
I don't think it's really necessary to add- but I will- that I wholly agree with Dreadnought that the argument regarding human causality is proved to my satisfaction. The degree of doubt that still ingers is there but so it is with many scientific 'theories' like evolution for example, the only remaining opponents of which are religious nut cases living in the mid-west of the USA.
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