Thursday, July 21, 2016

Plus ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose

I was recently reminded of this climate change debate from almost 7 years ago (December 2009). I wrote this on my old blog (which was entirely about the environment and particularly my school's efforts, which have dwindled depressingly), so I copied it here in full for a glimpse back at what has and hasn't change in our debates:


I went to the Munk Debate on climate change tonight, and I even got a few seconds on CTV news (with another video plug) talking about the importance of the issue.

The question for debate, in a nutshell, "Is climate change the most important issue in the world right now?" The players: On the pro side: Elizabeth May and George Monbiot - I finally know how to pronounce his name (Mon-bee-oh - I previously always made him sound French). On the con side: Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson....

Oh, Elizabeth. She's hilarious, and I love her
passion, but Bjorn got the best of her, and the moderator cut her mic at one point while her arms were still flailing. The worst part of that is it's the stereotypical hysterical woman or, maybe worse, the stereotypical Canadian politician who feels free to lose composure in parliament. Not so good for our side - of the ocean, of the sexes, or of the debate. She had some of the best points, a great variety of facts at her fingertips with sources to back them up, but I'm afraid they'll not be what people most remember.

The debate itself was problematic because Bjorn doesn't seem such a denier. He was the weakest link academically and logically using ad hominems and straw man fallacies, but he was of the people in a t-shirt and jeans, admitting that he doesn't know all the fancy words others were using. That will get him lots of points with the general public. He threw out a few claims without backing them up, and having read lots on the topic, they really were out of left field. But, unfortunately, for anyone who isn't reading books on the environment in every waking moment, the information was presented with enough confidence that it appeared compelling. For the purposes of the debate, he had a strong position against the original question, but beyond that, he failed to provide any useful or intelligent information. Not many environmentalists would disagree that we need solar technology - his primary mantra.

Nigel had some very clear and important concerns with a few errors made by the IPCC. His was a truly pivotal argument because if the environmentalists make any tiny error anywhere, people will throw them out with the trash. People really really don't want to believe it's all true, so they'll jump on the minor problems as a means to dismiss the entire argument. They did it with Gore. And Nigel did this very clearly coming across as intelligent, articulate, and knowledgeable - to the world's detriment.

Monbiot was already my hero, now I totally (heart) him. He was clear, intelligent, genuine and impassioned. He was composed, yet able to take down the opposition with very strong points.

Beyond the "theatre" of the evening, here's a synopsis of the main points of the four in groups, in the order they spoke, instead of as a debate - from my biased vantage point and from my rough notes that I made with people chatting constantly behind me - with as many links as I could find (and with my editorializing in italics and parentheses) minus the many digs between the panelists. R indicates a rebuttal point...

Nigel Lawson

* The environment has become a secular religion refusing to tolerate dissent. When 100 scientists were surveyed by Von Storch they found only 8% of scientists think climate change is the most pressing issue.
- (It was an internet survey that was widely discredited as unreliable).

* There has been no further global warming this century (since 2000). Recorded temperatures are not continuing to rise. They are the highest ever, but they are not rising.
- (The best response to this is the ice-cube in a bowl analogy which nobody used. Leave a block of ice in a bowl of water to melt in the sun. Over the short term, the water and air actually get colder as the ice melts, but that doesn't mean the entire system isn't warming and it doesn't mean the ice isn't in danger of completely dissolving!)

* At worst, if we do nothing, living standards in the developed world will increased by 8.5 times instead of 9 times what they are today. That's not a catastrophe. At this time, during the worst depression since the 1930s, what we need most is cheap energy for our growth. Spending money on reducing emissions is not like buying insurance to protect us later; it's more like spending more on fire-proofing your house than the house is worth.

* Leaked e-mails by scientists have shown that even climate change scientists know it's all a sham.

* The only thing the IPCC was certain with regard to the effects on health is that climate change will reduce mortality from cold exposure. (- And increase mortality from heat exposure.)

R - On The Stern Review - They said it would cost 1% of GDP to fix climate change, but they later changed it to 2%. It was disregarded by most economists. (Bjorn's critique of it - the only criticism I could find quickly.) The figures are all assumed. Stern was being asked to justify governmental policy. It wasn't peer reviewed. It's the most extreme report.
- (When it comes to climate change projections, aren't all figures being assumed to some extent? Nobody really knows what's going to happen. It's all an educated guess. But it's not the case that your guess is as good as mine. The more educated, the better the guess.)

R - On peak oil - 29 years ago we were told there's only 40 years left of oil. Now they say there's only 40 years left. They keep finding oil. China isn't going to sign any global agreement. They are searching sub-Sahara Africa for oil. They're not looking for it because they don't intend to use it.

R - On decreasing food production after 3 degrees of warming. This is misleading: food production will increase until we hit the 3 degree mark. Then it will decrease only after that point. (An important clarification, but there's still a net loss in the long run.)

* Our greatest problem is poverty. Foreign aid helps, but economic development is better. I'm in favour of research and development of green technology.

Elizabeth May

* Experts from the IPCC should be here instead of us. And a better question for us is how should we act. Scientists surveyed by the UN claimed the top threat to the world is climate change followed by the water crisis.

* This is the biggest problem. In June 88, in Toronto
at Our Changing Atmosphere - Implications for Global Security, Canada was first internationally. (She quoted the first line of that report, more or less: climate change is 2nd only to nuclear war as a threat.) And Thatcher said in 1990 that "...the threat to our world comes not only from tyrants and their tanks. It can be more insidious though less visible. The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations." I spoke with the king of the Lasutu who have the 3rd highest rate of HIV/AIDS. I asked if it's wrong to spend on climate change instead of poverty or AIDS. The question angered him, and he replied that climate change makes HIV/AIDS worse every day because the people can't grow their own food anymore.

* Humanity has changed the chemistry of our atmosphere - we have over 30% more CO2 than in the last million years. We know this from dating ice with air bubble in it. We know we're doing it, and now we have to reduce fossil fuels and protest forests. We're currently at 387 ppm of CO2. The most it's ever been pre-industrialization is 280 ppm.

* Some are uncertain about climate change because it's hard to observe. Temperature can't be looked at year to year because of time lags. We have to look at temperature changes over decades to see that it really is being affected. Millions of square feet of arctic ice is gone - much faster than projected by the IPCC. In BC we see the pine trees dead because there hasn't been a typical cold snap to kill off the beetles.

R- On "climate-gate" - Scientists had e-mails illegally hacked. All people found is that they're having problems completely agreeing on their research. But many points are being taken out of context to make them look unsure about climate change in general. What they found was a discrepancy between NASA temperature figures, which suggest that 2005 was the warmest year with 2007 and 1998 tied for second, and the Hadley Center which found temperatures decreased after 1998, but they didn't include data from the Arctic.
The scientists aren't questioning climate change, just a minute point of degrees. The only thing climate-gate has in common with Watergate is that what was stolen is immaterial; what's really important is to find out who the burglars are and why they're doing the stealing.

* We know enough that we have to act. We've run out of time for procrastination. We gave $4 trillion to help the auto industry, but we don't want to devote the same amount towards reducing emissions. We're calling for efficient technology like low flow tidal, but it's kept from the market because the payback time is long. We already have the technology to fix the problem, just not the political will. Canadians waste more energy than we use. We need to improve. We have to look at technology, but it starts with a commitment to move away from oil. The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones. We found something better and easier to use.

* We need poverty reduction as part of climate change reduction, more solar and wind as part of our strategy, and protection of the world's forests. The Amazon is asking for help to save its forests because of the illegal logging there. But the biggest issue is the one that's moving in an accelerating fashion. Once we lose the permafrost, nothing we do will help save us. The Arctic ice has an albino effect, reflecting the sun's rays back. The dark ocean will absorb more heat from the sun. We're headed for a dangerous positive feedback loop.

Bjorn Lomborg

* The question forces us into a false dichotomy - either climate change is the worst thing, or we're an enemy of climate change science. It's not our defining crisis - there are 3 billion in poverty and 4 billion without water. At the Copenhagen Consensus we look for where we can do the most good for the world, where we should put our money, and it's in nutrition, agriculture, immunization, and schooling of girls.

* We need to be smarter about climate change. The costs are phenomenal at $40 trillion. (For whom and under what time frame?) Buying the cure is much more costly than the illness.
- (The Pembina Institute estimates that for Canadians, reducing emissions by 40% will result in a decrease in GDP from 2.4% to 2.1%. That's like someone making $80,000/year and having a salary cut to $70,000. We'll notice it in a few less nights out, but we'll still be relatively well-off.)

* We need to invest in green energy technology. Only if solar panels are cheap will we solve global warming. We can't forget all the other problems. Don't promise cuts; promise R&D. We need to listen to scientists and economists. There's a right way to save species like making countries rich, so they'll protect their own forests. We need efficient technology, so people can live better worldwide. The same money that saves one person by decreasing emissions can save 5,000 people if it's spent on agriculture. The money we need to stop poverty would slow down climate change by six hours. We don't need to reduce emissions to help the AIDS crisis; we just need to hand out condoms! (I would like to see the sources for these claims.)

R - The Stern Review is disparaged universally by economists. The other research indicates damage from climate change at -1%, it will benefit us, to 4%; not 5-20% like Stern reports. And you can't just pick one economist to show it's true. Climate change is real, but the proposed solution is rubbish.

R - Even if China doesn't agree to change, they will reduce emissions by 40% anyway through efficiencies because of newer technology. (I find this one hard to believe too.)

George Monbiot

* How lucky do you feel? We must prepare for the worst case. The opposition's claims are more optimistic than all reports I've seen. Eight of the ten warmest years ever have been since 2001.

* The Stern Review (in full) found the cost of preventing climate change will be 1% of GDP; the cost of living with climate change will be 5-20% of GDP.
R - If the government influenced the report, they did it in the wrong direction. They asked how much it would cost to fix climate change and found it would be more than expected. Stern reviewed peer-reviewed literature to develop the report. It was an "uber-review."

* We can adapt for a few decades here with drip irrigation, air conditioning, and new crop varieties. But in the developing world they won't have access to new technologies. In some areas like Kenya droughts used to be every 40-50 years, now they're every 2-3 years. The people are adapting with AK47s. They're killing each other because they're desperate.

* I'm concerned with poverty, disease and hunger. And climate change exasperates all these crises. It increases AIDS because in Malawi, climate change causes drought. This forces the men off the land to find work elsewhere. They meet prostitutes and bring AIDS back to their families. It's not a choice between poverty or climate change. We don't need to take money for climate change from foreign aid. We can take it from coal/oil subsidies or from the money being used for the Iraq invasion. We spend very little on foreign aid already. The $3.2 billion spent in Iraq would bring solar powered electricity to all of Africa. We can help with poverty without power stations and mining fossil fuels which endanger the very lives we're trying to save.

* It's not a choice over costs as if we either spend nothing or everything on the climate. Just to maintain energy supplies from now to 2030, will cost $25.6 trillion. Because oil is in the hands of OPEC, it will cost a transfer of wealth of a further $30 trillion. It's not a choice of carrying on and not spending or spending. Either way we have to spend a lot, and that's if oil doesn't get depleted. A temperature rise of over 3 degrees will result in a net decrease of food. Our population will rise to 9-10 billion within this century. Already millions are going hungry even with a global food surplus. We can't create a false choice between climate change and poverty.

R- More agricultural technology will not mean more food if it stops raining for years. Our ecosystem doesn't respond to market forces the way some economists suggest it will. It's not just about what to do, but what to stop doing. If we keep eating cake, but add in a salad, we won't lose weight because of the salad. If we keep using oil, but add in a little solar, it won't stop the problems we're having. We need to bring people out of poverty with renewables. Instead of $30 trillion to OPEC, let's put it in new technology.

* This is not the time for intellectual games. It's the time for facing our greatest question without which we can't tackle any other question on the table: Do we carry on dumping costs on those not responsible for climate change, or do we pick up our responsibilities and produce a response to commensurate with that crisis?


  1. Seven years and the mountain of research and analysis and science has rapidly mounted. What you found at least superficially plausible from Lomborg and Lawson back then have been completely debunked today and yet they're still making those claims, still repeating those failed arguments. Why do they persist? Because there's still a market for their claims no matter how blatantly false. There is still money to be had.

  2. There are a few of us screaming, trying hard to do something about the change in our world. But I think we're too pre-occupied with Pokemon in virtual reality to try to look for real and rare creatures that are losing out to our greed.

    The evidence is there and I think those who deny will continue to deny forever. We will always have people who will resist evidence until the end because the evidence is contrary to their world views. I believe it was Ernest Becker who said that when we come face to face with a new reality, a new religion, that tells a different story than the one you know, your life is shattered so you either accept and move on, or you try to destroy the idea that destroyed your reality.


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