RDN on sceptics & AGW at the RAC

Posted by RDN under Climate change / Mind & body / RDN's media outings on 27 November 2013

I have been asked to debate the proposition that sceptics are winning the climate change argument (at the RAC in Pall Mall, 28 November 2013). The answer, I think, is a nice sceptical, “yes”, and “no”.

I am a climate sceptic. That is, I am not a “flat-earth” denier and neither am I an alarmed activist. (Remember, that a sceptic is one who asks questions in little expectation of firm answers. The denier and the activist alike are campaigners for whom questions are an inconvenience and uncertainty a bore.)

I believe quite a lot of the scientific “consensus”: mankind may be causing climate change, and it may become a significant problem for all of humanity. But (sceptically) I wonder if we know much about the risk and how to balance it against any potential benefits. There is lots of uncertainty about the who, what, when (leaving aside the why) of any present, let alone future, effects. That cuts both ways: we may be in for an easier ride from climate change, or a worse, than is widely expected. (I am at the extreme, an optimist: things could get very bad and yet the human project of culture and civilisation never lose or soon resume an even keel.)

Granted these levels of uncertainty, what’s to be done? I am sceptical that we know how to frame, or have yet seriously framed, a plausible policy response. A sceptical asks of any policy: is this an affordable, well-targeted response to the problem at hand: that is, are we likely to get a good bang for this buck? My answer here is that  unilateral action by a small player in a global game is unlikely to be worthwhile, except perhaps as an example of virtue. This is doubly so if the action (building a few windmills, say) is not cost effective either in heading off climate change or showing how these things should be done.  It is trebly so if a country scuppers its own dirty industry, which de facto, goes abroad.

Here’s another difficulty: lots of actions are all but useless because they are not sufficient. In dealing with climate change, it may well be that no conceivable scale of policy would make a valuable difference. That is to say: gestures may be worse than useless.

As usual, there is a worse wrinkle. There are two possible approaches to AGW policy: one is try to stop it happening (“mitigation” in the inapt jargon) and the other is to invest in responses to it (“adaptation”). These are not mutually exclusive, except in the sense that one can’t spend the same dollar twice. But it is worth remembering that any good effects of mitigation may be global (benefitting both rich and poor) whilst adaptation will often be local (say, following investment in a poor country’s flood defences) and to that extent may be unattractive when push comes to shove (as rich countries refuse to bother to pay up).

Now for the bit where a cynic (a pessimistic sceptic) speaks. Climate change presents the worst kind of political problem. It is the Tragedy of the Commons on steroids. It is – as it were – the perfect storm.

Politicians, being more serious than voters, are way ahead of tax-payers in wanting to address climate change. Voters do not like inflicting present pain on themselves, especially when any benefit is hypothetical (uncertain, and in the future) and will likely accrue to unborn foreigners. In the degree to which westerners feel that it is likely that their part of the world (and their grandchildren) may do OK as AGW kicks-in, they will be resistant to calls to address the issue. In the degree to which they believe that people in other continents will bear the brunt, they are doubly resistant.

But, and it is a big but, westerners quite like the luxury of believing they are magnanimous and green. So they will engage in climate change policy provided they believe they are saving the planet and feel the policy to be cheap and convenient. The trouble here is that they won’t much care about the efficiency of the policy, since it is their own well-being – their feel-good factor – which is in play.

But it follows that if politicians come up with an effective policy which doesn’t raise taxes or prices too much, and which can co-exist with a decent lifestyle, and is widely accepted around the world, then it might fly both with voters and the future.






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