Climate skeptics miss the point


BBC One Planet: Interview with Richard Linzden

I listened to the above podcast this morning and was struck by a number of key similarities between Linzden’s reasoning and the arguments of other more radical skeptics I’ve listened to recently. Linzden being a fairly conservative scientist would be horrified to know the sort of new age hippy conspiracy theorists I’m about to compare him to… but perhaps they have more thinking in common than they would care to admit.

Linzden does not deny that the climate is changing, and that increasing temperatures are partly a result of human activities. His skepticism is focused on the extent of the changes, what effect they will have on humanity, and what we should do about it. He considers the IPCC to be biased, and subject to the influences of the political agenda of UN bureacracy. He views government climate abatement schemes as ineffective, expensive, and designed to curtail the rights of citizens. He views the precautionary principal as somewhat ridiculous. He considers greenhouse gas reduction an impingement on the rights of people in the third world to develop. In short, he sees action on climate change as wasteful, unneccessary and ineffective. In other words.. carry on with business as usual, stop being absurd with all of this nonsense, and take care of your own rights and money because the Government or UN bureacracy or whoever runs the show have their own misguided interests at heart.

Now, all of the regular capital L liberalist suspicions of bureacrats aside (political representation of governments is another debate entirely), the key phrase I’m looking at there is ‘business as usual’, because that is essentially what the argument boils down to. I’ve never met a climate skeptic whose logical underlying conclusion wasn’t that we should just carry on with precisely what we’re doing. And this is where the entire debate is missing the point.

IEA peak oil production by barrels

Even if climate change had never existed… would we really want to carry on with business as usual? And more to the point, is it even possible? With peak oil on the horizon, our mineral resources becoming exhausted, our ocean stocks at an all time low, thousands of species on the brink of extinction, landfill piling up, a garbage island in the pacific, coral bleaching, worldwide inequality rising, the human population exploding, mass deforestation and even the rich consumer societies feeling insecure, alienated from nature and from their own communities…

Do we want to just go on with business as usual.. and is it even possible that we can?

The funny thing about the climate debate is that it’s not just about the climate, or even just about the environment. It’s about how we choose to live. Scientists like Linzden, as much as I disagree with his take on the world, raise valid questions about the response to climate change. Many existing government climate schemes are ineffective and expensive (although not as expensive as recovery). Some schemes are certainly ill thought out, and involve far lower targets than we realistically need. But we must embrace the idea of change for two reasons.

Firstly, we are running out of our artificially cheap finite fossil fuel resources. We just can’t continue to burn them at our current rate for very long, and certainly not affordably. With or without climate action, the price of fossil fuel energy will become exorbitant over the next fifty years, with a very real likelihood of riots and energy crises occurring at increasing frequency. We can either slow down and change to clean alternatives at our own pace, or wait for change to be forced upon us.

Secondly, what those such as Linzden fail to see are the opportunities emerging from the climate debate for a rethinking of human development. For the first time since the postwar period, we have an opportunity to reevaluate the direction that we’re headed and and the potential for positive change. There are a number of flow on effects from climate mitigation that are beneficial for everyone and should be considered in their own right, aside from the risks associated with ‘business’ as usual: the raised consciousness of our effect on nature, the increase in people taking up cycling and other healthy and sustainable habits, the growing emphasis on the local community, improvements in resource and energy efficiency and the general reevaluation of what is for the majority of the world population, quite frankly, an unsatisfactory status quo.

Beavan with his daughter

If there was a polar opposite to this negative attitude towards potential change it’s Colin Beavan, better known as ‘No Impact Man’. No matter how many books I read that raise my awareness of the dangers of environmental degradation, no other author so encapsulates the positive effects of changing our behaviour. As he discovered, living  in ways that were environmentally sound for a year and becoming an advocate for sustainability had a lasting impact on his health and happiness. ‘Live a happier life’ is his catchcry, reminding us to strive for something better than business as usual on a personal and societal level.

It’s this half of the debate that’s forgotten by those who view climate action in terms of restrictions imposed by corrupt and self serving bureacrats. They choose to ignore all of the proactive grassroots movements like Transition towns and the Green Belt Movement that are popping up all over the world in response to inadequate government responses to environmental problems. They say that action on climate change will disadvantage developing nations; forgetting  that developing nations have been left behind precisely because things have been left to business as usual. They forget that in our current system the first victims of environmental degradation are the poor (and most often, women). They fail to see the potential of the human response, to see that not only is climate change a problem, but also a catalyst for wider systemic change that is very much needed.

Whether or not you ‘believe’ in human induced climate change, business as usual is just not ok; climate change helps us to recognise that. That’s the point.

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3 Responses to Climate skeptics miss the point

  1. klem says:

    You have summarized Lidzen’s opinions perfectly. That is by far the best summary of what he says I have ever heard from anyone, particularly from some one who disagrees with him. Because you have delivered an unbiased summary, you have credibility.

    I’m not sure if I can agree that the point of climate change was to help us recognize that we can’t continue with the business as usual model. Isn’t business as usual the way that alarmists have been proposing we save the planet? I’m referring to cap&trade. Cap&trade is a form of business as usual, in that it is a carbon commodity trading market with futures and derivative instruments just like any other commodity. And eventually it would be expanded to hundreds of other pollutant commodities with their respective futures and derivatives investment instruments. A huge trading market worth trillions would be born.

    And eventually it would be expanded so that WE ALL become commodity carbon traders, not just the big carbon emitters, through the use of carbon rationing and carbon credit cards (read here Think about your children carrying a carbon credit card with them, watching them wait for the price of carbon to be lower so they can swipe their card and save a few bucks, just like you do now when the price of gas goes down a few cents. And when the price of carbon rises, just like gas does now, who does it hurt? The low incomers. Who doesn’t it hurt? The high incomers. Saving the planet from climate change sounds a lot like business as usual to me. If you really want us to go there, we want good proof.

    • lilberino says:

      Hi Klem

      Thanks for your interesting perspective, and for granting me with credibility even if you disagree; a reasonable attitude worthy of respect. I must say, you’re the first real comment I’ve had in feedback and I’m delighted that it’s someone who challenges me! In response, I would like to say that I certainly agree with you in many ways; a carbon market will not be enough of a departure from the current ‘market solves everything’ system to really reshape behaviour, and the effects on consumers are not known (but could be controlled). However, I also agree with the Climate Institute in their assertion that a price on carbon is a neccessary way of ensuring that we accurately price our activities according to their real environmental cost. It’s unfortunate but true that some emitters will attempt to push costs onto consumers. Whether they will succeed will be up to the regulatory environment.. and the result is not so clear cut. (See “Why a carbon tax is good for the hip pocket” August 1, 2010 Richard Denniss and David Richardson in the links section, under research). Even though the link for your BBC story didn’t work, i went and had a look at some other BBC stories on carbon rationing. I don’t think the idea should be written off so quickly just because it’s different to what we’re used to, because it’s hard to imagine having a carbon credit card, paying for something that used to come for free. It’s an idea in it’s baby stages, and It’s a fairly blunt instrument to make people reduce consumption.. but because allocations wouldn’t be income based it means that poor and rich people start off on a level playing field, with the same amount of consumption allowed. I think the idea has some potential, as long as it is designed to be fair, and as long as it applies to the companies who do the most emitting as well as the average consumer. We really don’t have alot of oil left in the world.. all just means for reducing consumption should be at least thought about.

      I mean, the key thing to remember is that at the moment what we pay for electricity is artificially cheap because it doesn’t take into account the real environmental (and human) costs of energy production. We’re used to this.. but it can’t last. The real point here is that whether we do something about climate change or not, we are simply running out of the cheap fuel we’ve become accustomed to. I know it’s hard to make ends meet when it comes to energy bills and that the real polluters often get away with murder but the reality is that as oil and coal run out, if we don’t have clean alternatives.. the price of energy will just continue to go up. If we don’t regulate properly; these costs will be pushed onto consumers regardless. Remember the fuel riots in Europe a few years back? We can expect to see alot more of that in the next decade.

      So I return to my original points; ‘business as usual’ ie; the high consumption fossil fuel society we currently live in can only go on for maybe fifty years tops, and if we haven’t found alternatives to fossil fuels we could be in serious trouble. We don’t really have much of a choice, unfortunately.. we will have to change to clean energy sooner or later. Sooner is definately better, though, if we want to minimise the damage climate change will cause. You’re right, introducing a new market doesn’t change things as much as they need to be…. there is far more work to be done than that. And schemes such as carbon rationing only give us the stick; without the carrot. Becoming sustainable is a positive thing to do, and a great way to engage with your society! Personally, I argue for a nation building approach like the one advocated by Beyond Zero Emissions; (think snowy river scheme but with solar thermal plants), or a locally based approach where local carbon reduction targets go hand in hand with healthy community activities like growing veggies locally together instead of transporting them thousands of kms (‘transition towns’ are great at doing that, see them on my list of organisations). So if we have to transition to new energy sources anyway, my question is how can we make our lives and world better while we’re in the process of making them more sustainable? Because I’m sure not satisfied with the way things are; inequality rife, environmental degradation everywhere, everyone feeling mistrustful of their own governments, and people buying stuff all the time but losing their sense of community. Doing something about climate change is not something to be afraid of.. it’s something to be hopeful about, if we take control and don’t leave it up to other people to decide for us; that’s the key- that’s real change, taking control of our lives, instead of leaving it to markets or governments that we don’t feel represent us. That’s not business as usual, and it feels great.

  2. klem says:

    That’s wierd. The link I provided to the BBC story on carbon credit cards does not work from your blog but you can google carbon credit card and the story appears.

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