“Can we afford to save the planet?” Reflections on adaptation and mitigation

Last week I was at the Houses of Parliament for a Christians in Parliament event entitled “Can we afford to save the planet?” The panel of six contained three economists and three others. The economists were Nigel Lawson of the GWPF, Andrew Lilico of Europe Economics (whom I knew as a regular Telegraph columnist), very much also in the GWPF camp, and Michael Jacobs, of the Grantham Institute and LSE, well-known proponent of climate action. The three others are all well-known supporters of climate action: James Jones, former bishop of Liverpool, Martin Harper of the RSPB and Andy Lester of A Rocha.

I’m not going to summarise the entire meeting, but just draw out three points to give a feel for the way the debate is now.

Firstly, Nigel Lawson’s position seems to have shifted somewhat. He is no longer asserting climate change isn’t happening, although he still claims there’s been no recorded warming this century, and that the IPCC’s figures are likely to be on the high end. Instead, the debate for him, and Andrew Lilico too, is between whether we should mitigate now or leave adaptation for the future. They argue for adaptation on three major grounds:

  • The priority now is to get economic growth and in particular to get people out of poverty. That will provide the economic position for a far-richer future to be able to adapt. Mitigation now is in conflict with adaptation later.
  • If we don’t really know what’s going to happen, there’s no point wasting money now. Let’s see what’s down the line and what science and technology can do for us then.
  • China and India (the first and third largest emitter) aren’t going to sacrifce their economy and the USA isn’t going to take action without those two doing so. We’ve been trying for a multilateral agreement for 25 years and continuing down this path is just flogging a dead horse.
  • (Lilico’s point) Perhaps the future will be happier to accept a different climate if it comes with other benefits of economics.

Four main counter-arguments were made to this:

  • We know roughly what the cost of mitigation is, and it is reasonably affordable. The cost of renewable energy is now coming down to be on a par with fossil duel energy in many areas. By contrast, we don’t know what the cost of adaptation is, or even if it is possible to adapt to the more extreme end of warming (5+ degrees). I’ve not seen anything from the pro-adaptation camp giving any idea of likely costings. But the costs of dealing with sea-level rise seem to be enormous, both economically and culturally: only fairly moderate rises will require a number of island states to be abandoned completely, and I’ve seen estimates of around the $10 trillion mark to protect the east coast of the USA from sea level rise.
  • Some of the changes forecast are irreversable or essentially impossible to adapt to: species extinction for instance.
  • Ethically, we do not have the right to force the future into sorting out what we have left them. Particularly since the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide are now understood to be the major factor behind the likely rise in temperature emissions.
  • Mitigation now has benefits to us, particularly in lessening pollution, which the World Bank says costs 4% of GDP in the top 15 economies.

On the subject of whether agreement was possible, it is worth noting that since the meeting a bilateral agreement between the USA and China has been announced. I haven’t yet read through the details, but it gives a good degree of hope for the Paris conference next year. Michael Jacobs made a bet with Nigel Lawson that a binding agreement would be made then, and at least on this evidence, he looks like winning it!

The second point is that most of the panel seemed united on the need for continued economic growth and personal sacrifice in energy consumption is not going to get us anywhere. This last point is a major change in narrative from much of what the green movement has been arguing for years, and was particularly made by Andy Lester.

He argues that the conservation and green movements have lost direction and focus, and that people see their arguments as all doom and gloom. Around the country, people are feeling less hopeful in general, and switch off to bad news.

Instead, we should be arguing for local conservation methods, encouraging people (particularly children) to reconnect to nature and develop a love for it, and through that help us to all cooperate, and have a stable and positive enough economy to bring an end to poverty.

What is not included in this narrative is any sense that the rich worldwide need or have any obligation to curb consumption and energy use, which many have argued is a necessary part of the equation. Michael Jacobs cited a report he has worked on: “Better growth, better climate”, which argues that economic growth is compatible with climate action. It has however been critiqued in that even if every recommendation was followed (a big ask) then carbon emissions would not fall fast enough to achieve the IPCC’s RCP2.6 (lowest emissions) pathway.

A very different view was put by both James Jones and Martin Harper, whose starting point was that the planet needed to be the starting point: Jones said “without a viable planet, we cannot afford anything. It is our only larder.” But it feels like they might be becoming a smaller minority, with even other climate campaigners seemingly retreating to a position that we can only save the planet to the extent we can afford it.

Finally, are such public debates worth having? Although there were some interesting views posed, much of what was said is familiar, and I don’t know how much the participants were willing to listen or change their mind. I happened to follow Nigel Lawson and Benny Peisner (a GWPF colleague) out of the building, and they felt the meeting had gone reasonably positively with “a less biased panel than usual”.

I didn’t feel Lawson’s performance was regarded so positively in the hall. He seems to have lost much of his incisiveness even since the last time I heard him 18 months ago, and he gave some long and less-than-coherent answers to some questions. What was interesting was others’ reactions. Michael Jacobs sitting alongside, was visibly rolling his eyes, whereas Bob Ward, sitting next to me, was clearly getting irate and eventually shouted out that Lawson’s facts were incorrect! However, James Jones and Andy Lester, the two Christians on the panel were still listening politely and respectfully. (I couldn’t see Martin Harper, nor do I know what his faith is.)

The Christian ethos seemed to make the meeting go far less acrimoniously than similar secular meetings I have been to, and I hope this witness was noticed. Whatever we might feel about the likelihood of Nigel Lawson and similar figures changing their mind, their views need to be challenged, but respectfully, and this kind of meeting seems to be a good forum for that.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to ““Can we afford to save the planet?” Reflections on adaptation and mitigation

  1. Hi Colin, Thank you for this information. The most disturbing point for me is that the NGOs are going along with adaptation as the primary consideration. I can only imagine that those who set their policies are believing that their supporters won’t back them if they go for mitigation. I wonder what research they are doing into the evidence for that? I wonder what doom and gloom means? Does it mean that the IPCC, the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society are promoting this a? Or that those of us who are concerned about climate change are exaggerating their findings. If the former, that would be an extraordinary judgement to make of people who, generally speaking, will be attempting to give us truth. ‘Doom and gloom’ sounds more like an epithet than a measured scientific statement.

  2. Colin Bell

    Phil, thanks for the reply. I don’t think I was quite as clear as I could have been, so let me put a bit more meat on the bones.

    There’s been a fair bit of research (by groups like the RSA, COIN, the Common Cause movement) into what works and what doesn’t in climate communication. I’m hoping to get time to read George Marshall’s new book soon and comment on it, but in broad terms the simple narrative of “we must cut carbon emissions to avert climate disaster” has only worked for a small number of people and is unlikely to get us much further. Unfortunately, it does seem that – despite our attempts to promote a positive future alongside cutting carbon emissions – the “negative climate effects” message is the one people are hearing (or rather, ignoring). My personal view is that it’s likely to get less, rather than more effective as we move forward and our “best possible” becomes only restricting to a 2, 2.5, 3… C rise.

    Instead, an alternative approach is being taken by groups like A Rocha to inspire people to reconnect with nature and each other. This will, it is hoped, lead to both climate action and a renewal of resilient communities as a side-effect, which seems right to be, and also fits with Christian theology (we follow Christ and as a consequence are transformed as individuals and help transform our communitiesi).

    These communities will be involved both in mitigation and adaptation. Adapting is going to be necessary as even if we manage to keep under a 2C rise this will involve reasonably substantial climate changes of some nature or other. But adaptation shouldn’t push out mitigation – we need to be pushing the latter to the extent we can.

    The point where I have some concern over the NGO message is the downplaying of justice and sacrifice, the moral duty those of us who are rich have to give up some/much of what we have for the sake of others, and the associated refusal to challenge our current economic norms. I think the latter is necessary, even if we don’t get to zero growth, and would probably gain us considerable support from the large underclass who are discovering our current government’s economic policies don’t seem to be giving _them_ economic growth.

  3. Thanks as well from me, Colin. This is a helpful summary of current views in the debate, particularly to see how some at the more sceptic end are talking now. Do you think this is a sign that outright denial of CC is not as prevalent, or just that this panel was “less biased”?

  4. Colin Bell

    I think it depends on which group we’re talking about. In the USA, the “global warming is a liberal conspiracy” trope seems to be as strong as ever. But prominent deniers in the UK (Lawson, Matt Ridley, and others) seem to be conceding that CO2 does have, or at least may have, an effect on our climate. They do, however, frequently cite “no statistical warming this century” and at least hint that the scientists may change their mind and decide global warming isn’t a problem after all.

    This may be rather cynical, but it seems consistent with the position of the GWPF and others that they’re playing a very clever long-term game to make as much money out of global warming as they can: put enough uncertainty into the debate in the early stages so we don’t mitigate, start selling the ideas of adaptation as the better solution, and in due course geoengineering. Both of those clearly have the potential to be multi-trillion dollar industries and make some people extremely rich, whereas mitigation’s gains are generally much more widely spread. Not saying this is the case, but I might drag this point up in 25 years’ time and say “I told you so”!

    • Thanks, Colin. I know nothing of Matt Ridley, but I would have thought Lord Lawson might be too old to benefit from a long-term game that you quote from the GWPF ..? Though in general, given the amount of money we’re talking about, we need to be very alert to manipulation.

      • Colin Bell

        I think it’s the movement as a whole which is making this move, not particular individuals. Lawson is over 80 and Ridley 56, so neither is likely to benefit personally. But I think they’re looking both to their historical legacy and probably protoges of the next generation. If the GWPF were to reinvent itself as an umbrella body of adaptionist and geoengineering industries, it could make a plausible claim to have “saved the world”, which obviously gives Lord Lawson as one of its founders a much better historical profile than as a moderately effective Chancellor who in later life stood against scientific consensus on climate science. Similarly, Matt Ridley clearly wants to be regarded as a deep thinker who proved to be right on many of the key issues of the century, rather as the rather reckless head of Northern Rock who bankrupted it and precipitated the banking collapse in the 2007 financial crisis.

        I would also be extremely surprised if both didn’t have several disciples and protoges to whom they are intending to pass on their intellectual and financial legacy – it’s this generation who stand to get extremely rich from climate change.

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