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.