Thursday, May 20, 2010

Winning the battle with climate change skeptics?

The following post came out of a debate I was having with my brother about the role of "skeptical" views on climate change in the climate policy debate ...

The likely (and worst) effects of climate change in poor countries are almost indistinguishable from the effects of being poor.* The idea that (in the short term at least, and based on current expectations) money would be better spent on pursuing development goals rather than mitigation efforts (from poor countries' perspective), has often been made in the academic literature on climate change and development (see for example this article by Richard Tol).

For example, malaria represents a "winnable battle" (although "winning" is not as straightforward as some authors have suggested, see this article by Jeffrey Sachs & Pia Malaney), and deserves more attention and money. However, there is a very important and subtle distinction that some of the climate "skeptic" commentary seems to have missed (or intentionally omitted). That is, climate change will make these so-called winnable battles much harder to win. Furthermore, unmitigated climate change will have - almost certainly - disastrous consequences (especially for poor countries and poor people everywhere).

Business as usual is not a good option (as argued in this RealClimate post and this Economist article). The projections now being made about what unmitigated climate change will look like are startling, and scary (see for example this article by Andrei Sokolov and colleagues, and the report from the Hadley Centre in the UK, as reported here in The SundayTimes). The debate needs to be about how much mitigation is optimal, when and how to pursue it, and how to balance resources devoted to mitigation with those devoted to adaptation (from a poor country's perspective this essentially means development).

This is a very worthwhile debate, and should not be stifled by those who use the ugly term "climate denier" and make personal attacks on anyone 'silly enough' to be skeptical about climate change - or the proposed policy responses to it. (Ironically, this is exactly the sort of small-minded condescension that environmentalists and other 'social crusaders' have had to put up with for years).

One thing that is dangerous about the skeptics' approach - and the headlines they generate in some sections of the popular media - is that people are very willing to believe a voice that tells them "everything is fine, everything is going to be ok". We fundamentally prefer the easy option (psychologists term this "cognitive fluency"). We find it very difficult, on the other hand, to take a threat seriously if we have difficulty imagining it happening (people are a lot more frightened by the idea of being attacked by a shark than killed by falling debris from a plane, but apparently that is irrational - the latter being 30 times more likely! This is the so-called 'availability bias' - see this article by Oliver Burkeman, writing in the Guardian).

Climate change, and its potential consequences definitely fall into this category of being difficult to imagine.

As a footnote to this discussion, I'm not sure what is meant by saying that climate change is an 'unwinnable battle' (as I think has been suggested by some of the skeptics who, although not explicitly doubting the existence of climate change - and the contribution human activities are making to it - have challenged the rationale for attempting to prevent it through emissions reductions). There is a strong degree of irreversibility in climate change. However, the level of warming/change is still up for grabs - the irreversibility aspect makes precautionary emissions reduction now, although expensive, all the more justifiable (as the Economist also argues, in the article cited above). If the 'unwinnable' aspect is the contention that we will never change people's behaviour, then I think that is very naive. People will respond to the right incentives (a tax on carbon being the best way to create those incentives), and will change behaviour very quickly when the alternative becomes economically more rewarding. Not easy to get this right, but hardly 'unwinnable'.

*Note: That is, excluding the potential for inundation leading to the destruction - or at least forced relocation - of entire communities or even nations. In fact, this has already happened to the Charteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea.

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