I’ve just returned from the Munk Debate featuring Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Guardian columnist and Heat author George Monbiot, the skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, and British global-warming skeptic and author Nigel Lawson, who insists on having “Lord” precede his name.
At debate was the following statement: “Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate international response.”
To start, let me just echo Elizabeth May by saying the fact we’re even having this debate just days before Copenhagen is a sad, sad thing. “We should be arguing how do we reach the targets, not if we should do it,” said May in her opening comments. “The science since 1988, in case anybody hasn’t heard, has only gotten stronger.” Unfortunately, this debate served only as another forum for Lomborg and Lawson to promote themselves and create confusion around an issue scientists are quite clear on.
In a nutshell, Lawson’s argument is simple: fossil fuels are cheap compared to the alternatives and if we force cleaner and more costly alternatives on developing countries it will deny them growth and keep their citizens poor and helpless. Plans being considered to fight global warming are “madness” and “scientifically unfounded” and “immoral,” he says. Lawson, of course, doesn’t even believe in man-made climate change, or peak oil, so figures we can continue going along our merry way burning as much dirty fossil fuel as we can. Lomborg, on the other hand, says he believes in global warming but also believes the costs being proposed to mitigate it are out of proportion with what it will accomplish. Better, he says, to take all that money and put it directly into feeding the hungry, getting medicine for the poor, and helping developing countries help themselves. Problem is he positions this all as a choice between A or B, failing to acknowledge that we need to do both — acting on one doesn’t, nor should it, preclude the other. He also seem to ignore the fact that climate change will cause more disease, drought, and extreme weather that will leave the poor in a more dire state.
Of course I’m biased, but I have to say I thought both Lomborg and Lawson were terrible debaters. Lomborg, dressed in worn jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt, came across oddly like he was selling write-your-own-will software on a TV infomercial. His arguments were simply weak, but convincing for the easily swayed. Lawson was hard to understand half the time, talking as if he had marbles in his mouth, and he threw out ludicrous and false statements to support his claim that he’s a man of reason who supports only reasonable things. Unfortunately, it seems some of the audience at the Munk debate were charmed by the rhetoric of both men.
May and Monbiot were persuasive, articulate, informed and at time humorous, but you could also tell they were getting quite frustrated at the spin and the misinformation being thrown out there. Monbiot started with a question: “How lucky do you feel?” His point being that we’re gambling with the future of humanity. He said it’s easy to say don’t worry, be happy, do nothing until we really know we have to, because those living in developed countries may be able to afford a bit of delay and adaptation. But that really leaves developing countries in a precarious situation. Is it really moral to test the waters for sharks by throwing in the poor? Even worse, we — the developed world — are the ones who filled the waters with sharks. Monbiot also took issue with claims that it will cost too much. He cited an International Energy Agency report that said we need to spend tens of trillions of dollars over the next few decades to renew our conventional energy infrastructure. If we have to spend that, then why not spend it on cleaner sources of energy?
May weighed in by rightly pointing out that alternatives such as solar aren’t necessarily more expensive, particularly when you’re targeting the poor of the developed world. It’s cheaper to put a few solar panels in a small village than it is to build transmission and distribution infrastructure that would carry power from a far-away coal plant. Both May and Monbiot pointed out that water scarcity is going to become a huge issue with climate change and that drought will lead to conflict and pose a threat to world security. Both did an excellent job. My only wish is that they spent a bit more time talking about the other benefits of moving to clean energy. I mean, even in the unlikely event that climate change science shows us we overreacted, is it such a bad thing that we also acted to reduce air pollution, mercury emissions, the use of water in thermal power plants, and the other environmental footprints caused by our addiction to fossil fuels. That’s a pretty nice consolation prize. And though they touched on it, I also wish they talked more about the economic opportunities of transitioning to a green economy, and how the costs won’t be as high as some think. There will be pain, but the pain will come from the transition, and it will be temporary.
Anyway, I could go on and on. I’m happy it was a soldout event and that so many people expressed an interest in this issue. I only wish, as May pointed out, the debate was around what to do, not whether to do. I also got the sense that many of the people who attended were simply out of touch with the realities facing the world outside our own privileged lives. When the debate ended we all walked out of the theatre, grabbed a glass of wine, chatted, laughed, then on the way out were handed a box of chocolates. Have a nice evening… so spoiled we are, and far too content.