Munk debate on climate change gets it wrong

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.

9 thoughts on “Munk debate on climate change gets it wrong”

  1. False. I was there, and Elizabeth May made a silly pig of herself. She was rude and obnoxious, and completely blew herself out of the water with her Lesotho crap. I found it hilarious that halfway out of her mouth, the “king of Lesotho” thing didn’t sound so good and she lowered her voice very quickly. Her and George – with his terrible cliches and tropes – were the worse debaters by quite a bit. No mention of the feedback loop, which was unbelievable.

  2. Thanks for covering this so articulately Tyler. I really wanted to be there but couldn’t and now am glad that I didn’t. I like you am biased, but I find myself resenting more and more, so called experts who are given time at a podium who really don’t know their subject matter well, and are given to spewing misinformation like it is fact.

    It’s unfair for the likes of May and Monbiot to have to do battle of wits with unarmed opponents.

  3. I had listned to an interview with Bjorn and Monbiot on CBC radio before the event and was also disappointed. When debating what problem we should focus on, neither person pointed out that all these problems that we face are all symptoms of a larger issue: our society is based on a socioeconomic system that relies on constant growth (i.e. exponential growth). Exponential growth in any natural system cannot be sustained. It results in many problems, including having an ecological footprint that is larger then the earth, climate change, fisheries collapse, etc…
    We need to address the problem and aim for a no-growth society. Some of the symptoms, like climate change are so threatening, that they need to be addressed as well, but let’s not kid ourselves that we can continue on a ecomic growth pathway even if we are powered by PV or wind turbines.

  4. I was at one of the webcast sites and I came away from it really furious that the two deniers were given such a platform. I felt that May and Monbiot did a great job under the circumstances.

    Lawson in particular threw out wild numbers, started to justify them (at least he said he would) but never did. Just woolly platitudes. Same for Lomborg. I was particularly surprised at his ending remark that the difference at the end of the century would be 6 hours … did I mishear him. I wish someone had asked him to justify that number.

    It was distressing that the original vote on the motion was only 61% in favour but that may reflect a biased audience. Although the organizers said they would post the results of the second vote on their web site I have yet to find it.

  5. I do find it interesting that someone is labelled a “silly pig” and “rude and obnoxious” for her informed passion on a subject matter, and for her honest arguments. We Canadians, so polite and proper we are, simply can’t tolerate passionate argument. Yes, I guess if you follow strict Hart House debating rules, Lawson and Lomborg scored points for throwing out half-truths and outright wrong information without backing it up. That is quite the skills. The words “slippery” and “dismissive” come to mind, which are good things to be I guess when simply trying to win a debate and not truly inform is the goal of an evening. I should add that the issue being debated set up May and Monbiot to lose. Also, by putting together Lomborg and Lawson — the former believing in global warming but not decisive action, and the latter denying it altogether — it merely muddied the waters and divided the attentions of May and Monbiot, who were aligned in their views. Technically speaking, you may be right — Lomborg and Lawson did win, in much the same way Stephen Harper has been able to win over enough of the electorate by spinning, bending and ignoring facts.

  6. I guess by now everyone knows that the final result was 56% in favour so the deniers managed to convince 5% of the audience to switch to their side. Very scary. I think I am going to look for property in Western Antartica which I gather could be very desirable in a few years.

  7. What I was surprised with was the swing of the online poll in the webcast before the debate and after. 61% in favour and 39% opposed the resolution before the debate and after the debate 53% of people agreed with the motion and 47% were in opposition. I believe there was about 1500 watching online.

    Whatever was said did not change my mind, since it was a lot of hot air being blown around!

  8. I am one of those rare species that will not take the word of any politician whether right, middle or left. The most disturbing is when the media spew their political poison on the public. I was so happy to finally hear some meaningfull debates especially on climate change. I just wish the Munk debate would continue on this important subject…..I am so sick and tired of listening to only one view point, this makes me very, very suspicious and I raise up a red flag for “ALERT, DANGER, BEWARE….what is their hidden agenda?
    We always need to hear both sides of the story.

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