This evening I’m attending a debate on climate change in Toronto, at the Munk Centre. George Monbiot (UK journalist) and Elizabeth May (leader of the Canadian Green party) are debating Bjorn Lomborg (Danish economist) and Nigel Lawson (ex UK finance minister) on the resolution “Be it resolved climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and demands a commensurate response“. I’m planning to liveblog all evening. Feel free to use the comments thread to play along at home. Update: I’ve added a few more links, tidied up the writing, and put my meta-comments in square bracket. Oh, and the result of the vote is now at the end.
Monbiot has long been a critic of the debate format for discussing climate change, because it allow denialists (who only have to sow doubt) to engage in the gish gallop, which forces anyone who cares about the truth to engage in a hopeless game of whack-a-mole. The was an interesting story over the summer on how Ian Plimer (Australia’s most famous denialist) challenged Monbiot to a debate. Monbiot insisted on written answers to some questions about Plimer’s book as a precondition to the debate, to ensure the debate would be grounded. Plimer managed to ignore the request, and then claim Monbiot had chickened out. Anyway, Monbiot has now decided to come to Canada and break his no fly rule, because he now sees Canada as the biggest stumbling block to international progress on climate change.
Lomborg, of course, got famous as the author of the Skeptical Environmentalist. His position is that climate change is real, but much less of a problem than many other pressing issues, particularly third world development. He therefore opposes any substantial action on climate change.
May is leader of the Canadian Green Party, which regularly polls 5-6% of the popular vote in federal elections, but has never had an MP elected in Canada’s first past the post system. She is also co-author of Global Warming for Dummies.
Lawson is a washed up UK Tory politician. He was once chancellor of the exchequer (=finance minister) under Margaret Thatcher (and energy minister prior to that), where he was responsible for the “Lawson boom” in the late 1980’s, which, being completely unsustainable, led to a an economic crash in the UK. Lawson resigned in disgrace, and Thatcher was later forced out of office by her backbenchers. [personal note: I was in debt for many years as a result of this, due to money we lost on our apartment, bought at the peak of the boom. I'm still sore. Can you tell?]
I think they’re about to start. To make this easier, and to attempt to diagnose any attempt at the gish gallop, I’ll use the numbers from Skeptical Science whenever I hear a long debunked denialist talking point. By the way, there’s a live feed if you’re interested.
First up. Peter Munk is introducing the event. He’s pointing out that the four debaters are the “rock stars” of climate change, and they have travelled from all over the world to the “little town” of Toronto. [Dunno about that. There are no scientists among them. Surely the science matters here?]
Oh cool, I just discovered Dave Roberts is liveblogging too.
At the beginning, 61% of the audience of 1100 people support the proposition, but 79% of the audience said they could potentially change their mind over the course of the debate. Seven minutes each for opening statements.
First speaker is Nigel Lawson. He agrees it’s an important issue, and is seldom properly debated. He claims it’s a religion and that people like Gore will not debate, and will not tolerate dissent. He’s separated the issue from environmentalism, and framed it as a policy question. He claims that most climate scientists don’t even support the proposition. He cites a survey in which just 8% of scientists said that global warming was the most important issue facing humanity [is this an attempt to invoke SS3? Maybe not - see comments]. [Oh SS8!]. And he’s called for an enquiry into the CRU affair. Okay, now he’s picking apart the IPCC report. Now he’s trying to claim that economically, global warming doesn’t matter, even at the upper end of the IPCC’s temperature anomaly forecast. And now he’s onto the Lomborg argument that fastest possible global economic growth is needed to lift the third world out of poverty, which must be based on the cheapest form of energy [by which he presumably means the dirtiest]. And he’s also arguing that mankind will always adapt to changing climate.
Okay, he’s run out of time. Summary: he thinks the proposition is scientifically unfounded and morally wrong.
Next up: Elizabeth May. The clock run over on Lawson’s time, and the moderator has credited the time to May, so she kicked off with a good joke about an innovative use of cap-and-trade. She is grieved that in the year 2009 we’re still asking whether we should act, and whether this is the defining threat. She says we should have been talking tonight about how to reach the targets that have been set for us by the scientific community, not whether we should do it [good point, except that the proposition is about "mankind's defining crisis", not whether we should tackle climate change]. She’s covering some of the history, including the 1988 Toronto conference on climate change, and it’s conclusions that the threat of climate change was second only to global nuclear war. And now a dig at Lawson, who served under prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who fully understood 19 years ago that the science was clear. We know we have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere. This year 30% more CO2 in the atmosphere than any time in the last few million years [this is great - she's summarizing the scientific evidence!]. She’s pointing out the CRU emails are irrelevant, there was no dishonesty, just decent scientists being harrassed. And anyway, their work is only one small strand of the scientific work. Quick summary of the indicators: melting glaciers, melting polar ice, sea level rise 80% faster than the last IPCC projection. Since the Kyoto protocol, political will has evaporated. Now we’ve run down the clock, and there’s very little time to act. [big applause! The audience likes her].
Next up: Bjorn Lomborg: Human nature is a funny thing – we’re not able to take anything seriously unless it’s hyped up to be the worst thing ever. He’s claiming the “defining crisis” framing is so completely over the top that it only provokes extremist positions in response. So he thinks polarization is not helpful. He’s listing numbers of people living without food, shelter, water, medicines to cure diseases. Hence, he can’t accept that global warming cannot compare to these pressing issues of today. Oh, he’s an eloquent speaker. He’s thinks we lack the political will because we’re barking up the wrong tree. [False dichotomy about to appear...] we cannot focus on third world poverty if we focus on climate change. He thinks the cure for climate change is much more expensive than the problem, and that’s why the political will is missing. He thinks solar panels are not going to matter today, because only once they are cheap enough for everyone to put them up, then everyone will just put them up anyway. Hence we need lots more research and development instead, not urgent policy changes. So we need to stop talking about “cuts, cuts, cuts” in emissions, and find a different approach. So he says global warming is definitely a problem, but it’s not the most important thing, and while we will have to solve it this century, we should be more smart about how we fix it. And he summarizes by saying there are many other challenges that are just as important.
Monbiot: Hidden in the statement is a question: how lucky do you feel. Lawson and Lomborg obviously feel lucky because they don’t think we should prepare for the worst case, and what they are advocating does not even address the most optimistic scenario of the IPCC. He’s making fun of Lawson, who he says has single handedly rumbled those scientists and caught them at it: whereas NL says warming has stopped, the scientists instead show that 8 out of the last 10 years are the warmest in recorded history. Now he’s showing a blank sheet of paper saying it’s the sum total of Lawson’s research on the science! And he’s demolishing the economic arguments of Lawson and Lomborg and countering with the extensive research of the Stern report, who found that the cost of fixing the problem amounted to 1% of GDP, while the costs amounted to 5% to 20% of GDP [pity he didn't use my favourite quote from Stern: climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever]. So who do you believe: Stern’s extensive research or Lawson’ belief in luck? And he’s attacking the argument that we can adapt. And especially in the poorer parts of the world – he’s pointing out that these people suffer the most from the effects (he’s familiar with impact of the climate change droughts in the horn of Africa where he worked for a while). Best adaptation technology there is the AK47: when the drought hits, the killing begins. [Bloody hell, he's good at this stuff]. Now he’s pointing out Lomborg’s false dichotomy – money for fixing climate change doesn’t have to come out of foreign aid budgets. The answer to the question of whether we should invest in fixing climate change or in development, the answer is ‘yes’ [laughter]. So this is not a time for cheap political shots [much laughter, as he acknowledges that's what he's been doing], then says “but we can do that because we’re on the side of the angels!”. [Hmmm. Not sure about that line - it's a bit arrogant].
Okay, now the rebuttals [although I think Monbiot's opening statement was already a great rebuttal].
Lawson first: he disagrees with everything the other side said. He says Monbiot is incapable of distinguishing a level from a trend. If a population grew and then stopped growing you could still say the population is at the highest level it has ever been. [and so the inference is that we're currently at the peak of a warming trend. That's a really stupid thing for an economist to argue.] He’s trying to claim that most scientists admit there has been no warming and (oh, surely not) he’s using the CRU emails to back this up – they are embarrassed they can’t explain the lack of warming. [pity Lawson doesn't know that the quote is about something quite different!]. He’s trying to discredit Stern now by citing other economists who disagree. He’s claiming Stern was asked to write a report to support existing government policies (and isn’t even peer-reviewed).
May up next: In terms of years on record, she’s pointing out that year-on-year comparisons are not relevant, and scientists know this. We’re dealing with very large systems. Oh, and she’s pointed out the problem with ocean acidification, which she says Lomborg and Lawson ignore. She’s looked at the CRU emails, and she’s read them all. She’s pointing out that, like Watergate, what was stolen was irrelevant, what matters here is who stole them and why. She’s citing the differences between the Hadley data and NASA data, and pointing out that the scientists are speculating about the differences, and that they are due to lower coverage of the arctic in the Hadley data set. She’s quoting from specific emails with references, and she’s checked with the IPCC scientists (including U of T’s own Dick Peltier) and they have no doubt about the trend decade-on-decade. [Nice to see local researchers getting a mention for the local U of T audience - it's a great stump speech tactic]
Monbiot’s up again, and the moderator has asked him to address the issues about the Stern report. Monbiot points out that having accused the scientists of fraud, Lawson is now implying that the UK government was trying to commit suicide, if it’s true (as Lawson asserts) they had demanded the results Stern offered. Far from confirming the government’s position, it put the wind up the government. And he’s trying to drive a knife between L and L, by pointing out they have different positions on whether there has been warming this century.
Lomborg: Claims that the Stern report is an extremist view among economists. And that the UK government had approached two other economists before Stern but didn’t get the answer they wanted. And he’s trying to claim that because Stern’s work was a review of the science rather than original research, that makes it less credible [huh?? That's got to be a candidate for stupidest claim of the evening]. So now he’s saying that on the one hand Monbiot would have it that thousands of scientists support the IPCC reports, but ignores the fact that thousands of climate economists disagree with Stern’s numbers.
Now the moderator is back to Lawson, and asking about the insurance issue: Doesn’t it make sense to insure ourselves against the worst case scenario? Lawson says this is not really like insurance, because it’s not compensation we’d be after [okay, good point]. He says it’s like proposing to spend more money on fireproofing the house than the house is worth [wait, what?? He thinks the world is worth less than the cost of mitigating climate change??]. Clearly Lawson thinks the cost-benefit trade-off isn’t worth it.
May: a lot of people in the developing world are extremely concerned about the effects of climate change. Oh great dig at Bjorn, she’s pointing out that Bjorn only argues against climate change action, but doesn’t ever argue in favour of development spending in the third world, and therefore is a huge hypocrite [yes, she called him that to his face]. And the climate crisis is making AIDS worse in Africa every day. Lomborg is tring to butt in, but the moderator is calling for civility – he’s given them a time-out!!! May isn’t accepting it! [Well, that was exciting!].
Monbiot: we spend very little on foreign aid, and would like to see us spend more. And points out that climate change makes things worse, because the drought causes men to leave the land, and move to the cities, where they meet more prostitutes, and then bring AIDS back to their families (this is according to Oxfam). Just to maintain global energy supplies (from fossil fuels), between now and 2030, we need to spend $25 trillion US dollars. And the transfer to the oil rich nations in the process will be $30 trillion. So it isn’t a case of whether or not we spend money on fighting climate change. It’s a question of what investments we will make in which forms of energy in the future. And he’s pointed out that peak oil might mean we simply cannot carry on depending on fossil fuels anyway.
Lawson again. The moderator asked him to comment on whether there are beneficial effects of investing in alternative energy – He briefly admits there might but then ignores the question. He’s trying to debunk peak oil by pointing out that when he was energy secretary in the 80’s experts told him we only had 40 years of oil supplies left, and they still say that today, and they always say that. And the thinks global agreement will never happen anyway, because China will never agree to move to more expensive energy sources, and is busy buying up oil supplies from all the surrounding countries.
The moderator has cut off discussion of peak oil, and wants to talk about what’s the tipping point about CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere: 450ppm? 500ppm? Lomborg first. He accepts we’re going to see a continued rise in concentrations. He’s pointing out the difference between intensity cuts and real cuts [sure, but where is this going? Oh, I see...] he claims that because China realised they would get the intensity cuts of 40% anyway just by efficiency gains, they could claim to have set agressive targets and will make them by doing nothing different, but everyone then applauds them for making progress on emissions [I'm still not sure of the point - I don't remember anyone heaping praise on China for emissions progress, given how many new coal-fired power stations they are building]. He’s now saying that if Monbiot says we should also spend on development then he’s moving over to their side, because climate change is no longer the defining crisis, it’s just one of many. He’s pointing out that fighting climate change is a poor way to fight AIDS, compared to say, handing out condoms.
May: points out that Lomborg puts forward strawman arguments and false choices. The people arguing for action on climate change *are* the people calling for more efficient technology, new alternative energy sources, etc. Whereas Lomborg would put this up as a false dichotomy. She’s pointing out that many of the actions actually have negative cost, especially changes that come from efficiency gains. In Canada, we waste more energy than we use. She says the problem with debating Lomborg is that he quotes some economists and then ignores what else they say (and she’s waving Lomborg’s book around and quoting directly out of it).
Monbiot again, and the moderator is asking about potential benefits from rising temperatures, e.g. for Canada. GM says in the IPCC report, beyond 3ºC of warming, we have a “net decrease in global food production”. Behind these innocent sounding words in the IPCC report is a frightning problem. 800 million people already go hungry. If there’s a net decrease in food production, it’s saying we are moving to structural famine situation, which makes all the other issues look like sideshows in the circus of human suffering [Nice point!]. So, let’s not make false choices, we need to deal with all these issues, but if we don’t tackle climate change, it makes all other development issues far worse. In Africa, 2°C of warming is catastrophic, and these are the people who are not responsible in any way for climate change. The cost for them isn’t in dollars, it’s in human lives, and you can’t put a price on that. You can’t put that in your cost-benefit analysis. Human life must come first.
Lomborg: we all care about other species on the planet and about human life. But he’s arguing that we can save species more effectively by making more countries rich so they don’t have to cut down their forests [I'm hopping up and down at the stupidity of this! Why does he think the Amazon rainforest is disappearing?!], rather than by fighting climate change. Okay, now he’s arguing that cutting emissions is futile because it will make very little difference to the warming that we experience. So it’s better not to do it, and go for fast economic growth instead. He’s claiming that economic development is much more effective than emissions reduction [again with these false dichotomies!!]. He claiming that each dollar spent on climate change mitigation would save more lives if spend directly on development.
Okay, now he’s going to the audience for questions. Or apparently not: Lawson wants to say something: The great killer is poverty. Whereas economic aid helps a little bit, what really helps is economic development. He’s arguing that forcing people to rely on more expensive energy slows down development. Now he’s arguing with Monbiot’s point about a net reduction in food production after 3ºC rise. He’s saying that food production will rise up to 3°C, and after that will still be higher than today, but will not rise further [This is utter bollocks. He's misunderstood the summary for policymakers, and failed to look at the graphs on page 286 of AR4 WG2]. He says the IPCC also says, on the topic of health, that the only health outcome that they IPCC regards as virtually certain is the reduction in death from cold exposure [Oh, stupid, stupid stupid. He's claiming that the certainty factors are more important than the number of different types of impact. How does he think he can get away with this crap?].
Monbiot again, and the moderator is asking what’s the best way to lift people out of poverty. Monbiot points out that in Africa it’s much cheaper to build solar panels than to build an energy infrastructure based on bringing in oil. You can help people to escape from poverty without having to mine fossil fuels, and thereby threaten the very lives we’re trying to protect. And now, he’s citing the actual table in the IPCC report to prove Lawson wrong. He’s pointing out to an economist, every thing is flexible, if you want more food you just change the price signals. But if the rains stop, you can’t get more food just by the changing price signals, because nature doesn’t pay any attention to the economy. E.g. a recent Hadley study showed that 2.1 million extra people will be subjected to water stress at 2°C rise, and these people can’t be magic’d away by fiddling with a spreadsheet. Climate change isn’t about the kinds of choices that L&L are suggesting.
And the moderator is inviting May to add and last comments before the wrap up. She says the problem with this discussion is that we haven’t established the context for why action is so urgent. The climate crisis is putting in place some fundemental new processes (in earth systems), and the question is when can we stabilize carbon concentrations so that the temperature rise stops, giving us a chance to adapt (and she thinks adaption is just as important). Only one of the issues we face on the planet today moves in an accelerating fashion, unleashing positive feedback effects – e.g. releasing methane from the melting permafrost, the impact on pine forests by increasing insect activity, releasing more as they decay. The decreased albedo when the polar ice melts. Good point: she points out the work of Stephen Lewis who has done far more than Lomborg to address poverty, and he agrees that climate change is an urgent issue.
Now, final wrap up, 4 minutes each, opposite order to the opening remarks:
Monbiot: He’s concerned about climate change because of his experience in Kenya. In 1992, when he was there, they were suffering their worst drought to date. They had run out of basic resources, and the only thing they could do was raid neighbouring tribes for resources. Mobiot was supposed to visit a cattle camp, but collapse with malaria and was taken off to hospital, and it was the luckiest thing in his life, because when he finally made it to visit the place a few weeks later, the cattle camp he was supposed to have visited had been totally destroyed – all that was left of the 93 people who lived there were their skulls – shot in the night by raiders who were desperate because of the drought, which was almost certainly due to climate change. This is what it’s really about – not spreadsheets and figures, but life and death. This is what switched Monbiot on to climate change. All our work on fighting for social justice and fighting poverty will have been in vane if we don’t stop climate change. All the development agencies – Oxfam, etc, who are on the front line of this, are telling us that climate change is mankind’s defining crisis.
Lomborg: Nobody doubts that everyone here has their heart in the right place. However, he’s arguing that it’s not clear they are suffering because of global warming. Rather than reducing drought by some small percentage by the end of the century, we should make sure they get development now. He’s arguing against Monbiot’s water stress numbers. He’s claiming that “George and Elizabeth” moved over to his side (they’re violently shaking their heads!). He’s claiming that when Elizabeth supports investment in clean energy, she’s come over to his side! His core argument is that the best we can do is postpone global warming by six hours at the end of the century [This is truly a bizarre claim. Where does he get this from?]. So how do we want to be remembered by our kids: for spending trillion dollars on something that was not effective, or working on economic development now.
May: We’ve seen lots of theatre this evening, but the issues are serious. She says Lomborg plays with numbers and figures in a way she finds deplorable. The scientists have solid science that compelled people like Brian Mulroney and Margaret Thatcher to call for action. And somehow we’ve lost that momentum. She’s pointing out the flaw in Lomborg’s argument about water – if the average amount of water is the same, that’s no good if it’s an average over periods of drought and deluge. She’s raised ocean acidification again: how will we feed the world’s people if we kill off life in the ocean? She’s talking about the GRACE project (Dick Peltier gets a mention again) monitoring the West Antarctic ice sheet, and how it is melting now. If it melts, we get a nine metre sea level rise, and no economist can calculate the cost of that. And she’s giving a nice extended analogy about how if the theatre really is on fire, you don’t listen to people trying to reassure everyone and tell them to stay in their seats.
Lawson: Why aren’t scientists pleased there hasn’t been warming over the last few years? [SS4 again. How does he think he'll get away with this?] they’re upset about it rather than being pleased! [CRU misinterpretation again]. Again, on the water issue – if you get cycles of drought and deluge you capture the water, and solve the real problem rather than the climate change problem [Oh, this is just stupid. You patch the effects rather than tackling the cause??]. He’s now saying that May and Monbiot have the best rhetoric, but there’s a gap between politicians’ rhetoric and the reality. And in all his career he’s never seen such a gap between politician’s rhetoric and what they are doing (as on the topic of climate change). And he claims it is because the cost is so great there’s no way they can go along with what the rhetoric says [Oh, surely this is an own goal? The gap is so big exactly because this is a 'defining' crisis!]. He doesn’t believe in rhetoric, he believes in reason [LOL], working out what it is sensible do do.
Moderator: it’s one thing to give a set speech, and quite another to come onto a stage and confront one another views in this type of forum. He’s calling for a vote from the audience. Pre-debate, 61% supported the motion. They will collect the results on the way out and announce them shortly after 9pm tonight. And now he’s invited the audience to move to the reception. Okay, I guess that’s it for now.
Update: The results show that some people were swayed against the proposition: still a majority in favour, but now down to 56% after the debate, with 1050 votes cast.
Okay, time for some quick reflections. Liveblogging debates is much harder than liveblogging scientific talks – no powerpoints, and they go much much faster. I’m typing so fast I can’t reflect, but at least it means I’m focussing on what they’re saying rather than drifting off on tangental thoughts…
I think the framing of the debate was all wrong in hindsight. The proposition that it’s “mankind’s defining crisis” allows Lomborg to say that there’s all this other development stuff that’s important too (although May managed to call him a hypocrite on that, rightly so), and then get Monbiot and May to say that of course they support development spending in the poorer parts of the world as well, which then lets Lomborg come back with the rejoinder that the proposition must be wrong because even Monbiot and May agree we have many different major problems to solve. Of course, this is all a rhetorical trick, which would allow him to claim he won the debate – he even tried twice to claim M & M had moved over to his side. Meanwhile in the real world all these rhetorical tricks make no difference because the science hasn’t changed, and the climate change problem still has the capacity to spiral out of control and, as Monbiot points out, swamp all our other problems. And there’s Lawson at the end claiming he doesn’t believe in rhetoric, he believes in reason, all the while misquoting and misrepresenting the science. I actually think Lawson was an embarrassment, while Lomborg was pretty effective – I can see why lots of people who don’t know the science that well are taken in by his arguments.
Ultimately I’m disappointed there was so little science. May did a great job summarizing a lot of the science issues, but everyone else just ignored them. I doubt this debate changed anyone’s minds. And the conclusion: A majority of the audience agreed with the proposition that climate change is mankind’s defining crisis. I.e. not just that it’s important, and we need action, but the whole issue really is a massive game-changer.