I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the role of Universities in the Climate Crisis. I plan to write more on this, but first, here’s a piece I scribbled on a napkin during a workshop prior to the pandemic, on bringing human values in to computer science, and never got around to sharing…

We speak of research agendas, curriculum change, working with practitioners, etc, as if the future world (over the next decade or so) will be like the present world. It won’t be.

The next decade will be marked by a struggle for rapid transformational change throughout society, and the outcome of that struggle will determine the future of human civilization. Yet everything we’ve mapped out speaks of incremental change. It’s a gradualist agenda that talks about working with existing companies, existing curricula, existing research labs, nudging them to take human values a little more seriously in their work.

But if you take seriously the confluence of (at least) three serious and urgent crises, it’s clear we don’t have time for an incrementalist approach:

1) The climate crisis, in which digital technology is deeply implicated. The carbon footprint of computing is growing dramatically, because we’re putting the internet in everything, and it’s amplifying all the worst trends of our disposable, consumerist society. Silicon valley’s model of innovation (“move fast, break things, and leave others to clear up the mess”) has focussed for so long on finding new ways to monetize our data that we’ve forgotten what innovation really looks like. A reminder: over the next decade or so, we need to completely transform our energy infrastructure to reach net zero global emissions. We can’t do this while silicon valley continues to hoover up all the available investment capital.

2) Automation and AI, which threatens to destroy any notion of a stable job for vast sectors of society, and which replaces human empathy for the cold, impenetrable injustice of algorithmic regulation (How do we just say “no” as a society to such technologies?).

3) The dismantling of democracy, through the use of ubiquitous digital surveillance by autocrats and corporatists, and the exploitation of (addictive) social media as a vector for extremist propaganda designed to pit us against one another.

So we should be striving for a much more radical agenda that envisages the wholesale transformation of the computing profession, putting an end to the technological solutionism of Silicon valley, turning it into a humble enterprise that places human dignity first. We need to dismantle the stranglehold of the big five tech corporations, break the relationship between digital technology and consumerism, and give ourselves the power to ban some technologies completely. We should not put activism in a box. As academics, activism should infuse all of our teaching, all our research, all our community engagement. If we’re not working for transformational change, we’re reinforcing the status quo.

Put simply, we need to recognize the unique historical moment we find ourselves in, and the role computing has played in our current existential crises.

I spent some time yesterday exploring the Occupy Toronto happening in St James’ Park, and snapping photos. There’s something wonderful about the atmosphere there – one that makes me more optimistic for the future:

The place was a hive of activity. One of the things that impressed me the most was the organization that’s gone into it. There’s a medical tent (with a sign requesting no photos), a media tent (with free wifi):

an open library with an extensive set of books:

a makeshift kitchen:

…and the all important whiteboard listing what’s needed:

It was my first time seeing the human mic in action, and I was blown away by how that works as a community-building exercise.

And definitely kid-friendly:

And unlike most political rallies that feature celebrity speakers, this is entirely a grassroots affair. There’s some people down there who are brilliant at building the quiet, open atmosphere that’s conducive to community building.

And plenty of fun to be had doing sign writing:

Some of the signs had a strong Canadian theme. Our mayor (Rob Ford) features in many of them – for the non-locals, we have a ridiculously over the top right-wing mayor who tried to slash spending for everything from libraries to daycare this summer, and got a serious comeuppance from the citizenry in response. That’s him, on the orange sign below, being mocked for his election slogan that he would clear out the “gravy” from city hall (his consultants’ report showed the city is run very efficiently, and there is no gravy!). Oh, look, and right next to it, a Climate Justice sign:

Interestingly, the signs focus on sustainability just as much as economics. Here’s on that combines both themes very nicely:

And of course, plenty of artistic talent:

Today there was a mass demonstration in Ottawa against the Keystone XL pipeline. The protest in Canada is largely symbolic, as our prime minister has already given the project the go-ahead. But in the US, a similar protest in Washington really does matter, because the decision on whether to allow the project to go ahead will rest squarely with the president.

Others have eloquently explained the issue. I would recommend ClimateSight for a recent overview & background on the protests, and David Pritchard for a sober analysis of the emissions impact.

As I couldn’t make it to Ottawa to make my voice heard, I’ve drafted a letter to Obama. Feel free to suggestion improvements; I plan to send it later this week.

President Obama,

When you were elected as president you spoke eloquently about climate change: “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.” And you repeated your campaign promise to work towards an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. These were fine words, but what about the tough decisions needed to deliver on such a promise?

Sometime in the next few months, you will have to make a decision on whether to allow the Keystone XL pipeline project to go ahead. The pipeline represents a key piece of the infrastructure that will bring onstream one of the largest oil deposits in the world, and a source of liquid fuel that’s somewhere between 15 to 40% worse in terms of carbon emissions per gallon than conventional oil (Pritchard, 2009). The question over whether we will dig up the tar sands and burn them for fuel represents a crucial decision point for the people of the entire planet.

If the pipeline goes ahead, many jobs will be created, and certain companies will make huge profits. On the other hand, if the pipeline does not go ahead, and we decide that instead of investing in extracting the oil sands, we invest instead in clean energy, other companies will make the profits, and other jobs will be created elsewhere. So, despite what many advocates for the pipeline say, this isn’t about jobs and the economy. It’s about what type of energy we choose to use for the next few decades, and which companies get to profit from it.

I’m a professor in Computer Science. My research focusses on climate models and how they are developed, tested, and used. While my background is in software and systems engineering, I specialize in the study of complex systems, and how they can be understood and safely controlled. In my studies of climate models, I’ve been impressed with the diligence and quality of the science that has gone into them, and the care that climate scientists take in checking and rechecking their results, and ensuring they’re not over-interpreted.

I’ve seen many talks by these scientists in which they reluctantly conclude that we’ve transgressed a number of planetary boundaries (Rockstrom 2010). Nobody wants this to be true, but it is. Yet these scientists are continually attacked by people who can’t (or don’t want to) accept this truth. The world is deeply in denial about this, and we’re in desperate need of strong, informed leadership to push us onto a different path. We need an intervention.

The easy part has been done. The science has been assessed and summarized by the IPCC and the national academies. The world’s governments have peered into the future and collectively agreed that a global temperature rise of more than 2°C would be disastrous (Randalls, 2010). It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to take us to a global climate that’s hotter than at any time since humans appeared on the planet.

Now the tough decisions have to be made for how to ensure we don’t exceed such a limit. One of the hardest dilemmas we face is that a significant fraction of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to stay within the 2°C target. Some recent results from modelling studies allow us to estimate how much of the worlds remaining fossil fuel reserves must remain unexploited (Allen et al, 2009).

Cumulatively, since the dawn of the industrial era, humanity has burnt enough fossil fuels to release about 0.5 trillion tonnes of carbon. Some of this stays in the atmosphere and upsets the earth’s energy balance. Some of it is absorbed by the oceans, making them more acidic. The effect on the climate has been to raise global temperatures by about 0.7°C, with about half as much again owed to us, because the temperature response lags the atmospheric change by many years, and because some of the effect has been masked by other forms of short-lived pollution.

If we want to contain rising global temperatures to stay within the target of no more than 2°C of warming, then humanity cannot burn more than about another 0.5 trillion tonnes. Ever. This isn’t something we can negotiate with the planet on. It isn’t something we can trade off for a little extra economic growth. It is a physical limit. The number is approximate, so we might get away with a little more, but there’s enough uncertainty that we ought to be following good engineering practice and working with some significant safety margins.

Reasonable estimates of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves tell us that there is enough to release at least double this amount of carbon. So we have to find a way to leave around half these reserves untapped (Monbiot 2009; Easterbrook 2009). That’s a problem we’ve never solved before: how can we afford to leave such valuable commodities buried under the ground forever?

The only sensible answer is to use that fraction that we can burn as a transition fuel to effect a rapid switch to alternative energy sources. So it’s not so much a question of leaving resources alone, or failing to exploit opportunities for economic development; it’s more a question of choosing to invest differently. Instead of seeking to extract ever more sources of oil and coal, we should be investing in more efficient wind, solar, hydro and geothermal energy, and building the infrastructure to transition to these fuels.

Which brings us to the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline is significant, as it represents a vital piece of the infrastructure that will bring a major additional source of fossil fuels onstream, one that produces far more emissions per unit of energy than conventional oil, and that has the potential, if fully exploited, to double again the emissions from oil reserves. If we decide to build this infrastructure, it will be impossible to pull back – we’re committing the world to burning a whole new source of fossil fuels.

So the Keystone XL pipeline might be one of the most important decisions you ever get to make as president. It will define your legacy. Will this be the moment that you committed us to a path that will make exceeding the 2°C limit inevitable? Or will it be the moment when you draw a line in the sand and began the long struggle to wean us off our oil addiction?

That oil addiction is accidentally changing the planet’s life support system. The crucial question now is can we deliberately and collectively change it back again?

Yours faithfully,

Prof Steve Easterbrook.

Al Gore is part way through a 24-hour, round-the-globe, live broadcast, called Climate Reality. I haven’t been able to tune in as I’m travelling, but it includes broadcasts from NCAR in Boulder, and the University of Victoria. I hope it helps get the science across, but 24 hours seems like a lot in today’s soundbite world.

I’m struck by the thought that one of the key problems for getting the message across is the complexity of the problem, and the lack of a simple slogan to unite everyone. I came up with a design for a T-shirt, but somehow it doesn’t resonate:

Hmm, actually I quite like it. Maybe I should have some T-shirts printed…

21. July 2011 · 21 comments · Categories: advocacy

Whew, it’s hot out there today. Toronto was the hottest place in Canada this afternoon. The humidex hit 51. Environment Canada tells me that above 45 is dangerous, and around 54 means “heatstroke imminent”. I just stepped outside to see what it’s like and … it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My better half has forbidden me from cycling home in this, so I’m pondering what to do next. This feels like a taste of “Our future on a hotter planet”. So, some idle thoughts…

To many people, living comfortable middle class lives in North America, climate change is some vague distant threat that will mainly affect the poor in other parts of the world. So it’s easy to dismiss, no matter how agitated the scientists get. If you follow this line of thinking, it quickly becomes clear why responses to climate change divide cleanly along political lines:

  • If you care a lot about fairness and equity, climate change is an urgent, massive problem, because millions (maybe even billions) of poor people will suffer, die, or become refugees as the climate changes.
  • On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with a world in which there are massive inequalities, where some people live rich lavish lifestyles while others starve to death, then climate change is a minor distraction. After all, famines in undeveloped countries are really nothing new, and we in the west are rich enough to adapt (Or are we?).

The dominant political ideology in the west (certainly in the English-speaking countries) is that such inequality is not just acceptable, but necessary. So it’s hardly surprising that right wing politicians dismiss climate change as irrelevant. No amount of science education will change the mind of people who believe, fundamentally, that they have no obligation to people who are less fortunate than themselves. As long as they believe that they are wealthy enough that climate change won’t affect them, that is.

But doesn’t a heatwave in a Canadian (!) city that makes it dangerous to be outside change things completely? We Canadians are used to the cold. We know how to dress up, and we embrace winter through a variety of winter sports. You can’t embrace extreme heat in the same way. If the body cannot cool down, you die. No matter how rich you are.

If people start to understand that this will be the new normal, it changes the issue from a question of equity to a question of health. Our elderly relatives are at risk first. And small children. But even a healthy adult can’t avoid heat stress if the body cannot cool down enough. What’s unusual about this heatwave (and the one that hit Europe in 2003) is that it doesn’t cool down much overnight. And nighttime temperatures are rising even faster than daytime temperatures. That’s a massive threat to public health, especially in cities.

And with that thought, how am I going to get home?

11. July 2011 · 3 comments · Categories: advocacy

Okay, so it’s a few years old, but I’d never seen this series of videos by National Geographic before. I’m not convinced you can slice the impacts into 1 degree increments with any reliability, but this series does a nice job of getting the big picture across (much better than Lynas’ book, which I found to be too lacking in narrative structure):

What’s uncanny is how much of what’s presented in the 1 degree video is already happening now.

I’ve been invited to speak at a workshop next week run by the Leadership Program at the office of Student Life, as part of their sustainability leadership series. The workshop is on “Activist Burnout and Systems Thinking“. I’m responsible for the systems thinking part (although I’m hoping to come up with some creative ways of linking both themes together). The workshop is open to anyone at U of T – come along and join in the fun.

Great news – I’ve had my paper accepted for the 2010 FSE/SDP Workshop on the Future of Software Engineering Research, in Santa Fe, in November! The workshop sounds very interesting – 2 days intensive discussion on where we as a research community should be going. Here’s my contribution:

Climate Change: A Grand Software Challenge


Software is a critical enabling technology in nearly all aspects of climate change, from the computational models used by climate scientists to improve our understanding of the impact of human activities on earth systems, through to the information and control systems needed to build an effective carbon-neutral society. Accordingly, we, as software researchers and software practitioners, have a major role to play in responding to the climate crisis. In this paper we map out the space in which our contributions are likely to be needed, and suggest a possible research agenda.


Climate change is likely to be the defining issue of the 21st century. The science is unequivocal – concentrations of greenhouse gases are rising faster than at any previous era in the earth’s history, and the impacts are already evident [1]. Future impacts are likely to include a reduction of global food and water supplies, more frequent extreme weather events, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and mass extinctions [10]. In the next few decades, serious impacts are expected on human health from heat stress and vector-borne diseases [2].

Unfortunately, the scale of the systems involved makes the problem hard to understand, and hard to solve. For example, the additional carbon in greenhouse gases tends to remain in atmosphere-ocean circulation for centuries, which means past emissions commit us to further warming throughout this century, even if new emissions are dramatically reduced [12]. The human response is also very slow – it will take decades to complete a worldwide switch to carbon-neutral energy sources, during which time atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will continue to rise. These lags in the system mean that further warming is inevitable, and catastrophic climate disruption is likely on the business-as-usual scenario.

Hence, we face a triple challenge: mitigation to avoid the worst climate change effects by rapidly transitioning the world to a low-carbon economy; adaptation to re-engineer the infrastructure of modern society so that we can survive and flourish on a hotter planet; and education to improve public understanding of the inter-relationships of the planetary climate system and human activity systems, and of the scale and urgency of the problem.

These challenges are global in nature, and pervade all aspects of society. To address them, researchers, engineers, policymakers, and educators from many different disciplines need to come to the table and ask what they can contribute. In the short term, we need to deploy, as rapidly as possible, existing technology to produce renewable energy[8] and design government policies and international treaties to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control. In the longer term, we need to complete the transition to a global carbon-neutral society by the latter half of this century [1]. Meeting these challenges will demand the mobilization of entire communities of expertise.

Software plays a ma jor role, both as part of the problem and as part of the solution. A large part of the massive growth of energy consumption in the past few decades is due to the manufacture and use of computing and communication technologies, and the technological advances they make possible. Energy efficiency has never been a key requirement in the development of software-intensive technologies, and so there is a very large potential for efficiency improvements [16].

But software also provides the critical infrastructure that supports the scientific study of climate change, and the use of that science by society. Software allows us to process vast amounts of geoscientific data, to simulate earth system processes, to assess the implications, and to explore possible policy responses. Software models allow scientists, activists and policymakers to share data, explore scenarios, and validate assumptions. The extent of this infrastructure is often invisible, both to those who rely on it, and to the general public [6]. Yet weaknesses in this software (whether real or imaginary) will impede our ability to make progress in tackling climate change. We need to solve hard problems to improve the way that society finds, assesses, and uses knowledge to support collective decision-making.

In this paper, we explore the role of the software community in addressing these challenges, and the potential for software infrastructure to bridge the gaps between scientific disciplines, policymakers, the media, and public opinion. We also identify critical weaknesses in our ability to develop and validate this software infrastructure, particularly as traditional software engineering methods are poorly adapted to the construction of such a vast, evolving knowledge-intensive software infrastructure.

Now read the full paper here (don’t worry, it’s only four pages, and you’ve now already read the first one!)

Oh, and many thanks to everyone who read drafts of this and sent me comments!

I had a bit of a gap in blogging over the last few weeks, as we scrambled to pack up our house (we’re renting out it while we’re away), and then of course, the roadtrip to Colorado to start the first of my three studies of software development processes at climate modeling centres. This week, I’m at the CCSM workshop, and will post some notes about the workshop in the next few days. But first, a chance for some reflection.

Ten years ago, when I quit NASA, I was offered a faculty position in Toronto with immediate tenure. The offer was too good to turn down: it’s a great department, with a bunch of people I really wanted to work with. I was fed up of the NASA bureaucracy, the short term-ism of the annual budget cycle, and (most importantly) a new boss I couldn’t work with. A tenured academic post was the perfect antidote – I could focus on long-term research problems that interested me most, without anyone telling me what to study.

(Note: Lest any non-academics think this is an easy life, think again. I spend far more time chasing research funding than actually doing research, and I’m in constant competition with an entire community of workaholics with brilliant minds. It’s bloody hard work)

Tenure is an interesting beast. It’s designed to protect a professor’s independence and ability to pursue long term research objectives. It also preserves the integrity of academic researchers: if university administrators, politicians, funders, etc find a particular set of research results to be inconvenient, they cannot fire, or threaten to fire the professors responsible. But it’s also limited. While it ought to protect curiosity-driven research from the whims of political fashions, it only protects the professor’s position (and salary), not the research funding needed for equipment, travel, students, etc. But the important thing is that tenure gives the professor the freedom to direct her own research programme and the freedom to decide what research questions to tackle.

Achieving tenure is often a trial by fire, especially in the top universities. After demonstrating your research potential by getting a PhD, you then compete with other PhDs to get a tenure-track position. You have to maintain a sustained research program over six to seven years as a junior professor, publishing regularly in the top journals in your field, and gaining the attention of the top people in your field who might be asked to write letters of support for your tenure case. In judging tenure cases, the trajectory and sustainability of the research programme is taken into account – a publication record that appears to be slowing down over the pre-tenure period is a big problem; if you have several papers in a row rejected, especially towards the end of the pre-tenure period, it might be hard to put together a strong tenure case. The least risky route is to stick with the same topic you studied in your PhD, where you already have the necessary background and where you presumably have also ‘found’ your community.

The ‘finding your community’ part is crucial. Scientific research is very much a community endeavor; the myth of the lone scientist in the lab is dead wrong. You have to figure out early in your research career which subfield you belong in, and get to know the other researchers in that subfield, in order to have your own research achievements recognized. Moving around between communities, or having research results scattered across different communities might mean there is no-one who is familiar enough with your entire body of research to write you a strong letter of support for tenure.

The problem is, of course, that this system trains professors to pick a subfield and stick with it. It tends to stifle innovation, and means that many professors then just continue to work on the same problems throughout the rest of their careers. There’s a positive side to this: some hard scientific problems really do need decades of study to master. On the other hand, most of the good ideas come from new researchers – especially grad students and postdocs; many distinguished scientists did their best work when they were in their twenties, when they were new to the field, and were willing to try out new approaches and question conventions.

To get the most value out of tenure, professors should really use it to take risks: to change fields, to tackle new problems, and especially to do research they they couldn’t do when they were chasing tenure. A good example is inter-disciplinary research. It’s hard to do work that spans several recognizable disciplines when you’re chasing tenure – you have to get tenure in a single university department, which usually means you have to be well established in a single discipline. Junior researchers interested in inter-disciplinary research are always at a disadvantage compared to their mono-disciplinary colleagues. But once you make tenure, this shouldn’t matter any more.

The problem is that changing your research direction once you’re an established professor is incredibly hard. This was my experience when I decided a few years ago to switch my research from traditional software engineering questions to the issue of climate change. It meant walking away from an established set of research funding sources, and an established research community, and most especially from an established set of collaborative relationships. The latter I think was particularly hard – colleagues with whom I’ve worked closely for many years still assume I’m interested in the same problems that we’ve always worked on (and, in many ways I still am – I’m trained to be interested in them!). I’m continually invited to co-author papers, to review papers and research proposals, to participate in grant proposals, and to join conference committees in my old field. But to give myself the space to do something very different, I’ve had to be hardheaded and say no to nearly all such invitations. It’s hard to do this without also offending people (“what do you mean you’re no longer interested in this work we’ve devoted our careers to?”). And it’s hard to start over, especially as I need to find new sources of funding, and new collaborators.

One of the things I’ve had to think carefully about is how to change research areas without entirely cutting off my previous work. After many years working on the same set of problems, I believe I know a lot about them, and that knowledge and experience ought to be useful. So I’ve tried to carve out a new research area that allows me to apply ideas that I’ve studied before to an entirely new challenge problem – a change of direction if you like, rather than a complete jump. But it’s enough of a change that I’ve had to find a new community to collaborate with. And different venues to publish in.

Personally, I think this is what the tenure system is made for. Tenured professors should make use of the protection that tenure offers to take risks, and to change their research direction from time to time. And most importantly, to take the opportunity to tackle societal grand challenge problems – the big issues where inter-disciplinary research is needed.

And unfortunately, just about everything about the tenure system and the way university departments and scientific communities operate discourages such moves. I’ve been trying to get many of my old colleagues to apply themselves to climate change, as I believe we need many more brains devoted to the problem. But very few of my colleagues are interested in switching direction like this. Tenure should facilitate it, but in practice, the tenure system actively discourages it.

A wonderful little news story spread quickly around a number of contrarian climate blogs earlier this week, and of course was then picked up by several major news aggregators: a 4th grader in Beeville, Texas had won the National Science Fair competition with a project entitled “Disproving Global Warming”. Denialists rubbed their hands in glee. Even more deliciously, the panel of judges included Al Gore.

Wait, what? Surely that can’t be right? Now, anyone who considers herself a skeptic would have been immediately, well, skeptical. But apparently that word no longer means what it used to mean. It took a real scientist to ask the critical questions, and investigate the source of the story: Michael Tobis took the time to drive to Beeville to investigate, as the story made no sense. And sure enough, there’s a letter that’s clearly on fake National Science Foundation letterhead, with no signature, and sure enough, the NSF have no knowledge of it. Oh, and of course, a quick google search shows that there is no such thing as a national science fair. Someone faked the whole thing (and the good folks at Reddit then dug up plenty of evidence about who).

So, huge kudos to MT for doing what journalists are supposed to do. And kudos to Sarah Taylor, the journalist who wrote the original story, for doing a full followup, once she found out it was a hoax. But this story just begs the question: how come, now that we live in such an information rich age, so few people can be bothered to check out the evidence about anything any more? Traditional investigative journalism is almost completely dead. The steady erosion of revenue from print journalism means most newspapers do little more than reprint press releases – most of them no longer retain science correspondents at all. And if traditional journalism isn’t doing investigative reporting any more, who will? Bloggers? Many bloggers like to think of themselves as “citizen journalists”. But few bloggers do anything more than repeat stuff they found on the internet, along with strident opinion on it. As Balbulican puts it: Are You A “Citizen Journalist”, or Just An Asshole?

Oh, and paging all climate denialists. Go take some science courses and learn what skepticism really means.

Take a look at this recent poll from Nanos on priorities for the upcoming G8/G20 meetings. Canadians ranked Global Warming and Economic Recovery as the top two priorities for the meetings, but note that global warming beats economic recovery for the top response across nearly all categories of Canadians (with the exception of the old fogeys, in the 50+ age group, and westerners, who I guess are busy getting rich from the oil sands). Overall, 33.7% of Canadians ranked Global Warming as the top priority, while 27.2% named Economic Recovery.

There’s some other interesting results in the poll. In the breakdown by party voting preferences, the Block Quebecois and the NDP seem much more worried about Global Warming than Green Party supporters: 59.3% of BQ voters and 41.5% of NDP voters ranked it first, while only 33.8% of Green Party voters did. So much for the myth that the green party is a single issue party, eh?

Oh, and if you look at the results to the later questions, Global warming is clearly the issue on which Canada is perceived to be doing most badly in terms of Canada’s place in the world.

09. March 2010 · 1 comment · Categories: advocacy

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Skeptical Science, and in particular, the new iPhone app. Now there’s another site: Truth Fights Back, which is funded by US senator Kerry, and therefore has a strong US-centric approach, but I won’t hold that against the site, as both the design and content are excellent. Maybe the climate science community did need a swift kick in the pants to get its act together on communicating with the public.

(h/t to MT)

In the last year, there were three major attempts to assess the current state of the science of climate change, as an update to the 2007 IPCC reports (which are already looking a little dated). They have very similar names, so I thought it might be useful to disambiguate them:

  • The Copenhagen Synthesis Report was put together at the University of Copenhagen to summarize a conference on “Climate change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions” that was held in Copenhagen in March 2009. The report has some great summaries of the research presented at the conference, and puts it all together to identify six key messages:
    1. Observations show that many key climate indicators are changing near the upper boundary of the IPCC range of projections;
    2. We have a lot more evidence now on how vulnerable societies and ecosystems are to temperature rises;
    3. Rapid mitigation strategies are needed because we now know that weaker targets for 2020 will make it much more likely we will cross tipping points and make it much harder to meet long term targets;
    4. There are serious equity issues because the impacts of climate change will be felt by those least able to afford to protect themselves;
    5. Action on climate change will have many useful benefits, including improvements in health, revitalization of ecosystems, and job growth in the sustainable energy sector;
    6. Many societal barriers need to be overcome, including existing social and economic policies that subsidize fossil fuel production and consumption, weak institutions and lack of political leadership.
  • The Copenhagen Prognosis was released in December 2009, put together as a joint publication of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. It focuses on the evidence behind the key issues for an international climate treaty, especially the target of limiting warming to 2°C, and the political actions necessary to do this. The key messages of the report are:
    1. The 2ºC limit is a scientifically meaningful one, because of the evidence about the damage caused by rises above this level;
    2. Even rises below 2°C will have devastating impacts on vulnerable communities and ecosystems (and for this reason, 80 nations have endorsed the idea of setting a global target to be “as far below 1.5ºC as possible”);
    3. Analysis of potential tipping points shows that currently discussed political targets will be unable to protect the world from devastating climate impacts and self-amplifying warming;
    4. Global greenhouse gas emissions must decline very rapidly after 2015, and reach net zero emissions by mid-century, if we want a good (75%) chance of staying below 2ºC of warming;
    5. The challenge is great, but not impossible – such a reduction in greenhouse gases appears to be technically feasible, economically affordable, and possibly even profitable (but only if we start quickly);
    6. The challenge will be especially hard for developing countries, who will need serious assistance from developed countries to make the necessary transitions;
    7. This will require unprecedented levels of North-South cooperation;
    8. Equitable allocation of carbon dioxide budgets suggest that industrialized nations must reach zero net emissions (or even negative emissions) in the 2020-2030 timeframe;
    9. Securing a safe climate for generations to come is now in the hands of just one generation, which means we need a new ethical paradigm for addressing this;
    10. The challenge isn’t only about reducing emissions – it will require a shift to sustainable management of land, water and biodiversity throughout the world’s ecosystems;
    11. The achieve the transformation, we’ll need all of: new policy instruments, new institutions for policy development and enforcement, a global climate fund, feed-in tariff systems, market incentives, technological innovations,
  • The Copenhagen Diagnosis was also released in December 2009. It was put together by 26 leading climate scientists, coordinated by the University of New South Wales, and intended as an update to the IPCC Working Group I report on the physical science basis. The report concentrates on how knowledge of the physical science has changed the IPCC assessment report, pointing out:
    1. Greenhouse gas emissions have surged, with emissions in 2008 40% higher than in 1990;
    2. Temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.19°C per decade over the past 25 years, in line with model forecasts;
    3. Satellite and ice measurements show the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass at an increasing rate, and mountain glacier melting is accelerating;
    4. Arctic sea ice has declined much more rapidly than the models predicted: in 2007-2009 the area of arctic sea ice was 40% lower than the IPCC projections.
    5. Satellite measurements show sea level rise to be 3.4mm/year over the last 15 years, which is about 80% above IPCC projections. This rise matches the observed loss of ice.
    6. Revised projections now suggest sea level rise will be double what the IPCC 2007 assessment reported by 2100, putting it at least 1 meter for unmitigated emissions, with an upper estimate of 2 meters; furthermore, sea levels will continue to rise for centuries, even after global temperatures have stabilized.
    7. Irreversible damage is likely to occur to continental ice sheets, the amazon rainforest, the West African Monsoon, etc, due to reaching tipping points; many of these tipping points will be crossed before we realize it.
    8. If global warming is to be limited to 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020, and then decline rapidly, eventually reaching a decarbonized society with net zero emissions.

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.