Poles Apart

Frustrated by the polarised debate on human-caused climate change Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal set out to evaluate the evidence for themselves. On the basis of this book, they apear to have been relentlessly open-minded in this quest…and in the end, they conclude that yes, we do need to be concerned. It is totally against the spirit of the book to point this out – but Gareth Morgan is noted for coming to his views independently and skeptically, plus he is an economist and – all other things being equal 🙂 – reasonably fond of economic growth – so if he thinks human-caused climate change is an issue we need to take seriously, it really is most likely that we do. But read the book – it ought to be convincing for anyone with an open-mind.

Morgan and McCrystal also take some shots at greenies and environmentalists for taking an irresponsible role in this debate, muddying the science with their keen-ness to use it when it suits to butress attacks on consumerism and capitalism that are primarily ideological (don’t worry they also take aim at fossil-fuel industry-funded deniers).

I think this criticism raises some valuable points for the green/environmental movement.

We would do well to avoid the temptation of ‘latching on to the latest scare’. Whether the ‘scares’ are real or not (and there are plenty of scary ecological realities developing in our world that people really do need to wake up about), using scares exposes us to these risks:

  • We will be seen to be dishonest, (which is ultimately self-defeating) if the concern is not really about the ecological issue but about underlying values and society
  • We will look foolish if the science changes
  • There is a real danger of oversimplifying and scaremongering
  • It is negative expression  – “Do A to avoid B”, rather than a positive statement of values and vision

Latching on to the ‘latest scare’ can often be a kind of avoidance: understandable, but not in our long-term best interests.

It avoids the hard work of thinking deeply about green values and how they might be translated into the practice of society and government, and it avoids the hard work of convincing people of the merits of green values. The trouble is, if we haven’t reflected properly on our values and their implementation how will we be equipped a) to persuade others and  b) to cope with the complex ethical and practical challenges of office if we gain it? And if we haven’t done the work persuading people about green values, how can we expect to form socio-politically sustainable coalitions in support of green policies?

I am not saying that we can persuade people by ideas & words alone. We also need to practice being kind & decent people who are having a reasonable go at walking the talk. But if our ideas are incoherent and/or we can’t successfully express them and argue for them in ‘conversations’* with others, we won’t be terribly persuasive.

Right: back to the book. Morgan and McCrystal’s  conclusions are, (with some comments from me):

  1. The case for human-caused climate change is stronger than against
  2. The range of uncertainty is high (but I would note that the uncertainty seems to be much more heavily weighted towards the danger of reaching – scary – higher temperatures, rather than towards undershooting to low projections see- we’ve achieved 0.8 centigrade of the IPCC’s low-end projection of 1.8 C by 2100 projection already).
  3. Developing optimal public policy can be ‘somewhat challenging’ in the face of that uncertainty – but we do need to take it seriously.

Gareth Morgan & John McCrystal Poles Apart: Beyond the shouting, who’s right about climate change?’ (2009)

* using the term in its widest possible senses

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