Need to rethink climate change

In: Uncategorized

14 Jul 2008

The following comment by me appeared in today’s issue of Fund Strategy:

On the face of it, the dispute about climate change at last week’s G8 summit in Hokkaido seems childish. The world’s richest countries put pressure on large developing countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In response, the emerging economies argued that the richer nations, with their far higher emissions per head and greater affluence, should bear most of the burden.

Although the two sides agreed on a declaration on energy security and climate change, it was limited to the vaguest and most long-term goals. Greenhouse emissions will be halved by mid-century. By the time 2050 is reached the present summit leaders are likely to be long gone. Gordon Brown will be 101.

Environmentalists – who admittedly are prone to panic – view such prevarication as madness. For them the world’s leaders are squabbling while the planet is on the brink of catastrophe.
But there is a better way to understand the dispute between the developed and developing world in relation to climate change. That is to see it as a reflection of the tension between the practical need for economic growth and the elevation of climate change as a moral obsession.

In practical terms the developed world and, particularly, the developing world need economic growth. Such growth provides the basis for raising living standards, which in turn help to provide legitimacy to the governments which succeed in promoting growth.

But at the same time climate change has come to be viewed as a moral absolute. Anyone who questions the idea that the world is facing climate change catastrophe – not just that the climate is changing – risks being branded a “denier”. The echoes of the derogatory term “holocaust denial” are unmistakable.

Yet it is far from settled that the world is on the brink of a catastrophe. The term “tipping point”, often the basis for such discussions, is rooted in sociology rather than natural science (in 1950s studies of American race relations). Popular discussion often seems more concerned with proclaiming faith than examining the problem and suggesting solutions.

The difficulty is that the common notion that economic restraint is needed to tackle climate change clashes with the need for growth. When the debate is posed in this way it is always likely to be polarised.

The way the relationship between economic growth and climate change is understood needs to be reconsidered.

Comment Form