Stephen Fry on Climate Change

Via, I see this. Stephen Fry. I agree with his basic argument actually, the Type A, B and C, also the similarity with Pascal\’s Wager in part. However, there\’s one part left out, quite an important part.

But if A is wrong and actually there is no threat, then acting as if there was will have what consequences? It will have saved fuel bills all over the world, reduced noxious emissions which, even if one doesn’t believe in global warming, are unpleasant pollutants in anyone’s reckoning, and slowed down the day when we find that the fossil fuels have run out. Action would have given us more time to find alternatives. To be fair, it will also have slowed down world growth and inconvenienced all of us in our personal lives and if A Types do turn to have been wrong they may well owe the world an apology and it’ll be red faces (and a brake in the inexorable rise in world economic growth and fuel mineral use) all round.

But surely that’s a small price to pay for backing a losing horse when the stakes are the planet itself?

The thing is, what\’s at stake if climate change is not in fact true (not actually my own belief) and we go ahead and slow down world growth is not a certain amount of personal inconvenience.

It\’s the continued absolute poverty of billions upon billions of human beings. It\’s the continuation of parents seeing a quarter or a fifth of their children dying before their 5 th birthday, the continuation of under-, mal- and insufficient nutrition, something that blights the lives of and stunts the mental and physical development of hundreds of millions. It\’s the continuation of the peasant lifestyle for for some 2 billion across the world.

We don\’t know any way for these people to either be lifted or lift themselves up out of poverty other than economic growth (the option of sharing what we already have, even if possible, which it isn\’t, would leave us each with £4,000 a year. That\’s the NHS, the education system and perhaps £10 a week, maybe £20, to pay for food, clothes, housing and everything else).

So it isn\’t in fact Pascal\’s Wager at all.

If climate change is true (my belief) we do not have a simple solution. We are still balancing the (I would hope shared) aim of aiding those impoverished billions up out of absolute poverty (depending upon how you define it, less than $1 or $2 a day) with reducing the emissions effects of doing so.

If climate change is not true (not my belief) then we will, by slowing the growth of the world economy, condemn said poor to a perpetuation, perhaps an elongation is better, of that poverty.

So, depending upon the moral value you put on Gaia or poor human beings, we could in fact turn the entire Pascal\’s Wager thing around. If you are worried about absolute poverty and convinced of the moral righteousness of trying to end it, then the thing is to do nothing about climate change, whether it is true or not.

That, of couse, is something of a debating trick. My own view is grow the economy as fast as we can and also mitigate as much as we can without damaging that first order priority.

Worth noting that in the SRES, the economic models that underly the IPCC and thus the entirety of climate change science, the most desirable one of the potential outcomes is in fact the one with the maximal economic growth over the next century. For a given value of "desirable" of course.

13 comments on “Stephen Fry on Climate Change

  1. Yup.

    But the GW-nutters already have a counter-argument ready, they say that GW will disproportionately affect the Third World, so they will claim that they have the Third World’s true interests at heart, and that your concern for economic development is just a smokescreen for the fact that you are in the pay of Big Oil, you are a Climate Change Denier and that what you call economic development is a code word for Globalisation, which in their book is a Bad Thing etc etc etc.

  2. I dislike the “saving the planet” phrase. Saving the planet for who or what? Humans appeared and will disappear in blink of a geological eye. The truth is the gaia will forget all about us soon enough.
    We need to look out for ourselves. We need to end poverty and this means we need economic growth.

  3. But is economic growth all that it is being cracked up to be? Whilst you can come over like a bleedin’-heart liberal, saying that, without it, the Third World will be left starving, the fact is that there is no guarantee that economic growth and improved living standards will ever get through to sub-Saharan Africa. After all, this has been the plan for most of the last century and yet Africa seems to be going backwards, not forwards.

    And what about us in the rich West? We already have all the benefits that carbon-fuelled economic growth can bring. Do we really need anymore. How fat and lazy do you want us all to get?

    Tim adds: Let’s put it this way. Without economic growth there is an absolute guarantee that it won’t get through to sub-Saharan Africa. So, the question becomes, do you feel lucky, punk?

  4. Mark W. It’s hardly unreasonable to point out disproportionate effects, if that’s the case. But that’s irrelevant to the if A is false point of this post.

    Tim. It’s just not as clear cut as that. Say global warming is false, even then fighting the chimera, although ‘costly’ by no means necessarily entails keeping more people in poverty for longer. It might, for example, be that manufacturing all those (unnecessary) sustainable fuel and power products would mean increased growth in poor countries. It might be that reducing oil consumption has beneficial knock-on effects (lifting resource curses etc.) You can tell other stories where it does do harm; my point is only that the impact on poverty is ambiguous.

    And besides, the interaction between spending money on something pointless and growth is not that simple. The broken windows fallacy is not so straightforward. How does redecorating your home differ from paying someone to break then repair your windows? How does filming a movie differ from digging a hole in the ground and filling it up again? The point is that people are willing to trade their own income for freshly decorated rooms and movies, and consider themselves better off. You wouldn’t say that the growth of the otherwise useless global entertainment industry is retarding growth, so why would you say the growth of the otherwise useless sustainable energy industry will?

  5. Two posts from Tim Blair – couldn’t have put it better myself.

    1. The Washington Post reviews the work of top United Nations scientists, November 20:

    The United Nations’ top AIDS scientists plan to acknowledge this week that they have long overestimated both the size and the course of the epidemic, which they now believe has been slowing for nearly a decade …

    The Washington Post reviews the work of top United Nations scientists, November 18:

    The world will have to end its growth of carbon emissions within seven years and become mostly free of carbon-emitting technologies in about four decades to avoid killing as many as a quarter of the planet’s species from global warming, according to top United Nations’ scientists.

    2.Flooding and such caused by global warming will destroy everything forever, according to Gore-spooked babypeople. Yet previous floods merely promoted agriculture:

    Using radiocarbon dating and archaeological evidence, a British team showed the collapse of the North American ice sheet, which raised global sea levels by as much as 1.4 meters, displaced tens of thousands of people in southeastern Europe who carried farming skills to their new homes …

    “The flooding of the Black Sea was not well dated but we got it down to about 50 years,” said Chris Turney, a geologist at the University of Exeter, who led the study. “As soon as the flooding is done, farming goes crazy across Europe.”

    It’s almost as though humans have some sort of capacity to adapt. In fact, that capacity may be due to climate change:

    The evolution of our earliest human ancestors was driven by wild swings in eastern Africa’s ancient climate, scientists claim today.

    The rapidly changing climate reshaped the landscape, leaving once plentiful food and water resources in scarce supply and placing enormous pressure on early humans to adapt.

    One thing they didn’t do: reduce carbon output. Seems to have worked.

  6. After all, this has been the plan for most of the last century and yet Africa seems to be going backwards, not forwards.

    It hasn’t been the plan at all. The plan has been to give handouts to the poor, which if it worked would only create dependency, and hasn’t even worked because the handouts have been stolen by the regimes. Creating economic growth would require dismantling the regimes, enforcing democracy, ensuring the rule of law, and safeguarding property rights.

  7. And what about us in the rich West? We already have all the benefits that carbon-fuelled economic growth can bring. Do we really need anymore. How fat and lazy do you want us all to get?

    In the 19th century the head of the US patent office wanted it to be closed down, because everything worth inventing had already been invented.

    Feel free to refuse any more economic growth for yourself, but I’d like to choose for myself, thanks. And if you’re fat and lazy, it’s your own fault, not the fault of economic growth.

  8. >>My own view is grow the economy as fast as we can and also mitigate as much as we can without damaging that first order priority.

    The funny thing is that is not so very different from Stephen Fry’s Type A viewpoint. It isn’t saying “no more economic growth”; what it is saying is that it wants to limit it in order to offset any environmental damage.

    It all depends on where you draw the line between unfetterred economic growth and environmental protection, something we have as a society been doing for over a 100 years. It’s really that Type A thinks the boundaries have to be redrawn more tightly than we have been used to.

  9. Economic growth has allowed us to protect the environment – just look at how much our environment has improved in the West. We can now afford to have a cleaner environment.
    By reducing economic growth now you are reducing our ability to protect the environment in the future.

  10. I’m in absolute agreement with both Tim’s general point and Kit’s point (check The Skeptical Environmentalist for an excellent review of this). However, Tim makes his argument only in the context of absolute poverty, when I do not regard the current state of the developed world as nearly approaching opulent. We may be fortunate but we are far from ideal. Thus curbing growth in places such as the UK can be countered by Tim’s arguement.

    Mark Brinkley, this “seems” about the development pattern of Africa is incorrect. Africa is improving also, albeit slower than some other regions. However, as you mention, not all areas, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, are. Of course if surrounding nations were richer then they could work to reverse that on a more local scale.

  11. >>Economic growth has allowed us to protect the environment – just look at how much our environment has improved in the West.

    This is a lazy argument. The reason the environment in the West has improved is because we have taken a conscious decision to divert money into protecting the environment, which in turn limits economic growth elsewhere.

    For instance, we now have much cleaner rivers than we did a generation ago. Why? Because we have been spending money on the water infrastructure. Money that could have produced growth elsewhere.

    Now if you take Tim’s arguments (and Lomborg’s also) to their logical conclusion, this diversion of spending is a crime against the Third World as it stops sub-Saharan Africa developing. But I don’t hear any complaints about such spending. They only arise when climate change rears its ugly head. Why?

    Tim adds: But I have made this argument. That, for example, the demaded standards for water treatment are too high. They’re diverting resources away from more important things. Indeed, it’s a general complaint about a certain srot of environmentalist. Those who say “No Pollution!”. Bollocks to that. We want the right amount of pollution, that is, the amount that costs us about the same to deal with as it does to do away with it.

  12. Mark Brinkley, you’re losing your sense of proportion. There is a difference between spending money/cutting growth to achieve local improvements that are often swiftly felt (check the surge in fish populations in the Thames) and spending vast amounts of money in an effort to achieve global improvements over a huge timeframe. Nobody is claiming that economic growth is the be all and end all, the difference is by how much, not whether all should be laid to waste if economic growth demands it.

    Furthermore, you might be right – but I don’t think you meant to make this point – that we in the West have started caring about the environment too early (and so spent money on it) and should have focused on the economic development of others more (and thus yielding the greater investment in the long term). I doubt we’ll ever have the facts to know one way or the other. The point is to recognise these trade-offs as real compromises with human health and happiness.

  13. >>We want the right amount of pollution, that is, the amount that costs us about the same to deal with as it does to do away with it.

    Now you are talking and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. But the problem is that we don’t know what is the right amount of pollution. With water, we can make a reasoned judgement. With climate, we are entering uncharted territory.

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