February 22, 2007
Where Stern is Right and Wrong
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Risk & Uncertainty | Technology Policy
The Christian Science Monitor adds a few interesting details to Nicolas Stern's recent U.S. visit. On mitigation Stern explains why the debate over the science of climate change is in fact irrelevant:
Even if climate change turned out to be the biggest hoax in history, Stern argues, the world will still be better off with all the new technologies it will develop to combat it.
If mitigation can indeed be justified on factors other than climate change, which I think it can, then why not bring these factors more centrally into the debate?
Stern also dismissed two other arguments for inaction: that humans will easily adapt to climate change and that its effects are too far in the future to address now. Putting the burden of dealing with climate change on future generations is "unethical," Stern said.
Once again adaptation is being downplayed as somehow being in opposition to mitigation. Stern may in fact believe that we need to both adapt and mitigate, but that is certainly not what is conveyed here. The Stern Review itself adopted a very narrow view of adaptation as reflecting the costs of failed mitigation. When framed in this narrow way there is no alternative than to characterize adaptation and mitigation as trade-offs, and in today's political climate guess which one loses out?Posted on February 22, 2007 07:19 AM
While some of the technologies stern refers to will directly create non-climate benefit (like renewable energy technologies), there are others that could likely only benefit us if climate change isn't a hoax, such as carbon dioxide scrubbers, or carbon injection. It reads to me like Stern is either
Which either means that we should be focusing on the non-climate justifications (as Roger says), or that climate change research is just as likely to produce new, useful technologies, but not necessarily more likely, as other research. In the second case, you still need justification for pursuing climate change research other than the spinoff technologies.
Posted by: Nat Logar at February 22, 2007 11:41 AM
"If mitigation can indeed be justified on factors other than climate change, which I think it can, then why not bring these factors more centrally into the debate?"
This I agree with Roger. Preventative adaption schemes can also be justified through other factors as well.
But, the current state of the debate is about telling people how bad and wicked they are. This doesn't serve anybody well. Developing a broader consensus for policies beyond the narrow and heated debate about climate change would be welcome. However, I fear that this debate is stuck in a binary world.
Posted by: John Lish at February 22, 2007 11:41 AM
Nat, carbon emissions affect other environmental processes besides climate. Carbon dioxide levels affect the relative competitiveness of different plant species (e.g. C3 vs. C4 plants), the interactions between animals and plants, natural decomposition, or ion balance in the seas. Thus, carbon emissions may contribute to the extinction of some species, to unwanted changes in natural landscapes, and to losses of some ecosystem services, even if they did not affect climate. I don't whether anyone has attempted to quantify the economic value of these losses.
Posted by: Biopolitical at February 22, 2007 12:28 PM
Stern may be a little ‘right’ about some things, but then he uses that to reach the wrong conclusions:
“Even if climate change turned out to be the biggest hoax in history, Stern argues, the world will still be better off with all the new technologies it will develop to combat it.”
If the drive to ‘combat’ climate change (a silly concept all by itself) was focused solely on developing a technological fix, there might be some truth to his statement. As it is, the cost of combating climate change will mostly be in the form of government regulation and intervention. Furthermore, the technological advances could very well happen without the threat of climate change, since efficiency and alternate energy sources will be valuable in their own right, as oil becomes scarcer. Assuming that technological advances would not occur without the AGW crisis, is not valid.
Sterns first argument is akin to telling the man in the wheel chair that he is better off as a paraplegic because his arms are stronger now than they would have otherwise been. It is actually insulting!
His second argument, “Putting the burden of dealing with climate change on future generations is "unethical,"…” sounds good only if you don’t think about it too much. So far, every generation that has ever existed has had the burden (or blessing) of dealing with climate. Were the proceeding generations unethical because of this? Since we don’t have any ability as yet to control climate change, are we unethical by default? Is it unethical to leave the next generation the burden to adapt to all future climate change, or only that percentage of climate change that may be the result of this generation’s actions? If so, how do we determine the amount of guilt that we should feel, since we really can not separate the natural from the man-made climate change?
What other possible burdens might future generations face as a result of our actions? Must we anticipate all of these and find cures to avoid being unethical? For example, were previous generations unethical for developing the technologies that provided this generation with abundant food supplies and many labor-saving devices? As a result of this, many suffer from being overweight and lazy! Did the previous generation not have a responsibility to anticipate the problems that might arise from their actions and then inflict hardship on themselves to avoid the current ‘obesity crisis’? Or do the benefits that they produced outweigh the problems that they caused? Are ethics outcome based?
Of course, Stern's invoking ethics is not an attempt at a logical argument, but simply the first step in dismissing critics while avoiding the logical argument, which he would most likely lose! Al Gore sets the same table when he calls global warming a moral issue. If you accept their premise, then you get sucked into agreeing that anyone who questions their message or methods is unethical, immoral or both! It is not a valid argument, but it is an emotionally effective way of manipulating people.
Posted by: Jim Clarke at February 22, 2007 02:56 PM
I can not argue with your statements. While they are true, so is the following:
Thus, carbon emissions may contribute to increased diversity in some environments, to desired changes in natural landscapes, and to gains of some ecosystem services, even if they did not affect climate. I don't know whether anyone has attempted to quantify the economic value of these benefits.
One of the unstated and incorrect assumptions in the modern environmental world view is that environmental change is synonymous with harm, loss and damage. Such an assumption is not supported by the history the planet. Change is the norm! Change is inevitable, at least until the biosphere dies! Only then will the biosphere be unchanging.
We should not be striving for stasis. We should be actively aware of and participating in the dynamics of the biosphere and the non-living Earth systems. Until we change this fundamental perspective, we will continue to suffer from our own ignorance. We do not have the wisdom to control this dynamic system, but we do have the wisdom to flourish in it, if we so choose.
Posted by: Jim Clarke at February 22, 2007 03:43 PM
Jim, you are right. Thank you for your comment.
Posted by: Biopolitical at February 23, 2007 01:55 AM
Roger, A similar question (about mitigation vs. adaptation) was put to Stern during his recent lecture in Oxford. His response was actually very much in line with your arguments in recent posts and in the Nature paper, arguing that he does not want to see what he called a "horse race" between the two. He moreover emphasized the importance of adaptation in parts of his presentation. The report is a separate issue.
It is funny though that we don't hear such vociferous debates about "Education vs Health care" or "R&D vs. defense". Clearly, for most people, society can pursue multiple laudable goals simultaneously. (Of course, if you asked a given person about health vs. defense, you get into different territory)
Posted by: Nate Hultman at February 23, 2007 03:34 AM
Hi Nate- Thanks. This is good to hear!
I do think that we see the same sort of dynamics arise in debates in areas such as medicine where public health approaches to disease (e.g., condoms/AIDS) sometime are in conflict with medical approaches (e.g., developing a vaccine), or even foreign policy where diplomacy conflicts with military intervention. And there are others. The dynamics are between those who seen to control the system versus those who seek to deal with the systemic effects regardless of control. In just about every case a healthy mix is needed . . .
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at February 23, 2007 06:59 AM
Jim, you say: "We do not have the wisdom to control this dynamic system, but we do have the wisdom to flourish in it, if we so choose."
Respectfully, this tells us nothing about what we can or should do. Why does the West have fewer environmental problems that developing nations? Because we've had the wisdom to see problems stemming from externalities and developed mechanisms that generally force economic actors to bear the costs of their behavior.
Is it wisdom to deny that there are externalities from economic behavior that no one country alone can address and thus require collective action?
Posted by: TokyoTom at February 26, 2007 01:47 AM
"Even if climate change turned out to be the biggest hoax in history, Stern argues, the world will still be better off with all the new technologies it will develop to combat it."
Reading "it will develop to combat it" as meaning dertimined as "right" by the centre; for example wind farms etc. This rationale is the same as that which drove the Great Leap Forward. Centrally prescibed outputs.
This is from a supposed economist.
Posted by: Paul at February 26, 2007 09:00 AM