Thursday, May 14, 2009

economists vs climate

Guardian and Observer columnist Will Hutton says 'the environment is too important to be left to the green movement'.

Right out of the blocks, it's like he wants his opinion to be shot down. The article is based around the new book by his friend, Labour peer and The Third Way author, Anthony Giddens.

Given the groundswell of climate activism in the teeth of state opposition compared to the runaway train of hopeless implosional incompetence and sleaze in the Labour party, you've got to admire his brass balls for starting with

The green movement as it stands should receive the last rites.

But anyway, allegiances aside, let's deal with what he actually says.

The best arguments to kill the "so-what" factor over climate change are not scary tales from a far-distant future. It is to argue for investment in energy efficiency because it saves cash and makes strategic sense.

This is right, to an extent. Given the choice between cutting back consumption - feeling like you're not providing for your family - versus a few polar bears karking it, the guys in fur don't stand a chance. As George Marshall has made clear, climate change is not a mere environmental issue and we have to stop talking about it in those terms.

So yes, let us emphasise the immediate and personal benefits of climate mitigation, where it is true. But what about where it's not? What about where it costs more?

As if to illustrate this, Hutton goes on

Cars powered by electricity or hydrogen are cheaper.

No they are not. Hydrogen car makers won't sell any, only lease out a handful of them as decoys. Three guesses as to why.

In December 2002 Yozo Kami, Honda’s engineer in charge of hydrogen fuel cells, said it would take at least ten years to get the price of a hydrogen car down to $100,000. This from the people making one of the cheapest prototypes.

Some of the changes we make will cost us more. Some of the changes are for the benefit of the others elsewhere, geographically or chronologically. But if the Conservatives can make such a splash with their frankly brilliant 'Gordon Brown's debt' campaign focus, we can presume people are amenable to the idea of not fucking over your immediate descendants. Providing for your family and protecting resources for your children amount to the same thing.

many mainstream environmental intellectuals drop rigour when it comes to the environment, climate change and risk. Under the precautionary principle, almost nothing should be done that endangers the climate, just in case the worst scientific warnings are right. The aim should be sustainable development - to grow economically in a way that passes the globe on to the next generation in the same condition in which we found it.

Giddens joins Lawson in dismissing this thinking as wretchedly woolly. Are we really going to risk nothing? This is a refutation of our very risk-taking humanity.

The precautionary principle is not about being a quivering timid fool, 'risking nothing'. It is about ensuring that if there's a risk of serious and irreversible harm then those advocating the action must prove that the risk is worth taking. In this case, they must show that those worst scientific warnings are highly unlikely.

The idea that we should discount the precautionary principle on climate issues because of some inherent primal 'risk taking humanity' is, in itself, the most wretchedly woolly thinking I've heard in quite some time.

As a tangent, since when do we have that? Humans are almost universally prey to a range of risk-averse activities such as paranoia, vertigo and nervously worrying about mutually exclusive possibilities, every bit as much as we are reckless.

But anyway,

sustainable and development should not be used together so loosely. Development is a dynamic concept that necessarily depletes resources. Poor countries such as China or India can only develop unsustainably. They must burn coal. To ask the entire world to commit to sustainable development is to damn the less developed world to poverty. Those countries will never agree.

To say they can ever catch up to western levels of consumption is an even crueller strategy than letting them try. It will turn out to be impossible and saddle future generations with a legacy of squandered resources and climate change (as well as inflict poverty through the effects of climate change).

Jared Diamond compared American consumption to that of other countries and calculated

China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent. If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But I haven’t met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people.

This does not, though, mean 'damning them to poverty'. We can use our resources to feed, clothe, house and medicate everyone without the extraneous tat that - and let's get this message out - doesn't really contribute to western happiness anyway. Clean water, clean power sources? You got it. Ready availability of 134 different types of cheese from around the world? Gotta lose that.

Having some countries develop by inflicting climate change on the rest is not a matter of justice or poverty mitigation. It's about making a few rich at the expense of the many.

the G20 protesters interpret climate change as proof positive of the evils of capitalism and the capitalist state... Climate change cannot be a political game, to be played as and when it suits particular protesters - G20ers or middle-class nimbys

Ah yes, because the G20 protesters are clutching at anything to validate their randomly chosen position. It's not that they see climate change as a symptom of a wider problem, or as the inevitable result of a literally insane system that thinks we can consume an indefinitely increasing amount of finite resources. They're just 'playing it when it suits them'.

Still, a former stockbroker turned economics journalist is unlikely to be able to question the basics of our economic model, even if it can be explained in less than two sentences why it is completely delusional.

Capitalism is not the cause of climate change (anyone see what the Soviet Union did in terms of industrial facilities?), but it is a system predicated on perpetual economic growth, which means spiralling consumption of resources, notably energy. To get ever increasing amounts of energy as cheaply as possible, we will burn fossil fuels. Certainly, we would not leave lucrative fossil fuels in the ground. This makes consumer-capitalism and climate change inseparable.

As George Monbiot highlighted

In a lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering in May, Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College explained that a growth rate of 3% means economic activity doubles in 23 years. At 10% it takes just 7 years. This we knew. But Smith takes it further. With a series of equations he shows that "each successive doubling period consumes as much resource as all the previous doubling periods combined."

In other words, if our economy grows at 3% between now and 2030, we will consume in that period economic resources equivalent to all those we have consumed since humans first stood on two legs. Then, between 2030 and 2053, we must double our total consumption again.

When we're at a point where even the stock of renewable resources are collapsing, it's time to use the word crisis, and past time to be an apologist for a system that wants us to accelerate into the abyss.


Gyrus said...

Haven't read Hutton, but from what you've highlighted he seems to be stumbling 5 years behind Nordhaus & Shellenberger's 'Death of Environmentalism' paper. Some valid criticisms of some aspects of green activism overblown into a headline-grabbing, straw-man-hitting, probably wrong-headed "paradigm shift", away from "old style" environmentalism to something new (and more friendly to corporations and capitalism).

The valid tactical stuff about emphasizing direct benefits in the present just becomes too attractive, and gets inflated to the point where it becomes an obvious avoidance of the sacrifices that need to be made.

And since when did the green movement ever claim to want to manage the problem of the environment by itself? Hasn't it been shouting all this time to ask people to realize it's everyone's problem to manage?

punkscience said...

Will Hutton is a dripping corporate phallus.

Anonymous said...

great idea-let them claim housing benefits for their second homes..