Thursday, 17 October 2013

Girl, there's a better place for me and you..

Reading Lord Ridley's letter to the Guardian a couple of days ago, my first response was to wish to be critical of some of the assertions within. This is because his expressed views, on first reading, tend to clash with mine on certain significant matters.

Fortunately, I took a little time to do some background research. The origin of the letter is a response to Bob Ward's somewhat acerbic inclusion of Ridley's supposed role in the GWPF's 'campaign' to undermine the AR5 in advance. The Ridley article is paywalled at the Times, but a copy is on his blog. In it, he argues that the 'climate debate' has become too polarised and a 'third way' might actually be more constructive.

So far, so good: I also believe that the debate has polarised - it was always adversarial, but in my original blog, Old Man in a Cave, I sought to encourage a more 'open' kind of response to what I believe is genuine uncertainty amongst the general public (of people not trained in science) about the significance and meaning of climate change. In the intervening years it seems to have hardened further. I, too, believe in a 'third way', but for different reasons.

I also note that much of Ridley's argument is a reiteration of his previous article, in May, which was analysed, criticised and discussed in detail at the time - there seems no point in going over that old material. For the record, I am satisfied that Lord Ridley is a sincere person who is expressing an opinion based on a genuine interpretation of a substantial amount of research and previous discussion. He means what he says and doesn't view this as being any part of a 'conspiracy', rather it is, to him, a reasoned and reasonable response to the evidence as he has interpreted it. No doubt some will think I am naive, but I prefer to think of myself as 'accepting' - I will presume the good intentions and sincerity of others as far as is possible, unless it becomes evident that the other in question refuses to reciprocate.

There are so many avenues of discussion arising from Ridley's article and other writings, but I will focus today simply on the content of the Guardian letter, and consider two questions: firstly; are we right (him and me) to argue for a depolarisation of 'the climate debate'? Secondly, what is it in his letter that makes me feel that we are potential adversaries?

The letter's opening statement contains the first ticking timebombs of potential disagreement:

"In his continuing attempt to polarise the climate debate into believers and deniers, Bob Ward has resorted to conspiracy theories and attacked me..."

For someone seeking to promote a 'honest debate' this might not be the best way to start.

To a hardened climate science enthusiast, this reads as a characteristic 'role reversal' strategy - let's establish who is the 'attacker' and who the 'victim'; it is the 'alarmist' who is attepting to polarise the debate, and the 'alarmist' who is resorting to conspiracy theories.

It doesn't take very long for an intelligent and curious reader to find endless examples of 'attempts to polarise' and 'conspiracy theories' in the climate debate, but historically these domains have tended to be occupied far more by so-called 'denialists' than by their adversaries. I personally think that the successful polarisation (and subsequent politicisation) of GW discussion has been one of the more significant achievements of those who have consistently advocated or pursued inertia as the best response to climate change.

Since this kind of role-reversal is a familiar strategy in the climate change rhetoric it is easy to understand why an experienced reader might immediately assume that all that follows is going to be another example of obfuscating, procrastinating disinformation. Which means that a reader like me is already predisposed to find fault with the content. Which is a successful polarisation. If I am provoked, my 'human' response is to become and adversary, and so the game goes on. This doesn't feel like we are setting the grounds for an 'honest debate'.

Next, the letter goes on to cite Tol:

"Professor Richard Tol's 2009 summary of 14 separate studies found that there is likely to be net global benefit to human or planetary welfare from warming till temperature has increased by 2.2 degrees from 2009 levels, which is about 3 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. This is before taking adaptation into account so it is conservative."

This is important because it forms the foundation of much of the following argument. To me, it is worrying because it suggests that much of Lord Ridley's opinion is founded on Tol's analysis, from his paper of 2009, for example. I have no doubt that others have pointed out that Tol's analysis has its critics, and that some have argued that his principal argument contains flaws and the dependent conclusions are thus called into question.

It also seems to suggest that this particular analysis has greater weight to Ridley than others by such as Stern (2007). A cynic might observe that we are disposed to accept the evidence which tends to support our pre-existing prejudices and prefer them to evidence which contradicts them, and suggest that this may be what is going on here. I know this is true for me, though I do try to be self-aware about it.

But I suspect that it is the final section of the letter, which is so dependent on the validity of the Tol position, which really got me ticklish:

"Millions of people are currently being driven into fuel poverty, hunger, malnutrition and respiratory ill health by today's climate policies. Mr Ward appears to think they should be ignored in favour of concern for the welfare of wealthier people in the next century."

The first of these two sentences is, to me, deeply misguided. I cannot think of anything I have recently read which could possibly support this statement. It runs so counter in every respect to the material I have read on the subjects concerned that I feel inclined simply to assert that this is not true. I'm not claiming it is a lie, only that it is wrong, a false assertion. And I believe it would be so irrespective of whether it depended as it does on the unproven assertions of Tol.

The second sentence raises a matter which I do believe is a genuine conundrum: what value do we place on the interests of future generations in relation to the present generation and how do we measure this? It doesn't help that it has been phrased in terms which are once again likely to provoke polarisation, rather than 'honest debate'. But it also looks at least superficially that Ridley has already made his mind up on this, and that he does not think there is sufficient evidence of substantial future harm at a level which would justify present investment (no, not sacrifice or suffering, but investment).

A finishing point. Debate is an interesting phenomenon. I used to do a lot at school. It is the basis of procedure in Politics, especially the two-party model, and in Law. It is a potentially valuable and useful tool for reaching a Hegelian Synthesis from a thesis and antithesis. But it is fundamentally polarising. It presumes adversarial interaction. The procedure is not dialogical but rhetorical. I do believe that open, honest interaction between people is the 'third way' to address both private and public engagement in the issues of climate change. I am not convinced that 'debate' is the best tool for the job.

None of the above should be read as suggesting that I am defending Ward or attacking Ridley. I am presenting my own reaction, partially deconstructed, of what I read and how I reacted. Ward and Ridley are big boys, they can resolve their own differences.