World views dominate the climate fight

by Stephan Lewandowski

Last week’s ABC documentary I can change your mind about… climate pitted Former Senator Nick Minchin, who considers climate science to be a pretext to de-industrialize the Western world, against Anna Rose, a young climate activist who heads a grassroots organisation of 57,000 members. The narrative: Anna seeks to change Nick’s mind about climate change.

The documentary and subsequent Q&A panel made for good TV. But did they contribute to understanding the true situation with regard to climate change?

At one level, the documentary did the public a disservice because it reinforced the myth that there is a scientific “debate” surrounding the existence and causes of climate change when in fact that issue was resolved long ago.

Science is debate – but current scientific debate does not rehash 150-year-old laws of physics. Current debate considers the horrendous and increasingly frequent extreme weather events: Which of those extreme floods or heat waves were due to climate change, and which could have occurred by natural variability alone?

At another level, however, the documentary succeeded in revealing what the public “debate” is really about: It is not about the science, it is about a clash of divergent worldviews and personal ideologies.

We know the “debate” is about worldviews because Nick Minchin has publically restated his rejectionof the overwhelming scientific evidence after the documentary aired whereas Anna Rose hasreiterated the strength of the scientific evidence. This state of affairs was entirely predictable: When worldviews are involved, no amount of evidence will sway someone’s mind. Indeed, ironic “backfire” effects can occur whereby a worldview-based belief, however mistaken, becomes even more entrenched upon presentation of contrary evidence.

In order to understand the debate, we must therefore understand those divergent worldviews.

On the one hand, there is Anna Rose, who is allied with the overwhelming majority of geophysicists and climate scientists around the world. Anna agrees with virtually all major scientific organisations in the world, which have recognised that “thousands of scientists have painted an unambiguous picture: the global climate is changing and humanity is almost surely the dominant cause”. Anna, and others who share her worldview, agree with the US National Academy of Sciences that climate change is a “settled fact” and that the observed warming “is very likely due to human activities”.

According to this worldview, humanity is facing a clear risk, and to meet this risk we need to decarbonise our economy, even if this entails a cost to our public and personal budgets.

We don’t know if Anna and those who share her worldview care much about the burden on the mining and steel industry, to cite two industries for which decarbonisation presents a particular – and potentially existential – challenge.

On the other hand, there is Nick Minchin, whose views are shared by numerous Free Market think tanks, both here and abroad. Nick believes that “the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left, and… they embraced environmentalism as their new religion”. To him, climate science is just an “opinion”, a political tool that greenies and tree huggers can use to forestall further human progress. Nick is keenly aware of the fact that any action on climate change will entail a burden on businesses, which is why he also opposed the notion that second-hand tobacco smoke is detrimental to your health, citing the over-regulation of the tobacco industry.

According to this worldview, climate science is “riddled with corruption” and “has become a political tool and weapon to control people”. Nick can therefore ignore the more than 20,000 scientists who convene at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union to debate the latest in climate science – a debate which most definitely does not consider long-resolved questions about the human causes of climate change.

We don’t know if Nick and those who share his worldview care much about the 150,000 annual fatalities from climate change that the World Health Organisation is enumerating, or whether they care that the number of weather-related natural disasters has tripled in the last 30 years.

At first glance, those two worldviews appear incompatible.

And yet, they have something fundamentally in common: both worldviews are centred on a perceived risk. Both worldviews are willing to take one gamble but not another.

Anna’s worldview sees climate change as a grave risk, and she is willing to gamble that putting a price on carbon will not return us to the caves of the stone age.

Nick’s worldview sees decarbonisation of the economy, and the government regulation it might entail, as a grave risk, and he is willing to gamble that we can get away with ignoring climate change.

Which of those gambles should society take?

Do we gamble on the economy or on the well-being of the planet?

And who can adjudicate those gambles?

Let’s begin by asking the professional risk managers, the insurance industry. Those businessmen have rendered a fairly clear verdict, with Munich Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurers, labelling climate change “one of the greatest risks facing mankind.”

The insurers say we need action on climate change.

Let’s ask the economists who specialise in cost-benefit analysis as a tool to manage risks. All of the world’s foremost economists who have considered climate change, from Bill Nordhaus at Yale to Martin Weitzman at Harvard to the conservative Richard Tol at Dublin to our own Ross Garnaut, have come to the same conclusion: We need to cut emissions to preserve our prosperity.

The economists are saying we need a price on carbon.

Let’s consider precedents for climate action around the world. Let’s recognise that Denmark cut carbon emissions by 21 per cent between 1990 and 2006 while at the same time increasing its GDP by a whopping 44 per cent. Germany reduced carbon emissions by 28 per cent whilst increasing GDP by 32 per cent and creating more than 300,000 clean-energy jobs. So unless you call a Mercedes-Benz, Audi, or Porsche a cave, Germans didn’t return to the stone age by cutting emissions.

Let’s also remember that a recent CSIRO study indicated that some 3 million jobs could be created in Australia during a 20-year transition to a low-carbon economy.

Finally, let’s consider the threat of regulation that so challenges the worldview of Nick and other free-market libertarians. Will action on climate change mandate regulation or government interference in the sacrosanct free market?

It is crucial to understand that this is the wrong question to ask.

The question is not whether climate action will interfere with the free market.

The question is whether we want to minimise that interference by putting a price on carbon now, or whether we want to postpone the inevitable for another few years until draconian measures become inevitable.

In 2004, Steve Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University reported in Science that:

“humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century.”

In a 2011 update of their work, Socolow concluded that the task had become far more difficult because we did not take advantage of the opportunities available in 2004.

Every day of delay of climate action closes a window of opportunity for the free market to solve the problem.

Every day of delay renders more likely what Nick Minchin fears most: interference with the free market.

Stephan Lewandowsky is an Australian Professorial Fellow and Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia. On Twitter he is @STWorg. His research examines the role of scepticism in the updating of memories and acquisition of knowledge and the role of uncertainty in people’s thinking about climate change. View his full profile here.