Musing on “Why We Disagree About Climate Change”

I give in. Over the holiday season I’ve been improving my education by reading Mike Hulme‘s thought-provoking book Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Maybe I’m committing a cardinal sin, but I’m going to try to capture my thoughts on Why We Disagree without a clear idea where they’re leading. Perhaps because I haven’t finished reading the book yet!

Whilst I would recommend Why We Disagree as an introduction to a set of issues that are too rarely and superficially discussed, I find myself alarmed at the way the debate is going. The movement that has grown up in response to the global warming threat is more deeply confused than ever. There is a lack of clarity of thought around far too many aspects of the problem of global warming and how to organise a coherent response.

But what’s prompted me to jump the gun was committing another cardinal sin. I idly followed a backlink to this blog. It was automatically generated, but turned out to be very relevant. It led to a post at Haunting the Library, a new GW sceptic blog, which laid into a truly cringeworthy Guardian CiF piece by a Polly Higgins.

Polly Higgins argues for a “law on ecocide“. She particularly wants to prosecute corporations. Presumably she wants to create a world government or at least rewrite the Treaty of Westphalia.

Preamble: Power and the Law

Putting to one side Polly Higgins’ unwise use of comparisons between ecocide and Nazi genocide – I kid you not, read her piece – she misunderstands the role of the law.  The law expresses power relations between society and the individual.  Once the law proscribes (or prescribes) behaviour of some kind, the norm – for example, “don’t sell drugs” – has been agreed.  OK, the legal system is a contested space, but probably best to fight only battles you have a chance of winning.

Enacting a law does more than express a societal norm.  It also criminalises the behaviour it proscribes (or in the case of civil law recognises plaintiffs’ rights to redress).  There are other options than criminalising undesirable behaviour.  Once you have the power to enforce an agreed norm, e.g. if you’re an elected government, you could tinker with incentives.  In the case of drink, for example, rather than try to enforce a law limiting consumption you can raise taxes on alcohol.  When it comes to drinking and driving, though, a strict legally enforceable limit is considered appropriate.

So, what Polly Higgins fails to appreciate – besides the social norm of avoiding casual comparisons with Nazi atrocities – is the need for a coherent two-step plan:

1. Establish the power to prohibit or limit specific behaviour.

2. Identify the appropriate levers to control said behaviour.

A problem with global warming is that it is global in its diverse causes and global in its diverse impacts.  (1) is therefore difficult to achieve.  This might not matter if we either had a world government with the power to deal with the issue or the states that are prepared to project their power, principally the US, were prepared to do so in support of the cause.

But even if (1) were achievable, (2) also needs to be addressed.  Criminalisation might not be the most effective strategy.  The absurd, prohibitionist “war on drugs”, for example, arguably creates more problems than it solves.   In general, I suggest, it’s not a good idea to try to criminalise behaviour in which many people are engaged.

Where the issue gets interesting of course is in the interaction between (1) and (2).

The more power you have the easier it is to criminalise behaviour.  If you happen to be in control of a totalitarian government you can outlaw whatever you like.

On the other hand you need very little power to change incentives.  Simply by buying something you change behaviour throughout the supply chain.  To make a real difference you need to do a bit more than that.  But people are prepared to accept taxes that increase the price of things they may enjoy, but know aren’t good for them, at least in excess.  Hence tobacco and alcohol duty are accepted and are effective to some extent, whereas prohibition would fail, even if the laws required could be passed in the first place.

In the case of carbon emissions, where on the power-spectrum is Polly Higgins, do you think?

Which brings me on to Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

Hulme’s project is an important one, and well executed, but, at least as far as Chapter 6, I fear a critical theme has been omitted and that this undermines the whole discussion.

Society and the Individual

Society is not the sum of individual interests.  Let me repeat that in case anyone missed the point.  Society is not the sum of individual interests.

Consider how behaviour is regulated.

Society as a whole attempts to regulate the behaviour of individuals by legal or other means as seen in relation to Polly’s counterproductive proposal to criminalise “ecocide”.

Individuals’ behaviour takes into account sanctions and incentives society as a whole may put in place.

Society has an interest in maintaining itself indefinitely; individuals may or may not be concerned about the future.  Society and individuals are qualitatively different.  Much of the time we pursue our individual interests.  But we expect certain agents to act in the interests of society.

We have collective values.  We expect society to maintain itself even if it doesn’t directly affect us.

Let’s cut to the chase.

Comparing Markets and Values – a Category Error

Chapter 5 of Why We Disagree, The Things We Believe, is primarily about religion but suggests three categories of solutions: correcting markets, establishing justice and transforming society (section 5.4, p.161-9).

But we’re comparing apples and lemons.  Market interventions are a way of achieving agreed objectives within the whole of society, in this case globally.  Establishing justice and transforming society are motivations of individuals or groups for influencing the objectives.

It is alarming not just that Hulme writes:

“These sweeping ideas for commodifying carbon and globalising its market through either free or regulated trade sit uneasily with many of the beliefs expressed in religious and other spiritual traditions”.

but also that he notes WWF UK have:

“…suggested that there are inherent contradictions in ‘attempting to market less consumptive lifestyles using techniques developed for selling products and services.’ “

This is simply incoherent.  Especially to a WWF “Supporter” who yesterday participated in an online WWF “Membership” survey.  If market research isn’t a “technique developed for selling products and services” I don’t know what is.

If we actually want results, I suggest we have to leave it to the technocrats to determine how best to reduce carbon emissions.  All pressure groups can and should do is build support for objectives, such as to reduce carbon emissions, or perhaps more broadly avoid dangerous climate change.

The problem is all pressure groups have their own over-riding objective – to boost their own support.  They need to have a coherent ideology.  They need to sell the illusion that it is their brand that is effective.

Of course, WWF is easy to pick on, in part because they don’t in fact have Members, only Supporters.  They’re not alone in spinning in this particular way, but to my mind, strictly speaking members have – or at least can have – some kind of influence.  This is not the case in WWF.  Policy is not determined by votes of the members, for example.  WWF is selling you something.  And the ratio of brand to product is very high!

If we really want to stop global warming we need to recognise the constraints on coordinated global action.  Market-based solutions of some kind are pretty much the only game in town.

Society, Individuals and Value

Hulme reports in Chapter 4, The Endowment of Value on the discounting of the costs of climate change as used, for example, in the Stern Report.  Every time I read about this I find myself entirely bemused and Hulme, I think, has unintentionally helped me put my finger on the problem.  What am I saying?  Why give Hulme the credit? – I knew this already, I was just hoping Hulme did too.

Stern’s economic analysis – or at least his use of discounting of future costs – looks at the problem from the perspective of individual actors (people or commercial enterprises, say).  We need to consider society as a whole.

The issue is around the discount rate – how much future costs of damage caused by climate change should be reduced by each year when compared with costs in the present.

As Hulme reports (p.126), Stern used two discount rates, a “time discount rate” of 0.1% and a “per capita growth rate” of 1.3% since “we” will be wealthier in the future.

The time discount rate always gets me.  It’s to allow – and this is serious – for the possibility of the human race going extinct before our global warming problems come home to roost.  This is ludicrous.  The logic implies that if we don’t “go extinct” we won’t have invested enough in preventing global warming.  Presumably this is why people don’t save enough for their pensions.  Obviously there may only be a 90% chance of needing the money – you could die or win the lottery.

Imagine if the scenario were just a little different.  Imagine extinction of the human race is certain if CO2 reaches say 500ppm.  We have to spend £10bn now to stop that happening in 100 years.  Ah, but we may be extinct anyway!  So let’s spend just £9bn (that’s £10bn discounted by 0.1% for each of the next 100 years – I know this should be compounded so it’s actually less than £9bn, but that’s not the point.  The point is…).  Damn, we haven’t spent quite enough – CO2 will hit 500ppm and wipe us out.  As I say, this is ludicrous.

OK, so that’s the overall discount rate down from 1.4% to 1.3%.

What about this “per capita growth rate”?  The argument is that it’s not worth spending £1 today to save £1.0129 next year (compounded over time, so it adds up, don’t it), because we’ll be able to create £1.013 worth of goods and services (or capital) next year for the same effort it takes to create £1 this year.

Very persuasive.


The problem I have with this is that I can’t think of any effect of global warming that won’t rise in proportion with the per capita growth rate.  In fact, it’s very easy to make a case for many costs to rise faster than the per capita growth rate!

Consider the loss of capital assets caused by global warming.  For example, a city may be destroyed due to rising sea-levels or increased storminess or both. The value of that city in the future will be greater than it is today.  Its productive capacity will have increased by as a best estimate – you’ve guessed it – the per capita growth rate.

Or people may be killed due, say, to the effects of a heatwave.  The direct economic loss will be their own individual productive capacity, which will on average have increased from today’s by – you’ve guessed it – the per capita growth rate.

How do we put a value on quality of life?  Well, biodiversity, the preservation of cultural artefacts and ways of living (referred to by Hulme as “natural capital and the aesthetics of living”, p.115) will, at a best guess, be worth as much in the future as a proportion of everything we consume, as they are today.  That is, the costs of damage to the environment will have increased by – you’ve guessed it – the per capita growth rate.

Of course, it’s easy to argue that in the future we will value our own lives, the lives of others and the environment relatively more highly than we do now.  And Hulme even cites Ronald Inglehart who has made the persuasive argument that concern for the environment is a luxury good valued more highly the more wealthy we become.   (Damn, something else I can’t claim to have thought of first!).

I might even add that the only way per capita productivity growth can occur is if we become more interconnected and specialised.  The relative cost of damage to capital and loss of life will therefore be higher in the future.  The more we rely on each other the more costly disruption becomes.

I can see no justification whatsoever for using a discount rate of greater than zero.  Arguably it should be negative.

Stern correctly argued that we should have no pure time preference.  That is, we as individuals may prefer jam today over jam tomorrow (so don’t put enough in our pension funds), but society as a whole transcends time.  We’re all gonners if we do anything other than weigh benefits to me now as at most equal to costs to someone else at some indeterminate time in the future.

Science and Society

Hulme has me really alarmed in his discussion of science (Chapter 3).  We disagree about climate change because we disagree about the science, apparently.  Yes, of course, but society as a whole needs some way of evaluating the risks.

Hulme seems to take a relativist position akin to that of Steve Fuller.  Take this summary from his website:

“In Philip Kitcher’s wide-ranging essay in Science on ‘The Climate Change Debates’ [pdf] I am struck by two things – which are not very new, but which are very important. First, is how the framing and public discourse around climate change differs between countries: as Kitcher puts it, where ‘societies … are inclined to see matters differently’. This is brute fact sociological reality, just as non-negotiable as the radiation physics of a CO2 molecule. Recognising this means that as soon as scientific knowledge enters public discourse – whether this knowledge is robust, imprecise or tentative – different things will happen to it and different social realities will be constructed around it. For me, this is the essence of the climate change phenomenon.

The second, related, thing to emphasise is how predictive claims about the climate future – and its impacts – are inextricably bound up with imaginations (e.g. scenarios) and value judgements (e.g. discount rates) about the future. One could argue that such considerations fall within the legitimate reach of ‘climate science’ and the elite scientific expertise Kitcher claims any genuine democracy needs. But for me it is these extra-scientific dimensions of climate change ‘knowledge’ which motivated me in my book ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’ to challenge a narrow appeal to science for engaging our publics around the idea of climate change. It really is not about ‘getting the science right’. It is just as much about engaging our imaginations, about facing up to the ways different peoples and cultures construct meaning for themselves, about the very different values we attach to the future. And because of this I don’t believe Cassandras such as Jim Hansen and Steve Schneider should have the last word.”

I’m baffled how he can refer to James Hansen as a “Cassandra” – Kitcher’s essay suggests only that Hansen and Schneider “play the role of Cassandra”, standing outside the debate rather than within it. I can imagine accusing the scientists of hubris, perhaps, thinking they know more than they do, but crying wolf [which is what I assume Hulme means – otherwise his comment would make no sense at all – since the point about Cassandra is she was right and nobody listened!]?  No.  Hansen certainly calls it as he sees it – everything I’ve ever seen of his has been rooted in what I would describe as fairly mainstream science.  (Though I’ve ordered “Storms” from Amazon anyway – it’s just come out in paperback).

Hulme urges us to face up to “brute-fact sociological reality”, as if this represents some new way of looking at the world, something that – perhaps with one exception – we’re all missing.  Global warming is a physical phenomenon – and by the way, sociological realities are nothing if not negotiable, unlike the  radiation properties of a CO2 molecule – but of course it’s a sociological problem.  The same way as anything from dying to the financial crisis is only a problem if we want it to be.  All “problems” are socially constructed, by definition.  CO2 molecules don’t have problems, only sentient beings do.

Society defines problems and has to construct ways of dealing with them.

The nature of the global warming problem depends on the physical phenomenon.  Sure, we can choose whether to say “oh, that’s interesting” or to define it as a problem.  But we can’t do that unless we understand the physical phenomenon.

So, in agreeing the extent of the problem, we have to use the best socially-constructed mechanisms we have.  All science is is a method of determining the most effective ways of predicting (and therefore controlling) physical phenomena.  Essentially by testing interventions against outcomes.  There’s some logic in there and quite a bit of institutional gubbins, but unless we collectively – and we’re talking about global society here – come up with a better “way of knowing”, it really is a matter of “getting the science right”.

Once we’ve done that we can argue about what to do about it. Or rather, we have to argue in in parallel, since science – like society – never ends.

But we mustn’t muddle up things we can measure – temperature, say, or precipitation, or the ability of particular species to survive – with how we feel about those things or our desires as to the kind of society we’d like to see in the future.

And when we come to try to put into effect what we’ve decided to do, maybe it would be a good idea to use methods that are to some extent predictable, and perhaps those that past experience would suggest are most likely to be successful – which probably won’t include implicating much of the global population in a new heinous crime of “ecocide”.  As I said, we’ll have to give it to the technocrats.  Who will almost certainly use markets to do a lot of the heavy-lifting.

We can afford individuals to be irrational, but society itself has to be rational and objective.

I suspect Hulme is going to go on to tell me in subsequent chapters that society is not rational and objective.  Quelle surprise!

The whole point is that when it comes to existential threats we can’t afford not to be rational and objective.

Maybe global warming isn’t in fact an existential threat.  Maybe we can use it as terrain we can contest with our various views of how we’d like the world to be.

But before we conclude that we can afford to disagree about climate change, it would be a good idea, perhaps, for us to remain rational and objective long enough to determine the nature of the physical phenomenon within somewhat tighter constraints than at present.

At the moment we disagree about climate change because, like naughty children, we think we can get away with doing so.

(to be continued…)