Skip to main content

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released the last instalments of its Fifth Assessment Report, with strong messages on the need for vast, global policy efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Politicians in all nations who grasp the need to act will, inevitably, devise policies which are simultaneously criticised for not being drastic enough and for being totally unnecessary. The public will continue to struggle to digest the conflicting and highly technical arguments, not helped by the tendency of the media to provide false balance and favour uncompromising messages over nuance and uncertainty.

Given the scale of the challenge, there is now an appetite for a better quality climate change debate based on objectivity and fair scrutiny, which has moved on from a polarised, antagonistic mindset. Rational, pragmatic people are concerned with getting the policy response right. True believers can only form entrenched positions which are impervious to new information and in constant need of defence. This is not constructive.

I will outline below three things which each side in the political debate should acknowledge to achieve this.

Consider first the right-of-centre climate sceptic. This person has a suspicion of state intervention rooted in the observation that well-meaning directives are often inflexible and have unforeseen adverse effects for individuals. (S)he regards most collective aims as, at best, group-think, and at worst, a misguided attempt to inflict sectarian moral codes on others. Climate change is seen as a Trojan Horse through which the left, ideologically defeated by the collapse of Communism, can seek to restrict economic freedom and individual behaviour. This person should take on board the following.

There is an incontrovertibly rational basis for the theory of man-made global warming. Too many climate sceptics believe there is no rational basis whatsoever for climate change, describing it as a ‘religion’ or anti-capitalist fabrication. This is scientifically ignorant. Spectroscopy shows that a gas, like carbon dioxide, which strongly absorbs and re-emits radiation at infrared wavelengths will trap heat in the atmosphere which would otherwise escape into space. The assumption that adding more to the atmosphere will cause warming is therefore entirely rational. This has been extremely well understood for over a century. Any scientific debate stems from the complexity of the climate system and the validity of specific predictions.

Most climate change policy is not statist or dirigiste. By far the dominant idea amongst the international policy community, which includes some extremely hard-nosed people in financial services and multilateral institutions, lies in tilting market forces and economic incentives towards climate-friendly objectives, not in supplanting them. Good climate policy makes use of the invisible hand and stimulates innovation and entrepreneurship. Low carbon start-ups are creating marvels of human ingenuity – hydrogen storage pellets, plastics made from waste CO2 – which deserve credit and support. The idea that climate policy is driven by an anti-market or anti-business agenda simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

If the scientific method is broke, it needs practical suggestions for fixing. The sceptic world view alleges that the scientific community has a vested interest in promoting the theory of anthropogenic climate change, and the peer review scientific process compounds, rather than checks, this. However, any serious critique which is not merely reactive should provide constructive suggestions for how to improve these institutions and processes.

Consider now the centre-left environmentalist. This person emphasises the harm which capitalist economic activity can do without crediting it with much social benefit. Companies which emit carbon dioxide are wrong, and should be regulated punitively; the benefits which customers and employees derive from their activities are ignored. People should unilaterally conform to lower living standards through altruism, regardless of whether this is reciprocated. Anyone who questions drastic policy prescriptions is motivated by financial self-interest, never by principle. This person should acknowledge the following.

Climate policy should aim to make mitigation impose as low a cost on society as possible. This is not because consumption and profit are the ultimate aim in life. Low-cost mitigation is more conducive to maintaining public support, economic and social stability, and development prospects for the poor. People should not be expected to make large sacrifices in their living standards which provide little environmental benefit. Furthermore, there is no point in imposing costs on emitters in the developed world which push them to the developing world.

Accountability and informed criticism is vitally important. If the global economy is to be reconfigured on the scale required, this involves a political effort and diversion of resources never before witnessed in human history. No-one should expect to advocate such serious upheaval, with such far-reaching welfare implications, without intense scrutiny. The global policy community needs to be absolutely sure that this course of action is necessary and to learn what policies are effective. Informed debate is critical and should be welcomed. Experts and people with expressed good intentions can form special interest groups which resist legitimate challenge. Incentives against objectivity and critical thinking can form within academia and the civil service. Weak points in evidence should be admitted to, rather than allowing their supposed disavowal to be portrayed as a cover-up of a generally fragile case.

There are no perfect mitigation technologies. All low-carbon technologies have downsides and will impose costs on certain sections of society, whether in the form of blocked rivers, higher energy bills or large land footprints. These trade-offs need to be presented clearly and dispassionately, without concluding that downsides mean all such technologies are to be rejected in favour of an unfeasibly large reduction in energy consumption.

To improve the quality of the debate, politicians need to stimulate dialogue between Westminster and the international policy community. Encourage scientists to explain the ABC of their theories as well as the corollaries. Tell an optimistic story about the mass mobilisation of human ingenuity in overcoming difficulty. And above all, challenge true believers on either side (they do exist) to raise their game.

Helen Jackson is an environmental economist who has researched climate policy for multilateral institutions, UK government and companies. She has also studied atmospheric physics at postgraduate level.