So the Labour Party conference was this past weekend, and apart from the “OMG – EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN ARE OUT TO GET US” malarkey, they were talking about climate change. And so, because they were talking about climate change, the mainstream media in New Zealand poked the topic with a stick again. TVOne presented a BBC track that said something interesting.
It wasn’t really all that interesting, since every mainstream news source does it. By “it” I mean the obligatory nod to climate-change deniers (read: carbon-emitting industry in one form or another). “Some economists complain that climate science is so uncertain that we shouldn’t spend huge amounts now to cut emissions. Professor Stern agrees there is enormous uncertainty, but he says the risks are so great, it would be foolish not to act now.”
What does this do in the mind of the listener? Firstly, “some economists” are left unnamed, and their loyalties undiscussed. ExxonSecrets is a handy tool for following the dollar when it comes to climate-change “skeptics” with agendas, assuming we’re told their names. Launch the Flash application for a pretty sweet map of connections between industry, think tanks and individuals. But the Average Joe watching the news doesn’t know any of that. He hears “some economists” and is left with the impression that somewhere beneath the private funding from ExxonMobil and Philip Morris is a sound argument.
“We shouldn’t spend huge amounts now to cut emissions.” Music to people’s ears, even after the first part of the track presented Stern’s grim predictions – a whole fifth of the world’s wealth may end up being spent on climate change. For people who have a hard-on for $30 a week’s worth of tax cuts, it’s great to hear that there’s a valid voice in the debate (it’s assumed there’s a debate) with which to identify. “Climate change? Oh, the jury’s out on that one, and some economists say we shouldn’t spend huge amounts now to cut emissions. I’m with those guys.”
Then Professor Stern “agrees there is enormous uncertainty”. About what? Uncertainty about whether or not manmade climate change is occurring? No, there isn’t, at least among scientists and peer-reviewed studies that are relevant. So what is Stern saying there is enormous uncertainty about? We don’t know. The viewer assumes it’s uncertainty about whether or not climate change is occurring.
And finally, “the risks are so great, it would be foolish not to act now.” Despite the disturbing prevalence of Pascal’s Wager amongst the evangelical Christian community (“If I’m right and you’re wrong, you’re going to Hell and I’m going to Heaven – do you want to take that risk?”), people can generally sense a dodgy argument when they hear one. And whether or not a risk is worth avoiding depends on how likely we think the bad things are. For example, there is a risk that the sandwich I’m eating has some terrible flesh-eating incurable disease inside that’s going to kill me by incurably eating my flesh (terribly), but the chances are so remote that only a mentally ill person would let the matter interrupt his meal.
So “the risks are so great” could mean either “the consequences are so terrible” or “the consequences are so likely”. If taken in the former sense, Stern’s warnings have an air of lunacy about them.
All in all, it would be much more helpful, and much more realistic, to have a raging debate about whether carbon emissions must be cut by 80% by 2030 or by 90% by 2030. There’s the uncertainty. Which is it? 80 or 90? Drill it into the public that if we do not act now, millions of people will die. It is a moral issue, and governments are too busy trying to get re-elected to come out with policies as unpopular as preventing the deaths of millions of people by climate change.