I think one reason I’ve been a little frustrated recently is because of a sense that some think there is some kind of balance between “alarmists/warmists” and “skeptics” (the terminology is awful, but I don’t really know what other words to use, so bear with me); that there are “alarmists” on one side and “skeptics” on the other. The one problem I have with this is that it’s not obviously even true. I know there are some true catastrophists, but most people who seem to be regarded as “alarmists” are simply concerned about the possible consequences of climate change and would like us to do something about this. They may be alarmed by this possibility, but they don’t believe that a catastrophe is unavoidable. Many “skeptics”, on the other hand, appear to think that there’s nothing to worry about and that we really shouldn’t do anything.
Putting that to one side though, there are clearly some who think climate sensitivity will be high, but ignore that it might be low, and others who think it will be low and ignore that it might be high. So, maybe this is some kind of symmetry/balance: both groups are being selective in their choice of evidence. Okay, but this is only really symmetric in a scientific sense. In reality, the climate debate is really a debate about risk. Given that, it’s seems perfectly reasonably to focus on the possibility that climate change could be extremely damaging. In any sensible risk analysis, you don’t dismiss the risk by arguing that it might not happen. You consider the possibility that something might happen and whether or not to do something to minimise that possible outcome. So, suggesting that people who focus on the negative aspects of climate change are being alarmist, seems to ignore that this is exactly what one should focus on when something presents a possible risk.
Now, there is one possible symmetry. Most “skeptics” appear to be alarmed about the economic consequences of acting to minimise climate disruption. So, one could argue that really there is a group who are concerned about the economic consequences and another who are concerned about the consequences of climate change itself. In some sense, I think it would actually be better if more recognised that the real division is between those alarmed about climate change, and those alarmed about economic damage (or damaging policies).
So, maybe there is some kind of balance/symmetry, but it’s not between those who think climate sensitivity will be low/high, it’s between those who are concerned about the consequences of climate change, and those concerned about the economic consequences of acting. To be fair, it’s quite reasonable to be concerned about what we might choose to do. It’s clear that we’re more than capable of making some extremely stupid decisions. The problem I have, though, is that there is a big difference between being concerned about the possibility that we might make stupid decisions, and assuming that any possible decision will be stupid, and that’s where I think there is a difference between the two positions.
How our climate will respond to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations is determined by basic physics. No amount of wishful thinking will make climate sensitivity low, if it’s not. That, however, is not true for our economy. There’s not a single possible future economic pathway. Even today, there are many different types of economies operating in the world. We have choices. Do we travel mostly by public transport, or private? Do we eat less meat? Do we mostly live in apartments or houses? Do we mostly holiday locally or travel to exotic distant destinations? There are, as far as I’m aware, numerous possible viable economies. Of course, there may be economic models that are more optimal than others, but that will partly depend on what we choose to prioritise (or, optimise over).
To be fair, though, I’m not an economist, so maybe I’m talking rubbish. Maybe there is only one truly viable economic model and it’s inconsistent with minimising the risk associated with climate change. I, however, don’t think that that is true and – until someone convinces me otherwise – will continue to believe that we can both reduce poverty, improve general standards of living and minimise climate disruption.