Azara Blog: Climate Change and Ecosystem Services

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Date published: 2008/04/30

Robert Watson gave the seventh, and final, talk in the 6th Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development. His title was "Climate Change and Ecosystem Services: Science, Economics and Ethics".

Watson is best known for having been the chair of the IPCC from 1997 until 2002, when the Bush administration had him removed at the behest of the oil industry. But he's been involved with lots of public bureaucracies over time, including the Clinton administration, NASA, the World Bank, and currently as Chief Scientific Advisor to DEFRA in the UK.

He gave a fairly lengthy and detailed Powerpoint presentation. It's pretty obvious he's given pretty much the same presentation over and over and over again, because he zipped through it without pause for breath. He started by pointing out that climate change should not be considered in isolation but as related to other issues such as air quality, water, forestry, biodiversity, and desertification. He bemoaned that most people and organisations seem to focus on one thing rather than the broader picture.

He went through the usual evidence about the link between emissions and climate change, and how climate change would affect the poor more than the rich (surprise), and how "perverse policies" on subsidies for agriculture and energy were making things worse. His one cute quote was that all the countries of the world would have to work together to get things to work out, but that they could be hindered by "one arrogant country that tries to dominate the world".

As part of the litany, he produced slide after slide saying how most things were going to get worse rather than better. For example, wet countries would generally get wetter, and dry countries generally dryer. And it's interesting that almost all the news from an increase in temperature is claimed to be negative. Well, it's possible that the Earth happened to be residing in a Goldilocks scenario before 1800, and so any change (e.g. upwards or downwards in temperature) is bad. But far more likely is that the real issue is the rate of change, not the change itself.

He said that in some assessment he had been involved with on food production, they had ignored GM technology. The way he put it was that they "did not assume that GM crops would succeed". Well, that could be deemed to be a cautious approach, but it is also rather naive. Malthus thought our population increase was not "sustainable", because he ignored new technology. But Watson seems to have a particular gripe against GM technology, not only for food, but also for trees (so, for example, to make fast-growing ones which could thrive in arid conditions). This is probably because he is concerned about biodiversity, and he evidently thinks that that consideration trumps pretty much anything else. That is a position that an academic can take.

On other issues he was not so dogmatic as are most so-called environmentalists. So he was not anti-nuclear (but there were the obvious issues with nuclear). And he was not against carbon capture and storage, seeing that as a crucial piece of the puzzle (since coal was not going to go away). At the end he even said he was willing to contemplate some of the proposed (generally wacky) geoengineering "solutions" to climate change, if the planet needed an emergency short-term fix. For example, the Greenland ice sheet seems to be melting faster than models predict, and if it was thought that it would all melt in short order, then some crazy things would have to be considered. Otherwise we would have to cope with a 7m sea-level rise.

On most issues he toed the straight party line. So ecosystem services were not valued by the markets, and that was leading to bad ecosystem management. Well, in some ways this is trivially obvious and is worth considering. But would or should anyone trust the alleged value put on some ecosystem service by some expert (most of whom have an axe to grind, in particular do not like the markets)? And another problem with this approach is that it works best for issues which can be isolated to one nation. For issues like emissions, it makes perfectly good sense for any given nation not to worry, because most of the consequences of its own emissions will be borne by other nations.

He claimed that if the melting of the Arctic ice had been known about during the Cold War, then the US and Russians would be amongst the most enthusiastic about doing something about emissions, rather than amongst the least enthusiastic, because allegedly they would have seen a navigable Arctic Ocean as a security threat. Well, this is a bit of wishful thinking.

What he wanted as a way forward was (1) a price put on carbon (either via a tax, or some trading system, or regulation), and (2) lots of new technology developed, and (3) the behaviour of everyone changed. Well, a tax on carbon makes perfectly good sense (and while we're at it, how about a tax on all other polluting activities). And only the most luddite of the so-called environmentalists oppose technological advances towards a "carbon free" economy. But when people start talking about changing behaviour, it's a sure sign that they are fully paid up members of the academic middle class, who seem to believe that if they control freak enough then the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, most societies with strict controls on behaviour are not the kind of societies that most people want to belong to.

On the issue of public perception, Watson even made the astonishing claim that the scientists were "not getting the message across". Well, anyone who reads the BBC website (for example) is daily innundated with messages about climate change and how the world is about to end. The problem is not that the message is not getting across. The problem is that people do not like the proposed solutions to the problem, which as far as they are concerned amount to a reduction in their living standards. The odd scientists crops up who says "if we go to a carbon-free economy then we will actually be richer, not poorer". But nobody believes this. All they see is that the ruling elite want to screw them for driving a car, or getting into a plane (both activities which the ruling elite take for granted for themselves, of course).

His take on this "message" issue was that the scientists had to convince the public that they would personally suffer if emissions were not reduced. So one way was to talk about the impact on people's children and grandchildren. (But just having children is the single most environmentally damaging thing anyone can do, so this consideration is slightly ironic.) And another was to say that, for example, people's health would be directly and negatively impacted. So apparently, in the Clinton administration they tried to use poor air quality as the threat, but nobody cared much for that argument, perhaps because air quality in the US is perfectly good. But apparently a good health scare was just the ticket to make the people stand up and take notice. This kind of negative argumentation is unfortunate. It's exactly what the Bush administration does with terrorism. You whip up fear so that people are willing to have their rights and freedoms trampled. (Well, in the climate change case people believe the message, with Bush he just made it up so he could assume frightening executive power.)

Right at the end Watson mentioned that we were spending too much time and effort on climate research itself, since it was already obvious that man-made emissions were the reason behind climate change. He wanted more money spent on adaptation and mitigation. Although bizarrely enough he added that he especially wanted money spent on economists and social scientists. Needless to say, it would be far better to spend money on (real) scientists and engineers.

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