Azara Blog: Risk and (Human-induced) Climate Change

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Date published: 2010/03/06

The 2010 Darwin College Lectures are about Risk. The eighth, and final, lecture occurred on 5 March and was by Bob Watson, of the University of East Anglia, on the subject of "Risk and (Human-induced) Climate Change". He is also chief scientist for the UK ministry DEFRA.

Watson has done the rounds, and this lecture was, not surprisingly, almost identical to the lecture he gave in the Engineering Department two years previously, in 2008. And he must give this lecture pretty much every week of his life, and it is astonishing how enthusiastic he remains for the task.

Meanwhile, the world has not moved on since 2008. Climate change is still the biggest topic on the planet but nothing has changed in the science and nothing has really changed in terms of government action, so two-year old slides are perfectly acceptable. The only thing that has happened since then is that a fake controversy was drenched up, involving Watson's own university, UEA.

Copenhagen, the latest gathering of the governments of the world, and the zillions of NGOs that think they have something to say on the matter, and the climate change groupies, came and went without anything much happening. And this provided one new quip that Watson could make. So he said that as a scientist he thought that the meeting was a "complete failure" but as a government advisor it was a "minor step in the correct direction".

Last time he mentioned the importance of valuing the ecosystem, this time he could report that it was actually happening, both in the UK and globally. Well, needless to say these reports are going to say that the ecosystem is worth trillions of dollars and nobody pays Mother Nature any respect. It will be interesting to see if anyone can find one human activity which actually covers all its externalities, given the claims that will be made about how valuable the ecosystem is just as it stands now, because it's not obvious there is any such activity (except for driving a car in Europe, because the taxation is so extortionate).

Because of the faux outrage over the UEA leaked emails, it has become evident to everyone that climate data and software needs to be publicly available. Well, most of it already was, but it will hopefully be the case that all of it is made available, possibly as a condition that any research that relies on it is published. But the climate science community has far better behaviour on this front that the ecological community does, where there are no standards for data, where many results are published in obscure and expensive or unobtainable journals, and where it is almost impossible to get hold of data or how it was analysed unless the authors feel so inclined to make it available. This will make the UK and global assessments that much more fragile.

At this point Watson trashed GDP as the only measure of a country's "success", and said we should also include other measures like natural capital and social capital, and no doubt the quality of Mom's apple pie. The problem is that most of these other things are not really measurable (GDP is hard enough). So who is going to trust any scientist who claims that a birch tree in such and such a location is worth 1.27 times what a house extension would be worth in the same location, or that a bus driver is worth 3.78 times what a banker is worth. It's all just fun and games for the academic middle class.

Watson of course made the point that society ought to try and internalise the costs of environmental degradation for any good or service, but it's just not totally practicable, except in very specific circumstances like a carbon tax, and even that is not trivial (how do you value land use change).

And bizarrely enough, on the very slide where he said we should internalise costs, he also then suggested that "new technologies" needed subsidising. Well, that is a perfect example of externalising the costs of something, and the UK is about to embark on this kind of folly big time by subsidising totally inefficient energy production by the middle class. Watson also said that in the UK he doesn't own a car (in the US he did) but goes everywhere by train and car, or sometimes by renting a car. But trains are hugely subsidised in the UK, so taking one is indeed externalising the costs onto the rest of society.

In this lecture he didn't mention GM crops at all, which is a bit odd given how crucial they will be to feeding the world in the coming decades. But afterwards he said that he was not necessarily against GM crops, and that people had incorrectly interpreted the IAASTD (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), which he had chaired, as being anti-GM, whereas he was just cautious. So the Tony Juniper spin on this report seems not to be the spin that Watson himself would put on it. Watson said that he thought that currently GM crops would not have helped with world hunger (given what is really causing it, e.g. poor governance) but that in the coming decades this technology might help.

An even bigger omission was that he did not mention population at all. So, like most of the academic middle class in Britain, Watson seems more concerned about citizens in the poor world than he is about citizens in his own country (who allegedly consume too much, although the average UK citizen consumes far less than your average UK professor). So he said that any climate change treaty had to be "equitable". But how equitable is it that certain countries of the world have let their populations explode with no thought to the consequence, and should the citizens in the rest of the world be held to account because of this?

Near the end he discussed people's willingness and ability to act to "do something" to help with climate change. He didn't say how and where this data came from, but it is evident that some marketing consultant was involved, because the result was a classification of people into seven magic categories: "positive greens", "concerned consumers", "sideline supporters", "cautious participants", "waste watchers", "stalled starters" and "honestly disengaged".

It's hard to take this kind of stuff seriously. You can quite imagine that 99% of his audience was a "positive green", but are these people really "green", or just "green" in some mythical measure. So the academic middle class are far wealthier than the average UK citizen, not to mention the average citizen of the world, and so the academic middle class are far more responsible for environmental degradation in the world, whether they drive a Prius or not. What matters most is how much you earn (and how many children you have), not how much you cycle to work.

At least Watson had another cute joke here. So he said that he called the "honestly disengaged" the "I don't give a sh*t" brigade. Well, that's one way of looking at it.

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