A somewhat humorous guide to conducting discussions on climate change in a social setting
Guest essay by Tilak K. Doshi
It was not long ago when the rule for polite conversation at dinner parties was to avoid religion or politics. If one could not find a neutral topic, then the suggestion was to “talk about the weather”. Alas, this is no long applicable, as the weather — like politics and religion — has become a controversial topic. Indeed, any freak or extreme weather event is almost invariably accompanied by a knowing nod and reference to climate change.
Belief in global warming has itself become a quasi-religion, and one is faced with the obvious choice between enlightened affirmation or “anti-science” denial. For those not willing to be bound by this binary straight-jacket, here is a list of reasonable positions to hold in any dinner party or social gathering of moderately well-informed people. Consider it as your passport to intelligent polite conversation while remaining true to a fair reading of a difficult and complex problem.
• “97% cannot be wrong”
This is perhaps the most misleading statement perpetrated by climate change alarmists. We are constantly told that there is a “consensus” of scientific opinion that human-caused climate changes are occurring and that radical changes in policy and behavior are required. A classic example is President Obama’s tweet: “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: climate change is real, man-made and dangerous.” The sub-text is obvious: “who are you to challenge this?”.
So, what exactly do scientists agree on?
The answer is that climate science experts have a variety of opinions, ranging from “the climate always changes” and “humans have some impact on climate” to “we are going to have catastrophic climate change if we don’t go all out to replace fossil fuels”. Most climate scientists would agree with the first two statements while expressing serious reservations, if not strong disagreement, with the third.
So, whenever one comes across the “97% consensus” reference, the best counter would be to first express agreement to the obvious while calling for sober reflection on the question as to “what is to be done”. Appropriate policy responses need to be consider all economic costs and benefits and their distribution across the population. Your dinner companions will not be able to fault you on this reasonable position.
• Extreme weather: told you so
Hardly any week passes by these days without some media report about extreme weather events and their alleged link to global warming. Yet there is little or no evidence linking specific weather events to climate change. This is the position held not only by many reputable scientists but by the large group of scientists involved in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to the IPCC,
“…overall, there is no evidence that extreme weather events, or climate variability, has increased, in a global sense, through the 20th century…”.
The weather and the climate change are two different phenomena, one contingent and short-term, the other cumulative and long run (exceeding 30 years). The links between the two are tenuous and causality is difficult to prove under our current state of knowledge. The adage “one swallow does not a summer make” not only will remind your fellow dinner party guests about this basic distinction, but will score you brownie points with respect to your literary bent.
• The axis of evil: coal, oil and gas
In these days when “green” is a measure of one’s virtue, and all out support (at tax-payers’ expense) for solar and wind energy an enlightened position to hold, the truth is far less convenient. The development of human civilization is also a story of the development of fossil fuels. From the use of wood, straw and cow-dung since time immemorial, the extraordinary growth of fossil fuels beginning with coal mining and the industrial revolution in the 19th century has provided cheap and reliable energy for the needs of ordinary people around the globe. It has saved forests and alleviated backbreaking human effort, delivering higher standards of living for those lucky to go up the energy consumption chain.
The chief economic advisor to the Indian government Arvind Subramanian recently stated that India, like other developing countries, cannot allow the narrative of “carbon imperialism” to come in the way of realistic planning. The latter would include adopting the best technology in the use of cheap coal for power generation, increasing the use of cleaner fossil fuels such as natural gas, and recognizing the hidden costs of intermittency of newer technologies such as wind and solar power.
After the vast investments by Germany on these newer technologies in its rush to phase out nuclear power, its leading news magazine Der Spiegel ran a story about the country’s energy poverty subtitled “How Electricity Became a Luxury Good”. This example will come in handy if you are speaking to a visiting guest from the West. You will have made it clear that not only we in the East might have a legitimately different perspective, but even among the OECD countries there are serious unresolved issues with dramatically reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
• The end of the world: “what about our children?”
Emotional blackmail is not an uncommon occurrence at dinner parties, and this is a line often used by the alarmists. But your dinner party interlocuter cannot hide behind a blanket charge of “catastrophe”. The best current models that link climate change and economic impacts come up with costs of 10% or less of the global gross domestic product by the year 2100 and beyond. As the University of Chicago economist John Cochrane puts it, “that’s a lot of money but that’s a lot of years too”. Between now and then, it may well be smarter to ensure high economic growth and healthy R&D budgets for new technologies to adapt to climate change.
It is not just climate change that is the source of Armageddon scenarios. What about nuclear war by a rogue state, a super-colossal volcanic eruption, or a global pandemic as antibiotics lose out in the struggle against constantly evolving viruses? “Buy insurance”, your dinner party friend might counter, possibly with a smirk. Well, as anyone with a limited budget would be aware, buying insurance at high premiums for all sorts of potentially catastrophic risks will lead you to soon run out of money. Your dinner party friend will be reminded that global warming policy must compete for scarce resources with policies to mitigate other credible threats to human welfare including the scourges of malaria, dirty water and child malnutrition afflicting the human condition now.
By now, you will have come out of your dinner party conversations as a reasonable observer of the climate change debate in an Eastern context. You will have imparted much-needed moderation to some of your more excitable, band-wagon dinner party friends. Who knows, you might even get a date, or if already married, your partner will love you even more for your fine (meteorological) mind.
An earlier version of this story was originally published in the Asia Times on September 29th, 2017:
Dr. Tilak K. Doshi is a consultant in energy economics, and is the author of “Singapore in a Post-Kyoto World: Energy, Environment and the Economy” published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore, 2015).