Comments on the Munk Debate on climate change

This post was intended as a comment on Marie Snyder’s blog post about the Munk Debate on climate change on Dec 1, between Elizabeth May and George Monbiot vs Nigel Lawson and Bjorn Lomborg. If you haven’t watched or listen to the debate so far, I suggest you remedy that via this link.
At the end my comment grew too long for posting it at Marie’s blog, so I uploaded it here instead and made just a short reference to it there.


Thanks, Marie, for your very good summary and assessment, … although I wouldn’t say that “Nigel … [came] across as intelligent, articulate, and knowledgeable”. Very likely, some people agreed with you on that though, judging from the 5% of the audience switching sides, from ‘Pro’ to ‘Con’, by the end of the debate. I got the opposite impression: before the debate, I assumed much more honest and legitimate concern about the multitude of real and threatening global issues by the representatives of the ‘Con’ side than I assume now, based on their performance in the debate.

While the ‘Pro’ side was better equipped with rational arguments, and they scored several good points in the debate, they also made some serious mistakes, I think. I’ve seen May presenting/debating several times, and also Monbiot last Saturday at U of T (hopefully, that event was archived and will be available soon at ), and for both of them: they performed worse than at some other times. Of course, it’s easy to criticize from the outside one might say, … but I think it’s also important to do so, so that we can learn and improve.

The way the debate was set up, and Lomborg made it very clear in his opener as well, was a kind of trap: it framed the ‘Pro’ side as single-minded obsessed maniacs. May and Monbiot responded to it in some ways, but they didn’t make it the centre of their argument to diffuse this claim. Instead of dwelling on air bubbles in ice core samples, or spending disproportionately much time on the moral aspect and immediate impacts of climate change in Africa, they’d have used better their time and would have been more effective had they list themselves loudly and clearly many of the ongoing global issues (water, soil, biodiversity, poverty, militarization, food, epidemics, etc.) and the multitude of ways we should address them (as individuals, communities of various kinds/levels, technological and business innovations and incentives, regulation at various levels, energy use, infrastructure, cooperation as much as competition, cultural/value changes, etc.), … and then explain why and how

  • climate change is at the hub of this messy web of huge challenges,
  • the Copenhagen negotiations are crucial from the point of view of moving ahead at various fronts, and
  • this whole seemingly unsurmountable knot of challenges is related to the status of democracy, citizenship, corporate control, or the role of reason and science in our world.
  • For those who know them it was not a question whether this context is firmly in their mind, but for those who don’t, or who were somewhat biased against them in the first place, the presence of the context was not clear enough, I think. Two recent sources that could have been used in this regard are the report on Planetary Boundaries by a group of scientists and the related debate in Nature magazine, and The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Climate Science Report by another group of scientists who synthesized the lessons from research published since the drafting of the last IPCC report more than three years ago. Their findings are not encouraging at all, but nobody who pays attention to almost regular ‘surprise’ changes in the Earth system (especially to permafrost and ice in the polar regions and in glaciers, as well as the pattern of weather irregularities, I think) is probably really surprised by their findings and opinion. Based on their findings, these researchers conclude that to avoid catastrophic and irreversible changes [admittedly, as good scientists are expected, they don’t use the word ‘catastrophic’ but what they describe certainly warrants the term in a practical sense] “the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80-90% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000”

    I expected to hear at least short references to

  • the issue of irreversibility in the Earth climate system at some CO2 and temperature increase,
  • the uncertainty where exactly this tipping point is, … to dispel the myth that at least the 2 degrees increase is not really problematic,
  • the issue of time lags and momentum in climate systems, … that even if we magically stopped adding more CO2 to the atmosphere today the warming would still continue for a while,
  • the urgency of decreasing CO2 emission due to the above point, from which it follows that the effect of achieving the same final CO2 level but in different ways will bring about very different results, since it’s the accumulated amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that matters, not simply the emission at a target date
  • the natural uncertainties of science in many of the details, while strengthening agreement on the essence or core aspects, together with the apparent trend of getting increasingly more gloomy predictions as the models and observations are becoming more comprehensive and sophisticated, … and that the body of science is as cautious/conservative with their predictions as they should be [or even more so!?], as opposed to being alarmist, evidenced by the noticeable pattern of empirical findings regularly being worse than (often even outside the range of) predictions made a few years earlier,
  • more ‘close to home’ examples of impacts, in addition to what is/will be going on in third world countries (May mentioned the pine beetles, Monbiot had a half sentence about the developed countries being able to cope better for a few more decades only, … but it was not enough.)
  • the prospect of violence at many levels and places (not just among herdsmen in Kenya), due to environmental miseries, and the dangers of seemingly even currently strong societal systems deteriorating anywhere
  • Before the debate, after skimming the two sides’ published positions at the Munk Debates website, I was wondering why would they have any serious disagreements, … the differences appeared to be rather small, or at least not too difficult to bridge. I was too naive. The ‘Con’ side I found to demonstrate intellectual dishonesty, distort the position of their opponents, and rely unscrupulously on unsubstantiated claims in the debate. Frankly, the ‘Pro’ side didn’t appear to really seek a compromise, clarification, or common ground either. (Maybe it’s because they had negative previous experience with such attempts; still it would have been better to see such intention this time as well.) Monbiot should have resisted the urge of pulling theatrically out the blank sheet of ‘Nigel’s original research’. May – as she obviously knows it, since she is usually and rightfully proud of not overreacting to provocations – could have made better impression had she simply disregarded or firmly but briefly refuted Lomborg’s ad hominem interruption, rather than loosing temper and retort in kind. (Easy to say from here, in front of my friendly computer screen, I know, … but still.) It’s rather disheartening to see that gamesmanship and folksiness again were more appealing to some people than reason. Further evidence for the correct choice for the title of an earlier (2003) Monbiot article (allegedly referring to a Kofi Annan comment on humanity): Sleepwalking to Extinction: Something About the Human Mind Appears to Prevent Us From Grasping the Reality of Climate Change.

    Of course, loosing a single debate or even not reaching a serious agreement in Copenhagen is not the end of the world (as we know it), … these failures just bring it a bit even closer.

    This short, animated film about climate change by Leo Murray explains much of the complexity that at the end was not properly shown during the debate.

    Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip from Leo Murray on Vimeo.

    This next one is also brand new, and it explains why we cannot leave everything to market forces. Source:

    The Story of Cap & Trade from Story of Stuff Project on Vimeo.


    Just as I was about finishing this comment, I got his latest blog post ‘Beyond Copenhagen’ from Dr. David L. Levy, from which I quote here, since it appears to respond to much of what the ‘Con’ side claimed. Here are the two perhaps most relevant clips from the post:

                       “What might happen in the absence of a binding global deal? A failure at Copenhagen could well send a negative signal that stalls momentum on climate action. The prospect of a strong global binding treaty has provided the political and economic context for the recent beehive of climate activity, from carbon footprinting to voluntary offsets, from Walmart’s supply chain initiative to BP’s investments in renewables. According to the Financial Times last week, “The private sector investment needed to tackle climate change will not be made without a binding international deal on carbon emissions.” The article cites Lars Josefsson, chief executive of Vattenfall, a Swedish power company, and chairman of Combat Climate Change, a group of 60 large companies that includes BP, GE, and Unilever, saying: “The necessary investments will only be made when you have a binding treaty and legislation. Of the money required to implement a deal, the vast majority – about 80% – will come from the private sector. That can only come when there is a stable legal framework….It is very important to get business more engaged, because they have the knowledge of the market economy and how investment decisions are made.”


                       “Increasingly, however, business is realizing the dangers of the proliferation of multiple regulations, and standards emanating from various regions and states. General concern with the cost of carbon regulation has been replaced by fears of the compliance costs and uncertainties of trying to cope with a chaotic and fragmented climate regime. This week the Financial Times reported that large US-based companies are warning “that they will face a heavy regulatory burden should US Congress fail to pass climate change legislation, ” as EPA and individual states develop a patchwork of regulations and measures.

                       Peter Molinaro, head of government affairs at Dow Chemical, the largest US chemicals group, told the Financial Times that the proliferation of such initiatives would present “an enormous administrative burden” for companies that operate across different regimes.

    “Manufacturers are having enough trouble in this country competing with foreign companies,” Mr Molinaro said. “We’d be adding administrative and cost burden where we shouldn’t.”

    The concerns at the international level are even more acute:

                       Alison Taylor, vice-president of sustainability for the Americas at Siemens, the German engineering group, said businesses needed to know the price of carbon for planning reasons. “How do you have one price of carbon if you’ve got four or five different regimes?” she said.

    These concerns have played an important part in building corporate support for an international agreement and driving the recent defections from the US Chamber of Commerce, but the business community is still far from reaching a consensus view. Until mainstream business organizations become more coherent in their support, the prospects for meaningful national regulation in the US or for an international treaty remain dim.”


    1 Comment »

    1. Comment by Marie

      I agree May could have used many more reasonable arguments to prove the importance than starting off with many appeal to authority claims that other people think global warming is most important. That’s a weak way to introduce the topic. Who’s going to jump on the pro side because Thatcher once said it’s a problem? And I didn’t like that Monbiot sank to the blank paper dig. But it seemed to me that both Monbiot and May were largely forgetting or ignoring the question. Only Lomborg seemed to really care to prove what’s most important – hence he seemed to some to be the winner. It is unfortunate that it could have been so much better.

      Great videos – I’m showing Story of Stuff tomorrow, so it’s perfect timing!

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