Clive Hamilton and George Monbiot debate

Clive Hamilton is of The Australia Institute. George Monbiot is, well, George Monbiot. Come on.

The New Left Review hosted the two of them, as they debated (or rather, one posted and one responded) certain positions taken by Monbiot in his latest book, Heat. Specifically/primarily, Monbiot’s assertion that 90%, rather than 50% or 60%, is the minimum reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required to keep us all from burning up, and secondly that geosequestration of carbon dioxide is the answer.

Clive Hamilton has the white pieces. He criticises some of Monbiot’s book, including his writing and overall method (is that the right word?):

A work by Monbiot devoted to the politics of climate change would have been a more useful intervention than his opinion on how to achieve 90 per cent cuts in every sector. It is not the only time Monbiot has written a book that claims to solve the world’s most intractable problems single-handedly: The Age of Consent (2003), described as ‘a manifesto for a new world order’, set out a detailed blueprint for a new international democratic system, built on principles of justice.

In the battle between utopians and realists, my vote always goes to the former; yet not all utopian visions are equal, and Monbiot crossed the line that separates the inspirational from the fanciful.

Although he is broadly appreciative of the book (and of Monbiot, and Monbiot’s activism), Hamilton disagrees with Monbiot’s criticism of Pigovian taxation as a means of limiting demand, pointing out that there is little difference between this, carbon trading (as of which we find our governments currently enamoured) and Monbiot’s suggested rationing/carbon currency – and to be fair there isn’t the difference between the Pigovian and Coasian solution isn’t much more than the government playing banker in a game of Pollution Monopoly.

As Monbiot correctly identifies, the problem lies with the target, the permitted levels of emissions, and enforcement. That isn’t the argument, necessarily, against one form of trading in favour of another, but Hamilton points out that one fixes the Price, leaving the Quantity to the market (taxation), and the other fixes the Quantity, leaving the Price to the market (rationing/trading), without noticing that this is that for which Monbiot is barracking. The chances of success are greater with a government taking over the social welfare function for us, and telling what we can/can’t do.

The egalitarian aspect of the market suggested by Monbiot, in which permits are granted to everyone, rather than just the biggest polluters, is also a big feature that I think Hamilton undervalues. Unlike the current system, Monbiot’s currency (‘ice caps’, from memory), put consumer-behavioural responses to pricing carbon emissions right in our own pockets.

More generally, Hamilton provides a pretty good discussion of the psychological barrier (apropos, for example, Monbiot’s presentation of the path to safe climate involving no more easy air travel – this could also be a British/Australian difference of perspective? Probably not that much). I did get the impression Hamilton supposed Monbiot to be less sympathetic to this than I suspect he is. I do agree with Monbiot, however, that it’s probably inexorable. The technological changes we’ve had in the last 50 years have been wonderful, but I don’t have the imagination to fill in the gaps between current Aeronautical technology and the last 3 seasons of Stargate.

And Monbiot had the black pieces:

He begins with their basic disagreement (in terms of the science): his reduction target.

So while two degrees remains the nominal upper limit, repeatedly cited by government ministers, politics, not science, informs the carbon reductions they propose in order not to exceed it. The calculations I explain in Heat, which any numerate person can replicate, estimate the cut demanded by the science.

Hamilton says that the result—a worldwide reduction of 60 per cent—is ‘far beyond the cuts proposed by anyone else’. This is also incorrect. A paper published recently in the journal Climatic Change shows that in order to obtain a 50 per cent chance of preventing the global average temperature from rising by 2° above its pre-industrial level, we require a global cut of 80 per cent by 2050.

Monbiot’s justification however does run into the technology question. Personally I’m torn. I don’t believe that relying on technology to save us is wise (Hamilton himself made light fun of favouring a policy favoured by the likes of Howard and Bush, but then does the same with technology). Electricity needs to be provided in adequate capacity on-demand, and it can’t – currently – be stored in any manner that accords with rule number 1. If we could get around that, we’d have a lot of our work done for us. Tidal energy, solar energy, etc. would suddenly become a hell of a lot more feasible that it already is. It’s probably true that this technology will come to us, but I’m too chicken to bet every farm on Earth on that.

Upon their debate around the conclusions of Nicholas Stern I will, sad to say, take the fence. I’m with Monbiot – the very fact that Stern breaks everything down to dollars to determine what is the optimal trade-off makes agreement or disagreement a matter of agreement with the method and the valuations, first. I know enough Cost-Effectiveness Analysis to know that tilting the scales one way or another is mostly a matter of methodology. And, in the case of everything from seatbelts to cigarettes to climate change, salesmanship.

Finally he discusses the reason for favouring his model for a Coasian solution, as I loosely described above, and re-affirms the nearness and the necessity of action (as would be expected – the debate concerned his book, after all).

The two sides of the very collegial debate are well worth reading. Makes a change from the discourse most of us, in our respective countries, are probably seeing most of the time.


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