Friday, December 11, 2009


To clarify, I believe the climate is changing, and I'm not denying that humans may have a role in that. In fact, I don't think it would be fair to say that the climate only appears to be static on the human scale; take any great length of time, such as a million years, in earth's history and the climate has always changed There are an enormous number of things we have done to change the world - city scapes and deforestation change the way the world absorbs heat from the sun, we alter the contents of the atmosphere which changes how the atmosphere retains heat and we pump out heat itself in the form of mechanical activity - that trying to deny we have any impact on the world's climate seems to me far-fetched. Despite this, I also think it stretches credibility to deny some other explanations for climate change such as changes in the energy coming from the sun, or natural cyclical variations such as changing ocean currents may have impacts as great or even greater than human impacts on the climate. I'd say my position is that of a rational sceptic.

What I've seen from the Copenhagen conference however leaves me less than impressed. The parade of third world officials and guests decrying the "Rich countries" for "creating the pollution in the first place" and demanding "they must pay". Between the BBC and al-Jazeera news I've heard the same thesis advanced half a dozen times: 'the West' got rich by polluting the world, at a time when other countries didn't. This pollution is bound to imminently destroy the lives of billions of people in the poorer countries, leaving the West with a moral legacy to support those people in developing first world lives without adding even more to greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

There are a number of problems I have with this. First, there is a moral difference between the industrial development of 18th Century Britain and modern China: no one in Britain can have been expected to know that developing a steam engine that runs on coal would lead to the industrial civilization it would and have such drastic impacts on the surface of the world. The Chinese and other developing nations that are polluting like crazy can not claim the same. This is the difference between someone accidentally hitting a child that runs out in front of them on the road and someone intentionally running over the same toddler. In the first instance, if the person in no way could have prevented the event but was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time by random chance, we do not hold them responsible for anything. In the second instance, we hold the person responsible for murder. To put it another way, we consider Marie Curie a great scientist for her work on radioactivity, and mourn that she could not have known how dangerous it was as it most likely lead to her death. We would consider that anyone who, knowing the dangers, replicated her work without taking precautions to shield themselves and others from the effects of radiation a maniac.

Secondly, to say "The West got rich by polluting while the rest of the world wasn't" is a flawed point to score. The obvious place to start is by asking why the rest of the world wasn't taking advantage of these wonderful new technologies: and the answer was that by and large only Europe could develop them. It had gone through the enlightenment and thrown off the tyrannical shackles of superstition, and developed a culture that not only tolerated but gloried in the intellectual development of man. It was unique in this regard, aside from the classical Athenians, and the rest of the world has been raised from the depths of poverty by it. The other side of the enlightenment is that it lead to British subjects in the American colonies deciding to challenge the authority of the British King and committing to living in a country based on freedom. It is this element of personal freedom which has made America and Europe the wealthy, pleasant countries they are today, more than a measurement of pollution output. After all, if pollution output had a direct correlation to material wealth, the Soviet Union would have been the richest country on earth. The key point to make however is that if Western polities can be said to have responsibility for their actions in creating pollution, so other polities can be said to have responsibility for their citizens poverty; for example Haiti is not poorer than almost any other country in the America's because it as an entity faced a lack of opportunity compared to other countries in the Caribbean and South America. It is poor because it has had a succession of brutal dictatorships that have robbed the citizens of that country of the opportunity to work and build up wealth for themselves. If the West must pay Haitians and other developing nations off for the simple fact of their poverty, then we have ceded the role that effort plays in life. All nations must have the same relative outcomes per capita; regardless of the responsibility their Governments have in the inputs which determine those outcomes.

Thirdly, if the effect of Copenhagen is to limit human activity and transfer wealth from producers and innovators to those who are not productive but wish to enjoy the living standards and lifestyles of westerners, there is the very real danger of limiting the whole world's ability to fight climate change and its effects on human life by means of innovating, developing and producing new technologies. After all, it is the same freedoms that produced the wealth and intellectual muscle that have produced the very science that allows us to identify not only climate change but all manner of environmental deficiencies our lifestyles and industries produce, and regulate those accordingly.

In sum, the aims of the Copenhagen summit and the values that underpin are flawed and deeply troubling. They rely upon a reading of history that places Western achievement at the centre of everything that is wrong and sees countries as blocks that should have equal outcomes regardless of their merit. This is in effect a new international mantra of communism. There is a very real risk that the outcome of the Copenhagen summit will be to limit human development, not only reducing the living standards of those in the west but reducing our collective ability to identify and respond to new challenges in the future. Worst of all, there is no reason to expect that if its measures are followed it will do enough to stop climate change or even that it can, as the planet may heat or cool due to factors completely beyond human intervention, such as changes in the amount of solar energy reaching earth.

So what should be the alternative? Western Governments should invest in potential new green energy resources, such as the recently featured experimental tidal harness in the Orkneys, as well as researching projects that may solve climate change, from carbon capturing towers to a giant soletta that can reduce/increase the amount of energy reaching the planet from the sun and every other plausible idea in between. Globally, the effects of climate change should be monitored and where humanitarian disasters arise, such as drastically altered weather patterns or rising sea levels making Islands uninhabitable, assistance should be offered - as nations should in any case, regardless of cause. By following this course, we can maintain our civilization with its freedoms intact, and also provide help to those who have become victims of natural forces outside of their control.

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