Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don’t mean to do harm - but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.
(From The Cocktail Party, T.S. Eliot)
In June, I participated in an episode of Insight on SBS. The theme was “Climate Sceptics”. The premise was that the audience would be comprised of people who were sceptical about climate change to a greater or lesser degree. On the stage, fielding questions from the sceptical audience, was Professor Stephen Schneider, a climate change scientist who participated in the IPCC report. (Very sadly, 3 weeks after filming, Professor Schneider passed away. My condolences to his family.)
The episode is finally screening on SBS on Tuesday 7 September at 7:30pm. I must confess that I’m a little scared. I think I would have been okay if they’d just aired it reasonably soon after filming, but the World Cup then the Federal Election interrupted screening.
Why would I be scared? When someone says the words “climate sceptic”, the instant stereotype which springs to most people’s minds is that of a right-wing Holocaust-denying lunatic who is immune to reason. And I assure you, I am none of those things. But once you “out” yourself as a sceptic, you get tarred with that brush. I worry that my colleagues, my friends and my students might judge me, because I didn’t really get to put my views across properly (in fact, I don’t speak until half way through, presuming they even put my bit in!). I don’t like the term “climate sceptic”, to be honest; I prefer to think of myself as a climate agnostic. I haven’t made up my mind yet.
The people in the audience included environmentalists, people who worked in sustainability and agriculture, scientists and a bunch of regular people who had no particular specialisation or expertise in the area, but were just worried.
It really annoys me that I should feel scared to express my opinion. I strongly believe that progressive people should be able to raise doubts without being accused of being tantamount to Holocaust deniers, without being ostracised by their neighbours, without having someone spit in their coffee and without feeling scared that they will be labeled as a fascist. I admit that some people who fall into the sceptic camp are a little scary, but not everyone is. Ultimately, I think that deriding people who raise doubts (1) shows a lack of understanding about scientific method and (2) serves to fuel scepticism rather than to allay it.
Elitism, scepticism and risk analysis
One of the participants in the Insight program made an interesting observation to me beforehand. He said, “I’ve noticed that scepticism tends to be class-based. Middle-class, university educated people are far more likely to accept that climate change is happening. Working-class people are far more likely to be sceptical and concerned.” There is a deep elitism at the heart of the writings of some who suggest the shape of the policy responding to climate change (eg, Clive Hamilton, George Monbiot). The sly inference is that working-class people are stupid bogans who don’t know any better, and that they should let their betters guide them in what is to be done.
Noel Pearson, one of my favourite Australian commentators, wrote an excellent piece in The Australian last year. He envisaged a box divided into four segments. The horizontal axis represented left-wing to right-wing. The vertical axis represented economic security, from economically secure at the top to economically insecure at the bottom. Now, as he notes, not all sceptics are right-wing. I would count myself as a rare leftish-wing sceptic, whereas SL is more right-wing than I, but not sceptical about climate change. Nonetheless, it’s a convenient generalisation. Pearson then says:
Most of Australia’s climate change action policy advocates come from the top left-hand box. They believe that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and that urgent and dramatic action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions. They are also economically secure. All of the media and the legions of educated people who believe in global warming fall within this quadrant.
Yes, there are also believers who are economically insecure but they are not the heartland of climate change activism. If they also dread climate change, their relative economic insecurity nevertheless affects the kinds of policy responses they may support or reject.
Pacific Islanders and other such people who are directly confronted by rising sea levels and believe in climate change causation comprise those in the bottom left quadrant who are economically insecure but believe in the need for action on climate change.
The top-right corner is occupied by the economically secure who don’t believe in (or even care about) climate change and resist action. Capitalists whose pursuit of self-interest has transmuted from natural calling to German social theorist Max Weber’s iron cage of an endlessly unfulfilling accumulation and consumption, and who are at least honest enough not to cloak their economic security under a mantle of moral worthiness like the wealthy Al Gore, occupy this corner. There is much scope for cynicism among this mob, but it is a toss-up as to what’s worse: climate policy activists who want others to pay costs of ameliorative action but who will ensure that any cost they themselves bear will not be a great burden, or those archetypal cigar-chompers who don’t give a damn. One is blatantly selfish, the other more subtly so.
I am on the upper side of the economic security axis. Though almost all my relatives and the people most dear to me are economically insecure, and though I intimately know and work with people in poverty, I must confess this: I have no idea what it would mean for electricity bills to go up by, say, $50 a month. I think I could easily afford such a rise. And if I were asked to pay this increase in return for saving the planet, then I would probably readily consent. In fact my altruistic sacrifice number is probably significantly higher than $50.
Like many educated, middle-class professionals who earn a good salary, I have lost a real understanding of what an increase in the cost of living such as this means for lower-income people. Growing up in an extremely low-income family does not guarantee this empathy.
There is a policy issue here: it is easy for people above the income security line to devise and advocate climate action policies that allocate costs that are affordable by us but that are a big deal for the percentage of society for whom $50 a month makes or breaks a family budget or for whom any greater scarcity of employment is a life disaster.
That is what I saw on the Insight program: ordinary people who would struggle mightily if energy prices were raised by $50 a month. And they were scared. On the one hand, you have this disastrous prediction of what will occur as a result of climate change. On the other hand, you have the certain prospect of having to pay more for fuel which will necessarily have a massive impact on your life. As one woman said, “If we do things about this, it will have a huge impact on the economy and our whole country, so I think it’s really important to know whether it’s really necessary or not.”
As Professor Schneider said, one’s reaction to the scenario depends in part on one’s risk analysis. He said that all a climate change scientist can say is that on the preponderance of evidence climate change is occurring. This is a proper scientific approach. One can never prove one’s hypothesis incontrovertibly. One can only say that on the evidence available, it appears that the hypothesis is confirmed. (Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to discuss this on the program, but one of the best ways of confirming a hypothesis is to attempt to disprove it.)