On Tuesday evening,I listened to the live stream of the most recent Munk Debate on climate change (you can view the entire two hour debate here). The resolution: be it resolved climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and demands a commensurate response.
Arguing the case for the resolution were Elizabeth May the leader of the Green Party and former Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada; and George Monbiot a journalist for the Guardian and author of several best-selling books including Heat: how to stop the planet burning. Arguing the case against the resolution were Bjørn Lomborg a professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of best-selling books The Skeptical Environmentalist and the more recent Cool It; and Lord Nigel Lawson former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, a leading skeptic and author of Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming.
Prior to the debate the Munk Debates polled the attendees on the resolution -- 61% were in favour and 39% were opposed. Interestingly though 79% said they could be swayed to change their vote. So there was really opportunity for both sides of the issue.
In my opinion, Monbiot and May presented a strong case. May largely focused on scientific data which shows that not only is the planet warming (8 out of the 10 warmest years happened in this decade; and the effects of CO2 on acidifying the ocean, etc.). Monbiot tended to focus more on physical evidence that he had witnessed -- starvation and drought in sub-Saharan Africa and the loss of agricultural and water resources due to warming -- all of which result in death of millions of people.
Lawson, in my opinion, was the least effective. He trotted out factoids purpose built to suit his case (including the recent email scandal out of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia). Generally his argument sounded confused and drew on sources that have been discredited.
More problematic was Lomborg who took a different and highly effective approach. At the outset he conceded that global warming is real. But he argued that given the other pressing issues facing mankind -- starvation, poverty, overpopulation, education, etc.
He even draws on a Bushism -- because environmentalists argue that climate change is the defining crisis of mankind, they have turned it into a "for us or against us" issue. Either "you believe that global warming is the worst thing ever to befall mankind or you're an enemy of human kind". He then goes on to raise other issues: 3 billion people that live in poverty; 1 billion who are hungry; 3 billion people who don't have access to clean drinking water and sanitation; 15 million people will die this year from easily curable diseases.
Lomborg argues that if you want to do the most good for the world then dollars would be better spent on solutions to these problems rather than the significant amount that would have to be spent on climate change. In essence he is turning it into a zero sum game and turning the argument on it's head. If you're for significant action on climate change then you're an enemy of human kind.
While Monbiot tried to counter his argument by quite rightly pointing out that many of the problems cited by Lomborg would only get worse if climate change is not addressed. He also argued that it is not a zero sum game. The problem is that in co-opting climate change into a larger set of issues he managed to erode May and Monbiot's position. The final poll results demonstrated this clearly. Among the 1,100 attendees 53% of people agreed with the motion and 47% were against.
Should environmentalists be concerned? While it's only one data point, an 8 point shift amongst an audience that should have been receptive to the motion should at least raise some eyebrows. Establishing counter-arguments which include real personal examples of how climate change is causing the problems Lomborg uses to support his argument is essential. In fairness, Monbiot uses some of these arguments but the link needs to be made stronger and more compelling.