Friday, 13 September 2013

My Issues With Green Politics



In the circles in which I roll, issues of green politics, sustainability and the environment have cropped up quite frequently.  I'm not a big fan of green-centred politics (by 'green' I mean green-keens in general, not just the Green Party) - I find most of it to be an unhealthy mix of the presumptuous, the unsubstantiated and the just plain spurious. Thus, my general view is that there are plenty of reasons not to support green-centred politics.  Here's why. Let's not go into the fact that green people's keenness to excessively interfere in market economics is mostly inimical to a good economy (I explain the general principle in this Blog post here)*; let's not go into the fact that to have a realistic chance of bringing the people in the developing world out of their plight we are not going to have the luxury of being as environmentally careful as the green-keens want (we should always acknowledge the fact that as technology increases this problem will diminish, as our aim should be to change the way we depend on the natural resources we do – as I explain here). I'll even pretend not to have noticed that their claims about an over-population crisis are the complete opposite of the truth (as I explain here). So I won't comment on those three things in this Blog, as in some of those issues there are aspects of the green policies that do have some merit.

No, my main reason for being at odds with green-centred politics is that the fundamentals behind their ethos - "The climate is being negatively affected; humans are negatively affecting it, therefore the continuing trend is bad and needs drastically addressing", is in my view the ethos that’s presumptuous, unsubstantiated and spurious. Now, I don't have any affiliation with any political party, which means I have no party-political reasons to be against any one party - hence, I'm keen to be as fair to the green-keens as I possibly can. But I can make little sense of the bases on which their policies stand, as they seem to me to be under misapprehensions about the merit of those policies, as well as seemingly expending too much effort on counting costs and not enough on counting benefits.

Let's take the above claim: "The climate is being negatively affected; humans are negatively affecting it, therefore the continuing trend is bad and needs drastically addressing".  The problem here is that there is an assumption made without qualification. Whenever you have a situation in which X is happening (where X is negative), and Y is causing X, one can't just proclaim that the continuing trend is bad and needs drastically addressing, because there may well be other ways in which X's negativity is being offset by other factors not in the equation. That is to say, while I'm willing to acknowledge that it's the case that at least in some part the climate is being negatively affected by humans, the statement doesn't mean much unless one can show that the climate being negatively affected by humans is more of an overall cost than the benefits such effects bring.

You see, I don’t think this has been done; hence, I think the green-keens have still got their work ahead of them, as all the indications seem to me to be that the benefits outweigh the costs. I think the reason this is often not seen is that just about all the arguments for and against are focused on X and Y, but they ignore whether this necessarily supports the conclusion that it amounts to a net cost. Their fault is on focusing on a few global bullet points (sea levels rising, overall temperature increase, deforestation) and treating them only as bad, or as bad but understating the good outcomes.  Yes, overall temperature increase contains bad effects (although one can't be certain that temperature increases are going to continue on this trend), but it also contains good effects too, as I'm sure the people of Greenland, Siberia or Alaska would testify.

If these considerations cast huge aspersions over the green ethos, why then are the environmental portents so widely felt? I think it's good to remember why much of this came about. Green parties of the 1970s and 1980s were largely set up to be alternatives to the traditional left and right parties (having the advantage, perhaps, of being one of the first **) - and as those left and right parties gravitated towards the centre (becoming largely indistinguishable since Blair's Government), the alternative vote that imbues itself with environmental sound-bytes seemed to some to be a genuinely compelling alternative. Moreover, it seems that the alternative remains so compelling that Green politicians continue to be a tenable option – which may not be a bad thing, as it keeps pressure on the main parties to include environmental policies in their manifesto.

The Economic way of thinking
As is usually the case, an economic way of thinking would guard against falling for the kind of errors the green-keens are making - because economic thinking wouldn't just involve asking whether there are good and bad effects - it entails wanting to know if there are net costs sufficient that the bad effects outweigh the good effects. This seemingly is never addressed by the Greens in an open way, because to do so would rock the foundations of their party ethos, which is just based on the assumption that there are net worsening effects. How are we to tell, say, if rising sea levels in the Indian Ocean balances out with the emergence of more habitable areas of Siberia or Alaska? Don't forget this won't happen overnight - it happens over decades and centuries, so any considerations that factor in sudden and unexpected inconveniences are a solecism against good enquiry.

Don't forget also that if you asked a man in 1913 about how the world would look on a global level in 2013, he'd have no way of foreseeing it in its current set-up.  If environmental changes occur over such slow passages of time, then in a few decades countries surrounding the Indian Ocean may well be well prepared for rising sea level, and Siberia or Alaska probably will hugely benefit from increased global temperature. From what I can see from looking at their literature, The Greens haven't offered any proper cost benefit analysis on the dynamical change of global states - they've merely prodigiously estimated the costs and exiguously estimated the benefits. Of course, that doesn't mean the Greens are wrong - it only means the methods by which they think they are right are faulty.

In offering an economic view of the situation - one that has no ideological biases - I'll tell you how I think it really is.  Climate change is presumptively unwelcome, whether it is hotter or cooler, because present human endeavours are optimised specifically for present day conditions.  Whether you're farming, building factories or houses, or designing railways or cars, you are optimising the production for modern day use consistent with modern day conditions. But environmental changes are gentle century-long slopes not steep month-long drops - so once you consider the extent to which activities associated with farming, factories, houses, railways and cars will have changed in a century to be coterminous with the gradual changes in the environment, you see there are probably no crises at all. Given that the earth's climate and environment has been changing for millions of years, it is obvious that no climate of any time is the optimal one in absolute terms.  If there is no reason to believe that the present climate is the optimal one, then assertions that we need to be preoccupied with green issues are hard to justify, as adapting to the gentle century-long slopes of change is not only something we have to do, it's something we've been doing since mankind began.  Economic thinking enables us to not fall for these extreme knee-jerk reactions - as the climate throughout our human evolution has varied by considerably more than the comparably meagre changes being predicted for global warming in the next few hundred years.

It's because humans have lived, survived, increased in numbers and prospered over a range of climates much greater than the predicted range by climate-obsessors that economist-type thinking must, for me, involve some raised eyebrows.  It's fairly obvious that if there's no reason to believe humans will be negatively impacted by future climate change, with every evidence that our present and future innovations will more than offset any environmental shifts, it's equally absurd to bear sizeable resources (time, energy and money) trying to prevent this change. I'm not saying we shouldn't be mindful of being more environmentally and ecologically prudent, nor that we should avoid doing what we can to diminish the extent to which environmental change occurs with rapidity, but that's a far cry from constructing political parties based on that ethos and becoming climate-obsessors.

You are quite welcome to hold the view that there are more negative effects to global warming than positive effects, but to make it fly you must provide reasons to justify it - you can't just exaggerate the negatives and understate the positives, and decree yourself to have taken the right stance on this. I'm interested in compelling arguments, and evidence-based conclusions - but I haven't heard any yet, so for now I remain sceptical, particularly as being green-focused seems to aid popularity amongst the electorate, which does, of course, provide political parties with the motive for propagating unbalanced green-keenness.
* A short précis is that in market economics we find that competition brings about self-interest for the good of everyone, where prices near-perfectly match supply and demand.  In other words, the competitive market is what brings about the allocation of resources with maximum efficiency.  The different ways to allocate resources is only maximised to the best effect when competitive markets function freely (this has been proven mathematically by Debreu and McKenzie).  When you have 'supply'; and 'demand' for that supply, and 'prices' that invoke near-maximum efficiency between the supplies and the demand – there is almost no necessity for human interference.


** Consider a thought experiment; suppose there'd never been a Green Party, but instead an Amber Party whose whole ethos had been the opposite of what the Greens espouse.  The Amber ethos is centred on prodigiously estimating the benefits and exiguously estimating the costs of our global activity, always citing how much better the planet would be if colder regions were warmer, explaining the benefits of creating more habitable areas and better river routes, etc – you’d likely find that the national feeling would be near the opposite of what it is now.

Photo courtesy of greenpolitics.eventbrite.com


3 comments:

  1. Hi James,

    I agree with your central point, which is that you have to weigh the benefits and the negatives of economic activity, but the reality is that it's the current *form* of economic activity that creates problems. Economic activity creates jobs, fulfills wellbeing and brings a host of other benefits, but at an overall environmental cost, which is framed by an overall set of environmental limits. However, there are many societal, and technological means which exist that allow individuals and the overall economy to operate in a way which helps contain economic activity within the confines of environmental limits, such as cradle to cradle product design, recycling, resource efficiency, and renewables.

    People like Tim Jackson (from the Sustainable Development Commission - abolished by this Government) have written books like 'Prosperity Without Growth' which articulate not only the need, but also the mechanisms in which we can reframe our economy to address the consistent warning bells sounding by academics across the world, such as those from the IPCC - who interestingly, have used a philosopher as part of their 5th assessment report.

    The problem is that at present not all parts of Government or society recognise the urgent need for this shift, nor accept the global equity arguments, whilst Climatic Change is already happening. Climatic change is directly linked to weather systems, and whilst the overall climatic change is gradual, (we are already seeing overall hotter drier summers and warmer wetter winters) these are interspersed with increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, which in turn are damaging economic activity; in Newcastle last year, one such event cost £8m damage to the highway network, flooding 3000 homes, and costing two major businesses over £1m.

    However, there is some hope. Interestingly, there has been a push from certain corners of this government to better value Natural Capital; seeking to measure the environmental costs and services provided as part of economic activity. This is a really important part of providing a proper understanding of those tradeoffs, and valuing economic activity such as pollination, which to date have gone unmeasured.

    As for Green Politics, I think the reason for the strength of feeling amongst greens is that the issues have been sidelined and ignored for so long, that it's almost desperation. The prevailing mindset amongst economic development is that the market must function above all else, but this is hardly ever true. In so many cases, the market is bad for us - look at sugar and obesity, alcohol and liver disease, smoking and cancer, yet there are people out there pushing for those activities to continue.
    Councils and Governments have for years had to intervene to try and address the true costs of such behavior or at least mitigate the worst of that activity, which is also true of the environment. The problem with the environment is that to an extent it's not a pressing current issue, and can still be ignored by mainstream politicians - remember Cameron's 'Greenest Government ever'?. Until we have a government that really starts to address this, us greens will still be as angry and livid as ever; however, it might be too late for us all by then. The other choice is that we create a better world, and it might be for nothing, but do you want to take the risk?

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  2. Kit >>In so many cases, the market is bad for us - look at sugar and obesity, alcohol and liver disease, smoking and cancer, yet there are people out there pushing for those activities to continue. <<

    People eat sugary foods, drink alcohol and smoke voluntarily. They do so because they consider the enjoyment greater than the consequences. In a free market you will find this happens.

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  3. >"How are we to tell, say, if rising sea levels in the Indian Ocean balances out with the emergence of more habitable areas of Siberia or Alaska?"

    There are more people living in India than Siberia or Alaska and should the sea rise over parts of India and expose more habitable land in Siberia or Alaska how is it realistic to move millions of people from India there? Granted, this was a hypothetical scenario but it demonstrates how a cost-benefit analysis could be done in any scenario.

    >"It's because humans have lived, survived, increased in numbers and prospered over a range of climates much greater than the predicted range by climate-obsessors that economist-type thinking must, for me, involve some raised eyebrows. It's fairly obvious that if there's no reason to believe humans will be negatively impacted by future climate change, with every evidence that our present and future innovations will more than offset any environmental shifts, it's equally absurd to bear sizeable resources (time, energy and money) trying to prevent this change"

    The difference between humans adjusting to environmental change in the past and now is the extent to which populations and resources are mobile. For example, a thousand years ago a town, village or tribe could move fairly easily to a more habitable climate and not take very long to get back to the state it was at before. The cost of moving resources, infrastructure and population from a city the size of London is inestimable. The impact of change in climate as bad as is being predicted would be far greater now than in the past.

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