Christian Kerr’s final line in yesterday’s article (Item 12) illustrates the direction in which the climate debate may be about to swing. To recap:
‘If we dismantle our economy in the name of the environment, where will the money to help the environment come from?’
In other words, it is the economy that buys a decent environment. This is, of course, the long-established view and one often publicly repeated. On occasion it might even be true. But confining our discussion to the matter at hand – climate change – it is obviously and demonstrably not.
It’s been said before that collisions between environmental and economic values can generally be explained by a failure of analysis in one sphere or the other. In our case, it’s both – a mistaken belief that the atmosphere is a limitless and impervious sink for industrial by-products, and a case of near-terminal economic myopia.
In the short term, it may be cheaper to release industrial waste into waterways, but in the longer term this behaviour imposes broadly unacceptable ecological and social impacts and associated economic costs that outweigh the initial benefits of the activity. For a time the damage may not be clear. But when it becomes so, it is mere good sense to curtail the activity appropriately.
Climate change is the same set of principles scaled up: in space, to what is nothing less than the planet’s life support system, and in time, to the generations foreseeably to come. We have discovered limits to what our atmosphere can absorb while comfortably sustaining life, and we are compelled to respond.
The Stern review, despite its myriad uncertainties, makes this point clearly. And its conclusion is quite simply this: it will prove far more expensive to carry on with business as usual than to make changes now. We can call those changes sacrifices or we can call them investments.
Of course this leaves us with some difficult choices, and Christian – or rightly the blog he quotes – gets it right on a few counts. People don’t understand the scale of change required. Hybrid cars, wind turbines and feelgood consumption gestures alone won’t do it. We must countenance the heretical notion that emissions reductions – ie, environmental protection – will be partly achieved by forgoing some consumption.
In the end, our environment does just fine without us. It was ticking over nicely before we arrived, and it will get back to doing so once we’re gone. On the other hand, money isn’t real. It is an abstraction that represents the way in which we divide the planet’s resources among us. We have failed to value those that are most vital – clean air, water, a stable climate, biodiversity. It is only logical that if we erode the earth’s capacity to provide those resources, we all become poorer.