I have no grudge against the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon has an impossibly difficult job, and appears to do it as competently as anybody might. He seems neither immoral, nor dangerous. But following an article he penned for The Guardian, I am forced to ask myself a question: would the world be better off without Ban Ki-moon? He may not have intended readers to think along those lines, but it does follow the question he posed, which was: what should we do about climate change?
If we think clearly and honestly about climate change, the question of who should live, or die, must naturally arise. The forces of nature kill people already, whether through storms or food shortages. Climate change may lead to more death and destruction. On the other hand, responding to climate change will also influence who lives and who dies, because of the need for tough decisions about the allocation of resources. A billion dollars spent on windmills is a billion dollars not spent on medicines, or crops, or the disposal of landmines, or the making of entertaining movies. So when an individual raises the question of climate change, and insists that people must respond, it is fair to begin by asking what sacrifices that individual is willing to make.
To start with, I should repeat the actual question posed by Ban Ki-moon.
Climate change affects us all. So what’s stopping us joining forces to act on it?
On one hand, this is a straightforward appeal for sensible co-operation to stave potential disaster. On the other hand, it is a monumentally moronic question, that any schoolchild would be able to answer, if not wrongly encouraged to be starry-eyed dreamers in the ilk of John Lennon and a minority of Barack Obama’s waning fans. We might as well ask what stops us from joining forces to make this world a paradise. The answer is: people are selfish.
The UN Secretary-General is undoubtedly aware of human selfishness. His job is to negotiate. There would be no need for negotiation, if people lacked selfish desire. So when he asks a question that so obviously relates to selfishness, we should really contemplate who is being selfish. Is it me? Is it you? Might it be Ban Ki-moon?
I have seen that effective, affordable climate solutions exist. The push-back against sceptics must start in earnest at the UN’s 2014 summit in New York.
Really? That is wonderful news. Unless, perhaps, you are the person who pays the bill for these climate solutions. I might agree to an evening with friends at an affordable restaurant, but that does not mean I want to be stuck with the bill for everyone else’s dinner. When Ban Ki-moon says climate solutions are affordable, he presumably is not offering to pay for them out of his USD240,000 salary. Which is not to suggest he is wrong, or that his salary is excessive. It just means his view on what is affordable may not be the same as someone else’s view on what is affordable. These differences of opinion matter a great deal, when somebody opines on what is affordable for others. Ban Ki-moon’s view on what is an affordable restaurant will likely differ from mine, given that I lack his income. And his view on whether climate change solutions are affordable might change, if the rest of the globe insisted the funding be taken from the existing UN budget, which is over USD2.5bn a year.
Anyhow, I should move on, for fear of sounding petty. What we really need to do is to discuss what the bill will be, and who will pay it.
We really should discuss the bill. And who will pay it.
But we will not. Because Ban Ki-moon does not. In his article, he starts by saying the solutions are affordable. But he fails to state the cost. There is not a single number in his article. When Ban Ki-moon says something is affordable, he means it. And that is final. There is no need to share actual numbers with us, the nobodies who read articles instead of writing them. We may pay taxes, but we should not expect to be consulted on how they are spent. If anyone questions the affordability of these solutions, they must be unscientific, or a sceptic, or some kind of primitive flat earther. After all, the alternative is death and destruction! We should spend any amount to prevent death and destruction! And yet, the human race has always faced death and destruction, and has always had to make hard decisions about how much to spend to curb the risks. Being the kind of sceptic I am, I care less about whether predictions of global warming are accurate, and more about the costs involved, and who will pay them.
I think a lot of arguments from so-called climate sceptics are wide of the mark. They will never win by saying scientists are wrong. Even if scientists are wrong, it would make no difference. Consider religion, in comparison to science. Priests do not follow scientific method, do not gather data, and do not present evidence. And yet, a lot of people still believe the things that priests say. If people can believe priests are right, it is much easier to believe a scientist is right. Scientists admit to fallibility, argue openly, gather data, and follow a method. So when scientists insist that something is true, most people will forget all the times that scientists were wrong in the past, and trust what they say. They do so, because they struggle to identify a better alternative (though some still think their priest knows more than any scientist).
It is futile to dispute the scientist’s ability to predict the future. To win the argument, sceptics need only do something much simpler. They just need to ask for the bill that must be paid in order to address climate change, and then ask who is expected to pay it. Anyone who has ever tried to divide a restaurant bill between a large numnber of people will immediately appreciate why this tactic would be so devastating. The sceptics may get portrayed as selfish, but selfish people will always be in the majority. It makes good political sense to join forces with selfish people. Politics is dominated by selfish people, and it is easy to identify who is selfish. They are the ones who insist that the bill should be paid by someone else.
The debate, as far as debate is allowed, settled, ended or whatever, has dwelled on some kinds of numbers, whilst excluding others. A certain amount of coal releases a certain amount of energy, and gas, when burned. That might lead temperatures to rise by a certain amount at certain points in the globe, and for sea levels to rise by a certain amount, and so on. But nobody is really bothered about the amount the sea level will rise. They are not even bothered if places like Maldives will sink beneath the waves. With apologies to all Maldivians, what really matters is how much it would cost to prevent such an outcome, versus the cost of allowing it to happen but providing people with the same quality of life. The Maldivians may have a sentimental attachment to their islands, but most of them would readily leave their home and their day job, if offered a life of wealth and luxury on another part of the planet. And if not, and they stubbornly refuse to leave, then it is right that they should pay a heavy price, if they want to save land that others value less than they do.
Three decades from now the world is going to be a very different place. How it looks will depend on actions we take today.
Part of the problem with those promoting action on climate change, is that they always talk about taking action, but never say what they think people should do. The vague idea of action is uplifting. The depressing reality is that most action takes the form of burdens, sacrifices, and chores. So what is Ban Ki-moon doing, in response to climate change? We know the answer, from his own article:
To build political momentum and help bring about action, I am convening a climate summit in New York on 23 September…
I have been hosting an international meeting designed as a staging post for the September summit. The Abu Dhabi Ascent has given me considerable hope…
My sights are now set on the September climate summit and the climate negotiations in Lima in December and Paris next year…
New York, Abu Dhabi, Lima and Paris. Ban Ki-moon is very active. He very actively flies around the world, expending energy, encouraging other people to fly around the world, expending energy. These people all consume far more energy than the average human being. And yet, they justify this to themselves, as necessary to save the world from the consequences of consuming too much energy.
I have a suggestion for Ban Ki-moon, if he wants to take action that will save the planet.
Learn to use a fucking phone.
All these meetings are just a bunch of people talking to each other. Is it necessary to get world leaders into the same room, in order to reach agreement? Maybe so. But who says it is necessary? They do. Given how long it takes for world leaders to reach agreement on anything, I think the world would be better off if people like Ban Ki-moon were subjected to a scientific experiment. Ground all world leaders, for a whole year. Deny them jets, and motorcades, and hotel rooms, and conference facilities, and all the energy that is consumed by providing them with these facilities. If they want to have a meeting, let them have a conference call. The NSA may have tapped the Secretary-General’s line, but they can bug hotels too, so they will save energy and effort as well.
If, at the end of the year, no agreement on climate change is reached, and the world leaders moan that it was because they were not allowed to meet face-to-face, then continue to phase two of the experiment. Sack the world leaders, and see if their replacements can discover the magical ability to talk and reach agreement without literally sitting in the same room.
All around the world it is plain that climate change is happening and that human activities are the principal cause…
The world’s top scientists are clear. Climate change is affecting agriculture, water resources, human health, and ecosystems on land and in the oceans. It poses sweeping risks for economic stability and the security of nations.
We can avert these risks if we take bold, decisive action now.
That makes it sound like all human activity is the same. And yet, some people are more ‘active’ than others. Which brings us back to the most important question, which is the size of the bill, and who pays for it. Ban Ki-moon has a huge appetite for carbon, but he does not pay for his own flights. Maybe he should, and if he did, he might find ways to be productive without flying so often. These are the kinds of solutions I am interested in. What prevents the UN from adopting such an approach? Instead of paying for his flights, give Ban Ki-moon a flat allowance. If he spends the allowance on flights, so be it. If not, he pockets the money. And yet, for all the talk about making decisions, world leaders never make bold decisions like this.
An increasing number of government leaders, policymakers, businesses, investors and concerned citizens are beginning to comprehend the costs of climate change.
And yet, they do not use numbers to discuss those costs, nor show signs of making bold decisions in how they live their personal lives, nor how they approach their work.
More crucially, they are also learning that affordable solutions exist or are in the pipeline to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support resilience. We need to deploy these solutions at a scale commensurate to the challenge. That means investment and it means global co-operation, especially in the areas of finance and technology.
Again, the world ‘affordable’ is used, without any support. It is always easy to talk about investment and co-operation, if the investment and co-operation is done by somebody else. The problem with asking other people to make investments and to co-operate is that it often degenerates into taxing them and punishing them for being uncooperative. There may be some justification for taxes and punishment. But first, we deserve to see the bill, and the arguments for what we will receive if we pay it. Maybe a trillion dollars is worth an inch on the sea levels. Maybe it would take ten trillion dollars to halt their rise permanently. But there is no argument for taxation, confiscation, and punishment, if there is no bill, and no measure of the benefits. And there is no good argument if the people levying the taxes and giving the punishment have exempted themselves from paying their share.
Just as scientists are united on the impacts of climate change, so are economists generally agreed on the costs of combatting it. Working now for a rapid transformation to a low-carbon economy will be significantly less expensive for people and economies than failing to act, especially in developing countries, which are most vulnerable to climate impacts.
We get more talk of costs and even of agreement amongst economists, though I find this last point implausible; economists never agree on anything. The unwillingness to simply state the costs becomes more and more painfully apparent. The dodging of the crucial issue about who should bear the costs becomes more and more ridiculous. And you don’t have to be a climate change sceptic to point out that solutions to climate change will involve an even more complicated prediction than that involved when modelling the global climate. We need to predict where investment would deliver greatest benefit, and where it would be wasted. We want money to be spent well, on efficient solutions that will work well in practice, not poured into the pockets of the corrupt and the foolish. Forgive my scepticism, but most people understand why scepticism about public spending is always warranted. We are all more keen on investing somebody else’s money, than on wasting our own.
Instead of asking if we can afford to act, we should be asking what is stopping us, who is stopping us, and why? Climate change is an issue for all people, all businesses, all governments. Let us join forces to push back against sceptics and entrenched interests.
Stirring language. And yet, nobody is stopping the UN Secretary-General from using a fucking phone instead of flying to meetings. Where do I sign up, to push back on the entrenched interest and wastefulness in the way the UN Secretary-General does his job? I suspect this is not the kind of force he wants me to join.
Change is in the air…
Literally. Would it be so hard to imagine a world so drastically changed, that people stop wasting energy on unnecessary travel? And if that is hard to imagine, just as it is hard to imagine millionaire movie stars agreeing we should slash spending on entertainment in order to better fund energy projects, then we have an answer to Ban Ki-moon’s question. We know full well why we cannot simply join forces and collectively choose to stop man-made climate change.
…I can sense it at all levels of society. Solutions exist. The race is on. My challenge to all political and business leaders, all concerned citizens and voters is simple: be at the head of the race. Don’t get left behind. Don’t be on the losing side of history. Let us work together to make climate change a top priority for all leaders – at home and in the global arena. Let us take advantage of the opportunities presented by climate action and lay the foundations for a more prosperous and secure future for all.
Maybe Ban Ki-moon can sense change at all levels of society, whilst flying 30,000 feet above it. I cannot. What I perceive is the same old nonsense that the world has always suffered from. Greed. Foolishness. Leaders who talk about change, meaning you need to change, not them.
Ban Ki-moon’s article was quite long, considering how little it said. There were no numbers, and no costs. He did not give an example of any bold decisions that he had taken, in his personal or professional life, to bring about change. He did not even give a single example of any of the ‘solutions’, despite repeatedly telling us how affordable they are. So let me point out a truth that Ban Ki-moon will never admit to, even though it is staring us all in the face.
All around the world it is plain that climate change is happening and that human activities are the principal cause.
Human activities are the principal cause of climate change. Human activity. Humans do things. There lies a possible solution to climate change. Have fewer humans. The global population keeps going up. Energy use keeps going up. And, supposedly, the temperature goes up. Is there any scientist in the world who fails to see the causal relationship between the human population and the problem which Ban Ki-moon wants to solve?
Nobody wants to talk about population growth as a cause of climate change because that would be awkward. And Ban Ki-moon is a diplomat, after all. He says he wants bold, Bold, BOLD action!!! But we are not so bold that we can even mention that population has a link to climate change. Where does that leave us? It means that, however much populations grow in practice, our leaders, in the complete absence of any useful numbers, are telling us we can live the lives we want to lead, have the children we want to have, and save the climate from catastrophe. They pretend the only bold decision we need to contemplate is how we will be more energy efficient, whilst obtaining more energy from sources that are currently much less economically efficient than carbon-based sources. They do not contemplate the other possibilities, if we cannot be as efficient as we hope to be. One of those possibilities is that we consume less. We will eat less, travel less, own less, make less. Population will rise, but GDPs will decline, and so wealth per person will fall. Another possibility is that every person could still consume as much as they currently do, but only because there are fewer people in total.
Ban Ki-moon may ask for bold thinking, but he should be wary of what he asks for, in case he really gets it. Like most leaders, Ban Ki-moon is prone to delusional thinking which insists what is convenient must also be true. There is an irony that Al Gore described global warming as an inconvenient truth. It is no so inconvenient that it stopped him flying to Norway, to collect his Nobel Prize. Presumably another human being should suffer greater inconvenience, to compensate for his indulgence. Or else he is confident that finance and technology must deliver efficiency savings that will compensate for his excessive consumption.
The problem with climate change sceptics is that they let world leaders off the hook, by diverting the debate down a path they cannot win. World leaders like to emphasize the terrible, Terrible, TERRIBLE consequences of climate change, because that justifies making world leaders even more powerful than they already are. It justifies giving them authority to make decisions that many of us will not like. If we go down that path, we should keep in mind what actions might really become necessary, to solve the challenge of climate change. Ban Ki-moon is appealing to the people on an emotional level, and that is exactly what is wrong with how world leaders deal with this problem. Fuzzy words and emotions are no substitute for hard-headed numbers. Real costs cut through, and have serious implications, that change the lives of individuals. The best example is China. The Chinese government reduced the likelihood of famine in their country. The cost was that the Chinese people were allowed fewer children. Was that a cost that a democratic society could have paid?
Maybe the world will not need to follow China’s lead, in order to deal with climate change. But that should be determined scientifically, with robust forecasts that use hard-headed numbers. It is no good applying a lot of effort to forecasting how much the temperature will rise, if we cannot forecast how much a million, billion or trillion dollar investment will reduce that rise. The UN Secretary General says the solutions are affordable. I want to see the evidence for that assertion. Forget debates about oceans and winds. The real debate is about money. I want to understand how big the bill will be, and who pays for it. And having seen the first draft of the bill, I want to know how much that bill will grow, as the population grows.
Ban Ki-moon has three children. Given the way the world is today, the population would stop growing if women had 2.33 babies on average. Improved healthcare should mean that the replacement rate will fall, nearing the idealized rate of 2 babies per woman. Let us not argue whether human activity causes global warming, or even how much by. In his own way, Ban Ki-moon has increased global warming, not just through his personal consumption of energy, but by making people who will also, inevitably, consume energy. Maybe the world can afford Ban Ki-moon’s third child. After all, babies come in round numbers, and nobody is mother to 2.33 kids. But whether the world can afford Ban Ki-moon’s children, and his grandchildren, depends on how much more efficient we can be, when using energy, and how much more efficient we can be, at producing energy without releasing carbon. Those truths will be measured in numbers. Our problem is that leaders only like to discuss numbers when it comes time to tax us. If they want real popular support for change, they need to drop the high-flying language, and start talking about the numbers involved, so we can all give our informed consent. That is the only way we will truly ‘work together’. Otherwise, we will revert to an ages-old paradigm: the powerful will tax, and the rest will pay. And those that pay will be made to do so whether they like it or not, whether they see the benefit or not.
Our societies have not changed the way they should. One example is that we conduct debates in words when they should be conducted in numbers. The global population; the efficiency of using energy to live a typical human life; the efficiency of extracting energy relative to releasing carbon – these are all numbers, of a kind that can be scrutinized and predicted scientifically. They are linked. If the world lives more efficiently, it can sustain a higher population. On the other hand, every additional human life forces everyone to be even more efficient, or to be more stringent in rationing energy, which means limiting choices for how people live their lives. Or maybe we will choose to limit how many lives people bring into this world.
It would be a bold decision for Ban Ki-moon to kill himself. But it would set a great example, showing how much he really cares about climate change. Burying your body in the ground is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Apart from all the flights for all the dignitaries who would attend his funeral, the end of Ban Ki-moon’s existence would definitely save energy. He is currently active. By living, he drives global warming. His immediate death would be a small step towards avoiding climate catastrophe. It might save somebody else’s life, or maybe two lives or more. But that is probably a cost that Ban Ki-moon is unwilling to pay. Might he have chosen to pay his share in another way? By having one less child? Or by using the phone a lot more than he does? Those are decisions he has to make for himself. But be under no illusions. Decisions do need to be made. Bills will be paid, one way or another. The problem is that people like Ban Ki-moon do not want to make those decisions. They do not even want to talk about them, though they are paid to do nothing but talk. They will sit at the table, chat amiably, agree the restaurant is affordable, and insist they have already contributed their fair share. And whilst people are still arguing who had soup for starter, and who supped a second bottle of wine, Ban Ki-moon will rise and leave. The UN Secretary-General is too important to deal with problems like that, and he needs to catch a flight…