In this time of mass hysteria, when people become obsessed with the personal lives of celebrities, athletes, and politicians from Chicago, there is still hope that public opinion can be swayed through well argued academic discussion.
Last Tuesday, I was invited to attend a segment in a debate series sponsored by a group called Intelligence Squared and the Rosenkranz Foundation. This is a series of debates on public policy where the issue of the day is centered on one resolution. The resolution for this week was “Reductions in Carbon Emissions are not worth the Money.”
The debate was taped for broadcast, and will be aired on the British Broadcasting Network (BBC) in March. Hosted by ABC news war correspondent John Donvan, the debate is broken into two teams, each consisting of three people.
Before the debate begins, the audience, which all paid $40 dollars to get in, votes on the resolution. The audience then votes after they have heard the arguments and whichever team improves the most from the first vote, is declared the winning team.
The early vote, before arguments saw only 16% of this New York crowd saying that reducing carbon emissions are not worth the money. 49% felt that reducing emissions was worth it. The other people voted ‘unsure.’
The team that argued that cutting carbon emissions was not worth it included Forbes writer Peter Huber, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, Bjorn Lomborg, and the third member of the team was liberal professor of Biogeography at the University of London, Philip Stott. Opposed to the resolution was Hunter Lovins, founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, Oliver Tickell, a British journo that often spars with Lomborg, and Adam Werbach, the youngest director in the history of the Sierra Club.
In the end the team that argued that reducing emissions was not worth the money won overwhelmingly, after garnering only 16% of the vote. They took their paltry 16% and argued it into 49%. They made the most convincing argument that while climate change is an issue, the needed $3 trillion a year needed to affect climate change could go to far more pressing human issues that would make the planet a better place.
In order to slow climate change, the effort – the panel agreed – would take approximately 10% of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Are the world’s financial resources unlimited?
The most convincing case came from Peter Huber. Huber made his case early in the debate, and the audience was clearly skeptical of his feelings about the world economy. It was Huber, however, that changed the landscape. China, he explained, has been cultivating coal mines for years and continues to do so. They will attract future manufacturing to their shores, and so will the Asian rim. While the United States ‘goes green’ with wind farms, businesses will run someplace else. “At least if we keep businesses here,” argued Huber, “we can keep an eye on them and make sure they operate as cleanly as possible. By letting businesses go overseas, they will be even more unchecked.”
The bottom line with international environmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is that developing nations (poor third world countries) are allowed more room to manufacture in poor environmental conditions, while the larger countries, like the US and the European Union would be forced into regulations that make it more difficult to compete.
The side that argued that reducing emissions was worth it kept going back to the fact that we (the world community) can do both – save the planet and pay attention to other human concerns. It was their issue to lose – as it seemed like a slam dunk. And they lost. They did not fully explain what the cost – per capita, per human effort – would be.
China’s Shi Zhengrong, is the world's first solar billionaire. He manufactures solar panels. He sold over a million of these panels to customers in Germany. As Lomborg explained, with these million-plus solar panels producing energy, the climate – over the next 50 years – would be changed by only one hour. One hour!? All of that change, and you make an impact of one hour. He was saying that an effort like that was not worth it, especially when you consider the cost of putting solar energy in place.
It was a great debate. While I still feel as though reducing emissions is worth the money in some areas of policy, I was shocked to see a Manhattan crowd moved like that. Judging public policy by a return on investment is not always fair. Reducing carbon emissions may not be worth the money – these people know better than I. But I know public policy better than many people – and policy does not have to be worth the money, if it can somehow prove it was worth the quality of life that it produces. The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (home of the NFL-AFC Champs!) has seen a dramatic increase in asthma among children, just as carbon emissions has gone up. Quality of life might trump costs in some cases.
Perhaps it would be worth seeing a debate like this with our elected officials. Term limits? Let’s see a panel of three elected officials argue that they need term limits extended, while three others argue against it. It might be a great town-hall type of political discussion that we could have in Queens.
Resolution: Term Limits Are the Will of the City and Should Stand
Resolution: Kennedy Airport Should Pay to Clean the Air It Pollutes in Queens
Resolution: Raising Subway Fares Discourages People from Using Public Transportation
Resolution: Saving Private Schools will improve Education in New York City
…you get the idea.
If you think you cannot be swayed away from your stance on these issues, you would be in for a ride. It’s about the power of debate. Now can we bring that kind of thing to the auditoriums at Queens College and Brooklyn College?