Posted by: Jon | 12/12/2009

Be it resolved…? The Munk Debate

The first climate change seminar I attended on returning to the UK this year was at the RGS back in February. The theme of the opening session was “How Long Have We Got Left?” But with a panel that included the now infamous Lord Christopher Monckton, it should properly have been called “Let’s Waste More Time Dragging Out The Debate”.

Having been in France for some years, I wasn’t then familiar with Christopher Monckton. But, after I’d watched him high-jack the time allotted for the serious speakers with his verbose mumbo-jumbo, I pretty quickly understood where he was coming from. I went to ask for my twenty-five quid back but they were only willing to give me a bag-for-life full of eco-freebies that I didn’t really need. (Yes, I was very naive then and didn’t know it was one of those events where they give them out to everybody).

So the other night when I watched the Munk Debate that took place a few days ago in Toronto, I was interested to see how far the conversation has progressed. With Elizabeth May, George Monbiot, Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson all speaking it promised to be a lively debate.

George Monbiot is well known for his stance on air travel and has already explained in print why he broke his self-imposed flying ban to be there. (Lord Lawson, it seems, also has short-haul flying reservations – as he commutes on EasyJet each Thursday back home to the south of France after a working week in London.)

But I’m already straying from the subject for debate. The motion was ‘Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and demands a commensurate response’. (Or, put another way, should we spend loads of money tackling climate change or can we better help the poor vulnerable nations by investing in new runways instead?) I won’t attempt to précis the pros and cons because you may already have viewed the download. (If not, you can watch it here).

After the speakers had been somewhat bizarrely introduced by Peter Munk as the ‘rock-stars’ of climate change, the viewpoints they expressed proved to be mostly versions of what I’d been hearing since February. (Although the increasingly alarming science was updated – and the point was well made by Elizabeth May that it is appalling still to be debating global warming when we are already running out of time to address it). But because I’ve now become familiar with the gist of the arguments – at least enough to have made up my own mind – I found my attention wandering from the speeches to the extraneous details of the event. Just like when I was at school.

George Monbiot came across as the courteous and gentle soul that he is – a persona that entirely belies the strength of his convictions and the risks he’s undergone in a long career at the sharp end of pricking consciences. As a speaker he reminds me of a form master I once had who would deliver us gentle homilies on why we should always tell the truth and think of other people before ourselves. (Captain D.A. Colley, M.C., D.S.O. – an unlikely scholarly war hero. I wonder what he’d make of all this if he were alive today).  

Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Greens and a seasoned politician, has the authoritative manner of a well-informed and competent school head. Not easy to get one over her, although once enraged at the mischief making of Bjorn Lomborg who presented as a bright and lippy sixth-form rebel, she wisely deferred to courteous Mr Monbiot to mediate calm into the exchange. (Of course we can forgive her display of emotion because she is a woman and decision-making to date about ‘man-kind’s defining crisis’ has largely been a male affair. Although maybe, as with farming in Africa, the women are just quietly getting on with it whilst the men are still busy talking.)

Wayward Bjorn declined to wear school uniform and came dressed as a teenage Harrison Ford with bleached hair and a Captain Kirk tee-shirt. I had the sense that probably he does aspire to live in a virtual world of rock ‘n’ roll celebrity. He purports to share George Monbiot’s desire for everybody to be equal, but he prefers that some people be more equal than others for, as he explains it, how else could we possibly make everybody equal? There was something serpent-like about his delivery as he lulled us in his soft beguiling tones and in the slithery way he twisted opposing lines of argument to his advantage. Once an outspoken global warming sceptic, he has long since rearranged his thesis to accommodate the science. But undoubtedly he’s a very clever young man and, if he would only settle and apply himself, he could go far.

Lord Lawson, as retired head of Maths and Economics, had the air of someone who has heard it all before. Looking without focus above the heads of the gathered assembly, he gave the impression of a teacher well past his prime and anyway more at ease with numbers and theories than with the adolescent hormones and untidy habits of his pupils. He lectured without engaging or engagement, repeating the same tired lesson in the same uninspired way. He seems not much interested in the new-fangled ecology or modern studies departments. It doesn’t matter to him that the curriculum has been updated because his style of teaching always worked in his day. But never mind. Most of us never really understood ‘exponential growth’ or ‘the law of diminishing returns’ and he’s the teacher so he must be right. That’s all we need to know as we cast our votes  – and our paper darts around the classroom.

I did nonetheless pay enough attention to consider that the speakers for the motion were by far the most persuasive – and ultimately they carried the day. Although I was not surprised to see that the ‘nay-sayers’ gained ground in the before and after audience votes.

The problem with this seemingly intractable debate is that the arguments and evidence really don’t seem to matter. It boils down to a choice between the old-fashioned growth economics of expanding aviation (and everything else we like doing, for that matter) and changing the economic model because we’re flying only on a wing and a prayer. It seems short-term expedience and personal convenience will always win the wider public vote. But if you’ve not followed the debate, it’s worth a viewing. I for one commend the motion to you.



  1. Wow! Absolutely your best post yet. A thoroughly enjoyable round-up of the usual suspects and you’ve convinced me, the best way to approach these tired debates. But a question, given your view of the susceptibility of ‘the public’ to short-term expedience and personal convenience, how much does it matter that we convince them? Who are the key stakeholders to be addressed?

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