Government Gets Stern

Well, as you can tell by looking in the “environment” category here, I’m likely to be pleased to hear about the Stern report, released yesterday (Guardian article and links to report here) and also pleased to hear that the UK government is taking the report seriously…. more or less.

I’d have a lot more to say, but I’ve said so much about this already, and I’m not really up to a long post on this right now. But I could not let this excellent (and hopefully landmark) event go unmarked. The point, as has been said before:- Nobody is going to get going on this because it is “the right thing to do”, since it is difficult for individuals and businesses to act in a way that makes things less than convenient for yourself for a cause that seems so abstract. Pure market forces will not do it either. We need actual leadership from the scientists -which has more or less happened for a while now (see my earlier reports on the UCS here and here for example)- and action and structure put in place by the people who will really get things going: economists and then governments (because they follow the money).

Well, Stern is a major figure in the “economists” group, and so this is good news. I must admit though that it really did make me cringe every time I heard the announcers on BBC Radio 4, while trying to emphasise how significant the report’s findings were, saying things like “this is not a report from an environmentalist, it is a report from an economist”… and other sentences of similar structure, where sometimes “environmentalist” was replaced by “scientist”. It is as though they were saying that somehow this all carries more weight now because someone strongly associated with money is saying we should worry, and act promptly.

No, wait… that is what they are saying, thereby reinforcing the public’s own imbalanced priorities when it comes to expert opinion about things that matter: It really matters if you spell it out with money. It irks me no end, but I have to grin and bear it. I should just be glad that this is maybe a way to get the message across somehow. Before it is too late. If it is not already.

-cvj

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22 Responses to Government Gets Stern

  1. Dissonant says:

    Clifford, consider the possbility that the public may actually be right on this one. It’s so easy — especially for inhabitants of the Ivory Tower — to fall in the “it’s just money” trap, as if money were some kind of abstraction carrying no real meaning. It is not. It’s the best measure anyone has ever come up with for value. It stands for time and effort. It comes in limited supply because time and effort come in limited supply. Say “USD 50000” and you could equivalently say “more than one year’s worth of the average American family’s time and efforts”. Spend it one way — e.g. to implement the Kyoto Protocol — and you don’t get to spend it some other way — e.g. to develop fusion reactors or more efficient space transportation systems which could pave the path for a true long term solution of the energy problem.

    Cost-benefit analyses are not bean-counting exercises for rubes who don’t know better, they are essential for intelligent decision-making.

  2. Clifford says:

    Of course it all comes down to that. My point is that it is a shame that hearing the scientific argument from those who know the science (the scientists) is not enough to make a difference. People are conditioned to think only with their wallets, and hence listen only to those who they perceive can affect their wallets. While this is reality, it does not make it right. And… it is largely what got us into this mess in the first place.

    -cvj

  3. Jude says:

    When it comes to science, people pick and choose what they believe in. I run across this in fundamentalist Christian blogs, where one moment they praise the ability of medicine to provide life-saving transplants and the next moment, they decry the teaching of evolution. They love some aspects of science but hate others.

  4. Say Lee says:

    As an aside, I read in a local daily today that Al Gore, the American discard, by the electorate I mean, has been engaged by the British Government to advise on climate change. This is surely one instant of exporting expertise. The only ironic part is that the expertise was not valued by the home country.

    On people thinking with their wallet rather than with their head, it is definitely one of the saddest commentaries on a developed nation. If the Germans and the British can do it, why can’t US? That must be the burning question in the mind of most people, those outside of US anyway.

  5. amanda says:

    “People are conditioned to think only with their wallets, and hence listen only to those who they perceive can affect their wallets.”

    Well, I’m afraid that it is *because* the public perceives that scientists have this kind of attitude that they are disinclined to take you seriously. If you were, like so many people, doing a job that you hate, simply because you *need* the money, then you might not take this Olympian, and, frankly, elitist attitude to those horrible materialistic money-grubbing wage-slaves.

    I’ve noticed by the way that, on the rare occasions when *scientists* come into serious money, their attitudes to items like income tax undergoes an extraordinary change. Strange, is it not? But I’m sure there is a perfectly good scientific explanation.

  6. Clifford says:

    Hi,

    I think it’s very sad that you’ve taken such a rather unkind view of what I am trying to say. It is a focus on economics only that led to us as a society to get to the point where we’ve been screwing up our planet with little or no regard for the future of those who will inherit it. It is not neccessarily elitist to want to strive to think about more than just money in life. It is not just scientists who can take such a view. And I don’t understand why you think scientists are all the way you portrayed, and somehow in opposition to everyone else. That’s odd. We work hard to pay our bills just like everyone else. I’m simply trying to make the point that it would be nice if we could begin to make thos inconvenient choices to change our behaviour for the sake of the planet’s future, and not based solely on an argument about the future econonic costs of doing nothing. Why does it have to be boiled entirely down to economics, and heard from the mouth of an economist, before we do anything? I know that it comes down to that in the ned, but why must it, is what I am asking?

    I’m being idealistic, yes, but is that the same as elitist? You judge me hastily and harshly, I fear.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  7. Say Lee says:

    No, Cliff, you are being virtuous, bordering on altruism, which is an endangered species these days.

  8. Dissonant says:

    Clifford, the key sentence in amanda’s maybe brutal but honest post is this:

    If you were, like so many people, doing a job that you hate, simply because you *need* the money

    Yes, many (maybe even a significant fraction of) scientists work hard, but as you like to remind us, it’s doing something they chose to do and love. Be honest now, if you were independently wealthy, would you be doing anything else than wht you’re doing anyway?

    I suggest that you try putting yourself in the shoes of a 60-year old cleaning lady with aching joints, knowing full well that there will never be anything else in life for her. You come home from another day full only of humiliating and ill-retribued fatigue, switch on your old TV — and get a lecture from some scientist kid enjoying ten times your salary, paid out of your taxes, telling you with unconceiled disdain that your fixation knuckle-dragging money-fixation is killing the planet.

    If I were that 60-year old cleaning the lady I know whom I’d like to kill.

  9. Dissonant says:

    Eek! I so wish there was a way to fix bad edits after prematurely hitting Submit. “Cleaning the lady”… how’s that for unintentional hilarity?

  10. Clifford says:

    Ok, ths is getting ridiculous now, and frankly, rather insulting. If any attempt to discuss how we might change our policies as a society is going to be dismissed as “some scientist kid enjoying ten times your salary, paid out of your taxes, telling you with unconceiled disdain that your fixation knuckle-dragging money-fixation is killing the planet”, then we’ll get nowhere.

    This is an unbelievable degree of short-sightedness. How do you go from there to changing anything? This is not about 60 year old cleaning ladies. They do not set policy about our energy usage… they do not invest in infrastructure for public transport, they are not responsible for investment in alternative energy sources… I am not picking on old ladies, or any individual in particular. How utterly ridiculous…

    Thanks for the insults. Let’s just agree to disagree on this one. I just don’t have the energy to argue against such a narrow-minded attitude. Sorry.

    -cvj

  11. Dissonant says:

    Clifford, calm down. Nowhere did I insult you. I am trying to make you consider how somebody with a POV very different from yours may perceive “scientists”. True, that person does not set policies on energy usage as an individual, but she does have a vote, and she gets to exercise her right to use it every four years or so. You want her and everybody like her to put politicians in power who see things your way? Then don’t act condescendingly to them, the public which you so casually accuse of “imbalanced priorities”. If anyone is being insulting here, it’s you.

  12. Clifford says:

    Yes! She has a vote… that’s one way that she plays her part in society and she hopefully (after hearing from the scientists and not just the economists) will choose to put people into positions where they can make a difference to the future of society by having better energy policy, etc. I do not *casually* accuse the public of imbalanced priorities…. I’m pointing out facts that have been known for a long time and are only just becoming fashionable to talk about in general. Cheap, convenient, and polluting energy sources, and means of transportation, etc, are not good in the long term, briefly put. As a society, we’ve not been focusing on changing our consumption in this regard….So yes, our priorities have been wrongly balanced.

    If pointing out what we need to do work together to fix our world is only seen as condescending, then that is very sad. It is closed minded and short-sighted attitudes like yours that have helped to put us in this situation.

    -cvj

  13. Dissonant says:

    If it’s a closed minded and short-sighted attitude for a young man in excellent physical and financial shape and with “elite” (hate that word) education to try and imagine what the world may look like to a poor, old, working class woman, then I am proudly closed minded and short-sighted. 🙂

    Really Clifford, it’s not “pointing out what we need to do work together to fix our world” that’s the problem with your post, and I think both I and amanda have been perfectly clear on that.

  14. Clifford says:

    It is not the trying to imagine what others might think that I am talking about. I do it a lot myself, and try a great deal to put myself into others shoes…. What I am talking about is *how things got to be this way*… and looking at how the things we are doing to change it are working, for better or worse. Our society’s value of the short-term gain is something I am allowed to look at as part of a problem… it does not mean that I cannot empathize with members of the public. I am in fact, also a member of the public with exactly the same value as that 60 year old woman you mentioned. If you want to go and separate yourself off from her and stand as part of the “elite” (whatever that is) please do so. I will not.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  15. Dissonant says:

    Too late Clifford, you separated yourself not only from our hypothetical 60 year old cleaning lady, but from “the public” at large when you wrote about

    reinforcing the public’s own imbalanced priorities when it comes to expert opinion about things that matter: It really matters if you spell it out with money. It irks me no end

  16. Clifford says:

    I don’t see how. Experts are part of the public too. Depending upon the situation in hand, one or other of us steps forward to contribute to society.. it does not separate us from it… it is a role we are playing at a time and place. We are still part of society. You are superimposing your own perceptions on this, it seems to me.

    -cvj

  17. Dissonant says:

    You are superimposing your own perceptions on this, it seems to me.

    Yes, absolutely. Perceptions on the receiving end, not intentions of the sender, is what this is about. That’s what I and amanda are saying. As she wrote:

    Well, I’m afraid that it is *because* the public perceives that scientists have this kind of attitude that they are disinclined to take you seriously.

    I really think she has a point. As you can see at the beginning of this thread, the condescending tone, whether intentional or not, was the first thing I reacted to in your text, too, and the one lasting impression it left me with. Anybody getting that impression is pretty certain to forget all about the actual message. Not so good if getting that message across is your primary goal.

  18. Clifford says:

    But there is such a thing as giving the benefit of the doubt. And context. If you want to take the worst interpretation of what I say, after all that I have said in other posts… when it is clear what my intentions are… fine. It seems a rather petty and unfriendly thing to do, especially when there are several other readings one can do of what I said. It’s very disappointing indeed, but have it your way.

    Best,

    -cvj

  19. Dissonant says:

    But there is such a thing as giving the benefit of the doubt.

    You mean as in “Gee, I really hate the way this guy read my post, but maybe he’s trying to tell me how the vast majority of potential readers are going to perceive it, in spite of my good intentions”?

    It seems a rather petty and unfriendly thing to do

    OK, note to self: don’t warn Clifford when he’s shooting himself in the foot. He considers it unfriendly.
    :rolleyes:

  20. Clifford says:

    Do you ever have anything positive to contribute? Don’t you find it a little sad to go around calling yourself what you do (and I note, you’ve not enough spine to use your real name) and then post enirely negative comments and interpretations of everything, simply for the sake of being disruptive? Get a life, as they say. Contribute something positive to the world, for goodness sake. Don’t try to find the negative in everything others do.

    This is pitiful.

    Goodbye.

    -cvj

  21. Aaron F. says:

    “this is not a report from an environmentalist, it is a report from an economist”…

    When someone who’s been running simulations of the Earth’s climate for decades says that “by the middle of the century 200 million people may become permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, heavier floods and more intense droughts,” we snicker… but when someone who has probably never seen a general circulation model in his life says it, we believe?!

    Perhaps the leading environmentalists of the world should thank Stern for his help by doing his job for a year.

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