Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 21 April 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.
When I first enrolled at University, students had far less choice than they do today. Forced to pick a fourth first year course from a limited range, I chose Philosophy I.
This proved to be the best course choice I could have made, although I became an annoying person in argument because I kept wanting to break arguments up into bits.
“Answer the question”, people would say, but which question and what does it mean anyway? You can see why people might get annoyed!
The logic component was a key influence. There we broke arguments into parts and examined the relationships between them.
I mention this because it bears upon a question I was asked: why haven’t I discussed climate change in this column?
As I said in reply, I have actually written a fair bit on climate change, just not here.
I am not a climate change sceptic. I accept that, on the balance of probabilities, climate change is occurring and that it is likely that human action plays a part in this. Consequently, we need to do something about it.
This means that I see little point at a personal level in getting involved in the debate about the validity of climate change. Rather, I have tried to focus on understanding just what might be done. Here, two things have greatly annoyed me.
The first is the way that climate change has come to be linked to so many things that really have nothing to do with it. In logic terms, arguments run this way: if A (climate change), then B (add in whatever you like).
To illustrate with a small but personally important example.
When water restrictions were introduced in Sydney, part of the justification went this way. Water is a scarce resource, climate change means that water is going to get scarcer, so action must be taken now. One result was that watering was limited to hand held hoses two days a week before or after certain hours.
The general argument is logically flawed. We have one generalisation (water is a scarce resource), a second generalisation (climate change means that water is going to get scarcer), followed by a conclusion (action now).
Just because water is a scarce resource in a general sense does not mean that it is actually scarce at a particular point in time and space. Further, even if climate change means that water is going to get scarcer in the longer term, that has very little to do with the question of water restrictions now.
Leaving this aside, I was directly and personally affected because I was a gardener.
I gardened in a very water efficient way using a mulching cycle. The water restrictions meant that I could no longer garden in the way I used to because I had to try to fit my activities to limited and fairly arbitrary watering times.
In the end, I stopped. In now buying vegetables from the supermarket, I was not only importing water to Sydney, but adding to green house gases through transport.
I think that the thing that annoyed me most is that even at the worst of the restrictions, people could still top up swimming pools. Even now when you can fill swimming pools pretty much to your heart’s content, watering gardens is still restricted.
This may sound petty, but it is an example of the way in which generalised arguments can lead to perverse results.
This brings me to the second thing that annoyed me greatly, the difficulty I found in breaking through generalised arguments to understand what the specifics might mean.
As an economist, I understand the broad arguments associated with carbon pricing, whether through an ETS or a carbon tax. However, I wanted to go beyond this, to understand how all this might work in practice, to look at alternatives.
As I did, I became increasingly concerned that our focus on the what (climate change) and the why (human activity), in combination with the natural human desire for simple solutions, was blinding us not just to other elements of the solution, but also to the practical effects of some of the things proposed.
I will deal with my struggle to understand here in another post. This time, I want to finish with a simple point.
To most Sydney dwellers, climate change is still remote. Outside fights over building restrictions in certain areas considered to be at risk because of rising sea levels, the effects of climate change and of policies to combat climate change lie in the future.
This is not true in New England.
From the Hunter to the Tweed, from the Clarence to the Far Western Plains, the battles that will be fought are already raging.
Like it or not, New England is a climate change front line.