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Feeling the Heat 

A Richmond Forum panel of global thinkers debates whether humans can adapt to climate change -- and the “no” side swings voters.

click to enlarge The topic of the Richmond Forum's debate on Saturday, April 30 was “Can humans adapt to climate change?”

P. Kevin Morley/The Richmond Forum

The topic of the Richmond Forum's debate on Saturday, April 30 was “Can humans adapt to climate change?”

Ever remind yourself that it should feel disturbing to be accustomed to the scientific community saying things like “humanity may soon pass the point of no return”? These words have such a familiar ring today that they barely cause goosebumps, a slight shudder or even a twinge. More like a deep, inward sigh.

The pandemic showed us that a hefty percentage of the American public doesn’t believe in the scientific method unless it aligns with their politics, vacation plans, or current emoji mood. Others likely think the climate crisis is a big media plot or, perhaps in the Bible Belt, the foretold reckoning. Then there are those who believe what the science shows us: Humans are causing global warming largely through the use of fossil fuels, which is helping create the sixth mass extinction event around the world, as well as increasingly extreme weather and a less livable planet.

Like the feckless politicians we deride, most of us have no stomach for sacrifice or long-range planning for the species. Especially if that would mean giving up the All-American dream of cranking out kids, buying overpriced homes, and guzzling gas while sitting in traffic, day dreaming of the moment when we get to fly through polluted skies to a more beautiful part of the world; one that probably dislikes us intensely, but whose natural backdrops look cool on Instagram.

Surveys indicated that Richmond Forum subscribers have been clamoring for a program focused on climate change – it’s a top vote getter, according to organizers. The Forum’s response was to arrange an event with Intelligence Squared U.S. which has presented nearly 200 Oxford-style debates since 2006 on the most critical issues of the day. The debate topic for last Saturday, “Can humans adapt to climate change?” seemed to fit the bill.

Organizers also had the noble goal of showing the many local high school students in attendance how complex subjects are often “not black and white" while providing examples of “people who can reason and hold two thoughts in their minds.” Yes, we’re at the point where we need to actively illustrate how to hold two contradictory ideas together in our minds, if only for a moment -- and not just to kids either.

What unfolded on Saturday, April 30 was a fast-moving debate between four “global thinkers,” academics and authors with vested interests in different fields. The conversation was interesting in scope and substance, but sometimes meandered too much into quibbling over semantics in between the predictable rounds of cherry-picked studies being lobbed back and forth. Specific, in-depth ideas often gave way to broader philosophical narratives.

Moderator John Donvan, a Pulitzer finalist for the book "In A Different Key: The Story of Autism," was a warm and convivial host. Early on he noted that “Richmond has always been his favorite audience,” while warning that the on-stage presenters might be a little rusty, having not debated before crowds in a while. (And they were, a little). But an underlying problem seemed embedded in the debate question itself: “Can humans adapt to climate change?” From the start, this felt broadly framed and the four panelists seemed to prefer a debate about whether responses to climate change should be “adaptive or mitigative,” a distinction which grew blurrier the more the speakers talked, usually from positions that seemed to underscore their own loyalties or backgrounds.

Organizers later noted that several requested speakers on the topic had turned down the invitation; so what global thinkers did we get for Intelligence Squared? The team arguing “yes,” humans can adapt to climate change, consisted of Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of “False Alarm,” and Matthew Khan, provost professor of economics and spatial sciences at University of Southern California. On the “no” side was Michele Wucker, economic policy advisor and founder of Gray Rhino & Company out of Chicago, and Kaveh Madani, an environmental scientist, former vice president of the United Nations Environment Assembly Bureau, and former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment.

Before the debate began, the crowd was treated to live classical music by the Bell Arte String Quartet, which was founded in 1984 “out of a need for quality live stream music.” The quartet set a dignified and civil tone for the evening – which stayed in place. Also, we were introduced to the big sponsors and producer patrons for the event: Altria, Davenport & Co., Virginia Commonwealth University, Wells Fargo and lead patron Genworth, who pitched their “responsible approach to creating trust and long-term value.”

Watching the event online, my first thoughts were along the lines of: “I wonder how much of a role the producer patrons play in selecting the speakers, or the debate question itself?” Turns out none at all, according to Heather Crislip, executive director of the Richmond Forum. “Patrons and sponsors have no role in selecting anything about Richmond Forum programs,” she told me later via email. “In this case, the panel was selected by both Intelligence Squared and The Richmond Forum over a number of months.”

For the purposes of space and to not overwhelm you with bleak statistics, I’ll streamline how the debate went down.

The “yes” side mostly argued that, as resilient humans we have adapted throughout our history, so we will again in the future, partly because it makes good business sense. “The simple answer is yes. It’s obvious we will have to adapt,” Lomborg said. “But there is a presumption we should spend more, it’s the good thing to do – actually it’s not. Our opponents are trying to switch the conversation: Do you want to be good people?” Lomborg also noted the world’s poor need to get richer, which prompted a great live question later from a Richmond audience member who asked how exactly that was supposed to happen when we can’t even fix our schools here in Richmond?

click to enlarge The team arguing “yes,” humans can adapt to climate change, consisted of Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of “False Alarm,” and Matthew Khan, provost professor of economics and spatial sciences at University of Southern California. - P. KEVIN MORLEY/THE RICHMOND FORUM
  • P. Kevin Morley/The Richmond Forum
  • The team arguing “yes,” humans can adapt to climate change, consisted of Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of “False Alarm,” and Matthew Khan, provost professor of economics and spatial sciences at University of Southern California.

The other “yes”-man was Kahn, an economist who pointed out (twice) that nobody in the room had read any of his books. He argued that his field of economics provides a source of optimism: “Economists reject the view that we are passive victims,” he said. “We have strong incentives to adapt.” But his big three ideas sounded like they came right out of the kind of monopoly board room that convinced Mark Zuckerburg he had a clue what he was unleashing on the world: “First, collective imagination and ingenuity creates a thrust for solutions; second, economic growth is essential for adaptation, we need poor people to grow richer; and third, governments play an essential role, especially those with economic growth.” One example of successful adaptation mentioned was the Dutch, who have built higher due to increased flooding. I’ll resist a comment here about the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike (that’s an American tale, anyway).

And what about the other side of the debate? You might think that being on team no means arguing that humans are doomed. But instead their argument was for more mitigative action – more spending right now, in other words -- rather than reactively adapting as phenomena such as wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, disease and bad air, get progressively worse. Much of Wucker’s argument centered on a greater carbon tax, noting that some of world’s leading scholars feel that it is possible to reduce global warming with 1% of GDP each year: “By comparison, the U.S. spent 27% on COVID and counting and 7% a year to subsidize fossil fuels. If we were just to switch from dirty to clean fuels, we could prompt one of the biggest economic and social transformations,” she noted to applause.

click to enlarge Michele Wucker, economic policy advisor and founder of Gray Rhino & Company out of Chicago, argued that we need to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy as soon as possible. - P. KEVIN MORLEY/THE RICHMOND FORUM
  • P. Kevin Morley/The Richmond Forum
  • Michele Wucker, economic policy advisor and founder of Gray Rhino & Company out of Chicago, argued that we need to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy as soon as possible.

Wucker pointed out that taxpayers are already paying for fossil fuels through subsidies: “We only think [fossil fuels] are cheap because we don’t see how we’re paying for them.” We need the carbon tax to help get rid of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, she said: “This is about decision making and action under uncertainty … if we want adaptation to work, we need to do much more mitigation right now.”

The no side definitely worked better together. Her partner, Madani, offered a solid complimentary position filtered through his own perspective from the developing world of the Middle East, and from using math modeling to advise policy.

“The first thing I learn in complexity: We don’t know a lot of things, uncertainty is huge and we don’t know we don’t know a lot of things,” he said, echoing Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about unknown unknowns. “How do you manage something you don’t know a lot about? There are civilizations that have gone away, we don’t know about them. Those are people who didn’t adapt, couldn’t tolerate a drought, or whatever. They went out. You don’t hear about those who didn’t survive.”

But his larger takeaway point was advising us to think of all people on the earth, not just the wealthy nations. He noted the lack of a common narrative and the underlying need “to manage and navigate uncertainty while valuing ethics related to social and value systems.”

Generally speaking, the debaters seemed to agree that both mitigation and adaptation were necessary, kind of collapsing the trajectory of the debate somewhat. At times, it felt like the unspoken debate was between the need for corporations to spend more money now or the need for governments and people/taxpayers to bear the brunt, financially and health-wise. “The difference between adaptation and mitigation is a free rider issue,” Kahn argued. “To mitigate carbon [higher gas tax] mitigation would be for the whole world to raise gas by $2 a gallon, accelerating the electric vehicle push. The incentives need to be proactive.”

Another point of at least partial agreement was the belief that nuclear power was a good thing. “Don’t shut down existing nuclear power plants. They’re incredibly cheap when running. Please don’t shut them down! Very stupid!” Lomborg pleaded with the crowd – and Madani noted their dangers while adding “there is a new generation of nuclear energy at microscale that is promising.”

click to enlarge Kaveh Madani, an environmental scientist, former vice president of the United Nations Environment Assembly Bureau, and former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, makes his case during the Richmond Forum debate held on April 30. - P. KEVIN MORLEY/THE RICHMOND FORUM
  • P. Kevin Morley/The Richmond Forum
  • Kaveh Madani, an environmental scientist, former vice president of the United Nations Environment Assembly Bureau, and former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, makes his case during the Richmond Forum debate held on April 30.

As the moderator pointed out, the Richmond audience acquitted itself well through its live questions. They seemed to be asking for more specifics, more substance, maybe more hope. The first question came from a University of Richmond professor: “Given that it’s all uncertain,” he asked, “how do we go about making a decision?” Madani noted that the world is discussing whether GDP is the right model for setting goals, as economists suggest – or whether health considerations should define success.

Other questions included "What mitigation are you expecting that will help those affected by fires?" Lomborg partly answered that people shouldn’t be living in rural fire zone areas like Paradise, Ca. [Side note: This was a beautiful little town in Northern California, pop. 26,000, that I used to live near and where I had close friends. Much of the town burned to the ground after the Camp Fire was sparked by a faulty PG&E electric transmission line in 2018. It became the most deadly and destructive fire in California's history with 85 people killed, many trying to escape fire tornados that overtook the one two-lane road down to the college town of Chico, where I lived. The last time I visited Paradise in 2019, I was told so many chemicals like benzene had melted into the ground that the water supply will be contaminated for years. Yet people are still rebuilding. A huge influx of homeless people poured into Chico, greatly affecting that town. Expect more of these kinds of tragedies as wildfires become increasingly common across the United States.]

Another question: Are you worried there will be more climate-influenced conflicts like the one in Syria? That question was pretty much skipped by the moderator. And there was the question which got the most applause, the woman who asked, “how do we make poor people richer?” Especially here in Richmond where we can’t even fix the public schools? Unsurprisingly, none of the debaters seemed to know much about Richmond, but as part of his response Lomborg noted that “forty years ago, 40% of world’s population were extremely poor. Now less than 10% are,” he claimed. Unfortunately, there was no fact checking on the debaters claims provided.

So which side won the debate? Or maybe which question won? After tallying the cellphone votes of audience members, we were told the percentage of opinions that changed from the start to the finish. Based on those numbers, the no team was the clear victor, as an initial 23% who felt humans could not adapt to climate change grew to 42% by night’s end. As Madani said earlier: “You cannot count on our smartness, because we might get everything wrong.”

I guess we should hope that prevailing scientific predictions are among the things we get wrong. Already it has been predicted by, not only scientists but big oil companies and governments, that a hotter planet will lead to more global wars over diminishing resources; more flooding, immigration and overcrowding; much poorer health and shorter lifespans; not to mention many more viruses that jump from animal to human species. This is why so many of us think the climate crisis is the problem that will affect (and worsen) all other issues, and why it's the main one we should be focused on, whether you believe it's the apocalypse or not.

Just like the kicker for the nightly national news, I'll close with a note of optimism from seemingly out of nowhere. It's important to bring public intellectuals and cutting-edge thinkers to Richmond from all over the world. The big announcement of next season’s speakers at The Richmond Forum should come after the May program, organizers said. It would be nice to have a leading climate change author every year, given its importance. Organizers also emphasized that now’s the time to look at tickets; there’s no waiting list and you can check out the online subscription for any upgrades.

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