Matt Ridley – A critique

Spinning Riddles:
Matt Ridley speaking in Newcastle

So far so good-Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley, he of Northern Rock ‘fame’ (£350,000 a year when chairman of what became ‘Northern Wreck’) and leading denier of anthropogenic global warming and indeed just about every danger raised by Greens and others, spoke in Newcastle in February 2012. He was debating with Kevin Anderson, a leading climate scientist from the Tyndall Centre of Manchester University. Ridley used to be science corresponding of The Economist and now is building a career as, to use the title of his latest book, a “rational optimist”, going around slaying those who dare to cry wolf.

 

“Human beings are not only wealthier but healthier, happier, cleaner, cleverer, kinder, freer, more peaceful & more equal than they have ever been”
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

 

Matt Ridley is very articulate, sharp in debate and armed with all sorts of seemingly solid facts and figures. He is also very dangerous. In effect, he is staying that there is no need to take radical action about, say, climate change or peak oil. In that capacity, he reinforces the widespread reluctance of not just the government but wide sections of the public to take the steps that we Greens think as absolutely vital. Delay only makes the dangers that much greater and the chance of successful transition to a truly sustainable society that much less.

Of course, one can trade one data set against another until the cows come home. That was the mistake of Kevin Anderson during the debate itself. Much more important is the interpretation put upon the ‘facts’ (which, in the case of incredibly complex matters like climatic systems, are over-abundant yet, at the same time, elusive). It is also true that, at the end of the day, what matters is what kind of society we want: one based on selfish individualism and materialism or one both more convivial, ‘human scale’, and ecologically sustainable.

People like Ridley, Nigel Lawson, Melanie Philips and Bjorn Lomborg are not fools. But it might be noted that Ridley himself is a scion of that same family which, on the Blagdon Estate to the north of Newcastle is mining coal as if there were no tomorrow. But it is, of course, arguments that matter, not the individuals putting them. The Ridley crowd is, in fact, very selective with evidence, often assuming that ‘good’ trends will continue and that any ‘bad’ ones quickly abate, courtesy of a few waves of the magic wand of technology and a bit of ‘market stimulus’.

In the debate itself, Ridley got away with some whoppers. For instance, he cited the “end of oil”, to quote from his PowerPoint presentation, as an example of how wrong were past predictions of the ‘doom-mongers’. However no-one in the broad green movement has ever predicted the ‘end of oil’. Instead they have predicted a peak in production after which supplies of cheap, easily accessible, safely usable and securely available oil will inexorably decline.

Indeed this is exactly what M. King Hubbert predicted way back in the mid-1950s and what has actually transpired. Hubbert was rubbished at the time for his ideas. Indeed it is the fault of ‘denialists’, then and now, that we are so ill prepared to cope with what will be on-going shocks from oil price rises. Indeed their effect could be traumatic given the depth of our dependence in just about every aspect of life on this unique resource.

Of course for various reasons (economic recession, political manoeuvres against rival oil producers etc), oil prices may suddenly fall for short periods. Those suffering from myopia might think that it is good news. Many people welcome cheaper prices at the petrol pump. Yet it can make matters worse.

Proof of ‘peak oil’ theory is that more and more oil wells are being exploited at marginal profits, such as the increasing cost of tapping less accessible and/or poorer quality fields. A price fall can render such production unprofitable and therefore producers pull out. But the short term, what seems like a glut in supply can reinforce the illusion that there is no urgency and no need to invest heavily in the development of genuinely sustainable sources of energy.

News of new oilfield discoveries must be put in the context of the voracious level of demand for oil from industrial and, increasingly, newly industrialised countries… and that is leaving aside the side-effects of oil extraction, refining transportation and consumption – if all the oil from the infamous Deepwater Horizon well could have been extracted in one ‘go’, it would have ‘fed’ world demand for merely 12 days!]

Similarly Ridley argued that there is lots of coal. However, the issue is high grade coal reserves and the side-effects of all coal mining (e.g. mountain top removal in Appalachia). He outrageously treated problems with tar shale exploitation as minor, easily redressed matters, whereas, in reality, it is a truly disastrous development. He simply skated over issues like the accelerating destruction of the Earth’s once rich diversity of flora and fauna and indeed other problems like aquifer depletion, something that, alone, will pop the bubble of ‘boom’ economics like China.

Carbon con

Some campaigners about climate change play into the hands of skilful debaters like Ridley by focusing on just CO2 emissions and their possible effects. Yet they are far from being the only anthropogenic greenhouse gas. Not enough attention is paid to soot, methane and nitrous oxide. Of course some are intimately related to agriculture and the high levels of food needed to feed today’s bloated population. But many ‘shallow greens’ cannot bring themselves to even mention the dreaded word ‘overpopulation’.

Furthermore, it is not just a matter of ‘sources’ of greenhouse gas emissions. There is also that of the loss of balancing ‘sinks’ as well as human-caused changes to the planet’s albedo (reflectivity). Actually the whole threat from global (over-)warming and resultant adverse climate change is only one amongst many. There is the far from small matter of ocean acidification as well as critical processes long ignored by the media such as soil erosion and salinisation.

Such malign developments stem from the combined interaction of population growth, increased per capita consumption and the extra burdens created by switches from one technology to less efficient and/or more polluting one. Together they are driving society against the ecological buffers. Indeed the chief government scientist Sir John Beddington has predicted a ‘perfect storm’ for the early 2030s.[i]

Such predictions may be out by a decade or two but the general trend seems clear. In 2011, Earth Overshoot Day, the approximate date on which human demands on nature for a given year exceeds the planet’s ability to replenish, fell on September 27th. In 2014, the date had moved forward August 19th. To describe the ecological crunch another way: if everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need 5 planets.[ii]

In this context it is quite wrong to focus just one variable, carbon emissions, and possibly the most contentious one at that, in the whole equation. The general outlook will not alter even if anthropogenic global warming turns out to be just a load of ‘hot air’. ‘Quiet crises’ such as soil erosion attract few headlines but will destroy contemporary society if unabated. Micro plastics are poisoning the seas but, again, comparatively few notice. Certainly Ridley shows little sign of awareness of how far and fast the web of life is being shredded.

Conversely, many things that could be done to tackle climate change, such as a halt to deforestation and a massive programme of (appropriate species) reforestation, energy conservation and a big reduction in red meat consumption (to reduce cattle herds and their impacts such as soil erosion and water pollution as well as methane releases), are all worthwhile in and of themselves.

They will also yield major other benefits as well. Diet with less red meat (especially processed varieties) will, in the case of large sections of society, mean better health and therefore a financially healthier NHS. Less domination by the motorcar (and therefore reduced emissions) will help to build more convivial and healthier communities (not least because of more walking and cycling). Appropriate reforestation will reduce soil erosion and flooding and can create richer wildlife habitats. But Ridley seems unable to see such potentially positive synergies.

He can, of course, point to some success stories where there have been big efficiency gains and/or successful substitutions of one resource for another. But that is a game that can only be played for so long. Now we have running out of options. Ridley and his ilk are, in reality, fantasists but they are skilled propagandists. Their arguments do need to be countered with due rigour

[i] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7951838.stm

[ii] See: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/at_a_glance/

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