Feeling the Heat

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

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”? Those words have such a familiar ring today that they barely cause a slight shudder or twinge of neck hair; more like an 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. Some others think the climate crisis is a big media plot or, maybe in Bible country, the foretold reckoning. And then there are those who believe what science tells us: Humans are causing global warming largely through their use of fossil fuels, which is helping create the sixth mass extinction event for species around the world, as well as increasingly extreme weather. But even the believers seem to be counting on either a technology savior arriving on a scale previously unimaginable, or simply dying before the real nightmare begins.

Like the politicians we deride, many folks have no stomach for sacrifice or long-range planning for the species. Especially if it could 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 we get to fly through polluted skies to a beautiful part of the world; one that probably dislikes us intensely but looks cool on Instagram.

Surveys show 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 a visit 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.

Forum 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 encourage and illustrate how to hold two contradictory ideas together in our minds – if just for a moment.

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

Moderator John Donvan, a Pulitzer finalist for a book on 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 was embedded in the debate question itself: “Can humans adapt to climate change?” From the start, this felt too 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 underscoring their own business or academic loyalties at every turn.

Organizers noted later 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, mostly. Afterward, 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.”

As I watched the event online, my first mental question was: “How much of a role did 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 Form 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.”

That’s understandable with such a hot-button issue. For the purposes of space, I’ll streamline how the debate went down.

The “yes” side mostly argued that, as resilient humans, we have adapted throughout history, so we will in the future, partly because it just 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 later prompted a great live question from a Richmond audience member asking how exactly that was supposed to happen when we can’t even fix our schools here in Richmond?

The other “yes”-man, Kahn, who pointed out (twice, hilariously) that nobody in the room had read any of his books, 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 that he 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).

What about the other side of the debate? You might think that being on team no means arguing that humans are doomed. But really they argued we should take more mitigative action – more spending right now -- rather than reactively adapting as phenomena such as wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, disease and bad air, get progressively worse each year. Much of Wucker’s argument centered on a greater carbon tax, noting that some of world’s leading scholars feel that it is possible for us 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.

Wucker also 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. “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 need “to manage and navigate uncertainty while valuing ethics related to social and value systems.”

Pretty much all the debaters seemed to agree that both mitigation and adaptation were needed, collapsing the debate’s trajectory. 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 agreement: both sides seemed to share 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.”

As the moderator noted, the Richmond audience acquitted itself well tonight through its live questions from the audience. In fact, the Richmond audience members seemed to be asking for more specifics, more substance. 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?” One panelist, 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 our success?

Other questions included: "What mitigation are you expecting that will help those affected by fires?" Bjorn answered that people shouldn’t be living in rural fire zone areas like Paradise, Ca. (Side note: This is a beautiful little town that I used to live near which was largely burned to the ground, with 85 people killed trying to escape fire tornados that overtook the one main road out to the college town of Chico, Ca. The last time I visited, I was told so many chemicals had melted into the ground that the water supply would be poisoned for years; yet people were still rebuilding.)

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 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? (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.)

So which side won the debate? Or maybe which question won? All I can report is that 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 these 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 noted: “You cannot count on our smartness, because we might get everything wrong.”

I guess that means we should hope the prevailing scientific predictions are among the things we get wrong. Already its been noted among scientists, big oil companies and government institutions, that a hotter planet will lead to more global wars over diminishing resources; more 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 many of us think the climate crisis is the future issue that will effect all others -- and the one we should be focused on.

But just like the nightly national news, I'll close with a note of optimism out of nowhere. The big announcement of next season’s speakers at the Richmond Forum should come after the May program, organizers said tonight. They 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.