We’ve discussed Jordan Peterson a couple of times previously here. In particular, Ian wrote An Invitation to Jordan Peterson, encouraging him to investigate the “vast continent of muddled thinking in the climate debate”. Well, it appears that Dr Peterson read Ian’s post and has risen to the challenge — either that or he’s been talking about climate because people have asked him about it.
Peterson rose to public prominence as a result of his book, 12 Rules for Life, and an interview with Cathy Newman, which currently has over 12 million views on youtube. In recent months he’s been touring, giving talks and interviews. He’s currently in the UK, having appeared at Manchester, Cambridge and several other venues, filling arenas normally used by rock stars or comedians. He will be a panellist on Question Time tonight (“we’re going to be joined by a man who’s been described as the most influential public intellectual in the western world, and equally as a professor of piffle. Campaigner against political correctness, Jordan Peterson,” said David Dimbleby at the end of last week’s show), where he’ll be up against intellectual heavyweight Diane Abbot.
At two recent events, the topic of climate change has come up. The first was an interview for GQ magazine with Helen Lewis, who writes about the experience here. It’s been on youtube for a week and already has 2 million views, the second most popular video on the GQ youtube channel. It was quite a long session, but this link starts with the climate question:
Here is a transcript of most of the interview. The … indicates where I have omitted some bits.
HL: OK, climate change. I saw you posting a link to a study suggesting that a lot of the way that it’s talked about has been over-hyped. What are your beliefs about climate change?
JP: Well, I don’t really have beliefs about climate change, I wouldn’t say. I think the climate is probably warming, but it’s been warming since the last ice age, so,
HL: But It’s dramatically accelerated in the last couple of decades.
JP: Yeah, maybe, possibly, it’s not so obvious, I spent quite a bit of time going through the relevant literature, I read about 200 books on ecology and economy when I worked for the UN for a 2-year period and it’s not so obvious what’s happening, just like with any complex system. The problem I have, fundamentally, isn’t really a climate change issue. It’s that I find it very difficult to distinguish valid environmental claims from environmental claims that are made as a secondary anti-capitalist front, so it’s so politicised that it’s very difficult to parse out the data from the politicisation.
HL: I saw there’s a line in 12 rules which says people stricken with poverty don’t care about carbon dioxide.
JP: Yeah That’s definitely the case.
HL: And I think that’s not an unreasonable point to make … However I don’t think that’s a reason not to tackle climate change…
JP: It’s partly a reason… coal generated plants stop people from starving, so yes its partly a reason, and it’s certainly the case that making energy more expensive obviously makes things more difficult for poor people, so yes it’s definitely an issue. And I would say it’s a conundrum for those on the left, what’s it going to be, clean air or hungry people?
HL: Or renewable energy?
JP: Oh good luck with that!
HL: Or nuclear power. I’d be fine with more nuclear power stations.
JP: Yeah, well, it doesn’t look like we’re moving in that direction very fast… Well it worked for the French…
[Discussion of David Attenborough and population, omitted]
JP: This is the problem I have with much of the environmentalist movement, there’s a powerful stream of anti-human sentiment that motivates it, masquerading under the guise of virtue on a planetary scale…
HL: But that’s why I’m fascinated on where you come from on this, because the book is so much about things being in balance and harmony, right, well what over-population has done is got to the…
JP: Who says that we have overpopulation?
HL: Well I think it’s very difficult to see under the current model of fossil-fuel based capitalism… when we run out of fossil fuels…
JP: Yeah that’s not going to happen.
HL: Well it will happen.
JP: Yeah, people have been saying that’s going to happen for 50 years, and now the United States is a net exporter of fossil fuel and no-one saw that coming did they? But it happened.
HL: You’re right that may be the case, but at the moment I would say that China is putting up new coal-fired power stations by the bucket load, it is entirely possible that the stuff that the developed nations did, that now developing nations did…
JP: They’ll get concerned about clean air when they get richer, that’s what the data indicate, once you get GDP up to about $5000 per year people start to become concerned with environmental issues.
HL: But that might happen too late, right?
JP: I don’t think so. It’ll happen too late for some things, it looks like we’re going to top out at about 9 billion, I think we can handle that… there’s every reason to assume that we can cope with that, especially given the rapid decreases in poverty around the world at the moment. There’s a bit of a bottle-neck, there’ll probably be some more extinction, what we’re doing to the oceans by over-fishing doesn’t seem very smart. But we’ve only been aware of our role as planetary stewards since 1960 I would say, and we’re not doing too bad for people who just woke up to the fact that that we’re actually a planetary force and
I don’t think that we are overpopulated I think all the people who made those arguments in the 1960s like Paul Ehrlich, I think he wrote the population bomb, predicted mass starvation by the year 2000, he was absolutely and completely wrong.
HL: We’ve been very lucky with things like golden rice, for example, and genetic engineering of crops…
JP: It’s not luck!
HL: Well, I agree, human ingenuity is a huge part of that, definitely.
JP: Right well and more people, more ingenuity. Bjorn Lomborg, who I really admire, the skeptical environmentalist, who’s actually gone a long way to try to figure out what we could do at a planetary level that would actually be useful and productive, his research has indicated the best possible investment isn’t carbon tax, isn’t cessation of utilisation of carbon-based fuel, it’s probably investment in early infant care around the world, especially in developing countries. Seems right to me, he’s done the analysis very carefully.
The second event was at the Cambridge Union on 2 November. This clip again starts from the question. A student cites droughts and floods and then suggests that the climate change issue could be one that unites left and right. Peterson just says “no” to this dumb question and gets a laugh and applause. Clearly neither the student asking the question nor Jordan Peterson are aware that the IPCC reports say that floods and droughts aren’t increasing.
Peterson makes some of the same points as in the GQ interview, although his style is different — he’s performing to an audience rather than being interviewed, so there’s more rhetoric and flourish.
Here are a few excerpts, from the start and the end of his long answer:
“I spent a lot of time reading – I worked for a UN committee for 2 years on sustainable economic and ecological development, and read a very large amount during that period of time and learned a lot, much of which made me much more optimistic than I had been before I read the relevant literature, which was a real shock to me.
But the climate change issue is an absolutely catastrophic nightmarish mess, and the idea that that will unite us, that’s not going to unite us. First of all it’s very difficult to separate the science from the politics, and second, even if the claims, the more radical claims are true we have no idea what to do about it, and so, no.
Besides it’s even worse than that, here’s one of the worst things about the whole mess — as you project outwards, with regard to your climate change projections, which are quite unreliable to begin with, the unreliability of the measurement magnifies as you move forward in time, obviously, because the errors accumulate, so if you go out 50 years the error bars around the projections are already so wide that we won’t be able to measure the positive or negative effects of anything we do right now, so how in the world are you going to solve a problem when you can’t even measure the consequence of your actions, how is that even possible?
[Criticism of renewable energy, remarks on poverty reduction, praise for Bjorn Lomborg…]
You know there’s more trees in the Northern Hemisphere than there were 100 years ago, no-one knows that but it’s true and by a substantial margin. You know why in part? Because people burned coal instead of wood. Like everyone says, you shouldn’t burn coal, OK, fair enough, what do you want to do, burn trees instead? Because that’s what poor people would’ve done. ‘Coal isn’t good’ – well, it’s better than burning wood.
So these things are complicated, unbelievably complicated, so no it’s not going to unite us, and we’re not going to do a damn thing about it either, so it doesn’t really matter.
What are we gonna do? Are you going to stop having heat? Stop having electricity? You gonna stop driving your cars? Stop taking trains? Stop using your i-phones? You’re not going to do any of that. And no wonder. So… so… no.”