“Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate international response.”

This was the resolution for the Munk Debate on Climate Change, which took place at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory on December 1. Before the debate started, 61 percent of the audience agreed with the resolution, and 39 percent opposed it. The majority – 79 percent – reported being open to changing their vote based on the debate. The Centre for International Governance Innovation, a partner institution for the debate, broadcast it live in CIGI's atrium.

On the “pro” side of the debate were Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May and George Monbiot, leading environmentalist and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. Representing the “con” side were Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, and Lord Nigel Lawson, the recently departed president of the British Institute of Energy Economics, former Chancellor of the Excheqeur and author of An Appeal to Reason: A Cool look at Global Warming

The debate covered a range of issues, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) findings, “Climategate,” economic development and even HIV/AIDS. However, the central themes were the relationship between climate change and poverty and the costs associated with offsetting climate change.

Both sides emphasized the significance of poverty, but offered radically different perspectives. Lord Lawson argued that more expensive (renewable, non-carbon) sources of energy may be fine for the developed world, but for poorer countries, the priority should be economic development. To deny them this cheap energy “would be obscene,” he said. The great killer, in his view, is not global warming but poverty. Lomborg argued that for the world’s poor, global warming pales in comparison to more pressing issues: in a world where 3 billion live in extreme poverty, 1 billion go to sleep hungry, and 50 million die from easily preventable diseases each year, we must have other priorities, he said.

In contrast, May and Monbiot emphasized that global warming exacerbates the problems faced by the world’s poor. Monbiot, in particular, highlighted the injustice that the developing world had contributed nothing to greenhouse gas emissions, but would face the harshest consequences of warming. According to Monbiot, developing countries would be paying the price – in human lives – for a crisis they did not create.

The cost of combating climate change was another source of disagreement between the two sides. Lord Lawson stressed the enormous costs of “decarbonizing” the world economy. He rejected the notion that humans will be unable to adapt to rising temperatures, arguing that increasing wealth would make people more resilient to climate pressures. Lomborg argued that money spent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be better spent on micronutrient programs, immunizations and the schooling of girls – all initiatives that produce high returns on investment. He contended that people need to start “doing the rights things instead of the things that feel right.”

 “Business as usual” (that is, reliance on fossil fuels) Monbiot countered, also carries tremendous costs. In his view, the choice between combating climate change and fighting poverty is a false one. The money for combating climate change should not come from development budgets, but from military budgets, oil and gas subsidies and agricultural subsidies. Both can be done, he said: “the answer to the question ‘Should we invest in development or in climate change?’ is ‘Yes.’”

Towards the end of the debate, May mentioned positive feedback loops – warming processes that once started will reinforce each other and spiral out of humanity’s control – such as the melting of permafrost, acidification of the ocean and melting of polar ice shelves. She argued that humanity may have a closing window of opportunity to limit the earth’s warming before these mechanisms take over. This argument was surprisingly and conspicuously absent from most of the debate; surprising simply because it is the most potentially apocalyptic global warming scenario.

From this writer’s perspective, the absence of reinforcing feedback loops and humanity’s loss of control over the warming process, a three-degree increase in temperature may not seem like cause for concern – especially for a Canadian audience that endures months of cold temperatures. Moreover, May and Monbiot could have used more of these dramatic arguments to bolster their case. The difficulty of proving the resolution (after all, there are dozens of major crises facing humankind) may have necessitated more doom and gloom scenarios than either “pro” debater offered.

At the debate’s conclusion the final tally for the resolution “Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate international response” was a change of 5 percentage points from the pre-debate result: 56 percent “pro” and 44 percent “con.”

Geoff Burt is a project officer working on CIGI’s Security Sector Reform project. He is working at CIGI through the Department of National Defence’s Security and Defence Forum Internship program.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.