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Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Climate change vs poverty & starvation – Science vs Philosophy

25 October 2016

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Late December 2015, a Dutch newspaper published an interview with the remarkable title: “It’s okay if the earth would be a few degrees warmer”. Initially, I ignored this interview but my curiosity won. The statement came from an unexpected source: Richard Tol, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, professor of the economics of climate change at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and contributor to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

One particular comment in this interview has stuck in my mind ever since: “Poverty is a bigger problem than climate change. Do you help the poor by reducing greenhouse gasses or by fighting poverty? It is an important question to which no one has a clear answer.”

Climate change is a historical fact since the earliest of times, some 4 billion years ago. Scientists have identified 8 (known) causes for climate change (eg, BGS). Six are outside human control (ie, strength of the sun, changes in the Earth’s orbit, changes in the orientation of the Earth’s axis of rotation, carbon dioxide content of the oceans, plate tectonics, and ocean currents). Two are affected by humans (ie, quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, vegetation coverage on the land).

Despite the above, nobody questions whether (1) we can even prevent climate change, (2) if so, to what extent, and (3) what the Value-for-Money ratio would be of any money spent. Yet, each US$ or Euro spent on climate change cannot be spent on issues like global poverty and starvation. Why are long-term possible catastrophes (ie, climate change) more important than short-term certain catastrophes (ie, poverty and starvation)?

I did come up with a possible answer to this question and I doubt people will like it. I don’t even like this answer myself. It’s very confronting. In my earlier blog, I labeled the climate change debate as an example of Science as a Belief system – both its denial and its extreme belief. Lately, I have come to realise that there is another Belief system involved – Philosophy.

The climate change debate is primarily a Western debate (eg, Australia, Europe, USA). Poverty and starvation is a topic in different regions (eg, Africa, Asia). This observation – and contradiction – suggests that some lives are worth more than others. This is not a fact but an extreme belief. I think, feel and believe that it’s related to the extreme belief in White Supremacy. Both are examples of Philosophy as a Belief system. 

In 2015, Richard van Tol didn’t answer his own question and I now understand and even appreciate. My own answer leaves a bitter taste of irony: fighting climate change is in our own Western interest. Spending money to fight poverty and starvation is not. Perhaps this irony explains the self-proclaimed success of the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Note: translation from Dutch to English is at my best efforts and any mistake is my responsibility.

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