Would A Climate Denier Apologise?

Imagine for the sake of a brief thought experiment that the year is 2200. Climate change has unravelled with 10 degrees of warming around the globe.

The seas have risen many metres, subsuming the great cities of today: London, New York, Shanghai, Cape Town. Severe drought and desertification have resulted in famine, international war over increasingly scarce resources, plagues, mass deaths and the breakdown of civilisation.

There are perhaps remaining just a few hundred million human beings: starving, illiterate, and traumatised by war and its accompanying horrors. Cannibalism is a survival technique and the most bestial and inhuman have survived.

This is the nightmare depicted so well in The Road, but hardly hinted at in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Would He Apologise?

Imagine. You may not agree this is the likely outcome, but it is a possible risk. Now imagine that a climate denier has been cryogenically frozen and then, perhaps as energy becomes too scarce to continue their induced sleep, he is released out into this dark, foreboding world. Obviously, this is impossible, but imagine.

The question I want to ask is: would our climate denier apologise? Would he fall down on his knees and weep? Would he beg the assembled rag-draped rescuers for their forgiveness? Or would he point the finger and attempt to apportion blame on someone else? The climate scientists perhaps: why didn’t they convince me?

This is the stuff of science fiction. But, nonetheless, I think I may already have an answer to my question. At least, that is, if the climate denier unfortunate enough to visit our dystopian future is a certain Matt Ridley.

The Viscount, member of the House of Lords, courtesan to Rupert Murdoch, and owner of land boasting two very large and profitable opencast coal mines has just published his latest book.

The Evolution of Everything is novel only in its considerable bravery in attempting to resurrect the social Darwinism of Friedrich von Hayek, buried in the 1940s as the ideological justification for Nazi ‘survival of the fittest’ eugenics and holocaust.

He resurrects this idea to defend the most extreme form of free market, and attack any attempt by humans to plan on anything but the smallest scale for their own future and fulfilment. Or to use regulation to defend themselves.

The truly remarkable thing about this offering from Fourth Estate – proprietor Rupert Murdoch – is what Ridley does not say.

Banking Crisis

Ridley was the chairman of Northern Rock, having inherited the job from his father, when it spectacularly failed in 2007. The bank was rescued by the government, with the taxpayer stumping up millions and taking on £27 billion in bad debt.

A House of Commons report found that the bank had engaged in “reckless” lending. It’s worth reprising that official Parliamentary report at some length (emphasis our own):

The directors of Northern Rock were the principal authors of the difficulties that the company has faced since August 2007. It is right that members of the Board of Northern Rock have been replaced, though haphazardly, since the company became dependent on liquidity support from the Bank of England.

The high-risk, reckless business strategy of Northern Rock, with its reliance on short- and medium-term wholesale funding and an absence of sufficient insurance and a failure to arrange standby facility or cover that risk, meant that it was unable to cope with the liquidity pressures placed upon it by the freezing of international capital markets in August 2007.

Given that the formulation of that strategy was a fundamental role of the Board of Northern Rock, overseen by some directors who had been there since its demutualisation, the failure of that strategy must also be attributed to the Board.

The non-executive members of the Board, and in particular the Chairman of the Board, the Chairman of the Risk Committee and the senior non-executive director, failed in the case of Northern Rock to ensure that it remained liquid as well as solvent, to provide against the risks that it was taking and to act as an effective restraining force on the strategy of the executive members.”

Matt Ridley, at the time, offered a fulsome and seemingly heartfelt apology. They had hedged risk by borrowing from markets around the world – who could possibly have known in 2007 that there would be a global economic crisis?

Ridley said at the time: “I enormously regret what happened at Northern Rock. It’s an incredibly painful memory for me and it’s something that I will live with for the rest of my life. I have nothing but remorse for my role in what happened. I’ve apologised and explained as much as I can…”

But what now? Less than a decade after the event, the dust has settled, the consequences are mostly known and the causes have been well discussed and mostly understood.

Apology Retracted?

Ridley provides a short essay on the evolution of money, which amounts to an apologetic and nuanced defence of the free market and an attack on the state, regulation and even the current government monopoly almost everywhere on issuing currency.

The former bank chairman skims across the history of banking crises and apportions blame at the door of reactionary monarchists and governments of all kinds. So, what about his own bank, and its crisis? What lessons should be learnt?

My own experience as chairman of a bank was of endless reassurance from intrusive and detailed regulation right up till the point where it all went wrong. Far from warning of the crisis to come, regulators did the very opposite, and gave false reassurance or emphasised the wrong risks.”

So there we have it. We had a massacre of financial regulations under Margaret Thatcher from 1979 and Ronald Reagan from 1982, the slashing of budgets for regulatory agents themselves, and the new culture of risk and high rewards – all cheered heartily by Ridley-style free market advocates.

And when the banks collapsed leaving millions of people facing financial destitution, it turns out it was not the banks that were to blame, but the state for failing to stop them. Just as serial killers should blame the police, rapists should blame their victims, and children must blame their parents: it’s your fault, you didn’t stop me.

And of course that’s one thing Ridley comprehensively fails to understand. The natural environment does not have consciousness, logic, or any measurable desire to survive. Species come into being, expand exponentially, exhaust their environment, and collapse, often into extinction. Some survive, but more by accident than design.

If we humans are driven by ‘free market’ survival of the fittest, we face the same fate. Surely, planning our survival, whatever political name that might take, is a more human and humane option?

But I guess our ravenous, scavenging future humans won’t be that concerned about getting an apology from a climate denier. They may not even know what climate change is, and why such a horrific fate fell upon them. They will be just looking for something to eat.

Photo: POD via Flickr