~ Posted by Robert Butler, February 24th 2012
Over the last three days 200 artists and scientists have met at a conference in the north-east of England to discuss how "to energise the creative response to climate change". The first afternoon in Newcastle had a small shock in store. One of the speakers was Matt Ridley, author of "The Rational Optimist", who lives nearby. He told a largely incredulous audience that he didn't think climate change was nearly as scary as people made out. What was scary, he said, were the measures we were adopting to tackle climate change. In his view, the cure was going to be worse than the disease.
If Ridley was right, the TippingPoint attendees should have packed their suitcases there and then, and headed home to energise a creative response to some other topic entirely. But I didn't meet anyone over the next two days who had been converted by Ridley's brand of rational optimism.
Ridley quickly got into a heated exchange with Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change, when he said that climate science was an extremely well-funded line of work. Anderson told the audience exactly what his comparatively modest salary was as a professor and challenged Ridley again and again to tell the audience what his own salary was—an invitation that was brushed aside, with increasing irritation.
A professor of paleoclimatology asked Ridley why it was that the people who spent their lives studying this subject had got it all wrong, and Ridley had got it right. Ridley replied, "You'll have to tell me that." (He got a laugh.) Afterwards two professors of energy spoke ruefully to me about Ridley's obvious gifts as a polemicist and, a little less ruefully, about his selective use of data.
Still, his contrarian speech remained a big talking point in the coffee breaks until this morning, when bleary-eyed attendees rolled into the conference (after last night's entertainment at Northern Stage) and heard an announcement from Alan Davey, head of Arts Council, England. It was about arts funding this time—a subject almost as urgent to many in the room as climate change.
Davey said Arts Council England was becoming the first arts funder to make environmental sustainability a key part of its conditions. A minimum requirement for every arts organisation would be to measure and improve its energy and water use over the next four years. He argued that investing in the environmental side of arts organisations also had economic benefits. It made the subsidy go further. At a conference where there had been a good deal of talking, this was a practical outcome—and a rational and optimistic one too.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life and wrote the Going Green column for the magazine