A book about the structure of the brain and the divided nature of thought itself might seem an unusual place to begin a conversation about the climate emergency. However, Harold Hutchinson sees great relevance in the work of Iain McGilchrist when it comes to the response of the international community to global warming.
McGilchrist’s 2009 book, The Master and his Emissary, examined the relationship between our two brain-hemispheres, questioning the accepted doctrine that the left hemisphere is dominant.
The Scottish neuroscientist and philosopher argued that when we look at life through only the left prism, we see a world that is narrow and linear. But when the right-side view is permitted, we see things we might otherwise miss, an enlarged panoramic view.
“These views of the world constructed by our left and right hemispheres pervade every aspect of our experience,” said Hutchinson, Head of Equity Research at Investec.
Hutchinson believes a key response to the climate emergency – the drive towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions – has been skewed by the left hemisphere, and, as a result, is both narrow and linear. Instead, he is advocating for a more holistic approach based around the wider issue of sustainability.
“There will never be a solution to climate change without us realising that we are dealing with a much greater and broader problem,” he said.
While more than 700 cities, 200 asset managers, and nearly all major corporates have embraced net zero, Hutchinson said the fact remained that global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to grow.
“There is a much, much bigger issue if you actually read back through a lot of the United Nations documents that led to the Kyoto Protocol, that in turn led to the Paris Agreement. It’s actually been framed within a much broader context of sustainability,” he said.
“If you want to get to some sort of sustainable climate, you have to get to a much broader concept of sustainability, poverty, disease. If you take that sort of a broader right-side lens on the problem, it’s actually a rather different set of issues than net zero that matters. There’s a huge intergenerational issue between young and old. There is certainly an issue between South and North, in terms of where we’re going. We need to think about biodiversity, pollution, and not always just climate.”
According to Hutchinson, we need to consider maintaining the value of our Earth’s system assets to pass them on to future generations. He said these assets did not just include stocks of physical assets such as bridges and roads, but the human capital embedded in education and health systems, together with the natural capital assets that sustain life on the planet.
While net zero is a useful rallying call to promote climate issues up the political agenda, Hutchinson said the net zero domestic production is seriously flawed and that the simple answer to net-zero production targets was to export the problem elsewhere. His comment refers to policies where polluters in developed countries outsource production abroad altogether, or pay for carbon credits to offset emissions – out of sight, out of mind approaches that usually do not help global climate and which may even make things worse.
He said this would require political will to ensure sustainable consumption patterns over generations, while society would have to set aside some income to conserve its inheritance.
“In short,” he said, “saving the planet can be a deceptive metaphor. The real issue is how we save ourselves.”
Climate and Ireland
Hutchinson spent his formative years in Belfast and has even published a book about his own childhood. Although he has spent his working life in Britain and Spain, he still retains strong links with the island.
When he was growing up, he said Ireland was often seen as a fractured island on the outskirts of Europe.
Now, however, he said Ireland is moving to become one of the more attractive places in the world to live in terms of temperature, as the value premium on staying cool increases. Plus, as the northern hemisphere warms, he believes Ireland will enjoy an almost unique set of trading links to Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
According to Hutchinson, this has huge implications for economic policy across industry and agriculture – as well as Ireland’s population.
“Climate action must be nested within a much broader sustainability framework. Sustainability is inherently about people, young and old. I suspect the greatest challenge for Ireland that will ensue from climate change relates to demographics,” he said.
According to Hutchinson, the CSO are underestimating the degree of migration there will be into the Irish economy out to 2050.
“By 2050, Ireland is going to be sitting at literally a sweet spot of the world, in terms of trading links to China, up through the northern passages that will open up with climate warming,” he said.
“If other parts of the world are suffering, through wars, famine, all the other things that we associated with, possibly retirement issues, people get on their bikes, and go and try to live elsewhere. And I think a lot of people will look at Ireland as basically a sort of garden of Eden. The population statistics assume about net 20,000-people-per-year immigration into Ireland each year until 2050, getting to about 6 million population. What if it is twelve?”
Hutchinson said that such a population increase would force policymakers to think about boosting investment in the economy massively. “The Climate Action Plan is already fairly bullish in terms of investment to GDP ratios that have been assumed. It could be a really different set of problems that we’re trying to address than what seems to be in Climate Action Plan,” he said.
According to Hutchinson, Ireland should frame its response to climate change around increased investment in research and the development of new technologies.
“I’m a great believer in education. One thing that Ireland really has, because of its stable democracy, is massive scope for research and development to really build out its scientific excellence in areas that can be used towards sustainability,” he said.
Hutchinson said that proper innovation can help us through any carbon issues, be they in energy, agriculture, transport, or buildings. Moreover, he said the knowledge we gain is a public good that can be exported across the whole globe allowing Ireland to capture the gains of our investment, rather than just bearing the costs.
“Ireland’s education system, and its R&D programmes, should be at the very centre of this,” he said.
Hutchinson said the energy shock following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted the need to invest more in developing new sources of energy and become less reliant on coal and gas.
“Ireland has unique access to renewable resources. Why isn’t Ireland the centre of the global renewable development? Why isn’t there a centre of global renewable energy?” he said.
He added: “Ireland is going to change in the coming decades, in ways that will stretch our imagination. But this time, the opportunities lie on our own shores – and we are uniquely well placed to grasp them, if only we will use our full brains when viewing the world.”
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