Published in The Scotsman, 7th February 2009
COULD our enlightened forefathers have guessed that their philosophy would help tackle a phenomenon called climate change three centuries later? In this year of Homecoming, we should pause from our celebration of golf, whisky and tartan and consider our ancestors’ desire to change the world for the better, and how this helps meet the current scientific challenges.
For now, it seems, Scotland’s intellectual legacy is coming back into fashion.
The Scottish Enlightenment, based in Edinburgh, was an incredibly fertile period of intellectual development in the 18th century. Its brilliant minds created a wellspring of diverse ideas, theorems, discoveries and inventions.
They included Adam Smith, whose discourse The Wealth of Nations founded modern economics; James Hutton, considered the father of modern geology; Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son; and (in a pleasing coincidence) Joseph Black, who discovered and isolated carbon dioxide.
Importantly, their thinking also spanned intellectual disciplines. Prior to his economic treatise, Adam Smith studied moral philosophy, and wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
They were the epitome of principled gentlemen. As son of Edinburgh and former Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson put it: “All were politically conservative but intellectually radical, courteous, friendly and accessible. They were stimulated by enormous curiosity, optimism about human progress and dissatisfaction with age-old theological disputes.”
Through them, some of the foundations of science, economics, engineering and sociology were laid. In the diaspora of the late 18th century, Scots took their Enlightenment philosophies across the Atlantic and to remote corners of the world.
There’s no denying the desperate need for enlightened thinking now.
Immediate concerns about banking and the economy are just the start. There is a far greater long-term challenge in climate change. This will require redesign of the food, energy, transport and building infrastructure on which we depend. Some say this must be on a similar scale to the Industrial Revolution, or reconstruction after the Second World War.
The solution to this most global of problems also lies in a green economic system. Once carbon is priced in, an “invisible green hand” will be extended across the markets — building on Adam Smith’s legacy.
As James Cameron, environmental lawyer and co-chair of green investor, Climate Change Capital, said in a recent talk at Edinburgh University: “The carbon market has the power to be transformative. It will be an equivalent size, in 20 years’ time, to today’s fossil fuel market. In some ways, carbon traders will become the instruments of environmental policy.”
All this needs to happen in the next four decades. Starting now.
And if it doesn’t? The best-known economic assessment was carried out by economist Sir Nicholas Stern in his 2006 report to the UK Treasury.
The stark prediction is that the cost of tackling climate change could rise to 20 per cent of global GDP, if left unchecked. The cost of tackling the issue now would be 2 per cent. Fortunately, the most powerful person on earth recognises the need for fresh thinking.
On climate policy, Barack Obama, the US president, is very clear. This starts with shielding scientists from vested interests: “It’s about protecting free and open enquiry,” he said. “Ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.”
There is tremendous optimism in environmental circles that Mr Obama represents a new force for positive change. He has appointed a forward-looking Nobel laureate, Steven Chu, to head his energy department, and has put the wheels in motion to negotiate hard on a global agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
Encouragingly, Scottish academics are also keeping an open mind about approaches to tackling climate change. Edinburgh University’s carbon management course blends economics, science, law and ethics, underpinned by a strict rational and empirical ethos. This was a trait of the Scottish Enlightenment. Dr Thomas Ahnert, a lecturer in history at Edinburgh University, said: “Knowing about the Enlightenment is important to informing a critical debate about approaches for the modern day. Many Enlightenment thinkers did not restrict themselves to one academic discipline. Boundaries were more permeable.”
The university has also formed the Edinburgh Climate Change Centre, bringing together researchers across institutions and disciplines.
“Politicians and the media want a one-stop-shop,” said David Reay, lecturer in carbon management. “We know we have the expertise. We want to be more effective and deliver something useful.”
In addition, next month will see the launch of the Scottish Science Framework, an initiative to reinvigorate science in the classroom and research centres. This is fortunate timing, as it counteracts the growing creep of alternative, non-rational theories.
We can be proud of Scotland’s recent climate leadership, but the ante has been upped across the Atlantic.
If we want our great-grandchildren to look back at our time in history and recognise this success, we have a lot to live up to. We can, however, take inspiration from our Enlightenment forefathers.

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