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What If We Really Are Overheating?

October 15th, 2007

Today is apparently some kind of Blog Action Day for the environment. I don’t know how legit it is – I didn’t hear about it until today, and I’m not normally much of a “joiner,” but in my opinion it won’t hurt anybody if I talk a little bit about the environment.

I am not particularly educated about it, but I care about it. I confess that I leave most concerns to other people who are dedicated to the science of preserving it. Because I’m not particularly skilled or knowledgeable, I figure it’s not my business to spend too much time thinking about it. But I do spend time worrying about it.

I’m convinced that climate change is real, and it scares the bejeezus out of me. Many of you agree with me, so I’m not talking to you right now. I’m talking to those of you who don’t agree, or who are on the fence. Those of you who believe it’s an overreaction, or that it’s a deep liberal conspiracy. Who am I to tell you you’re wrong? After all, I just admitted I don’t know all that much about the environment. But still … what if you are wrong?

Say you live in a village that just happens to be situated under a large dam. If the dam breaks, the village dies. If the dam stays, the village lives. Half the village is convinced the damn needs renovation. There are small cracks and a tiny amount of water is leaking through. Some experts say the small cracks are indicative of a larger problem, and eventually they will turn to large cracks, before giving way completely and flooding the town. Others say it’s poppycock, and the dam is strong as ever.

So the village is left with two choices. Fix the dam, perhaps at unwarranted expense, or leave the cracks and hope for the best. When it comes to consequences like wiping out the village, I believe giving the benefit of the doubt to the worried half is worth your consideration.

What motivates the deniers of climate change? For some I’m sure it’s a momentum thing. They know a lot of people who are against it for possibly politically allied reasons, and so they go along with it. Truthfully, momentum and trust are large parts of the reason for my being convinced to believe it. For others I suspect a deeper psychological reason: they’re afraid like I am, but it’s easier to rationalize the problem away.

What makes me particularly comfortable with the idea of “doing something” about the alleged problem of climate change is that the prescription for the cure has positive benefits in any case. Reduce air pollution? We can benefit from that even if there isn’t a causal relation to climate change. So let’s use this potentially catastrophic situation as an excuse to clean up the air. We’ll have happier lives and if we’re lucky we might just save the world while we’re at it.

Update:I shut off comments because, as could probably be predicted, it is turning into a debate between pro and con readers. It’s not that I don’t think you all have a right to your opinions, but more and more the comments were debating the finer points of other readers’ opinions, not mine. Well, it’s my blog and I take seriously what you all have said in response to my thoughts. I think the comments that have come in so far do a good job of representing two sides of the issue, so there probably isn’t a lot more that needs to be presented here.

17 Responses to “What If We Really Are Overheating?”

  1. Martin Pilkington Says:

    The thing that really gets on my nerves is when people say “Environmentalists want us to all live in caves”. You can pretty much get 90% of the way to being environmentally friendly by doing some pretty basic things. Buy energy efficient appliances, use a fuel efficient car, use energy efficient light bulbs, get double glazing or roof insulation or simply turn your thermostat down slightly or turn a light off when you’re not using it. All these help save energy and prevent climate change. And what if climate change is a myth? You’re saving yourself hundreds upon hundreds of dollars a year.

  2. alex Says:

    Yes, it is difficult to figure out who is “right” on this matter, but it does seem the debate is moving away from the question of whether there is a global effect from human activity (global warming, greenhouse effect gases or anything else for that matter). And the liberal conspiracy theory is just too risky a bet I’m afraid as you very rightly point out.

    An interesting contribution to the discussion comes from people like Bjorn Lomborg and Hans Rosling who both seem concerned with the way we deal with facts and figures in making decisions about policy. I’ve published a post on my blog today stating why I like Lomborg’s thinking and proposals.

    I do agree with you that this crisis situation may provide an excellent opportunity for Mankind, although cleaning the air may be a rather minimalistic way to seize that opportunity. If we think of it, this is the first time in human history when we are confronted with a common challenge on a global basis. Furthermore it is a challenge that invites us to question our current ways and that highlights our own inconsistencies (e.g. justifying some policies with the relevance of free trade and then subsidising the farmers of developed nations thus leading to the exclusion and impoverishment of farmers from less-developed nations).

    This crisis and the resulting awareness may be the best levers to restructure world governance and get back to a more multilateral and to a fairer way of managing the planet. In my craziest dreams I even hope we reach a level of consciousness such that we manage the planet in the best interest of the largest possible fraction of Life, not only Mankind. Cleaning up the air is only part of the equation, I believe.

  3. Michael Says:

    The climate has always varied over time. People are especially good at adapting to those changes. It’s possible that changes in the climate may very well have been what made humans humans.

    Even without humans being around, one would expect to see warming since the planet is still basically still coming out the recent ice age. People aren’t particularly good at seeing patterns across these time frames.

    One other note, it’s not at all clear that “the prescription for the cure has positive benefits in any case”. One example: raising the CAFE standards very likely will lead to more highway deaths. ref

  4. Jeremy Knope Says:

    Not only do some things like buying a fuel-efficient car help save energy and what not, but YOU save money. Yeah why did you buy that Hummer H3? So you could continually dump money down the toilet? I don’t get it…

    Where my honda I’m paying WAY less money on gas than someone driving a huge SUV. Win-win.

    And things like better light bulbs save you money in the long run.

    Or even my mom with her alternative energy (hydro & solar), she paid more up-front, but guess what, no electrical bill, sure maintenance occasionally but I bet she’s saving plenty.

    These changes can benefit you directly too not just the environment which is great.

  5. Kevin Says:

    Your last paragraph totally sums up my feelings as well (and I blogged about that earlier today). “Doing something” costs little and is beneficial, even if the sky was never going to fall in the first place.

  6. Michael Says:

    Egad! Statements like “This crisis and the resulting awareness may be the best levers to restructure world governance” (from Alex above) is the just kind of talk that leads people to see a “liberal conspiracy”.

    Talking about efforts to further clean up the air and save energy are one thing, but bolstering world governement is quite another. That’s crazy talk.

  7. Joe Says:

    The science is really clear, and obvious if you think about it: “Climate Change” is a bunch of whooey. There is no legitimate scientific support– note that the people who got the nobel “peace” prize recently were all political hacks who have been widely refuted by scientists.

    So, let me get this refutation out of the way– mars is getting warmer and there are no humans on it. The earth, is getting COLDER, over the short term, and to make the argument its getting warmer you have to look back to the last ice age, and, of course, ignore all the previous ice ages.

    Between 1900 and 2000, socialists all over the world managed to slaughter 100 million poor people. They did this because they convinced people that they were legitimate powers and that the things they were doing were “Right”. One of the modern ways of convincing people to go along with their own slaughter is to sell them on scary things.

    Climate change is the latest fad by socialists to try and scare people into accepting being forced back to the stone age. (And yes, that is what they want– they are deeply anti-human and really want the wholesale slaughter of people. Imagine how great the environment would be if there were no people?)

    Hell, we even get people like Jeremy saying that its Good for you, to be forced to live according to the whims of a religious cult, whose most popular figure is a blatant hypocrite. (Al Gore is not exactly an environmentalist by actions…)

    So, bottom line– Daniel, you’re scared because you don’t know the horror stories you’ve been told are absurd. You also don’t realize that the solution to a cleaner environment is capitalism. Economics ignorance is the core of what allows socialists to get away with these claims– and social pressure, socialists are nothing if not good at organizing socialism, whose primary mechanism is social pressure. (like this “blog action day” nonsense.)

    But like Social Security, Communism and all other socialist agendas- the ideas don’t work in reality. The science is already discredited… and at the end of the day the only way to get people to participate in their own destruction is to stick guns to their heads.

    You may be ignorant of the science, but you have to take a stand on whether you believe in slaughtering people.

    Unlike the modern environmentalist movement, I’m opposed.

  8. jeremy Says:

    Government regulations always have unintended consequences. No one, not the most brilliant scientist or economist, is able to accurately predict the true effect of government actions. This is one of the key reasons why centrally-planned societies (e.g. USSR, North Korea) are not able to function productively over time.

    People who say either a) “all reputable scientists agree on climate change” or b) “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” always trigger my BS-detector. People who say both have an agenda I cannot support.

    Is the climate changing? Almost certainly.

    Are humans responsible? We are definitely contributing, though there are other factors.

    Does the climate change threaten our very existence? Perhaps.

    Should we reduce our impact on the environment? Absolutely.

    Should we give carte blanche to government agencies to protect us? Never, no matter what the (alleged?) threat.

  9. joe Says:

    In fact, government can never help, if you think about it. Its simple math- any sitution in which you take money from one group and spend it on another will result in a net decline in the whole society. Even assuming a perfect transferral- that is, not having the %50-%90 opverhead and “losses” that modern governments have, the people whose money were taken were allocating it more optimally than the people who recieved the money (who are essentially recieving largesse…)

    This is a mathematical proof that all government programs increase misery, if they are perfetly efficient, and manufacture misery wholesale if they are less than perfectly efficient.

    Government is a disease, masquarading as its own cure.

    This is especially true in the environmental sector– who is the number one entity creating pollution and environmental damage in the US? The US Federal government, by a long stretch.

    Government always seeks power to fix problems, and it didn’t take too long for them to realize that they could manufacture problems simply for the opportunity to sieze more power (or to demand more money to fix the same things tehy demanded money to fix in the past– every year we get new road taxes, but the road taxes 50 years ago are still in effect– why arent’ they paying for the roads?)

    “Climate Change” is a scam, a scare tactic to get people to tolerate even more government control over their lives…. and thus increased human misery and massive death.

  10. Larry Says:

    It is clear from looking at the data that global temperatures are rising. It is not clear that this trend will continue. As recently as the early 80s, scientists were concerned about gloal cooling, as temperatures had been declining for a number of years up to that point.

    I will not disagree that doing things to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we dump into the atmosphere is a good thing, and we do what we can to be energy efficient and friendly to the environment. But I will not agree that draconian measures to reduce carbon dioxide production are entirely necessary – and you sure won’t find me buying any of those ridiculous “carbon dioxide offset credits” – because I’m not convinced that we have any control over what’s going on.

  11. Michael Tsai Says:

    Daniel, it seems to me that you’re trying to stake out a middle ground that doesn’t really exist. There are lots of little things you can do—getting a more fuel-efficient car or driving less, using swirl lightbulbs, etc. These could save you some money and improve overall air quality. But if you look at the scale of the problem, this is kind of like trying to fix the dam by applying some strips of duct tape to the little cracks. If the dam really is breaking, you’d need to do a lot more—really fix it, or build a new one—i.e. things that don’t have “positive benefits in any case.” On the other hand, if it’s not breaking, rebuilding it would be quite a waste.

    If the dam’s breaking, but not in the near-term, it might be better to wait a while and build a much better dam, at much less cost, when the science and engineering of dam-building have improved. And, as a side-issue, there may be a second dam, which could also flood the village, but that dam is maintained by a second village which refuses to act regardless of what the first village does with the dam they control.

    This is quite a complicated issue, and it’s contentious precisely because there are huge costs to being wrong, in either direction.

  12. Martin Pilkington Says:

    Joe, care to show all these scientists that refute climate change? Now care to show all the scientists in that category that are independent and not financed by those with a vested interest to debunk climate change?

    Care to also show your facts for the earth getting colder? Lets lay down some logic here. Looking at temperature fluctuations and CO2 levels over 10s of 1000s of years we can see that global temperatures are linked pretty heavily with CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Each ice age corresponds with a sharp drop in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. So greenhouse gases cause the earth to warm up and cool down. This is the fundamental fact that keeps the earth warm enough for life to exist.

    Next bit of fact is that CO2 levels have been rising since the industrial revolution. And the rate at which they have been rising has grown massively since then. Industrialisation led to better standard of living, led to increases in population, led to increases in usage of fossil fuels.

    Next fact is that fossil fuels produce CO2, so an increase in usage of fossil fuels would lead to an increase in CO2 levels.

    So we have to ask ourselves, what happened at the start of the industrial revolution to start CO2 levels rising, which in turn help raise global temperatures? It was humans starting to burn large numbers of fossil fuels. Now you may try to claim there is some natural force doing it but to that I have two questions for you:

    1. Wouldn’t it be a really big coincidence that some natural force starts producing lots of CO2 when humans start producing lots of CO2?
    2. If it’s nature that’s causing CO2 levels to rise then where is the huge amount of CO2 humans are producing going.

    And to end on I’ve got some more questions about various other things in your posts:

    • Europe is pretty socialist, how many people are slaughtered each year over here?
    • How many people have been slaughtered by right wing policies such as during WW2, Vietnam or Iraq?
    • What is it that liberal people have to gain from putting out a “myth” of climate change, compared to conservative people, who are often in charge of big companies that produce lots of greenhouse gases?
    • Even if climate change isn’t happening (despite the overwhelming evidence that it is) what is wrong with saving $1000s upon $1000s of your hard earned cash over your lifetime by getting more energy efficient appliances?

    And that is the point I keep trying to hammer home to the doubters. You can go and live in a cave you want, but really all you need to do to save the planet it get more energy efficient stuff. It’s actually more advanced than the polluting stuff (so it’s further away from said stone age) and saves you money. If we’re wrong about climate change you’ve saved a hell of a lot of money, if we’re right you’ve helped save the planet and also saved a hell of a lot of money. It’s a win-win situation really.

  13. charles Says:

    Daniel, you are rephrasing Pascal’s wager! Pascal used it to convince himself to believe in God, but he’d probably be happy to hear it used in defense of the environment.

    But I must say, I am pretty disappointed that you are in favor of slaughtering people.

  14. Mike Glass Says:

    No one is really saying we should live in caves, and no one is really saying the environment will be fine no matter what we do. That’s hyperbole from both sides, and if you buy into either one totally you’re not being sensible.

    The problem is we are being fed the Al Gore lines as fact, when reputable scientists disagree about whether or not our CO2 emissions are affecting the environment in any measurable way. Our most recent Nobel laureate claiming that there is no disagreement on this point is a blatant and provable lie.

    Let’s be honest here. We’re not talking about patching the dam. We’re talking about the government mandating you move your house, brick by brick, out of the flood zone, at your expense, with their only proof being small cracks that may very well be nothing. What Gore and those like him want is a serious and dramatic rollback of human industrial progress, and we should not condone that without the most concrete and indisputable evidence.

    If you want to use fluorescent bulbs and drive a Prius, you are more than welcome to. But don’t tell me I am required to because you bought into the enviro-hype.

    Also, Martin: You should check your facts as well. American involvement in WW2 and Vietnam were both initiated by Democratic presidents; Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson respectively. Exactly what “right wing” slaughter policies were in effect then, under two of the more liberal presidents of the last 100 years? Are you also implying that WW2 was a “slaughter” and wasn’t worth it? I think a large number of your countrymen would disagree.

  15. Martin Pilkington Says:

    Actually I wasn’t referring to the US with regards to WW2, I was referring to the Nazi’s. Also, people like Gore don’t want a dramatic rollback in human industrial progress, they (we) want the use of technology to help industry grow while not increasing greenhouse gases. People like Bush try to claim that trying to do something like the Kyoto protocol would damage the economy, yet you only have to look at us in the UK to see that you can reduce greenhouse emissions and have a strong economy. If anything becoming energy efficient puts more money in the pockets of the consumer allowing them to spend more, therefore improving the economy.

  16. Ash Ponders Says:

    Charles: Pascal was such a sissy, slaughtering people is awesome.

    Kidding aside, Pascal’s wager is a vital piece of logic here, and I wish more people would consider it.

  17. Mike Glass Says:

    Nazi style fascism is as related to US conservatism as Soviet style communism is to European socialism. You’re clearly a bright, educated guy. I don’t think you truly believe that you can equate Nazi policies with American conservative policies.

    The issue with Kyoto is that it puts undue strain on the US to conform with worldwide CO2 emission standards, while allowing developing nations like China and India to slide. You also can’t blame the US non-participation solely on Bush; in 1997 the Senate voted 95-0 that the US should not sign Kyoto without targets and timetables for developing nations as well. In 1998, Bill Clinton refused to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification.

    Like I said, if you want to save money by buying Priuses (Priusi? Priusen?) and fluorescent bulbs, be my guest. But don’t get the government to require me to do it too, especially based on flimsy, heavily disputed evidence. Let’s prove something first! Then I and my conservative friends will listen, I promise!

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