Mr. X on Global Warming

glacier Perito Moreno Patagonia

Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia.

Ok, Mr. X isn’t actually going to speak, but I did want to paraphrase some of his thoughts on global warming. A forewarning—Mr. X often takes a “devil’s advocate” position, and thus often brings up opposing viewpoints just as a matter of course. In the end, I suspect he agrees with me slightly more than the following would imply. But for what it’s worth, some of Mr. X’s points—

  1. We’ve had lots of practice dealing with concerns such as clean air, land, water, biodiversity, and food supplies, but climate change is quite new, and we aren’t quite sure how to much to worry about it yet. This is because- A) It’s a global problem, and it won’t do any good to just fix half the problem if the other emitters won’t play along. B) There’s a great deal of uncertainty about exactly what changes that higher CO2 levels will bring. It could actually expand the amount of arable land available (say, in Canada and northern Russia), it might bring more precipitation to dry areas, and, at some point in the history of the planet it was warmer, so it could be again; life would go on.
  2. CO2 isn’t a traditional sort of pollutant like, say, SO2. We exhale it, plants actually need it; it’s already part of the natural cycle, and therefore people have a hard time getting worked up about it.
  3. And, when you put all this together, it’s hard to know how much effort to put into ameliorating the problem, because fixing CO2 emissions could cause other concerns to worsen, (say, less food production, or less of the economic growth that lifts millions from poverty) because it takes energy to solve many of them, and we won’t have enough renewable power to replace the energy in fossil fuels for a good long time.
  4. There are no market forces present that could drive change; fossil fuels are readily available and extremely useful, so it might be nearly impossible to slow their use.
  5. The costs of reducing carbon emissions might not be worth it, so we might be better off focusing on blunting the worse effects of a warming planet, i.e., moving at-risk coastal populations farther inland.
  6. Disaster predictions don’t always play out as predicted. In the 1970’s everyone was freaking out about “global cooling,” but it didn’t happen. More recently everyone was freaking out about “peak oil,” but that hasn’t quite played out in a disastrous way. And now everyone is freaking out about the effects of CO2, but we need to remember that the predictions could possibly be wrong.
  7. Other problems that humanity faces, such as human trafficking, have little to do with the environment but still need addressed, so we can’t put all of our efforts into one group of problems. Other problems, like poverty in developing nations, need to be ameliorated with more economic development, so we have to decide how to weight improvements today against potential environmental impacts tomorrow.

My very short response—unlike some reactions to global warming, I don’t find Mr. X’s position irrational. I do see it as extremely risky, however; there is too much is at stake. Most models show temperature levels rising in rough concert with total CO2 emissions, which is bad enough, but at least some show the potential for “runaway warming”, which would truly devastate the planet. Current changes are already exceeding predictions in terms of speed (Arctic sea ice melting, glacial retreat). Other knock-on effects have also been worse than anticipated, like the rise in ocean acidity. The pace of change is too rapid, and is or will outpace the ability of nature to adapt. The fact that the effects of atmospheric CO2 are persistent and have a long lag time makes it extra dangerous—by the time a problem was truly apparent it would likely continue to worsen despite anything humans could do; the carbon we’re emitting now could affect us for centuries. The Economist had an article the other year that basically agreed with the take I’m outlining here—that the costs of insuring against this risk by taking action on CO2 are considerable, but are bearable and should be taken, because the potential downside is so huge.

So, even shorter response—when you look at the whole picture through a long lens, mankind is clearly on a suicide path with regard to destroying the resources that we require to survive (water, soil, air, biodiversity…). The long-term trend of CO2 emissions is part of this, solving the problem will take decades, and so there isn’t a moment to lose, on this issue or the others. Once again—we need a plan, we need it now, and we have to start switching.

Image credit: irisphoto18 / 123RF Stock Photo