Why I don’t take Climate Change very Seriously

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Friends of mine who would agree with the statement, “Global warming is one of the biggest threats to mankind of our time,” I would like to share the following excerpt from Walter Russell Mead, detailing why I don’t think too hard on climate change and instead think about other things:

“Back in the late 1960s, when I was a callow youth with no common sense to speak of and a huge, misshapen ego, the Big Scare energizing the United Nations, the foundation world, the leaders of civil society and the intellectual establishment of the day was the Population Bomb. It’s hard for young people today to understand how terrified, urgent, self righteous and utterly convinced the Population Bomb movement was. The closest analogy today is the global green movement and its apocalyptic warnings about climate change. The Population Bomb worriers didn’t have as many grassroots organizations in support of their agenda as the greens do today, but the establishment, the mainstream press, and the great and the good were even more worried about the Bomb then than they are about global warming today, and the forecasts we were getting were even more dire.

Basically, the problem was that people were having too many children—especially, though it wasn’t polite to say this, non-white and non-educated people. All over the developing world, modern medicine was reducing infant mortality, but people were having just as many children as they did back in the days when half of all babies died in their first two years of life. With life expectancy increasing for older people as well, the world’s population was exploding, and the inevitable result would be famine, war and you name it…

The most visible spokesperson for the alarmists was Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist whose 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted inevitable mass famines and other unspeakable horrors starting in the 1970s and accelerating to Armageddon as the starving billions fought over crusts and war boiled across an emaciated world. As the professor warned us in exactly the same kind of prose alarmist greens now use, ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…’

The bomb was a dud. Though Dr. Ehrlich went on to peddle other scare stories about Malthusian meltdowns of various kinds for almost half a century after the world failed to collapse, his reputation has never been the same. The decades since the great population hysteria have seen a steady decline in the rate of population growth to the point where in many countries the biggest worry now is population decline. The number of people without secure access to an adequate diet is falling; the 21st century currently looks set to spend more time worrying about obesity than starvation. While the world population continues to rise, most experts now believe (for what it’s worth) that the world population will level off rather than explode.

Establishment panics—those delicious moments when the Great and the Good work themselves into a hysterical frenzy about mostly imaginary dangers—come and go pretty often but don’t usually leave much damage behind. The mainstream media are usually too busy whipping up fears about the next panic to write caustic examinations of the people who keep crying “Wolf!” And in any case, it is rude to point out that many of the people traipsing from think-tank meetings to television studios aren’t very good at, well, thinking.

Older readers will remember or have heard of the Sputnik Panic, the Fallout Shelter movement, the Missile Gap, the balance of payment nightmares of the Kennedy years, the Club of Rome commodities panic, ’70s declinism, the Japan panic, swine flu, Peak Oil, bird flu and, of course, Y2K. At the time, hordes of very important and well-connected people lectured America incessantly on the urgent dangers some of these represented, and various imposing national and global action plans were debated. In some cases, a great deal of money was spent on these plans—though never quite as much as the establishment thought would be best.

…the Population Bomb was one of the many impending disasters that panicked the establishment without actually happening…”

Read the whole article here:

http://www.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2013/06/27/the-demographic-blues/

I hope the point is clear.

I do believe that climate change is happening, that it has ultimately negative effects on the biosphere, that those negative effects are in turn detrimental to human life, which relies on the biosphere, that human beings have contributed to this process through the industrial revolution, and that through policy the effects of this can be negated somewhat.

I also believe, however, that climate change is a natural process and that humans affect it only partially. Thus, we have only contributed to it partially, and we can only slow it partially. I am therefore not sure that legislation and policy purporting to “stop global warming” or “solve climate change” is worth implementing. I believe that the issue itself is hyped up to a degree that renders most public debate over it invalid, and overall I think people who believe in it are giving it a lot more legitimacy than it’s worth.

What part of the problem is solvable, I think will be solved, and what part isn’t, I think will not. I don’t think we’re about to face dramatically rising sea levels, mass migrations, deathly heatwaves, the total desertification of entire continents, or any such apocalyptic disasters that will supposedly destroy civilization. I think we’ll face disasters and figure out ways to get past them. In 50 years, I think we’ll all look back on things and wonder why we thought the world was about to end.

We should regulate the emissions our economy puts into the atmosphere, seek out and transfer to alternative fuels as much as is pragmatically possible, and continue to fund research into the workings of the planet. I do not doubt any of these things, and I think I would consider myself very much an environmentalist if asked. But prudence must conquer hysteria, and I am of the opinion that the sheer black-and-white treatment climate change gets in popular discourse nowadays is too much.

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2 responses to “Why I don’t take Climate Change very Seriously”

  1. Jack Koppa says :

    I really like the writing, as per usual, and appreciate the Walter Russel Mead excerpt and Ehrlich example. Not because I think they’re the most important or most relevant analogies, but because they’re actually the opposite of the historical precedents I typically associate w/ climate change. While I think it’s very important to keep in mind the times we over-stated upcoming dangers (because yes, of course people will eat up a good armageddon story, and that’s a good check on being over-zealous), it’s even more important to remember the times when the status quo outweighed concerns. Because, in the end, it seems much more likely that comfort, apathy, and “the powers that be” overrule scientific alarms, than vice versa.

    I’ll here offer my relevant “crises”, cases in which scientific consensus, public opinion, and lived experience all tend to align firmly on the side of something that was once judged to be unnecessarily alarmist:
    – Smoking (duh)
    – Asbestos (less ‘duh’, but still kinda ‘duh’)
    – DDT (bioaccumulation, fish–>birds–>humans) & Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring
    – CFC’s in dry cleaning (destroying stratospheric ozone)
    – Lead in gasoline

    The first 2 aren’t necessarily environmental, while the latter 3 are decidedly so. But all help emphasize a fairly obvious, but important, counterpoint to your reasons for brushing aside climate change as a serious threat: even when there is scientific consensus on an issue, or the beginnings of scientific consensus, the idea of policy controls and limitations still seem absurd to those profiting from the status quo, and unnecessary to those just living in it.

    So while we should certainly be careful to avoid sensationalism, as your examples suggest, we should be even more careful of how much influence “the way it is” has over what we deem worthwhile to spend time, money, and effort addressing.

    {man, I wish I had as much eloquence and time as you do. When do you fit these things in?}

  2. Erika Petroy says :

    You make really valid points that approaching global warming and climate change as a black and white issue will not help in our move toward a “greener” lifestyle. And that there is too much hype surrounding huge natural disasters that will for sure be coming in the next fews days. I thought I’d add my two cents as an environmental studies major, and a person who grew up in one of the leading scientific communities on global warming.

    There is no debate among the scientific community that we are the main cause of global warming (and global warming is the politically correct term as the earth’s overall temperature is increasing – global climate change is an effect of warming).

    But regardless, I think that we also must keep in mind that sure we mightn’t see mass famines, rising sea levels and severe droughts in our lifetime, but they will happen in the near future. And frankly we’re not the only beings on this planet. Other animals and plants are severely effected by our actions right now. They deserve a clean, livable world just as much as we do.

    Climate change is a pressing issue. We must do all we can now. We must be proactive instead of retroactive. Instead of “facing disasters and figuring out ways to get past them” why don’t we just work now to avoid those disasters all together?

    Your final points hint that the best strategy is to gradually adjust into a greener lifestyle, assuring that the changes won’t cause due harm to the economy and the other pressing issues of our day (correct me if I’m wrong). We can’t afford to compromise that much in our push towards “green living”. The economy can bounce back (it has done so many times before), but it’s much, much harder (and much more expensive) for the environment to “bounce back”.

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