#80: Environmental Blackmail

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #80, on the subject of Environmental Blackmail.

Augustine has been quoted (by C. S. Lewis, somewhere) as claiming to be “one who by writing profits and by profiting writes.”  I have that experience as well.  I had been musing on a completely different subject (for the Christian Gamers Guild Bible study) and suddenly saw how it applied to the massive global warming controversy, and thus I am writing about that here.

First, let me establish a few bona fides.  I am indeed a somewhat conservative moderate, but have also always been involved in environmental issues.  As a Boy Scout I cleaned up and repaired trails and wilderness areas as well as working with early recylcing efforts, collecting paper, glass, and aluminum in a time when it was voluntary and someone had to make an effort to make it happen.  I am in favor of policies that really do improve the environment; I am not in favor of policies which severely impact other areas of life such as economic growth but whose benefit to the environment is at best minimal or dubious.  I also favor policies that would shift the costs of environmental impact to those responsible for it–if the “cost” of a product includes that it damages our waterways, that cost ought to be covered in the sale price.  However, I also think that there is a great deal of alarmist talk in this field (see mark Joseph “young” web log post #45:  The Math of Charging Your Phone for an example).

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I am old enough to be skeptical of current scientific opinion simply because it is current opinion, and the fact that it is scientific does not much improve its credibility.  I remember when we were all being moved away from butter to healthier margarine for the sake of our hearts, and now it seems that margarine is much worse for our hearts and we should prefer butter (or some other heart-healthy spread).  Smoking was once encouraged for its supposed antibiotic and antiviral effects, and it was a slow road to persuade everyone that it was a major health problem.  The majority of scientific opinion has often been wrong in living memory, and it is a fool who believes that because he has corrected certain errors in his thinking he must now be completely right about everything.

I am also not so foolish as to be persuaded that all the scientists on one side of the issue and none of those on the other side have a vested interest in the outcome.  That is, we are told that those of the minority opinion, those scientists who either do not believe that climate change is occurring or do not believe that human activity is a significant factor in it, are largely funded by industries who want the outcome to support their continued exploitation of natural resources, and thus that their research is tainted.  We are not told that those who believe human activity is creating climate change which will occur on a rapid and global scale at devastating levels are largely funded by environmental groups who want more money invested in environmental activities, and thus also have an economic interest which potentially taints their research–not to mention that they get publicity and sell books and media based on it.  That blade cuts both ways.  Besides, saying that oil companies support scientists who agree with the position that benefits them (or that environmental groups do likewise for those whose work benefits them) is a bit like arguing that the resurrection of Christ must be a lie because everyone who claims to have seen Him after His resurrection was a believer:  if you actually knew you saw Jesus alive after you knew He had been executed, could you reasonably not become a believer?  It is quite natural for groups with an interest in the outcome to fund those who appear to be producing data that supports their preferred outcome, and to promote that data which does; that is equally true on both sides of this debate.

I think that there is evidence of climate change.  I think that it is a bit less clear to what degree it is because of our contributions rather than because of natural climatic shifts.  The fact that it cannot be demonstrated that we are having a serious impact on the environment is not, to my mind, a sufficient reason not to take steps to reduce our impact on the environment; it is sufficient reason not to do so in ways that are going to strangle an economy that desperately needs to grow and create jobs.  Some are arguing that jobs now are not as important as the future state of the earth, but they have jobs now and probably are not in much danger of losing them.  It can as easily be argued that the state of the environment in a century is not going to matter much to people who starve and freeze and die of heat stroke today because of a collapsing economy.  (Minimum wage increases will not help this; the only way to increase everyone’s share of the pot is to make the pot bigger.)  We must take reasonable steps to improve the environment; we must not take unreasonable ones.  Our debate, then, comes to identifying those reasonable steps.

My complaint, though, is that in the current debate the threat of global warming is being used as a weapon to promote environmental policy and quash intellectual exploration.  I am particularly concerned, because it is not clear to me whether human activity is impacting climate, and it is also unclear that any such impact is negative.  In 1991, the science fiction author trio of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn wrote a Prometheus Award-winning novel entitled Fallen Angels in which an essential element of the premise was that the world has been headed into an ice age for several hundred years which has been kept at bay by humanity’s production of greenhouse gases warming the planet, and that were we to stop that production we would within a very few years see glacial sheets descending southward on the continents of the northern hemisphere.  The appendix in that book explained this in some detail.  A Nova production a few years later explained how greenhouse gas levels fluctuated naturally, through a process in which rain washed carbon gases from the atmosphere, briefly became dilute carbolic acid, and either soaked into the ground and released the gases back into the atmosphere or landed on calcium-based rock usually upthrust by contintental drift, creating calcium carbonate that washed down the waterways to settle on the bottoms of seas and oceans out of the environment for centuries.  All of that is complicated, but the gist of it is that there was then–about twenty-five years ago–perceived to be a real danger, scientifically, that a significant reduction in the human production of greenhouse gases would result in a catastrophic climate shift.  Now we are being told that the failure to reduce the human production of greenhouse gases will have such a result.  Forgive me for feeling like this is the fad of the moment, like whether I should be eating butter or margarine.  I accept that there might be a problem, and it might need addressing.  I object to the hyperbole.

For example, there was a terrible storm on the east coast in 2012 known as Hurricane Sandy, a category 3 storm.  We were told that it was a harbinger of worse storms to come–but it was not as bad a storm as Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 storm in 2005.  The destruction from Sandy was because a rather ordinary storm was funnelled in an extraordinary way so as to be focused into a very narrow highly populated area.  The storm itself was not so severe; it was the vulnerability of the target that made the difference.  We have records of hurricanes using modern rating systems going back perhaps one and a half centuries, and there was a category 5 storm in 1928 and another in 1932.  Storms are not getting worse, and we’re not having the severe ones more frequently.  New England’s blizzard of 1978 was unprecedented and has not been matched since.  Yet every time something happens with the weather that people don’t like, the specter of climate change is paraded to scare us into environmental consciousness.

Scare tactics do work on some people, but intelligent people usually respond negatively to them.  Let’s address our environmental concerns sanely and sensibly, and stop trying to incite people to extreme action which might have worse consequences than what we already fear.

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