Sunday, December 12, 2010

Another "Answer": Global Warming

As I occasionally do, I took the time today to answer another "Facebook Question". This time, the question is about Anthropogenic Global Warming, asking:

Do you believe that human-caused global warming is real and a serious long-term threat?

My short answer was "maybe". But as one is supposed to do in these situations, I did take the time to elaborate my position, and since I already did the work, I figure I might as well put it right here as well.

So here it is:

There are multiple issues here that everyone seems to take for granted as all one single, unified question. To say "human-caused global warming is real" is one question, but then to say that it is a "serious long-term threat" is another question which requires better definitions.

So I feel compelled to break it down a little bit:
  • Is global warming real? I think it's clear that it is.
  • Do people contribute to it? Again - I think it's clear that we must contribute in some way. We are part of the ecology of the planet after all.
  • Are human actions the primary driver of GW? Ah... Well, that's much less clear, isn't it? CO2 only makes up a very small fraction of overall greenhouse gases and human beings, with all our cars and power plants, still contribute only a minuscule amount of overall CO2 emissions.
  • Is global warming a serious threat? To whom? Certainly not the Earth itself, which has been much much warmer over its 4 Billion year history. To people? Not necessarily... Consider that we are talking about 1-2 degrees C over the course of 100 years based on current models which also require assumptions about rather significant positive feedback loops in order to be accurate to begin with. The evidence for these feedback loops is a lot less clear than it is often portrayed... and estimates of warming without the worst-case assumptions about feedback loops suggests only a fraction of 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature over a Century - which is far less severe than the worst case scenarios. In fact, in either case, over the time frame we're talking about, the effects of global climate change are so slow and small that they are not actually perceivable by direct observation... Which, by the way, makes comments like "its been blazing hot" utterly useless and not at all representative of evidence for global warming.
So now we really have to stop and start thinking a bit more... What aspects of warming are "a threat" to people?

Certainly if we're talking about the whole world turning into the Saharan Desert, that seems like it would qualify as a legitimate "threat", right? But that's not at all what anyone's actually talking about - and the historical record shows that in previous periods of significantly warmer global climate, such as the Medieval Warm Period, resulted in an impressive growth of plant & animal life as well as provided opportunities for human beings in previously inhospitable environments to grow more and wider varieties of crops - and for longer amounts of each year - than in colder times.

That sounds like a good thing to me.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that Global Warming is a serious long-term threat. Let's take all of the most extreme positions we can. Let's say that in 100 years, global mean temperatures will be 2 degrees (C) higher than they are right now. Let's say that causes significant melting of polar ice-caps and higher sea levels and everything else that would be worst-case scenario.

Ok.

How do we solve the problem?

This is where the assumptions of most people arguing these issues really go off the deep-end, as far as I'm concerned. To jump from "global warming is a serious threat", to; "we need to spend trillions of dollars on international programs and control the activities of billions of people around the world to combat this problem" requires dozens of, honestly, really tremendously bad assumptions.

For instance, to get there you'd have to assume that:
  1. We know enough about climate to know how to control it. (We don't)
  2. We CAN reverse the effects of positive feedback loops by inhibiting CO2 emissions. (Not likely)
  3. The best way to reduce CO2 emissions and fight climate change is through government force. (When has that ever proven to be a really viable means of accomplishing any goal effectively or efficiently?)
  4. The benefits of such policies outweigh their considerable costs. (Virtually impossible)
The big assumptions that I am frequently shocked that anyone takes even remotely seriously is the idea that a handful of politicians has enough knowledge between them about the huge variety of issues they'd need to understand to make even remotely effective decisions in this arena that they can accurately predict and plan out people's lives 100 years into the future.

Likewise, the idea that taking trillions of dollars worth of potential capital out of the global economy and blowing it on a single (or even a dozen or so) top-down anti-climate change goal makes the even more ridiculous assumption that human beings benefit more from the destruction of wealth than from the creation of it. That's just crazy-talk.

If you really want to save people from even the worst effects of climate change, the best thing to do that I can think of is to encourage global production & innovation on scales never-before-seen in human history.

Don't worry, even in the post apocalyptic world of
global climate change, you'll still get a great pair of Jeans!

And hot chicks... Don't forget about the hot chicks.
Freedom and sound economics can (and very much will if we let it) turn people loose to innovate and engineer new solutions to problems like energy efficiency, air conditioning, biotechnology & food production, and all of the other issues that any potential global warming might effect. The way to help the poorest people in the world is by producing enough wealth that natural disasters have limited effects.

Consider the effects of earthquakes in places like Haiti vs. Los Angeles. Ask yourself why the Hatian people were so screwed over by something that happens fairly frequently in other parts of the world with little of the same consequences. The answer is because of wealth - not the concentration of money, mind you all - but the differences in real productive output of different types of economies. Personally... I think we need to focus way more on bringing people up to our standard of living - and that definitely means finding ways to make energy much more widely and cheaply available to everyone around the world - rather than focusing on capping growth and stalling advancement.

Politically directed solutions are - in my opinion - the worst way to deal with the negative or harmful effects of natural global phenomenon like climate change... So ultimately, even if it was true that it is human-caused and a serious threat, that doesn't instantly give rise to the conclusion that we should advocate the kinds of policies of people like Al Gore.

And that I think is the more salient issue at stake.

6 comments:

davidblanar.com said...

You've not assumed the worst case scenario; you've assumed that warming will stop at a +2 C increase. The worst case scenario is it runs to +3 or +4 (or more), which would have significant ramifications for the planet.

If I take your point correctly, you're welcoming an outcome of untold misery, suffering - not to mention migration - because it would stimulate innovation?

Sean W. Malone said...

David, you really did not take my point correctly at all.

First, I have yet to see anything approaching a 4+ deg C global warming prediction that has come from anyone remotely reputable. So I really think you are pushing it calling that the worst case... but fine. For the sake of argument, let's say that happened.

You still have to make it past all the other assumptions about knowledge, about political solutions, about the ability to reverse the warming... You have to make a ton of assumptions, many if which are simply false, if you want to force people to give up trillions of dollars worth of potential capital in support of top-down government programs. The point is that no matter what the worst case is, that is a terrible idea.

If you want to see global warming result in untold miseries, taking actions that would seriously impede people's abilities to develop economically is the way to do it. People suffer and become displaced because they are too poor to prepare for, much less even compensate for, future natural & manmade disasters that are attendant to life on a dynamic planet like Earth. Most all of the major government actions suggested in the name of fighting GW are unlikely to make even the slightest dent in the changing climate, and are virtually guaranteed to radically distort and harm the global economy.

Ultimately, that's a much worse thing to do, when growth & innovation would be what moderates and ameliorates the negative effect of climate change, whatever they may be. The point here is that innovation isn't what I want in spite of global warming, as if to stick my head in the sand and let people get displaced... quite the opposite. Economic growth and innovation is the only way that we will be able to solve this and other problems facing humanity over the next 100 years so no one need be seriously harmed in the first place!

Global economies are remarkably inhibited already. Some new totalitarian measures - regardless of the intention behind them - will not help. And making everybody poorer just hurts us all directly in declining living standards, and worse, it puts us all at much higher risk if in fact dire climate predictions do actually come true.

P.S. See Bjorn Lomborg on more regarding this kind of point.

Sean W. Malone said...

David, you really did not take my point correctly at all.

First, I have yet to see anything approaching a 4+ deg C global warming prediction that has come from anyone remotely reputable. So I really think you are pushing it calling that the worst case... but fine. For the sake of argument, let's say that happened.

You still have to make it past all the other assumptions about knowledge, about political solutions, about the ability to reverse the warming... You have to make a ton of assumptions, many if which are simply false, if you want to force people to give up trillions of dollars worth of potential capital in support of top-down government programs. The point is that no matter what the worst case is, that is a terrible idea.

If you want to see global warming result in untold miseries, taking actions that would seriously impede people's abilities to develop economically is the way to do it. People suffer and become displaced because they are too poor to prepare for, much less even compensate for, future natural & manmade disasters that are attendant to life on a dynamic planet like Earth. Most all of the major government actions suggested in the name of fighting GW are unlikely to make even the slightest dent in the changing climate, and are virtually guaranteed to radically distort and harm the global economy.

Ultimately, that's a much worse thing to do, when growth & innovation would be what moderates and ameliorates the negative effect of climate change, whatever they may be. The point here is that innovation isn't what I want in spite of global warming, as if to stick my head in the sand and let people get displaced... quite the opposite. Economic growth and innovation is the only way that we will be able to solve this and other problems facing humanity over the next 100 years so no one need be seriously harmed in the first place!

Global economies are remarkably inhibited already. Some new totalitarian measures - regardless of the intention behind them - will not help. And making everybody poorer just hurts us all directly in declining living standards, and worse, it puts us all at much higher risk if in fact dire climate predictions do actually come true.

P.S. See Bjorn Lomborg on more regarding this kind of point.

Tago Mago said...

You clearly need to read a bit deeper than Lomberg or the latest defense of neoliberal economics. It is economic growth that has generated the crisis of climate change - to say that more of the same will help solve the problem is ridiculous. Unless there is a dramatic shift in the kind of economic activity (away from fossil fuels and their subsidization; away from a globalized "free trade" economy) then the situation will worsen.

Sean W. Malone said...

First, Tago. I always read "much deeper" than those few names I wind up posting about.

Secondly, it is economic growth that has saved Americans from feeling any seriously negative effects of climate change as compared to any poorer nations.

Thirdly, along with economic growth & prosperity comes the technological means to produce more goods & services - including energy - for more people, more efficiently and cleanly. This is why the air quality in the United States, the rivers, lakes & streams, our beaches, our houses & cars and refrigerators are all substantially cleaner and more environmentally friendly today than 100 years ago.

Simply saying we need to stop using energy dooms millions of people here and everywhere else to death by starvation and disease, and miserably poor living standards. There is no net gain to humanity that way and it's unnecessary. It is also all without getting into the other issues I brought up in the post here, regarding all of the numerous questions you have to ask yourself about state-controlled "solutions" and even the assumption that we know how to "correct" climate change.

As for your buzzword of "neoliberal" economics, I guess you're referring to Milton Friedman - since that was kind of Naomi Klein's term. It's not a term anyone in the economics profession actually uses, and while I appreciate a lot of Friedman's contributions to the field of economics - he's not really my top man, so to speak. Besides... saying I'm following the latest "defense" of these ideas seems at best supercilious and also foolish. I don't need to defend sound economic reasoning. It defends itself by being correct.

Malthusians & socialists should start defending their ideas, since they've proven to be incorrect and disastrous time & time again.

global warming fearful said...

Interesting perspective on a "hot" topic. One particularly difficult aspect of global warming worth noting is that mosquitos (yeah, those that carry dangerous viruses like West Nile) both breed more readily and more readily pick up dangerous viruses in hotter weather. Thanks for this interesting and informative blog.