Today, campers, we’re going to talk about global warming. If you already believe in that, you can go play outside―or stay and watch the show, if you like, but this is specifically aimed at those who don’t think the planet is changing temperature. In fact I’m going to break my normal practice and refer directly to my skeptical audience as “you.”
Before we get started, a few definitions. What I mean by global warming―more properly termed climate change or climate chaos―is the average temperature of our planet climbing, generally because of an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The “greenhouse effect” has been pretty well proved by the example of Venus, which is in fact warmer than Mercury due to carbon dioxide.
Note that I say nothing of what’s causing this increase in CO2. That’s because the effects of the increase are much the same regardless of whether it’s a natural process or man-made. Many people have pointed out that the recent increases in CO2 levels and average temperature are well within the extremes that Earth has experienced, according to the geologic record. This is true… but irrelevant, here. Our entire economy, from crops to electricity, is based on certain environmental conditions. Climate chaos essentially takes all the assumptions that our civilization is based on (the assumptions, for instance, that we can grow corn in Iowa, or that the Mississippi River flows through Baton Rouge) and tosses them up in the air like a game of fifty-two-card pickup. A few of the cards might fall back where they began, but we have absolutely no idea which ones, if any, they will be. Take my hometown, Seattle, a city known for plenty of moisture. If climate change alters the amount of snow pack in the mountains, we might wind up with droughts and brownouts. Will the snow levels change? We don’t know! Imagine what could happen to us. Then imagine what could happen to Los Angeles.
Thus to me it really doesn’t matter what’s causing the theorized climate change: it could ravage us either way. Earth as an ecosystem will rock on regardless, and probably humanity as a species will too. So I am not arguing this to save a whale or hug a tree. I’m arguing this to save cities. To save people. I’m arguing this, in fact, to save you and me.
That’s my motivation. My position is pretty simple, too: I think that as a civilization we need to learn to live with less. Less wasted water and wasted food, mostly, but also less fuel burned, electricity consumed, and (out of necessity) less tech. Or at least less-thirsty tech. I think we also need to aim for a less-populated planet.
Your position―as far as I have been able to determine from reading quotes and articles, and listening to presidential candidates such as Rick “I never believed in the global-warming hoax” Santorum―is also pretty basic: nothing is changing and nothing needs to change. All warnings to the contrary are a fraud to gain political power, alarmist, and un-American.
Here’s the thing, though, as xkcd so beautifully pointed out, “With science you don’t need to argue. It doesn’t matter who wins the debate―it’s about reality. By just waiting a little longer, we’ll get to see who was right.”
(Note also that even a small tweak of the climate could have disastrous results―look at the Horn of Africa right now, and south Texas. Even if I’m only a tiny bit right, things can still get grim. You had better hope that you’re not just right, but 100% right.)
With all that spelled out, let’s consider four possibilities:
- We take action and I’m wrong.
- We take action and I’m right.
- We take no action and I’m wrong.
- We take no action and I’m right.
So what if we take action, but it’s unneeded? In that case, it’s a lot of sound and fury, signifying better gas mileage. Recall that my action means building a more efficient society. Less reliance on dwindling fossil fuels, etc., is probably a plus no matter what happens climate-wise. The usual concern is that over-regulation would harm business, but frankly, the last few years have proved we can harm the economy quite a bit even without regulation. Moreover, if the regulation is, at bottom, requiring an investment in infrastructure to reduce overhead, and a company can’t survive being made more efficient, is that company really doing any good? Still, there are genuine concerns on this front.
So what happens if it’s your ideal scenario―we take no action, and I’m still wrong? Absolutely nothing… except for still trying to feed an increasing human population while also dealing with a finite and decreasing fuel supply. Note that Canada has opened up the tar sands, which is in fact a net energy loss, since the extraction process is so energy-intensive (not to mention filthy). That simply wouldn’t have happened if oil reserves were being found elsewhere, there’d be no money in it. So you’re still facing down peak oil. Enjoy!
How about if we take action and I’m right? Well, then things get interesting, because frankly it’ll be a race. I’m not talking about reducing carbon emissions, although obviously that would be a subsidiary goal, because I think the whole system has already moved beyond that point. (Again, whether we did it, or whether we just helped, or whether we are totally innocent victims here, is irrelevant. If you want to survive the droughts, the floods, and the storms, it doesn’t matter who started it, you’ve just got to get busy surviving.) I’m worried it’ll get rough for all of us, and as usual the poor are the ones who will take it in the teeth. Someone will have to make sacrifices. If we get started sooner rather than later, however, those sacrifices may not have to be lives.
One last option, then: we go with your business-as-usual plan, but I wind up being right. What goes down?
Los Angeles dies of thirst. The Corn Belt turns into a dust bowl. The Mississippi breaks its chains. Food prices spike. Food riots follow. Storms worse than Katrina break the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. In the Middle East, people finally stop fighting about Jews, Palestinians, and the right of return, and start fighting over the last drops of water. India and Pakistan start a nuclear exchange over food. Africa is wracked by famine so severe it makes Ethiopia look lucky, and as a result is wracked by war so terrible it makes Rwanda look like a quiet day (as usual, no one will notice). Or none of these specific things happen, but instead ten things that are twenty times worse than even my alarmist brain can imagine. Yes, the invisible hand of supply and demand starts to adjust things, but another invisible hand adjusts things rather faster, and that one’s a class-five hurricane. If you are human you are hungry. If you are not hungry, you are hunted, and your food supply coveted. Chaos in the climate means chaos in society; history teaches us that, time and time again. Consider ancient Israel in Ahab’s day, consider the Maya, consider the fall of Rome.
If we take action to more efficiently feed ourselves, our technology, and our society, the alarm over climate change in fact might be overblown, but then you’d get a more efficient society. And if the alarm isn’t wrong, you get to live. If we take no action, either we don’t need to worry (provided the oil doesn’t run out)… or your children and your grandchildren die in misery and agony.
How much do you want to bet?