Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Confronting Catastrophe-speak

Do you believe in global warming? If so, do you think mankind is causing it? What do you think we should do about it? And perhaps most importantly, how have you come to your conclusions?

I've always considered myself an "environmentalist," although maybe not a Sierra Club kind of environmentalist. I believe we have a responsibility to take care of the world around us – we shouldn't ruin it for quick economic gains and should always clean up our messes. We should be mindful that our actions can have effects on others downstream or downwind – and not necessarily just the humans. But at the same time I believe in a God who created this world for us – his children – and our benefit, although that's no excuse to trash the place. So maybe I'm not a "real environmentalist," but I'm still concerned.

And the problem is that nearly every day we hear news stories about how global warming is going to destroy EVERYTHING and we must do something RIGHT NOW! If there's a flood or a hurricane or a polar bear dies it's because of global warming and it's ALL OUR FAULT! And yet there are a few voices – big oil capitalists, no doubt – who question the science and have their own studies dismissing any problems.

I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I believe either side completely. I'm certainly no expert and haven't read all the literature, but one person that I think might be more trustworthy (more than Al Gore, anyway) is Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish mathematician and statistician and author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming. And Lomborg is clear about one thing: global warming, or climate change, is real, and we're causing it.

And yet Lomborg is as hated among some environmentalists as Salman Rushdie is by radical Islamists – but to me, he sounds like a fairly rational voice. He looks at the statistics behind polar bears and finds that of the 17 populations only 2 are declining – the rest are growing – and that we could save more bears by limiting hunting than passing the Kyoto Treaty. He does this with all kinds of doomsday scenarios – heat waves, rising sea-levels, melting glaciers, hurricanes, floods, etc. – and explains what is really likely to happen based on real and peer-reviewed scientific research (he uses the United Nations report by the Int’l Panel for Climate Change [IPCC] extensively), instead of the wild and unsubstantiated 'end-is-near' predictions that are most often the basis of those frantic news headlines. And the Kyoto Treaty comes off sounding like a lot of hot air after he explains why it won't make a significant difference.

But even more importantly he discusses ways we CAN make substantial changes, and his focus is on improving human welfare. He is a strong proponent of addressing issues which are killing millions of people right now, such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and malnutrition. In place of Kyoto he advocates R&D investments (as a percentage of GDP) by all nations towards addressing the harmful effects of global warming (not all effects will be negative) in whatever way each nation chooses (instead of focusing single-mindedly on carbon emissions). Best of all, his suggestions won't ruin the global economy like Kyoto and other harebrained proposals will.

In the end, however, Lomborg cautions that the greatest problem today is that climate change has become more of a political issue than a scientific or environmental one, and for some reason a lot of very loud and increasingly frenzied voices are demanding changes that will do little real good and much economic harm. Personally, I'm leaning toward the more rational-sounding voice.


  1. Hi! Found you through the IBBA awards nominees for nonfiction on Goodreads! :) thought I'd make some new friends while trying to win votes in the Adult Fiction category! :) I'm now following your blog and I hope you will consider following mine (and voting for me in the Fiction category if you haven't already voted for someone else): http://authorjess.blogspot.com/2012/04/grand-opening-giveaway.html

  2. A good climatology blog site is 'Skeptical Science', 2011 winner of the Eureka Prize. You can read peer-reviewed research papers (on the site and linked). Also, a good layman's read is Alun Anderson's 'After the Ice', (pub. 2009). It's difficult to know what the 'rational voice' is, since that's all a matter of perspective; we've passed the tipping point, so I suspect the 'issues' are moot, although the environmental consequences aren't.

    1. Hi Anyonymous, thanks for the blog site reference - I'll look for it. Have you read the Lomborg book? Agree or disagree with anything in it?

    2. Haven't read Lomborg, so can't comment. Posters on SkS have referred to his change of heart re AGW, lampooning him either way. I advocate mitigation of AGW over adaptation to climate change, so I probably don't hold truck with BL's poli sci approach to the problem. Admittedly, I have little faith in our competence or willingness to do either, old as I am, with the changes I've seen.