Thursday, March 22, 2007

What Should We Do About Global Warming?


The popular assumption that global warming is real, is caused by human activity, and will culminate in disaster, requires many leaps of faith and many poor decisions.

Accepting the hypothesis that something must be done about global warming requires the following assumptions:

1. Temperatures are rising. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. There seems to be some dispute over this, but the government is saying that temperatures over the last 25 years have increased on average about four-tenths of one degree F. (Apparently, this average is the sum of simultaneous warming and cooling on different parts of the planet.) For argument's sake, let's assume that temperatures are rising.

2. Rising temperatures will lead to catastrophe. The magnitude of global-warming's impact (if any) is speculative, and utterly unreliable when one considers that A) Property values are not declining in coastal areas, and B) People (when not stopped by their government) are generally able to adapt to all sorts of changing conditions. From food preservation to flying to central heating to sun screens to migrating populations to automobile design to agricultural methods, people have used their heads to adapt to environmental changes that were more sudden and more severe than the long-term gradual effect of global warming. But for argument's sake, let's assume that global warming will lead to catastrophe.

3. Global warming is caused by human activity. Earth's temperature has been changing since Day One. Repeated ice ages and hot spells have happened long before people were making "carbon footprints", and for that matter, long before there were people, period. The trouble with attributing global warming to human activity is that it's impossible to do a controlled experiment. We can't switch human activity on and off to see if it indeed has an effect on temperatures. So, as a substitute, we accept as fact that:

A) Human activity increases carbon dioxide, and

B) Atmospheric carbon dioxide increases air temperatures.

By transitivity, we then use logic to conclude that:

C) Human activity causes air temperatures to rise.

All of which, so far, seems appropriate. But then comes the logical flaw of affirming the consequent:

D) If human activity causes air temperatures to rise, then rising air temperatures were caused by increased human activity.

The problem here, which ought to be clear, is that rising temperatures could be the result of any number of things that might dwarf the influence of human activity. Some of these influences are known, such as the variation in the sun's energy and in the orientation and orbit of Earth. Other influences are not known (and might not even exist), but it would be a fallacious argument from ignorance to say something like, "Because we can't figure out the other causes, we'll assume that one possible cause, human activity, is responsible for global warming."

There is no way of determining the influence of human activity on possible global warming. All the forecasters have are mathematical models, produced by vague historical associations and guesswork colored by politics and biases -- which produce dubious results with large margins of error.

But still, for argument's sake, let's assume that global warming is dangerous, and is caused by human activity.

4. Diminishing human activity is a smart investment. What exactly shall we give up to obtain less global warming? How much of global warming's destructiveness will be diminished if we use fluorescent light bulbs? What if we bought more fuel-efficient cars? What if we drove less? What if we stopped driving altogether? What if multiple families shared apartments, as was the case in the (heavily-polluted) Soviet Union?

These questions require an answer of the form: "If we discarded all air-conditioners, then the probability of coastal erosion due to rising sea levels will be diminished by...what?...percent." Or: "If we banned all air travel, then the frequency of hurricanes will be diminished by...what?...percent." Obviously, these questions cannot be answered, because no one has any idea what the benefits will be. Instead, the "environmental" advice is of the form, "It couldn't hurt if we used less energy, so let's do it."

But ignoring the cost of diminished human activity does not make this cost disappear. In fact, less human activity -- less exchange, less production -- results in lower economic growth. And economic growth is precisely what separates the living standards of the USA from Haiti, Mexico, Liberia, etc., etc., etc.

And, ironically, economic growth is what explains the difference in environmental cleanliness between the USA and the aforementioned nations. If you're not rich, you can't afford a catalytic converter.

5. The actions of a few western countries will make a difference. If, say, western governments taxed energy use to lower the quantity demanded by people in west, then there will be more energy available for the rest of the world. For example, if Saudi Arabia cannot sell as much petroleum to Americans, then it will need to lower its price -- and therefore increase the quantity demanded by the Chinese. Think of it this way: If you needed to sell your home, and there was a sudden drop in demand, what would you do? You would, as any homeowner knows, drop the price. In the end, your home will still get sold. Similarly, the petroleum will still be sold -- and used.


Lexcen said...

This issue will remain unresolved until there is a consensus amongst the scientific community as to what is causing global warming. Bureaucrats seem to have hijacked the issue and their interests seem to be in creating more and more work for themselves. Typical of bureaucrats isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I talked to some people who "believe" in global warming the other day. When pressed for logical details (and these people are math Ph.D. students, so they ostensibly understand logic), they retreated to, "Well even if global warming is an unjustifyable hypothesis, I think that the means to the end is correct."

This really brought home to me that IT DOESN'T MATTER to global warming proponents whether this warming is actually occuring. Rather, most people support it because it "is the right thing to do" based on some sort of weird environmental moralism. They just shift to "global warming" as a scare tactic to force me to succumb to thier environmental moralism.

This was a revalation I had that I thought someone on here could appreciate. I have a suspicion that, when pressed, many people who understand logic will also fall back to this position---based on nothing more than the belief that the environment is in danger.

Indeed, this global warming scare really seems like the fulfillment of the environmental catastrophe prophecy that has been spouted for the last forty years. Many people want to believe it so badly, they will create a disaster in order to put thier "theory" (really more like a religion) in to practice. Nothing like doom and gloom to attract converts, right?

hopefulpatriot said...

Giving up on coal, oil and gas for electricty production would recude C02 output by a huge amount. Something like one third of all C02 in the states comes from power stations. Switch them all to nuclear/wind/solar (we'll need all three to keep growing) and everyones lifestyles stay the same (except perhaps power station workers, miners etc. But they'll probably want to retrain to work new powers sources)

We just gotta be more hopefull about it. No point slandering the enviromentalists saying they're prophets of doom peddling their own scientific 'products'. The USA thrives on challenges. Better to get out of the fossil fuel game now before the oil price gets too high anyway.

Everyone except real long distance drivers will want an electric car soon the way gas prices are going, so we'll need to produce lots more cheap electricity! Make it green and we have a strong bargining chip to hold against the likes or India and China.