Monday, March 1, 2010

Global Warming

Cartoon is by Joel Pett, from USA Today (,S81137)

I thought the cartoon was a good introduction to this, since it makes the same point - or one of them - that Al Gore does in his Febr. 27th editorial in the New York Times:

Registration (free) is required to read the article, but here are the first two paragraphs, which is all I wanted to comment about right now:

It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicated that we do not face an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.

Of course, we would still need to deal with the national security risks of our growing dependence on a global oil market dominated by dwindling reserves in the most unstable region of the world, and the economic risks of sending hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas in return for that oil. And we would still trail China in the race to develop smart grids, fast trains, solar power, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy — the most important sources of new jobs in the 21st century.

OK, so go ahead and assume that the consensus of climatologists is wrong. That's possible, if not the smartest bet. What if, despite the overwhelming evidence otherwise, the Earth is not heating up due to the greenhouse gases we're dumping into the atmosphere? What then? What if we do something about this problem, and it turns out to be a false alarm?

Well, we're still being held hostage by Arab oil states, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, etc. - some of the most unstable and oppressive regimes in the world, who all have their own reasons to pressure America in various ways. They're all very happy to see us dangle on their string, but doesn't it make sense to try to free ourselves from that?

We're still sending hundreds of billions of dollars overseas every year to buy oil from these countries, money that weakens the dollar, that worsens our trade deficit, and that could be better used in so many other ways. And since we desperately need the oil, and have absolutely no control over the price we must pay, we're reduced to begging Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich nations to keep the cost down (which works about as well as you'd expect).

And meanwhile, China is investing vast sums of money into the technology of the future. They don't have much oil, either, but they're smart enough to work on resolving that, they're smart enough to try to take the lead in future technology, instead of clinging desperately to an idealized past.

Admittedly, they're a dictatorship, so they don't have this messy democracy stuff to deal with. But that's the whole point. We Americans need to be smart ourselves, because it's we who tell our leaders what to do, not the other way around. Or is democracy just a failed experiment, people being too dumb, too gullible, too short-sighted to make decisions for themselves? Are we just going to give up, letting China have the future, while we huddle in a pasture, waiting for the Rapture to lift us into a glorious, though imaginary, new world?

Even if you despise the Democrats and think the worst of Al Gore, even if you think that global warming is a giant, worldwide conspiracy intent on victimizing poor, helpless multinational oil companies, even if you like a long-shot bet, and think that all ignorant people must "stand up to the experts," so what? What's the worse that could happen? That we'd wean ourselves off foreign oil, start to spend our money on American-made products, and continue to lead the world in science and technology? Yeah, that would really be terrible, wouldn't it?


  1. So true...

    Saw your post at fivythirtyeight on scarcity vs. abundance thinking in the context of decreasing manufacturing employment in the USA as productivity rises and demand for stuff is saturated.

    Ultimately, we need to look into ideas like a basic income, a gift economy, healthier local communities making stuff in a sustainable and resilient way, better resource-based planning, making work into play, and other similar ideas to move to a post-scarcity economy. Global climate change is just one minor issue compared to all that.

  2. Heh, heh. I've only had this blog for two days, Paul, so I'm a bit surprised to get a comment. I'm still trying to figure everything out. (And I wasn't really expecting traffic anyway!)

    I'm skeptical of the little I know about "gift economies," but I tend to be skeptical about bold new economic theories, anyway. Look what happened with communism. I generally prefer practical, incremental changes, rather than sweeping new belief systems.

    I agree that some things aren't sustainable. A growth-oriented economy doesn't seem to be sustainable, not with finite room for expanding populations. And there's got to be a limit on how much STUFF one person can use. In America, at least, consumerism has gone mad.

    But I don't know if really fundamental changes are needed. I'd like to see us consume more information, rather than goods. And that would mean we could easily fill up more leisure time. But I also think that work is valuable, and we do need incentives for that. We haven't, and we won't, eliminate human nature.

  3. I think that cartoon sums up the situation very well.

    By itself, global warming (or more precisely the still mostly unpredictable climate change it creates) presents a major risk, serious enough for us to be taking pre-emptive action without waiting for the absolute proof demanded by some.

    The predictable exhaustion of a wide range of resources is also a looming threat which we should be addressing.

    We are fortunate that the kind of measures we need to take to reduce the impact of climate change are mostly very similar to those we should be taking to avoid the problems of resource exhaustion. As you have indicated, they also bring further benefits in terms of less dependence on oil and other resources imported from other, not necessarily stable or friendly, parts of the world.

    To sum up - we should simply be getting on with the job. Sadly, there are still many people who take the ostrich approach of really, really not wanting to know about anything which might affect their current way of life, and they will grab at any straw to poke holes in the science. And there are many politicians facing re-election who are frightened about alienating them.

    I have little doubt that humanity will, eventually, respond to the problems when they become too obvious to ignore. However, in terms of the time taken to respond to an alteration in direction, climate change makes the proverbial supertanker look like a speedboat. By the time the problems are too obvious to ignore even for our politicians, it is likely to be too late to avoid some unpleasant consequences.