Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How Not to Think about Global Warming

James Lovelock, a scientist most famous for modeling the earth as a living organism, which he calls Gaia, thinks global warming is going to kill billions of people. According to This is London, he told The British Institution of Chemical Engineers:

"There have been at least seven of these major climate changes before and we have to adapt. It is going to be tough and there will be some evolution of humans during it. The survivors will be those humans that can make their way to refuges or Arctic places and survive there. I think an awful lot of people will die but I don't see the human species dying out. I would think a hot earth could not support much over 500 million."

But this is a silly way of thinking about the problem. Even if there were a grain of truth in this kind of catastrophic doom-mongering, it would be true that if we shut down most of the activities that many people believe cause global warming, huge numbers of people would also die, only for different reasons. They would die of poverty and the misery that it causes – disease, starvation, war, etc.

In any event, the catastrophic tradition does not have much truth in it. This is not necessarily because humans are not pumping up the global temperature, but because this is a problem that humans are hardwired to solve if given the scientific and economic freedom to do so. In their modeling, engineers and earth scientists do not have much room for human ingenuity. They tend toward gigantic, engineering-oriented solutions to problems rather than letting humans work them out one creative step in time. The British government recently released a report indicating that the cost of global warming would be far higher than anticipated, but as the self-proclaimed "skeptical environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg noted, the report was specifically constructed to assume no human counter-reactions to whatever changes global warming brings. Any economic activity made more difficult by global warming would simply vanish. That humans might react to rising sea levels by, for example, building relatively cheap flood protection rather than standing by and watching coastal economic activity (and therefore much global trade) disappear was not considered by the authors of the so-called Stern report.

What Professor Lovelock should have said is that “an awful lot of people will die if we do nothing – if our engineers and entrepreneurs sit around and watch it happen, leading humanity to desperately scramble for survival, rather than getting busy to deal with the problem. Even if human activity will cause the global temperatures to significantly increase, humans are not passive spectators to their own future, unable to muster up any ingenuity to address the challenges that confront them. Rather, they are what they always have been – clever, innovative, capable of moving the future forward far faster than anyone could have predicted. The more societies promote social innovation, the less of a problem global warming will be. The proposed alternative – that industrial activity largely shut down to keep the climate stable – is profoundly immoral, in that it forecloses the opportunity of a decent life for billions of the worlds desperately poor, and is unimaginable in any event, because their governments will not sit around and let them remain poor. Any response to global warming has to be oriented toward solutions consistent with prosperity, not efforts to shut down modern industrial activity.


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