Monday, April 23, 2007

Honeybees and Global Warming

Heard of Colony Collapse Disorder? Human-kept bee colonies all over the world seem to be suffering from it. A beekeeper opens a hive, then finds to his astonishment that a huge number of his bees are not dead but simply not there – disappeared somewhere out into the wild. I think this disorder has important implications for the global-warming debate.

But not in the way that you probably think. To be sure, CCD has been attributed, according (caveat emptor) to Wikipedia, to many of the usual environmental dastardries – pesticides, genetically engineered corn, urban sprawl gobbling up bee habitat, even cell-phone towers destroying bees' navigational system. But I am not interested in exploring whether global warming causes CCD; if you came here looking for that, you will be disappointed. Rather, I am interested in whether the current reaction by mainstream media to CCD tells us anything about how to evaluate the claims about global warming’s likely consequences – in particular, whether dire consequences from environmental problems are as likely as environmentalists believe.

Much of the reporting on CCD is certainly replete with the language of crisis that is so fundamental to modern environmental reporting. Here are excerpts from a recent New York Times story:

The sudden mysterious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruit and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables across the country.

As researchers scramble to find answers to the syndrome they have decided to call “colony collapse disorder,” growers are becoming openly nervous about the capability of the commercial bee industry to meet the growing demand for bees to pollinate dozens of crops, from almonds to avocados to kiwis.

Along with recent stresses on the bees themselves, as well as on an industry increasingly under consolidation, some fear this disorder may force a breaking point for even large beekeepers.

A Cornell University study has estimated that honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts. “Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food,” said Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

The bee losses are ranging from 30 to 60 percent on the West Coast, with some beekeepers on the East Coast and in Texas reporting losses of more than 70 percent; beekeepers consider a loss of up to 20 percent in the offseason to be normal.

There you have it; a third of the food supply at risk! Certainly the language regarding global warming is similar, with the general argument being that it is happening, it is mankind’s fault, and that We Must Do Something to Avoid the Crisis. It has been this way in environmental advocacy and gullible journalistic acceptance of it at least since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the publication of which arguably led to the deaths of millions of people in Africa after DDT was hysterically banned. But this argument, I suspect, strongly underestimates the human capacity for adaptation and innovation. If the temperature rises, people will move, they will learn techniques and living habits more suited to warmer temperatures (perhaps even improving human welfare on balance), they will develop defense mechanisms as needed. The costs of global warming will be lower than expected, and the benefits greater.

An implication of this view is that if we simply ignore (at least at the transnational level) global warming, everything will work out much better than expected. “Doing something” about it through some multinational authority, on the other hand, will tend to bias decisions toward lower emissions no matter the cost (since climatologists, like all of us, value their own knowledge too much, and since the foregone opportunities for those ruled over by such a regime are treated as free), to ignore local information about how better to cope with it, and to increase the risk of centralized control of all sorts of human activities, with devastating effects on human freedom.

The honeybee problem has this feel of “Crisis! Do something!” about it. If (as I suspect is likely) the problem is dealt with by beekeepers, agrichemical companies, etc., without us suffering a disaster in the supermarket, this is strongly suggestive of what will happen if we react to global warming by refusing to hand up a number of never-to-be-regained freedoms to any international climate bureaucracy. I predict that with CCD scientists, entrepreneurs and local officials will find ways to solve or to accommodate this problem, and that the predicted crisis will not happen. I predict that with global warming it will be the same.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said- it makes me think of an article by ABC's John Stossel, which you can find here (if you haven't already read it):

12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love John Stossel. I have him on my blogroll.


6:06 PM  
Blogger merjoem32 said...

Interesting post. I am willing to support an advocacy campaign that is in support of global warming but I think that the issue has been muddied. Politics has taken our attention off the real issue. The issue is not whether global warming is real or not. Conserving our planet is more important than debating about the genuineness of global warming.

3:04 PM  

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