Perspective On Climate Change

Many intelligent people view political and public public policy questions largely through the prism of climate change. They view climate change as the most serious challenge of our times, the science of climate change as a settled matter and the need to curb carbon emissions the fundamental global political priority.

Beyond certainty on these issues my friend David wisely suggests:

“I’m convinced that most of what we need to do to address the problem will improve the overall quality of our lives. That last conviction isn’t particularly scientific.  It’s really a preference for the kind of world I’d like to live in and help build.  I think it would be a world that is more elegant, beautiful, fun, healthy and genuinely prosperous than the one we’ve got.  So I’m sure that influences my view.  Even if I thought climate change were not settled science, I’d still be doing most of what I’ve been doing.  It just makes sense to me.”

He and I agree on all of this other than his presumptions regarding the “settled science” and the primacy of climate change as a political and policy priority. We agree on the technological and policy solutions that would be the best solutions to address human impacts on climate change and that would also help address serious challenges of national security, national balance of payment, our burgeoning federal deficits, unemployment, energy technology, innovation and other broad social and economic goals.

That said, all those solutions can and should be be promoted whether anthropogenic climate change is significant or not. As I have argued here, my sense is that the politics of climate change are getting in the way of the solutions regarding human impacts on climate change. And worse, they are increasing the polarization of our society at a time we need to find ways to reduce that polarization and find common ground.

I am not arguing that climate change isn’t real. It is inevitable that 6.8 billion people and all our technology must be having an impact on our climate. How could we not be.

But unlike these people that I genuinely respect, I am not convinced that the “the science is settled”, or that we understand how all the various human and natural factors impacting climate interact, how those interactions will be expressed or how significant any impact will be.

From my perspective, the key concerns of climate change include: potential increase in storms and severe weather; rising sea levels and resulting displacement of coastal populations around the globe, potential increases in disease; impacts on agriculture; impacts on ocean chemistry; and impacts to wildlife and natural habitats. These are all potentially serious concerns. Each should be evaluated somewhat independently.

Chris Landsea, a lead scientist at the National Hurricane Center recently co-authored an article in the journal Nature Geoscience reporting on studies commissioned by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN agency helps oversee the IPCC. The report calls into question the severe weather forecasts in the IPCC reports on climate change. Lansea suggests:

“We have come to substantially different conclusions from the IPCC. There are a lot of legitimate concerns about climate change but, in my opinion, hurricanes are not among them. We are looking at a decrease in frequency and a small increase in severity.”

The study and report were apparently prepared by a highly respected team of tropical storm experts who have held divergent views in the past regarding the influence of climate change on storm activity, and is thus seen as an important contribution to the latest understanding of the science.

Regarding rising sea levels and population displacements, while surely not inconsequential, it is important to consider time scales in considering this challenge.   No credible studies indicate that sea level rise will happen rapidly, but rather over a period of several decades or centuries. Even the most extreme projections I have seen, predict the sea level rise at only a few meters. If the seas rise, people will move.

Throughout history people have been migrating for all sorts of reasons. While some migrations clearly have roots in natural and ecological challenges, the most urgent and horrific population displacements have generally been caused by war, genocide, severe economic problems and other concerns generally related to bad governance. The United States itself is a good example of the benefits of migration. How many US citizens can trace their family heritage in this country more than a century or so? Yet we have been the most prosperous nation in history.

In 2001, I worked in seaport area of  Boston. Since that time, that whole area has been almost completely transformed. Less than 30% of the buildings now there were there ten years ago. And that whole part of the city used to a part of Boston Bay that was filled in during earlier times. The first year I lived in Providence. my son took a photo of the skyline that is hanging in our hall. Five years later, that skyline is transformed, even with the serious recession. Things change, people move and rebuild.

The more prosperous the society, the more adaptable it is to change. The real challenge in addressing migration caused by climate change or anything else, is to assure economic prosperity generally. Prosperous societies tend to be more welcoming of immigrants than those experiencing economic hardship. Humans have been migrating  since we first came down from the trees and we always will. The challenge is to maintain adequate global economic prosperity and peace so that immigrants are welcomed, as they have been throughout most of the history of the United States.

Disease is a similar issue. While there are clearly environmental factors central to many diseases, economic factors are far more significant. While factors for tropical disease or heat related problems would increase, challenges of the cold would presumably be decreased. In any case, if we want to invest in fighting disease, there are far more direct and effective measures that could be taken in mitigating disease than investments in climate change mitigation.

Regarding agriculture, two issues are at play. First is the possibility of climate change shifting rainfall patterns and thus relegating currently productive agricultural areas too dry for productive agriculture. The other issue is the impact of higher temperatures and increased levels of CO2 on agriculture.

The second matter is somewhat easier to contemplate. Scientific evidence seems to indicate that during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when dinosaurs roamed the earth temperatures and CO2 concentrations were both significantly higher, as was the biological productivity of the planet. Some greenhouse growers deliberately increase CO2 levels along with providing warm temperatures to increase plant growth. In general it would seem prudent to presume that other factors being equal, the overall agricultural and biological productivity of the planet should increase with higher CO2 levels and temperatures in the ranges predicted by the IPCC and others concerned with climate change.

Shifting precipitation patterns is another matter and a more challenging one. It appears currently that it is essentially impossible to predict what  might happen to precipitation patterns as the climate changes. In my opinion, this is one of the most significant concerns regarding potential climate change. But there are a number of factors which will all impact precipitation patterns: temperatures, cloud cover, aerosols and particulates in the atmosphere, deforestation, agricultural patterns, urbanization, industrial emissions, natural cycles like El Ninos, sun cycles, ocean currents and other factors. The reality is, changes in precipitation patterns have happened throughout history and it appears numerous civilizations have collapsed in the past for exactly this reason. It is essentially impossible to know if changes in precipitation patterns due to current climate changes will have more significant impacts than others in our past and it is likely impossible to do anything about it on a macro scale. As with many other factors though, prosperous nations have been better able to adapt both irrigation and water conserving agricultural practices than poor nations have. So while changing precipitation patterns, like sea level rise, could indeed cause shifts in agriculture and populations displacements, the best preparation we can have is to assure a peaceful democratic and prosperous future.

In my opinion, changes in ocean chemistry is the impact of potentially most concern regarding increases in carbon levels in the atmosphere. Relatively recent science indicates that as atmospheric carbon levels increase, much of that increase is absorbed in the oceans, increasing the acidity of the waters in a way that can potentially have significant impacts on calcifying organisms. This could potentially have a significant impact on ocean ecosystems along with the fisheries that supply important food resources for humans. It is critical that this science be studied further.

As for the changes to wildlife generally, many of these are inevitable. Species have been arising and going extinct since the dawn of life and will continue to do so. No doubt having 6.8 billion people on the planet impacting all the changes we make will inevitably impact other species. Development and land use patterns from such a large human population likely have a more rapid wildlife impact than temperature and climate changes. Once again, prosperous nations like the United States have proven most able to effectively protect endangered species and to limit the ecological damage of our presence.

From a moral perspective, I come down on the side of humans first, as suggested here. At the end of the day, if we are to prioritize wildlife over human life, the moral challenges of deciding whose children should live and whose should die are going to be ugly. While we should of course limit the damage we do to the planet and to other species as much as possible, yet again it seems to me that history has proven that prosperous nations have been best able to do so, thus the most important thing we can do to assure the protection of wildlife is to assure economic prosperity.

Recognizing that the challenges of climate change are best addressed through economic prosperity, then one has to question whether climate change should be a more serious concern than the very many threats to our economic prosperity, including some of the favored “solutions” to mitigate human impacts on climate change.

I am not questioning that climate change is happening, nor suggesting that it isn’t a serious concern, but rather that it has to be taken in context of many other very serious concerns, many of which are far more urgent in their time frame and potential impact. I am suggesting that to effectively develop a consensus on addressing climate change, we also need to respect the perspectives of the majority of people who are far more concerned about near term impacts of economic issues and other important challenges.

Wars, genocides, economic problems, weapons proliferation, starvation, prejudice, hunger, malnutrition, disease and all sorts of very urgent issues are all plaguing the world today. There are a whole lot more effective and cost effective means of dealing with all of them than through addressing potential climate change, even if we were addressing climate change in a serious and effective manner.

And the politics of cataclysmic climate change is doing significant harm in that it has been seized on as an excuse to legitimize nuclear power and spread all the insurmountable challenges of toxins, terrorism, weapons proliferation, restrictions of freedom and other problems that go along with nukes. If climate change were used to pass corrupt corporate welfare schemes like Cap, Trade and Offset, we would weaken the economy and our resiliency to effectively mitigate the potential impacts of climate change.

From my view of historical evidence, the best thing we can do to protect the environment and address human influences on the climate is to have a strong economy with the luxury of spending money for environmental protection. The good news is that the history of economic progress is one of increasing decarbonization of our economy. There is a very direct linkage between decarbonization, reduction in pollution and economic prosperity, which I explored a bit here

Having majored in environmental studies as a student, I can’t help but recall that the landscape where I live was largely shaped by changes wrought by the sheet of ice that used to cover this place. As recently as 20,000 years ago in the Last Glacial Maximum, this area and much of the planet was covered in ice.  The climate of the planet has always been changing. Public policy cannot stop that.

The issues of concern regarding human impacts on climate change  are long term challenges that won’t be addressed unless we do so in the context of very immediate and urgent problems impacting peoples lives today. So rather than arguing for measures that would threaten the economy like Cap and Trade or oppressive regulation, lets push hard for the real solutions to climate change that also address the urgent challenges of of our economic problems, of creating jobs and which very clearly have other national security and economic impacts that the vast majority of Americans will support.

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Filed under Climate Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives

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