Global Warming, Simplified
March 29, 2009 2 Comments
The global warming issue really boils down to two questions:
1. What sorts of future climates is it within our power to arrange for?
2. What’s the best one, all things considered?
Question 1. has to do with feasibility. Not all conceivable future climates (mild spring days, every day!) are humanly possible to create, even given infinite resources. Of course we know one that is: the ‘status-quo climate’, i.e. the one that will be in our future if we take no conscious actions either way. That is certainly possible to arrange for. There may or may not be other significantly-different possible future climates we could create, or a range of climates (the idea that decreasing/increasing CO2 would act like a thermostat that cools/heats the earth is clearly contemplating one such range). These need to be identified, and the actions needed outlined, by anyone wishing to discuss Things We Should Do To Improve The Climate For Us intelligently.
Question 2. on the other hand is about preferences, effects, and (importantly) costs-benefits. Not all possible climates would be equally ‘good’ for all people. It’s not always obvious how to even define ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’. Or how to weigh alternative forms of goodness (or badness). And ‘all things considered’ is a key phrase here! If Climate X would be idyllic and wonderful, but bringing it about (rather than nearly-as-good Climate X’) would require a massive genocide and enslavement of the survivors, then count me out, and I say let’s just go for X’.
Notice one question that is irrelevant to the issue: whether ‘global warming’ is taking place right now, or has been taking place recently. Who cares? Notice another question that is irrelevant to the issue: whether humans have ’caused’ global warming. Who cares?
Neither of these questions matter! The only questions that matter are 1. and 2.: What futures could we arrange, and which one – out of those – should we arrange?
If questions 1. and 2. could be answered, the path would be clear: do the things (from 1.) needed to create the best climate (from 2.), and we’d be done.
Question #1 is mostly, if not purely, a scientific question. In my opinion, what most people fail to understand is that question #2 isn’t. Although science can inform the answer, at root it’s an inherently political question, and always will be. So people who claim to get their opinion on global warming from ‘science’, or that the entire question should be settled ‘based purely on the science’, are in effect saying that they haven’t thought the issue through, haven’t considered the full scope of the matter, and don’t want others to either. In a way they’re being anti-science.
How we address global warming intrinsically has a political dimension. Science is not about ignoring important dimensions of problems. It can be about ignoring unimportant ones, if necessary. The global-warming enthusiasists who style themselves “pro-science” are actually doing the opposite.