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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Climate Change

In the "Ideas" Section of today' Boston Sunday Globe is a set of letters on Climate Change, focusing on an opinion piece by Roxanna Robinson and another by Jeff Jacoby.

I would like to first focus on the letter by Professor Gordon Aubrecht, of Ohio State University.  Professor Aubrecht teaches physics.

He raises the question of trade offs.
What if the professional climate scientists are wrong? We'd lose some money, several trillion dollars, but this is not a global tragedy.

And what if the climate "creationists" are wrong?  The consequences of doing nothing are incalculable.  Can we afford to take such a chance?  I sure don't think so, and I would think anyone who buys homeowner's and car insurance would see the point.
That is a fundamental question.  What are the consequences of each of the several policy choices before us? This is, in the end, not a scientific question, but a moral one.  Further, the data to help us understand the implications of doing nothing or doing this or that have not been presented to the public.  (And the use of the term "climate 'creationists'" leaves a little bit to be desired. We should be trying to keep this at a higher level.)

We have been told by many that climate change is bad and we need to do something.  We have been told that the seas will rise, but we don't know the implications of such a change in sea level on the world as a whole--and we don't know the costs to the global population of changing how we now allocate resources.

But, then the next letter, by Grandmother Susan Shamel, of Bedford, raises the question of social justice squarely:
Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, and a speaker at the event, raised the issue of equating climate change to human rights abuse.  Billions of people now obtain fresh water for drinking and crops from melting glaciers in the summer. When these glaciers are gone because of the ongoing effects of global warming, we will indeed be facing a human rights issue of horrendous proportions.
I wonder about the "billions of people" statistic, but it is the correct kind of question.  It is, however, one that seems to default to stopping, or slowing, or mitigating the impact of humans on the planet.  One has to be careful with statistics.  Ms Shamel dismisses "a paltry 3 inches" of snow.  However, having lived in the DC area, three inches of snow is a lot and really fouls up traffic.  DC is not Massachusetts.

The problem for me is that it is not inherently obvious, as it seems to be for most people, that climate change is bad.  Further, I expect that efforts to control the climate will have some, but not drastic, impact upon those of us with a "Western" life style and standard of living.  On the other hand, I worry that it will a major negative impact on those trying to drag themselves out of the Third World into the Second, enroute to life as lived in the First World.  If each of us gives up a dollar a day to fund actions to control the climate, it will be noticed.  If one is living in Bangladesh or Burkina Faso a dollar a day will have a major impact.  My worry is that by us changing what we do, we could impact what happens in the Philippines, or Malaysia or Guatemala.  If we stop purchasing products from those places we dump many people back into serious poverty.

At the political level, if we impose treaties on developing nations to make them conform to our sense of what is environmentally acceptable, what will be the outcome for them?

Look at the reaction to the announcement of an inexpensive domestically produced car for India. Note at the bottom of the article that environmentalists are concerned.  This item in The Guardian is more frank.  While the person behind the project wants to get families off motorbikes and into small cars, the environmentalists are appalled at the idea of the congestion and the emissions.

But, that is India. What about places where people live in more primitive conditions.  Will slowing down the West help them or hurt them.  Are they more concerned about increases in skin cancer from a changing atmosphere or about malaria and other strange and debilitating diseases.

I am waiting to see someone do an analysis that shows the puts and takes on this.  What is the global balance sheet on climate change?  Will opening up growing seasons in Canada and Russia produce more food, to help feed the hungry?  Some would claim that half of global mortality is due to hunger.

At this point in the discussion, those who wish to take action on climate change bring to mind H L Mencken's law--"For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong."

We need some data!

Regards  --  Cliff


Anonymous said...

Perhaps had the author of the second post said "melting snows and glaciers", the billions number would have been correct as snow levels on the Alps, the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, the Himalyan mountains, and even the Australian "alps" are dimishing. Also, I believe the author did recognize the difficulty that DC had with snow, and was just commenting that this difficulty did not stop 2500 rally attendees.

Anonymous said...

Check out Gordon Aubrecht's talk at the Goddard Institute -- if you scroll down to the last pages. there's a good reference on what expected climate changes are in various locations:
Also, our federal government spend billions of dollars on climate studies, which are available at
Check out this new video about climate change:
Check out today's Globe about rising sea levels, and the April issue of the Nat'l Geographic for negative effects.
Hope this is helpful!