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Sunday, October 5, 2014

On global warming

I did not take to global warming easily. The evidence of warming was simple enough to acknowledge, but the difficult questions in my mind were:
  1. Is this warming anything more than occasional shifts of climate that scientists have long known about?
  2. Is this warming anthropogenic?
  3. If the answers to #1 and #2 are Yes, what will ensue if nothing is done?
  4. What are the ethics of corrective actions?
My frustration with environmentalists is that as of 10 years ago (and perhaps still not today), they hadn't figured out how to make a quick and decisive argument on #1 and #2. Instead, environmentalists got hung up on the question of whether there is any warming at all. Eventually I came to believe that the answers to #1 and #2 are Yes — but only after my skepticism was dispelled in lengthy, one-on-one time with professors at Elon University and Duke University at a forum arranged by my church. I am grateful for that opportunity, which most people will never have. Although I have zero patience with people who abruptly dismiss any talk of global warming as some kind of communist conspiracy, I empathize with people who wrestle with what facts are needed to answer #1 and #2 to 95% certainty.

As for question #3, we must resist the widespread tendency to catastrophize recklessly and we must acknowledge the pitfalls of computer projections. Software models are risky business, and my skepticism about computer projections has not been dispelled. We certainly know enough about global warming to say that its consequences will be bad, but predictions that the new North Carolina beach will be at this specific place or that specific place in Onslow County are impossible.

It's the ethical questions of global warming that interest and concern me the most, however:

  • What do we say to the third-world societies whom we are apparently willing to eradicate in order to preserve our first-world lifestyle? Is this moral?
  • Do we deny people in second-world societies the opportunity to improve their lifestyles because the resultant growth in energy consumption would intensify global warming? Is this fair?
  • Within the USA, if energy prices increase by a multiple of three or four in order to utilize green sources of energy and to discourage consumption, are we prepared to assist lower-income persons who would be priced out of the energy market? Do we consider access to a baseline of energy consumption per capita to be a basic human right? If so, will we follow through with the requisite redistribution of wealth?
I doubt there will ever be a painless solution to global warming. Scientists and engineers are unlikely to identify a simple answer that will be scalable, affordable, ubiquitous, dependable, and free of its own objectionable side effects. Neither nuclear, solar, nor wind meets those five criteria. There's an old prayer "for quiet courage to match this hour. We did not choose to be born or to live in such an age; but let its problems challenge us, its discoveries exhilarate us, its injustices anger us, its possibilities inspire us, and its vigor renew us". Indeed.