Why Climate Change Won’t be Quite as Disastrous as you Thought

Synopsis

In this piece I thought I would share my views concerning global warming. My goal is to explain why I do not consider climate change to be quite the extreme or existential challenge that some portray it to be. I argue on that basis of the time scale involved, the adaptability of human socities, the role of technology, and by historical analogy, that climate change will be a considerable problem, but not a totally unprecedented or insuperable one.

Climate Change

Kevin Rudd once said that “climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation“, and many others have echoed this sentiment. In an article on The Conversation written by several health academics, it was stated that “human-driven climate change poses a great threat, unprecedented in type and scale, to well-being, health and perhaps even to human survival”. This sentiment, that climate change is a uniquely pressing problem that posses grave risks for the very survival of humanity, or at the very least of modern technological civilization, is in my anecdotal experience rather common. I don’t wish to get distracted by debating the details of these particular quotes – I use them merely to illustrate what seem to me to be common attitudes, at least among the circles I tend to frequent. I disagree with such sentiments, at least to some extent, and in this piece I hope to explain why.

First, I must make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that climate change is not real – it is. I am not saying that it is not largely the product of human activity – it is. I am not saying that it will not have on balance substantial negative impacts on mankind – it will. I am not saying that we should not take action to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of climate change – we should.

My disagreement concerns something like ‘how much’ of a problem climate change represents, or ‘how worried’ we should be. I think we should be ‘concerned’, but not ‘extremely concerned’. I think climate change represents a ‘considerable problem’, but not one that is ‘unprecedented’ in scope or scale or degree. I think that climate change is in part a moral issue, but not the ‘greatest moral challenge of our generation’. I also do not believe that climate change poses any significant risk of actual human extinction, or even of the collapse of technological civilization.

Having hopefully made my position (relatively) clear, I want to now give some sense of the reasons why I reject some of what I consider to be the overly alarmist rhetoric about climate change. For convenience I will group these considerations under a number of subheadings, though in practise there is some overlap between them.

Adaptive Ability

I believe that human beings and human societies are, fundamentally, quite flexible and adaptive – or at least can be when they need to be. One piece of evidence for this is the fact that even before the industrial revolution humans inhabited almost every  conceivable ecological region of the planet, utilizing whatever tools, resources, and social systems were necessary to survive in sometimes some exceptionally harsh environments (deserts, steppes, tundra, etc).

Furthermore, human beings continue to go about their lives in regions of civil war, anarchy, political upheavels, famine, even genocide. I’m not saying that such events aren’t enormously disruptive, they certainly are, but what strikes me in studying such events is that always and inevitably, life goes on. I have no idea how people manage to survive day-to-day during events like the Russian Revolution or the Second Congo War or the Syrian Civil War, but somehow they do. People adapt. They innovate. They get by. They find a way to survive – and sometimes even to thrive, even in the most inhospitable environments and circumstances

Time Scale

One reason I am somewhat less concerned about climate change compared to other problems is because I believe the relevant timescale is not always properly considered. For example, the IPCC typically talks about the amount of warming that will take place by 2100. Although this date is arbitrary, what is clear is that the relevant changes which have occurred and will continue to occur take place over a time span of decades, not months or years. This substantially increases scope for adaptation.

Take sea level rise in fifty years time. How many buildings are more than fifty years old? How many are more than 85 years old (the time until the 2100 ‘cutoff’)? I don’t know the answer, but the point is that buildings and other infrastructure don’t last forever. Sea level rise therefore isn’t (at least in most cases) a matter of sudden inundation like in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, but rather a question of gradual loss of land and and increased depreciation of buildings and infrastructure. We already face similar problems with corrosion and soil erosion. This isn’t to say sea level rise won’t be a problem, but merely to somewhat recontextualise the extend and magnitude of the problem.

Consider also the question of climate refugees. Perhaps the most pressing example is Bangladesh, a very low-lying nation with a large and very poor population. Bangladesh will soon have a population of 200 million. Where are all these people supposed to go if most of them become climate refugees? Would this not be a refugee problem of totally unprecedented proportions? While I agree this would represent a very substantial problem and do not wish to underestimate the suffering and political instability that relocating 200 million Bengalis would represent, nor do I think is it helpful to overestimate the difficulty.

First, we are not talking about 200 million refugees all at once, but over a period of several decades, as climate change becomes more and more difficult to adapt to and forces increasing numbers of people to flee their homes. Second, every decade India accommodate an additional 200 million people in the form of population growth. Now of course this is not the same as accommodating refugees, but nonetheless we see that adding 200 million people to the population in a fairly short time is not totally infeasible for a nation like India.

Third, Bangladesh has already experienced two extremely traumatic periods generating millions of refugees in much shorter periods of time, namely the Partition of India and the Bangladesh Liberation War. Certainly such incidents caused immense suffering and political upheaval, but my point is simply that it didn’t cause the region to collapse into barbarism or perpetual civil war and discord. Life went on. Somehow people dealt with the crisis. I discuss this idea in more depth in the final section.

Technology

I am slightly old-fashioned in that I am still of the opinion that, overall, technology (broadly understood) represents one of humanity’s great achievements, and holds great promise for helping us to respond to the challenges of climate change. I’m not saying that there will be one amazing silver bullet that will save us from having to worry about climate change at all. Rather I think that, as has occurred many times in human history, a host of new innovative technologies will emerge in response to particular challenges of responding and adapting to climate change. None will by themselves totally prevent any particular problem, nor even will they do so collectively. I do think, however, that technology will considerably reduce the impact of climate change, and substantially increase our ability to adapt whist in many cases maintaining and improving living standards. Let me give just a few examples of the sort of thing I mean.

Climate change will have negative implications for crop yields in many parts of the world, owing to changing rainfall patterns, changing temperature, etc. However, we already have the ability to grow crops in artificially controlled environments, and to provide water through irrigation. There is also plenty of water on the oceans, it just takes energy to make it potable. Now all of these methods are expensive and not feasible in all circumstances and on all scales, but that is precisely my point. I don’t see it as an issue of ‘we won’t be able to grow enough crops anymore’ or ‘there won’t be enough water’. Rather it is a question of developing and deploying the appropriate technologies to deal with changing circumstances. This is fundamentally a technological question. We will need cheaper and more reliable sources of energy, among other things, but again, that is a problem that technological development has real scope of solving.

I am not saying that every problem posed by global warming will have a simple, specific technological solution (‘hey we can just get enough water by using a bunch of nuclear-powered desalination plants – easy!’). I don’t know what the particular solutions will turn out to be, or that it will be easy to develop technological solutions to every problem. Rather, what I am trying to do is recast many of the issues that I think people wrongly think about in fixed ecological terms (‘we only have so much farmland/fresh water and if we lose some of that we won’t be able to manage’) into, as I think is more reasonable, questions of cost and technical feasibility (‘with less freshwater we’re going to need to find cost-effective methods of desalination or similar methods. These new energy solutions look promising…’). I see what humanity can do not as fixed by nature, but as constantly changing as we learn new and better ways to use what nature has given us. I believe that considering the impact of climate change more in these terms can help to take the sting out of some of what I consider to be excessive pessimism.

History

I have already discussed a number of historical comparative cases, but I want to expand further on this idea. It is my belief that lack of historical perspective contributes to exaggerating the extent of present difficulties and crises, and as such I like to compare current and future challenges to those humanity has faced in the past. Although details are often different, the fundamental question of interest to me is how adaptive human social, political, and economic systems are to massive shocks and disruptions, and therefore how concerned we should be that such systems will be significantly impaired by the effects of climate change. It is my view that history furnishes with a number of examples of much more catastrophic events than climate change, all of which occurred at times when our ability to respond to them were significantly lower (owing variously to lack of technology, communication, developed economies, sophisticated political structures, etc). But nevertheless humanity managed to survive these challenges, and in some cases even flourish like never before in their aftermath.

Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War is one of my favourite examples of this. The country lay completely devestated after six years of war and three years of intensive bombing by the allies. Millions were homeless, and millions more refugees were arriving after having been expelled from Eastern Europe. The government had been completely destroyed. Yet within ten years, at least the west part of the country was experiencing a so-called ‘economic miracle’, which would restore its living standards to among the highest in the world.

What is relevant about such past examples is not merely the sheer number of people killed or displaced, but also the enormous extent of physical destruction, and the immense strain and disruption experienced by extant social, economic, and political systems, often occurring over relatively short periods of time. Bearing this in mind, I would invite readers to consider such events as the Thirty Years War, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War and famines, the French Revolution, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Taiping Rebellion, the First World War and subsequent Flu Pandemic, the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, the 1931 China floods, and last but not least, the Mongol Conquests and (following fairly shortly thereafter) the Black Death. That civilization (globally or locally) was able to survive and even flourish in the aftermath of these tragedies is quite astonishing to me, nevertheless it happened. Such historical cases give me hope that humanity is much more resilient to crisis than some of the more extreme climate change doomsayers seem to think.

Conclusion

Climate change is a big problem, and we as a global community should be doing much more about it than we are. Unfortunately many people still don’t even believe that climate change is occurring, or that we should do anything about it. As such, some may argue that my piece here is counterproductive, that I am giving ammunition to those who deny the reality or severity of the problem. In my view, however, neither the causes of truth-seeking nor of environmentalism are furthered by holding or propagating exaggerated and misleading notion. Climate change alarmism only gives ammunition for climate-deniers who use any opportunity they can to score rhetorical points. It was therefore my goal in this piece to emphasise that while climate change is a substantial problem, it is not an insoluable one, nor totally unprecedented in severity or magnitude, and nor does it pose a serious threat to the survival of humanity as a whole.

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7 thoughts on “Why Climate Change Won’t be Quite as Disastrous as you Thought

  1. Hi James,

    That was a great reminder that even massive-scale dangers should not be exaggerated.

    With the specific issue of climate change however, it seems you haven’t factored in the ideas of “tipping points” or “runaway climate change”. It may be that after certain points of change, feedback loops set in which are difficult or even impossible to combat. Whether such points exist remains uncertain, but are a plausible threat to be considered, especially when taking into account the scale of the danger.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipping_point_(climatology)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runaway_climate_change

    P.S. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: do be careful to avoid hyperbolic discounting.

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  2. Great article, I’ve been thinking along the exact same lines.

    The first example I’d use is how Melbourne – a city of 4 million+ people, was little more than a village 150 years ago. We’ve built everything here from the ground up in that time, most of it in the past few decades. We’re adding 50-100,000 people a year, and somehow half the population isn’t starving as a result.

    So I agree, climate change is an issue, but far from an apocalyptic one.

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  3. Thanks for the thought provoking piece. I take issue, however, with your argument for the following reasons.

    1) We face a multidimensional ecological crisis – its not just climate change; also mounting energy/resource crisis, as well as many other intensifying ecological problems i.e biodiversity loss. As Steb Fisher points out at link below, even if we decarbonised the global economy tomorrow, we would still face a mounting ecological crisis,posing major challenges to human survival over the course of the next century.
    http://theconversation.com/our-sustainability-crisis-didnt-start-and-doesnt-stop-at-climate-change-17471

    2) You overlook the magnitude of our ecological overshoot – Rich world “living standards” are only available to perhaps 1/6 of the human population. In other words we are taking far more than our fair share. And yet today the planet is showing many signs of ecological overload. What would happen if all 9 billion people expected to be living by 2050 rise to our taken for granted ‘living standards’? In fact, there is a formidable case that there are not anything like the resources/energy available for that to be possible. Or perhaps you would defend the current grotesquely inequitable distribution of world wealth/income, that make our ‘living standards’ possible (for now)? In that case, you better get used to intensifying global conflict/wars, as the ‘race for what is left” intensifies. The Chinese, and the Indians are fiercely intent on getting in on the game!

    3) Your case for optimism depends heavily on the assumption that technology will solve the problem. But a) even if it could solve climate change, can it solve all the other problems we face? b) in any case, there is a weighty case that technology (alone) wont solve our problems. For example, you admit that all technofix solutions crucially depend on “cheaper and more reliable sources of energy.” But that is exactly what is up for debate. As fossil fuel sources peak and decline in the coming years/decades, we will have to move increasingly to renewable sources of energy (which we have to do, in any case, to address climate change). But there is a very good case that these sources of energy will be far more expensive and will not provide anywhere near the amount of net energy than the energy abundance provided by once in an epoch fossil fuels. There is also a good case that if we want to stay within the 2 degree target, we will have to massively contract global energy use (not double it, as everyone assumes!).

    For all these reasons, and many more, I think your case for optimism re our present capitalism-consumer-industrial etc civilization is very weak. There is an attractive alternative we could move to – well described as a simpler way – but given the present complete lack of awareness of our predicament and the way out, its unlikely we will move to it.

    For more evidence/argument for the above, see the following website:
    http://thesimplerway.info/

    Jonathan

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  4. You are right that we can adapt.
    The real problem is not for us it is for all the other species that share this planet.
    Their lives ought to matter if you have compassion. Considering all the fences and roads
    we add to the world animals have much less chance to adapt than we do.
    Just because the sea is not lapping at our own door should not mean we look the other way.
    Let me put it this way, Richard Branson is wasting time with flights to space for very rich people when he should perhaps be concerned with solar-powered airliners or engines that run on biomethane.
    We can adapt, but at the moment things are moving slow, and the focus of who matters is rather narrow.

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  5. Good article, great read. Few thoughts – another example of technology able to overcome the challenge was the Montreal Protocol for the Ozone Depletion Problem back in the 90s. The broad consensus that we needed to do something was all that was needed to set in motion the removal of CFCs (and other chemicals) from production and use. There was a lot of complaining that it would be the death of refrigeration industry, but in fact it was the opposite. Industry thrived on the challenge and manufacturing of new tech. I believe the same would be with the reduction of CO2 emissions. But it needs that consensus.
    Secondly, I feel that the method of reducing said emissions would be the same no matter what the true severity of the problem is. So the alarmism is not as necessary as the need to convince and bring into the fold of agreement the need to do something.
    Thirdly, I think I disagree with your last statement: “nor does it pose a serious threat to the survival of humanity as a whole.” That is a lot easier to say than someone in a more vulnerable geographical position than you and I. I know you said “as a whole” but I fear a lot of people will suffer huge consequences for a while before it can be considered that the “whole” is not seriously threatened.
    Enjoyed the read, thanks

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  6. I think we tend to exaggerate because the consequences are so dire if we do nothing. And because businesses and right-wingers will deny any climate change like crazy, we have to demand for more so when we compromise it will still be enough to prevent catastrophe. Even the loss of biodiversity is a catastrophe that prevents easy discovery of new drugs.

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