Weather or Not (Part Two)

In our last post we discussed the beliefs of those who question the role human activity plays in global warming. They fear it will cost too much and return too little to attend to this looming menace. How valid is this point of view? Gary Gutting, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who blogs occasionally on critical thinking, wrote, “As long as they accept the expert authority of the discipline of climate science, they have no basis for supporting the minority position.” So what is the key undisputed conclusion of climate scientists? Two human activities – first, the use of fossil fuels in power plants and automobiles and, just below that, deforestation (clearing land for farms and industry) have led to increased levels of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. This, in turn, leads to a warming planet.

In one sense, however, those who question this obvious conclusion do have a point – decreasing deforestation and the use of fossil fuels will be difficult and will cause economic disruption. Let’s not forget that moving from hunting and foraging to farming the land or from horse and buggy to automobiles also caused disruptions; in the long run we all survived. It is also important to note that those who protest the most are often those who have significant interests of their own to protect: oil companies, and their surrogates and, to a lesser degree, the lumber industry and agribusiness.

Is it too much to hope that, at this point in our evolution, we could expand our view of self-interest to include the common good? What is most critical to this discussion, however, is to examine the likely costs if we refuse to change and whether we are overlooking opportunities that a new way of operating would offer.

A major opportunity that comes from moving to more energy efficient products and renewable fuels is the creation of new industries and jobs. There is legitimate debate over whether more jobs will be created or lost, but there is little debate that many governments and businesses are becoming more environmentally conscious and aligning their policies accordingly. The only question, therefore, is whether a particular country wants to encourage its entrepreneurs or continue with the status quo. Choosing the latter means new designs and innovations will be developed by others and jobs will go to those with the greatest vision and advanced technologies. China, partly out of necessity and partly out of foresight, has become a green groundbreaker. Peggy Liu, chairwoman of a nonprofit group formed to accelerate the greening of China, says the impetus is “a practical discussion on health and wealth.” By prioritizing energy efficiency China saves money, creates jobs, incentivizes innovation thereby luring businesses and capital and earns respect for tackling climate change.

Of even greater importance, however, is what happens if we continue our current behavior and let nature take its course. According to The Nature Conservancy, an NGO that has long pioneered pragmatic solutions to environmental challenges, “climate change has already begun to transform life on Earth as seasons are shifting, temperatures are climbing and sea levels are rising.” Some of the more precarious consequences of climate change are: heat and pollution-related deaths and illnesses, melting glaciers, loss of wetlands, more frequent and destructive storms, coral bleaching and its affect on reef ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, increasing wildfires in vital forests, and impaired food supply caused by more frequent flooding and drought.

Most of us find it prudent to take out insurance – home, life, auto, medical – to protect against potential disaster. If the threats discussed above don’t rise to the level of requiring insurance, I don’t know what will. Skeptics force us to be at our best but, given the overwhelming evidence of the  dangers we face, it is time to take action and “insure” our future.


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