One of the greatest dangers facing the world today is not climate change but the hysteria about it that has engulfed the globe. Large numbers of well-meaning people have come to believe that the human species faces an existential crisis that justifies almost any emergency action. But what if the proposed climate change cure was worse than the disease? What if climate change was no big deal?
As a person who believes in science and who spent years working on computer models of the environment, my perspective on climate change is somewhat different than that of other people. I believe that climate change is real and that it is caused by humans. For this reason, I can agree with the “97% of climate change scientists” that are often cited in the popular culture. Despite this, however, I am more worried about Bill Gates’ financial welfare than I am about climate change and I think that everyone with a high school level of science education should share my view. How is this reasonable? Can so many intelligent and concerned people really be wrong about the risks of climate change?
My contention is not that those who are concerned about climate change are entirely wrong but that they are myopic and are missing the bigger picture. In the hope that I might do something to calm the hysteria, allow me to explain the major reasons why I am not worried about climate change .
Complex Non-Linear Dynamics
Let us imagine a simple example of a complex non-linear system. Let us take an average male high school baseball player and ask him to throw a softball sized sphere that varies in weight. We ask a simple question. How far away from him will the ball end up after he throws it and how will this distance change as we make the ball heavier?
Clearly the answer to this question will change as we vary the conditions. If he is throwing it into a strong wind, the ball will not go as far and may even go backwards. If he is at the base of a steep hill, the ball may roll backwards further than he throws it. If he is underwater, the ball may not go very far at all. To eliminate these issues, let us imagine a windless day on a beach at sea level throwing the ball at a constant angle and with the same throwing motion. How far will he throw the ball and how far will the ball go?
If we start off with a softball sized balloon, the ball will go a few feet forward from his throw and then go up into the sky. Throwing a softball sized whiffle ball will result in a throw that is quickly slowed by the air and lands on the beach. Throwing an official softball will result in a nice long throw. Throwing a softball sized sphere made of depleted uranium that is very heavy will result in a fairly short throw. If you doubt these results, try the experiment for yourself. Notice the following facts:
- Very light balls go very far upwards due to buoyancy effects but do not travel very far forwards because of air resistance.
- Light balls do not go very far upwards or forwards because of air resistance and gravity.
- Balls of medium weight are heavy enough to overcome air resistance and travel further than light balls.
- Very heavy balls do not go very far because of bio-mechanical limitations to the throwing velocity for heavy objects. (Our high school baseball player cannot throw very heavy balls very far.)
This is an example of non-linear dynamics because the distance travelled by the ball is a nonlinear function of the ball weight. For different weights, different effects determine how far the ball will go. The primary effects are buoyancy, gravity, the bio-mechanics of throwing a ball and air resistance. What does this have to do with climate change?
The global climate system is vastly more complicated than a teenager throwing a softball. The climate system includes multitudes of different factors including: volcanic activity, solar radiation, cloud formations, living organisms, ocean currents, mountains, glaciers, winds and many more. To expect that this system is going to behave in a predictable fashion as we increase our carbon emissions is simply naive. The inability of climate change scientists to predict the pause in global warming that we have seen in the last few years demonstrates the difficulty of predicting the global climate. As suggested by the film “The Day After Tomorrow”, the effects of carbon dioxide emissions might even be to cause another ice age, though no serious scientist believes that it will occur in the timeframe suggested by the film.
Every once in a while, you come across a worried headline that talks about how certain plant species don’t grow as quickly in a high carbon dioxide environment. When I see these studies I find them very amusing. Evolution is probably the most powerful force that has shaped the history of the earth and it is very capable of allowing our planet to adapt to climate change. How?
Think of the millions of species of plants that live on earth. Among these species are doubtless many genes that will allow a given plant to flourish and grow faster in a high carbon dioxide environment. As the carbon dioxide level of the atmosphere increases, these genes will outcompete other genes and plant species all over the world will evolve to capture more carbon dioxide at a faster rate. As these genes proliferate, they will combine with other genes to form new variants that are even more successful. As mathematical models of evolution demonstrate, this process can be very rapid when the genes exist in the gene pool of a given species and evolution will have a very real impact on climate change. Given the rapid (annual) reproductive cycle of many species of plant, this effect will be very pronounced.
Increased Plant Habitat
I was watching Bill Nye describe his concerns about climate change when he mentioned that one of the consequences of climate change would be that grapes would be able to grow in northern England. This struck me as ironic since it points out another reason that we should not be worried about climate change. Not only will plant species evolve to use more carbon dioxide, but the capacity of the planet to support plant life will increase as the earth warms. Look at a globe and notice the huge areas of land that are uninhabitable due to a cold climate. Large portions of Greenland, Canada, Antarctica and Russia are sparsely inhabited by plants. Over the next few decades, this land will increasingly be covered by plants that flourish in a high carbon dioxide environment and each one of these plants will reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
If evolution is one of the most powerful forces that has shaped our planet’s history, then technology is one of the most powerful forces that has shaped human history. One of the things that climate change worry warts do not seem to take into account is that we are currently in the middle of an explosive growth in human technology that has seen us go from riding in horse drawn carriages at the beginning of the 20th century to landing rovers on mars at the beginning of the 21st. Our rapidly advancing technology increases our ability to deal with the effects of global warming as well as our ability to reduce our carbon emissions.
Human beings have been using technology to deal with ecological difficulties for tens of thousands of years. From migrating away from areas stricken by drought, to building aqueducts to transport water, to building sea walls around the Netherlands, to dealing with ocean tides in Venice, to providing air-conditioned buildings in deserts unfit for human life, humanity has often used technology to deal with environmental issues. Just this last week, a result was published concerning the possibility of using a graphene sieve to desalinate ocean water inexpensively. I don’t know how many people would die if our irrigation, sewage treatment, refrigeration and transport systems failed due to a global failure of our technology, but it surely must be many millions. How is it that those worried about climate change think we will not be able to deal with a few feet of ocean level rise or a few degrees of temperature change a century from now?
At the same time as increasing technology makes it easier for us to deal with climate change, it will also provide the means of dealing with carbon dioxide or replacing fossil fuels. Maybe we can develop a carbon sequestration strategy utilizing genetically engineered algae? Or perhaps we can develop a Thorium based nuclear power system that provides electrical power cheaply, safely and without toxic waste? Our technological capacities are growing exponentially and solutions to the climate change problem that are not feasible now may be easily within our capabilities in only a few decades. Why all the panic and hysteria?
The Scientific Method
Those who most aggressively promote the dangers of climate change have even gone so far as to advocate that climate change skeptics should be jailed or removed from positions of authority. This is an exceptionally dangerous idea and one of the biggest reasons I oppose climate change hysteria. As all philosophers of science agree, the scientific endeavour has not been successful because individual scientists are so smart. Intelligent scientists have often been wrong throughout the history of science. Rather, science has been successful because the scientific method requires that every scientific hypothesis be subjected to rigorous skepticism and empirical verification.
Hysteria is antithetical to the skepticism and clear minded thinking that is essential if humanity is going to overcome the challenge of global climate change. Even if I agreed that global climate change was a clear and present danger to the survival of our species, I would still argue that the only way we overcome this challenge is through skeptical and clear-minded scientific thinking and not through a hysteria and irrationality that would label skeptics as “deniers” and throw them into prison or prevent them from publishing in scientific journals.
The Real Danger
“The only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself” (FDR 1933)
According to my philosophy, the greatest danger to human beings is bad governments. Bad governments have murdered hundreds of millions of people and caused grief and misery on a scale rivalled only by bacteria and viruses. From Communists Russia and China to Nazi Germany and Genghis Khan, murderous governments are the greatest scourge in human history. Like bacteria and viruses, governments can be useful and perform necessary functions, but when a government goes bad the results are often horrific. For this reason, I become alarmed when I see people advocating draconian government solutions to a problem no matter how severe. Don’t people understand that their solution could be worse than the cure?
Climate change hysterics paint a bleak picture of millions of people displaced by rising sea levels and temperature increases over the course of the next hundred years. They further envision that this migration would lead to catastrophic wars and plagues. The one thing they never talk about, however, is what the effect would be of radically reducing the use of fossil fuels without an inexpensive alternative.
From our food and clothes to our water and entertainment everything that we do as human beings requires energy. What would happen to the cost of energy if you created an artificial shortage by banning the use of fossil fuels? Quite simply, it would sky rocket and impoverish hundreds of millions of people around the world overnight. Millions of people would starve and the resulting unrest would lead to wars which could easily turn cataclysmic in the age of nuclear weapons. Why panic? Why shoot ourselves in the foot? Why not take a calm and measured approach to the problem?
The Way Forward
Many people falsely believe that wind or solar will be able to provide for all of our energy needs in the future. Some people even think that we are already there and I have seen people claim that Germany gets 90% of its electricity from solar. The actual fraction of energy provided by solar in Germany is closer to 5.9% and we need to be careful about getting rid of fossil fuels before we have a good alternative.
As discussed above, the best way to overcome the challenge of climate change is not to panic but to double down on our investment in science and technology. A Thorium based energy economy offers the very real possibility of eliminating carbon emissions altogether over the next 5 or 6 decades requiring only a moderate investment in research and infrastructure. Whatever the final solution ends up being, however, panic and hysteria are almost certain to do more harm than good.