Global Warming

Global warming is the big issue of the age. It really matters – the welfare of billions of people is going to be drastically affected by it, in many cases in a life-and-death way. Economic woes are completely trivial in comparison.

Some folks will try to tell you it isn’t happening. They’re just plain wrong – as wrong as those who think the Earth is flat. See Global Warming IS Happening.

Mostly they’ve given up trying to tell you it isn’t happening. They’ve shifted their ground, and are trying to tell you it’s not humankind’s fault. They’re still just plain wrong – ostriches with their heads in the sand.*

Some of them have even given that up, but have switched to trying to tell you it’s a Good Thing, with benefits and drawbacks, but with the benefits outweighing the drawbacks. They’re STILL just plain wrong.

Then there are those who tell you that there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s much nearer the mark – it’s certainly too late to prevent it happening altogether. But it’s not a simple on/off thing, it’s a continuous range of possibilities, from almost no warming at all through to a rapid heating up that changes the world radically and unpredictably. We can and must act to minimize it.

One of the difficulties is that we don’t know enough about how the whole system works. We know that adding huge quantities of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) to the atmosphere heats the planet up, but we don’t know by how much. It would be simple enough if it weren’t for complicated feedbacks. (These feedbacks can be positive or negative, linear or non-linear, immediate or with delayed actions – truly complicated – see Butterflies, Chaos & Feedback.)

Then there are those who tell you that there might be something we could do about it, but that it would cost far too much. There’s a grain of truth in this, too – but only a grain. Economic woes are completely trivial in comparison, I said – and I meant it. We can’t afford NOT to do anything about it. Think what they spent on war in Iraq; think what they spent bailing the banks out. Whether you think they should have done either of those things or not, Iraq and the banks are trivial issues compared with global warming. Yet the amounts of money they spent on them would be enough to make a huge difference on the global warming front. But still – there is a grain of truth in it. It doesn’t matter how much money we spend, but there’s a finite limit on the labour and materials that we can use. But it’s absolutely our biggest priority. Nothing else comes close.

Some of the things we can do aren’t expensive at all – indeed, some of them save money. Depending how you count it, they all save money in the long run. (“Depending how you count it” is the story of economics entirely, a telling point in itself, see Damned Lies and Economics.)

So what can we do about it? The biggest, most intractable part of the problem is carbon dioxide, which we produce by burning fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas. We use these fossil fuels for keeping ourselves warm in our homes and workplaces, for cooking, for generating electricity, for transport, and for industrial process heat. There are alternative ways of doing all these things, without using fossil fuels, but we can’t switch to the alternatives, 100%, overnight. It takes time to build things – but we could be doing it a lot more quickly than we are.

It’s important not only to do it more quickly than we are, but to do the right things. In particular, building more nuclear power stations is NOT one of the right things (see Nuclear Power?).

Apart from not being able to switch to the alternatives, 100%, overnight, it’s not necessary to abandon fossil fuel combustion completely. It may even be a good thing to continue it, on a very much reduced scale.

So what are the right things to do? That’s the subject of another article: Carbon Footprint Reduction.

* This is an unwarranted slur on the good name of ostriches, who do no such thing.

The reason for this is that, but for human activities, the world might well already have entered the early stages of the next Ice Age. There’s more about this in later essays in this series. Update, 2020: things have moved on since I wrote this in 2008. It is now abundantly clear that it would NOT be a good thing to continue producing CO2 even on a small scale, not for the foreseeable future anyway – perhaps eventually it might be good to resume – most likely on a small scale, but hopefully we’ll understand these things a lot better by then!