Thursday, July 3rd 2008, 5:41 AM EDT
“But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.” The power-corrupted Saruman of Many Colours declaiming in J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954, p. 272)
The planet has warmed up since the Little Ice Age and it has warmed up relatively quickly between 1975 and 1998, so much so that we humans are becoming consumed with guilt and anxiety about our place on Earth. Our production of CO2 into the atmosphere is supposed to be the cause.
I’ve set out elsewhere the reasons for my reservations about CO2 being the cause but let’s put that aside for a while and consider whether our production of CO2 is blameworthy in any moral sense.
This is an important and worrying issue. Are we really an excrescence on the surface of the planet that should be culled as soon as possible?
We are told that everything we do to make life worth living is an aggressive, nay obscene, act of aggression against Nature, Gaia or whatever.
Some environmental activists say the necessary ‘precautionary’ steps can be taken without significant cost. Others admit that the costs could be heavy so they want to pile them all onto the ‘wicked’ West and let the ‘virtuous’ poor do as they please.
If any of us sits down and counts up the things we use (must use) that will be denied to us if the emission reductions are to have any practical effect then it fast becomes obvious that what is being prescribed for us will over time become devastating.
Our entire societies are built on energy use. If we change the pattern of such use every part of our society will be upturned into chaos.
The trouble with those who tell us what we should do is that they lack any sense of practicality in the modern densely interlinked world. Western societies with their patterns of consumption are the economic drivers for the whole planet. It is their consumer demands that have dragged the rest of the planet away from constant vicious tribal warfare and made them into fast developing nations and which have enabled those poorer nations to drastically reduce their natural death rates.
So let as look at the truth
Every aspect of what we call progress over the past 500 years has been due to activities that inevitably produce CO2 emissions. Thus average age for humans has increased in the developed world from 40 or so to 75 plus. Additionally we have been able to cope with a total global population that would have been deemed impossible only 100 years ago. We are now being told that all that must stop
Pain and suffering has been hugely reduced wherever modern medicine is available and it is no longer necessary to accept that human life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
On the other hand, animal and insect life remains ‘red in tooth and claw’ and of course there are regular aberrations within human societies.
On balance, therefore all that CO2 we have produced has, overall, been a good thing in terms of human life. It follows that the types of human society that have achieved these results are overwhelmingly good.
On the face of it we should not be feeling guilty as a species, quite the opposite, so let’s now look at the downside of such progress.
Clearly the animal and bird world has been affected with the loss of certain species. The insect and plant worlds are much less affected though of course there have been human induced changes.
The planetary environment has been changed where human populations are densest but in terms of the entire planet the damage is not overwhelming and where damage has occurred the natural environment does tend to recover if left alone.
At the moment I would judge that the trade off between good and bad is in favour of mankind.
It is the future that is where our problems lie. Obviously, if human numbers and per capita consumption continue to increase then that way lies disaster for humans and the planet.
The whole crux of the CO2 issue is that it crystallises our fears for the future and provides a pressure point which might force political action if CO2 can be linked to something as potentially disastrous as a runaway unnatural change in global climate.
CO2 is being labelled a pollutant but is it?
As far as I can see it is only a pollutant if it can be linked to catastrophic climate change. Climate alarmism depends on catastrophe. In itself CO2 is a life giver. As a combination of Oxygen and Carbon it represents life itself. We are built from carbon as is every other life form and again like every other life form Oxygen is the fuel we must have to survive. How can the very elements that build us and fuel us and every other life form be a pollutant? The most likely effect of more carbon in the system is an enhancement of activity in the entire system not a diminution of it. The warmth of recent years has enhanced agricultural production not reduced it and far fewer deaths of all life forms occur in warmth rather than cold. If there are those who wish to say more carbon is a problem then the burden of proof is heavy. Perhaps they are trying to avoid that burden of proof by hyping up a disputed link with global climate and even denying the existence of a dispute.
The main case being made against our fossil fuel habit is that we are releasing carbon stored over millennia into the atmosphere in a relatively short period of time.
Is that necessarily a bad thing in itself? We certainly need to conserve natural resources but the fact is that after several billion years of life on Earth the Earth’s crust is simply awash with carbon in one form or another.
As soon as we seek more fossil fuels we find them and ‘peak oil’ keeps getting deferred. The oil shale deposits of Canada and elsewhere represent a huge resource if ever we get round to needing them and new technology means we can get at deeper and deeper stores in the Earth’s crust. Recent reports indicate that there is much more gas and oil around the UK (more than we have used already) now that higher oil prices make recovery of it more economic We are also getting better day by day at producing energy from other sources and reducing the energy we need for specific functions. There is plenty of cause for more optimism than is allowed to us by politicians and mass media.
Really, it is a choice between human numbers and average per capita consumption. We have to stabilise both, no dispute.
However, the demonisation of fossil fuels and CO2 before the globe has removed poverty and allowed less developed nations to share in worldwide prosperity is an obscenity. We need extensive but judicious use of fossil fuels together with as many alternative fuels as possible to get the whole globe to the western level of prosperity or at least as close to it as third world nations reasonably demand. Being over pessimistic at this point in history and abandoning the third world to everlasting poverty would be the true crime against humanity and the planet. Reducing the western world to poverty would not be helpful either but I get the impression that some think that is a moral obligation.
Only if we keep our nerve will voluntary population restraint and voluntary per capita consumption rates be achievable without war, poverty and famine extending indefinitely into the future with fatal consequences for humanity, the planet and the entire environment.
All authoritarians lack trust in the population at large to make the right decisions over time. History has shown that the right decisions are only ever made if the population at large is free to make them.
Every time an elite has taken it upon itself to ‘do good’ for the benefit of the ‘people’ on the basis that ‘the ends justify the means’ the outcome has been disastrous and wholly contrary to the intent initially expressed.
If we allow fossil fuels and CO2 to be labelled a pollutant with a view to the world’s energy supply being taken over and rationed by a ‘well meaning’, self appointed, so called elite then we will deserve what we get.
Some people are pessimists and others are optimists. The glass being half full or half empty, as it were.
Personally I am of the half full disposition but I accept that others are not.
Fortunately the world is largely democratic or semi democratic with a free media so I’m pretty sure that our worst fears will not come to pass.
Additionally, as time passes the actual global temperature movements will resolve the issue one way or the other. If we do get a resumption of global warming in the face of a less active sun and a negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation then there is cause for concern but certainly not unless that happens.
Even if CO2 has a global warming effect it may well be far smaller than natural variability. If so it will be a mitigating influence in periods of natural cooling and only a minor temporary enhancement of global temperature around the natural peaks .That will be no problem for us until the commencement of the next ice age by which time we had better have a working fusion reactor or most of civilisation will be destroyed by natural climate changes.
The main judgement that has to be made today is whether human society can get to a stable global population level and a sustainable per capita consumption level voluntarily over time or whether it cannot. CO2 is a distraction from that which should really concern us.
A supplementary judgement is as to whether any voluntary actions are going to be enough to reach long term sustainability without irreparably damaging the planet and ourselves in the process.
So what should be done, if anything, by whom, how, when and on what timescale ?
That set of questions is where the problems start and they are the source of all the legitimate and widespread concerns about the human footprint on the planet
Some say that the present situation is the consequence of the greed and consumption of the so called Capitalist system and that to solve our coming problems we have to move away from it.
That will involve enhanced control of populations worldwide with centralised direction of, especially, the availability of energy. Kyoto was but a first step and now we are moving towards carbon trading and green taxes of many varieties.
I have read one enthusiast welcoming the steps proposed on the basis that Democracy is unlikely to deliver what is needed to save the planet. Another who clearly stated that it was appropriate to say whatever was necessary to obtain political movement because the situation is so dire. Of course I accept that they are not representative of all alarmists and especially not representative of all concerned persons but they do show that there is an underlying agenda other than strict scientific truth.
I do agree that a lot needs to be done to deal with pollution, resource depletion, overpopulation and other forms of effects on the environment caused by man.
The real issue is whether humans can arrive at a sustainable long term accommodation with the planet voluntarily and consensually (Democracy) or whether it must be imposed at the direction of high minded individuals who are better than, or know more than, everyone else (Authoritarianism).
History is our only guide unless one just flips a coin.
We got where we are now, for good or ill, through the rigour of the Scientific Method in Representative Democracies with a Capitalist economy and as I said above the balance overall has been for the good.
Every other type of State that has tried the authoritarian approach has failed dismally and in the process has created death, destruction and disproportionate damage to the local environment,
Is it really a good idea to hand over absolute power over our energy and resource supplies to authoritarians who just happen to believe that they know what is best for humanity and the planet ?
Or should we continue to rely on the systems that have got to this stage and now start to use them to move towards technological solutions, persuasion over population issues, and voluntary consumer restraint supported by moral pressure rather than taxes and penalties that will just impoverish us all ?
If we go down the latter route, then yes, for the next 100 years or so there is going to be additional damage to the planet but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
If we go down the former route there will be resistance needing force to quell it. There will be bad policy decisions that the self appointed elite will be reluctant to take blame for or reverse. There will be a cycle of never ending poverty in nations that are resource poor. There will be wars of every type borne of desperation and no light at the end of the tunnel with the outcome likely to be widespread death by war and starvation, the dismantling of the civilised achievements of the past 500 years and / or the enslavement of peoples and ruination of the environment for millennia.
We all know the difference between our present day freedoms and the sort of lives we will all get if those freedoms are abandoned. There are plenty of historical examples.
That is why there must be a large enough, imminent enough, threat from external causes to induce us to allow the authoritarian route to be adopted. The temptation for authoritarians of every political colour to make up or talk up such threats should never be underestimated.
Everyone must now consider whether climate science really is sufficiently settled to provide adequate justification for allowing authoritarianism to spread. Are the threats placed before us realistic or are they alarmist? Is there any current evidence that the degree or timing of the alleged threats have been misjudged ?
And even if authoritarianism is put in place by consent or through acquiescence then everyone has to consider how likely it is to be helpful based on historical precedent.
Do you feel lucky?
CO2, A BREATH OF FRESH AIR – by Stephen Wilde