Liberally Speaking (1/14/10)

Humans vs. nature: the challenge of global warming

Jan. 14, 2010

By Steve Mount

Let’s start with an assumption: Global climate change is real and is happening now. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s data for 2009 confirms that the last decade was the warmest on record and that 2009 temperatures in the United States and the world were both above the long-term average.

Naturalist and author Richard Ellis’s latest book, “On Thin Ice,” laments the loss of the polar bear because of its diminishing habitat. The polar ice cap, upon which the familiar white bear relies for hunting, is disappearing and the bear along with it. Within 50 years, Ellis writes, the polar bear will be gone — no matter what we do, it will happen.

The images in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” are striking and disturbing: The melting of the polar ice caps leads to coastal flooding of a massive scale. In some projections, the entire state of Florida is submerged. We cringe when we think of the loss of a species like the polar bear, but what of the loss of an entire state?

Only a few pig-headed stalwarts completely deny global warming. For the rest of us, the question is not so much if it is happening, but why?

The first theory is that global warming is the result of natural processes, cycles that have repeated over and over again through history. For proponents of this Natural Theory, the Earth is too big, too complex, for the activities of our species to affect these cycles.

The second theory is that global warming is the direct result of the activities of we humans, especially since the dawning of the Industrial Age. This Human Theory recognizes long-term climate change cycles, as they are undeniable in the fossil record, but alleges that we have either disrupted the natural cycle or we have accelerated it.

As a rule, liberals find themselves on the side of the Human Theory. The basic solution is that we need to cut back on our use of those things that make our society run, namely fossil fuels.

Conservatives mostly find themselves upholding the Natural Theory, and say that disrupting our economy by reducing the use of fossil fuels would be an economic disaster as bad as any natural one.

I can see the Natural Theory’s side of the argument. One of the problems that Natural Theorists accuse Human Theorists of is a logical fallacy known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc — that is, that since A occurred after B, A must have caused B. Are Human Theorists guilty of this fallacy?

Al Gore’s charts show what appear to be some clear and stark correlations. As global emissions rose, so did global temperatures. But did A, emissions, cause B, climate change? Since we cannot possibly test an alternative case, we cannot know that if our historical emissions had been lower that the global temperatures would also have been lower.

I have to admit, even as a Human Theorist, that it is possible we are guilty of the fallacy.

But rather than throw up my hands and admit defeat, which is more or less what Natural Theorists advocate, I think we have to make the leap of faith that since we cannot test our logic for the fallacy, we must assume the logic is correct. For if it is not, and we change our habits and nothing changes, then at least we tried. But if we could have averted global disaster by changing our habits and we did not, then we can rightly and truly be blamed for the consequences.

When the world met in Copenhagen last month, there were high hopes that some sort of binding and lasting agreement would come out of the meetings. But amid all the noise and clamor of protest and all the whispering in closed-door diplomatic meetings, all the world could muster was a tepid accord that acknowledges that global climate change is a challenge the whole world needs to address.

Richard Ellis says it is too late for the polar bear, and I fear he is correct. The loss of one species is a drop in the bucket compared to annual extinctions worldwide, but it would be a deep symbolic loss. Worse, however, would be the loss of New Orleans or Miami or Charleston or Boston to rising waters.

If we don’t all agree to do something, soon, then it might be more than the polar bear that can only be seen in the history books.

 

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.