Friday, December 11, 2009

The Church of Global Warming

A few weeks ago, a friend who teaches history at a Boston college told me that he presents to his students a kind of evolutionary view of religion, rising from the lower strata to higher ones. The bedrock is animism, the belief that profound spiritual powers reside in mountains, streams, and plants--as well as in certain animals, In many parts of the world this grass-roots [sic] approach yielded to polytheism, as found in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as in Hinduism today. Then came the third stage: the monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths, which spread from the Middle East to conquer much of the developed (and some of the underdeveloped) world. The last stage, perhaps, is some sort of cosmic religion in which there is a formative, maybe also guiding creative principle, but nothing anthropomorphic. The last view manifests itself (e.g.) in the Gaia Principle, the idea that the earth is a kind of homeostatic organism, constantly regulating itself to make human life possible.

It has occurred to me, though, that instead of this simple linear pattern, ascending from the lower strata to the higher, a more appropriate scheme might be circular. That is to say, with the green movement and environmentalism in general we have come back full-circle to animism. As with animism, streams and oceans, plants and trees, and the existing panoply of animals are considered sacred. So too the Earth itself.

Yet the green movement retains significant Abrahamic residues, as seen in the “church of global warming.” This connection is particularly salient in the apocalyptic (or science-fiction) scenarios which place us on the edge of catastrophe. Apocalyptic thinking stems from later Judaism in the first instance (as seen in the book of Daniel), later migrating into both Christianity and Islam. And now of course it has found a home with enviros. Among the more extravant claims of this new church is Al Gore’s absurd prediction that the seas will rise twenty feet in coming years. Such exaggerations are simply an effort to stampede public opinion into accepting the vast expenditures, coupled with a lowering of the quality of life, that the environmental zealots seek to impose on us.

‘Tis the season of Hopenhagen. Those of us who are wary of the apocalyptic scenarios might think of that jamboree as Coping-hagen, since we will have to cope with the results. Already the Third World kleptocracies are demanding huge sums to deal with the predicted disasters, most of which will never come. Their real problems are poverty, poor nutrition, bad water, malaria and (worst of all) corruption; deal with those and the environment could be addressed. Not dealing with them, though, simply means that the money will end up in Swiss bank accounts.

Last night the dashing John Stossel inaugurated his new contrarian TV series, entitled simply “Stossel.” Stossel’s main guest was Jerry Taylor, an energy analyst at the Cato Institute, who held that the economic impact of global warming will be fairly minimal. Thirteen published studies, Taylor indicated, have concluded that we may gain or lose about one year of economic growth over the next 100 years. Four of the studies actually found that global warming would lead to an increase in global GDP. The reason is that global warming will bring both negative and positive effects, such as longer growing seasons and open shipping lanes in the Arctic. In fact, more people die from cold snaps than from heat waves.

Stossel and Taylor acknowledged that, comprehensively, there had been global warming over the last 100 years. Yet the trend has leveled off in the last decade, when, according to some measures, there was actually some cooling. Since the total amount of anthropogenic pollutants is constantly increasing, it is not clear how this leveling could have happened. In fact, the warming is due to a mix of geocosmic and anthropogenic factors. Climate zealots acknowledge only the latter, the human contribution.

Even we accept the claim that the lion’s share of the warming is of human origin, we have probably passed the point of no return. Cessation of all use of fossile fuels tomorrow would make little difference, because of all the junk that is in the air now. A responsible approach would be to manage the situation, not to impose drastic measures that will be both expensive and ineffectual.

Towards the end of the Stossel show, Stephen Dubner stopped by to discuss the chapter on geo-engineering in his latest book, "SuperFreakonomics," and why the global warming church reacted so negatively. Geo-engineering would be one possible approach to managing the effects of the crisis--possibly cheaper and more effective than the massive interventions now being promoted in Copenhagen.



Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

It is disappointing to read someone so divorced from reality. 20 feet of sea level rise is sure to happen within 200 years, and an even bet within 100. We have already experienced several inches, and our CO2 has only started to have its effects, which are cumulative over time.

And to say that well, we have already fouled the air, so let's not do anything about it or stop continuing to do so, falls beneath your putative standards of thought.

The economic effects of such changes are difficult to estimate, but rational forcasts, unlike those you seem to favor, put the bill quite high. At the same time, it needs to be pointed out that the principal costs of climate change will be borne, not by us in northern developed and rich world, but by the poor in places like the Sudan, already experiencing the dividends of global warming, and Tuvalu, about to lose their pacific home entirely.

On top of that, the main costs are not even going to be borne by humanity, but by other organisms on the planet, as the oceans acidify, ecosystems rapidly migrate or disappear, and animals and plants can't keep up. The issue is fundamentally one of our moral and aesthetic approach to the biosphere at large- whether we are content to let it turn into a global cesspool, or excercise some care.

If that care comes from a sense of the sacred, how bad is that? Animism did have a point to it, after all- to express our love and sense of respect for the world on which we depend. The contemporary treatment of animals and the environment generally as disposable objects unworthy of spiritual or aesthetic esteem is not only operationally short-sighted and callous, but a spiritual and aesthetic failure.

The Superfreakonomics book been thoroughly debunked as shoddy reporting and science. Mr. Stossel, dashing or not, is now on FOX news, home to idiocy and through-one's-teeth-lying that a putative intellectual would give wide berth, were it to treat, say, art history. I won't even mention his lack of any semblence of scientific credentials.

Free marketism and libertarianism is all very well when we are speaking of private, modularized goods like toothpaste and iPods. It is not so well for public goods like clean air, disaster preparedness, national defense, etc. Unless CO2 emissions and the many many other harms we are doing ourselves by burning fossil fuels are fully privatized through carbon taxation, cap and trade, or similar plans, libertarians have no role in this debate other than advocating the basest selfishness at the behest of their corporate sponsors.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Thank you, BB, for articulating the current conventional wisdom. I am not convinced that it is correct. Fortunately, blogging permits me to say so.

If memory serves, the story of the "Emperor's Clothes" was written by a gay citizen of Copenhagen, Hans Christian Anderson. As always, it is an instructive tale.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

As I recall, in that story, the emperor had no clothes. In this case, guess which side is perceiving reality? The CO2 in the air right now, even without the certain emissions of the next few decades, is already higher than seen on earth for over 10 million years.

Blindness in the service of selfishness and the status quo was the property of the courtiers, not the child who saw the "clothes" for what they were. I believe the little Dutch boy putting his finger in the dike was doing a similar non-libertarian service for the common good, because he could see and predict what was going on.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment that John Stossel is "dashing." I've had a hard-on for him since the 1970s.

He is contrarian, but only in a loony libertarian sense. Nothing wrong with that, as he obviously taps into humankind's natural skepticism, unlike the neo-cons, who have an altered theological narrative of how this Manichean world operates and its end of times. For a contrarian, at least he's great to look at, and raising skeptical questions -- even in the face of daunting evidence -- serves a pedagogical, heuristic, and hermeneutic purpose. At least the "device" has handsome features.

But, as my scientific father once put it, we won't destroy planet earth, we will only destroy ourselves by destroying the planet's homeostasis. Each of us individually is a microcosm of the macrocosmic environmental niche, and anytime one disturbs the homeostatic balance: illness, disease, disaster, and calamity follow. This basic fact of "balance" is found across cultures, dating to earliest civilizations, and is the dominant motif of medicine itself.

No one should doubt our overpopulation, pollution, husbandry, and navigation do much to destroy our homes -- our habitats. Hell, the snows of Kilimanjaro have reduced 25% in less than seven years, all attributed to global warming. One of the world's few tropical ice caps may evaporate by 2022. How will that casualty NOT affect us? We know every effect has a cause, and the effect of our environmental degradation is already past dispute.

If the polar ices melt, the rain forests deplete and die, it won't be planet earth that suffers, it will be LIFE itself destroyed by inconsiderate living habits of selfish disregard for all but one's self. The planet will survive and endure -- even a nuclear holocaust, an environmental holocaust, or another Nazi holocaust -- but life may not. Without the biospheric balance that homeostasis requires, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE. In the process of destruction, something called the "quality of life" will suffer equally.

At your age, you may not care. At my age, I have no fears. But some of us believe we are not only masters of our destiny, but stewards of our habitats, beholden by a duty and obligation to preserve, protect, and defend the natural balance as the first principle of life itself: self-preservation.

And self-preservation is cardinal principle that Aquinas, Darwin, Huxley, and sociobiology assent as the most basic moral duty as well as natural fact: Self-preservation requires conservation, and the gentle tilling our our homeland -- earth, is our first duty to ourselves.

11:43 AM  

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