Monday, October 06, 2008

An Argument to Nowhere

Climate skeptics set great store by the argument that science has not "definitively proved" that human actions are the cause of global warming. The chief problem with this argument is that it goes against the scientific consensus and the evidence, but there is another criticism, less-noted but equally compelling: It does not support the policies that the skeptics think it does.

Skeptics, among them Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (insofar as I can make out what she is saying), are fond of simply stating that there is doubt about the role of human activity in climate change, as if because of this we need not worry about our use of fossil fuels. The implication (never stated) is that we are free to drive to our heart's content in ever-bigger cars, build a new coal-fired electric plant each week, and clear as much rain forest as we like. Nothing of the sort, however, follows. The argument is a kind of bridge to nowhere—or more accurately, to an uninhabitable planet.

What the skeptics have done is to assume that the only reason to cut back on fossil fuels is the danger of global warming. If we can't prevent it whatever we do, then we do not have to change.

Not quite. The reasons to cut back on fossil fuels are many, and they would be persuasive even if the skeptics were right and climate change were beyond human control. Some of the arguments below apply to all countries; others apply chiefly to the West and the United States. None depend on any particular explanation of climate change.

  • Fossil fuels are a major source of pollution. This summer's questions about air quality in Beijing were not about long-term climate change, but about short-term clouds of unbreathable smog and how they might affect the summer Olympics. Chinese authorities dealt with the problem by restricting automobile traffic. The smog level dropped, although Beijing's air quality probably remained poor because of China's heavy dependence on coal. It would be hard to imagine a more concrete demonstration of the role of fossil fuels in air pollution. Fewer cars on the road=less fossil fuel emissions=less smog.
  • Fossil fuels are expensive and often dangerous to produce. Coal mining is known to be a dangerous profession with a long list of mining disasters and tragedies in every major coal producing country. Oil drilling, while not as hazardous as mining, has become more expensive as producers turn to sources like oil shale which are more difficult to extract.
  • Even before they are burned, fossil fuels create environmental hazards. Oil, for instance, must be transported to markets, generally by ship, with the risk of accidents and spills. The best-known of these was the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Pipelines, while generally safer than ships, also damage the environment where they are laid.
  • For the West, and particularly the United States, dependence on fossil fuel is bad strategy. In the summer of 2008, for example, Russian troops invaded Georgia. Although Georgia had attacked first, the Russian action was universally condemned—but the West could actually do little or nothing. Military action was out of the question because of the danger that Russia might resort to nuclear weapons, and an economic boycott was impractical because Europe was heavily dependent on Russia for its fuel supplies. Some like Thomas Friedman argue that the West's use of fossil fuels helps to fund "petro-dictatorships" and, indirectly, terrorist groups. Depending on a resource that funds those who might attack you is not especially good strategy.
  • "Energy Independence" based on increased production of oil is not possible for the U.S. or the West. The arithmetic is simple and irrefutable. The U.S. controls just over 11% of the oil reserves in North America, or less than 3% of world reserves. Europe controls about 1% of the world's oil. Independence from foreign sources, at least at current consumption levels, is a myth.

The climate skeptics are, of course, wrong. All the evidence and the consensus of the science community says that humans have helped to create global warming and can help to alleviate by changing their way of life. But climate change is not the only reason to change. As the (admittedly incomplete) list above shows, there are many others.