Tomorrow the Vatican is scheduled to release an encyclical letter by Pope Francis entitled Laudato Si dealing with ecological concerns. This has a lot of people fairly worked up, including people on Catholic left who haven't felt compelled to listen to any source of Catholic teaching other than their consciences since Humanae Vitae was widely rejected in 1968 and others on the secular left who pretty much don't listen to the Church on anything. I suppose that for those who consider the main function of religious doctrine to be to provide out-of-context pull-quotes to bludgeon their ideological opponents with, this will at least be a source of some additional quotes. However, overall I'm not sure why there is so much fuss, because I kind of doubt that there will be a whole lot in the encyclical which will impinge on people's daily lives in obvious ways. We all are affected in our daily lives by teachings on marriage and the family, we all are responsible for our personal devotions and our behavior towards others, but very few of us set national budgets, invent new technologies, or enact global environmental treaties.
Nonetheless, it seems like a topical day to martial a few thoughts on the climate change issue, which is one that I don't touch on a whole lot because of the frustrations and tensions of the issue and its partisans.
Why I Don't Get Along With Conservatives on Climate Change
I'm a pretty partisan guy, and I'm a conservative on most issues, so one of the reasons I don't talk a ton about the climate change/global warming issue is that I don't necessarily agree with most conservatives on the issue. For a variety of reasons, American conservatives in particular are pretty protective of free markets, technology and capitalism. Social conservatives are protective of the family and traditional Christian sexual morals. Environmentalists tend to be politically on the left, and a lot of their advocacy centers around limiting emissions of greenhouse gasses via government regulation, demanding a smaller economy, and insisting that people have fewer children because humans are seen as "the problem", occasionally even as a "cancer on the planet".
Because trying to prevent climate change due to human release of greenhouse gasses fit well with various narratives and desires already present on the political left, that's where the issue came to live, and because American conservatives already disagreed with the left on a lot of those other issues, it came naturally to dispute the climate change theories. It's now pretty much expected for conservatives to dispute that there is any impact of fossil fuel burning on the climate due to the release of greenhouse gasses. In this, conservatives are wrong.
Sure, there are a ton of idiotic things said by someone like Al Gore (and his own lifestyle is one massive carbon emissions disaster, so he's easy to mock), but at a basic level there are some things that "the environmentalists" have right:
- While CO2 is not the most efficient greenhouse gas (methane and water vapor both trap more heat) it does appear to act that way and we really are increasing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. When plants grow, they take in CO2 and emit oxygen, while using the carbon (along with other elements) to produce... themselves: wood, leaves, stalks, seeds, flowers, etc. Carbon is one of the building blocks of life on earth. That's why in SciFi shows they talk about "carbon based life". If you take wood (like the big pile of firewood in my backyard from the maple tree we took down last winter) and burn it, the carbon in the wood combines with oxygen from the air to form CO2 during the burning, and that CO2 is now back in the atmosphere. So long as trees are taking the CO2 out and we then release it again by burning the left over plant matter, we have a closed system and the level of CO2 remains the same. However, when we dig up coal or oil and burn it, we're taking carbon which has been out of the system for millions of years and adding it to the atmosphere. There's doubtless plant matter getting buried somewhere in peat bogs and lakes and such which may someday turn into coal and oil, and that's taking carbon back out of circulation. But we're re-releasing ancient carbon via fossil fuels a lot faster than the burial of plant matter is sequestering modern carbon, so on net we're increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
- It really is getting (slightly) warmer. The climate is a massively complex thing. Our real worlds is not like in a SciFi movie, where you have ice planets and desert planets and jungle planets, and you can imagine the whole planet changing temperature. The temperatures that climate scientists are talking about are average global temperatures, adjusting for all sorts of regional and seasonal noise. That noise is the weather we experience on a daily basis. And regionally, an overall increase in global temperatures might result in some parts of the world getting colder while others get warmer. But while there's some room for dispute on how much the temperature is rising and what will happen next (much more on the latter than the former) the tendency to dismiss it all as fraud or fuzzy science is incorrect. While there may well be feedback cycles we don't understand well that will moderate the effects of warming (and if anything, the temperature does seem to be going up less than would otherwise be expected) overall the idea that temperature is going up in a way that is linked with the CO2 level going up is the best supported view.
Why I Don't Get Along With Progressives on Climate Change
So why is it, given the above, that I'm not a big environmentalist cheerleader?
Well, first of all, I do disagree with a lot of the progressive tendencies I mentioned before which made concerns about global warming so congenial to the political left. I don't see people as a cancer on the planet. I think that human beings hold a special place in God's creation, and while I think that we do have a duty not to wantonly destroy the other things God created I don't think the earth is some sort of nature preserve that we need to not affect and maybe pursue voluntary extinction in order to leave pristine. I mean, seriously, there's a lot messed up about secular environmentalism.
But my differences aren't just ideological. Because worrying about greenhouse gasses and climate change is so congenial to certain instincts of the left, the environmental movement jumps on a lot of bandwagons that simply do not make sense at a basic scientific level.
We may be nearing a sort of tipping point, but up until this point, a lot of the "green" technologies have actually taken more energy (typically fossil fuel energy) to put in place than they produce or save. So while there has been all sorts of advocacy for wind farms and solar panels, and demand for those technologies is doubtless providing the money for research which will eventually get us to real, usable, worthwhile technologies, the pieties around adopting green tech are often delusional.
Also, in their willingness to say that we put too much emphasis on profits and that there are too many people in the world, environmentalists tend to forget that innovation (such as the invention of new and cleaner technologies) tends to be driven by two things: economic growth and people. If we have less growth and less people, not only do we suffer from a lower standard of living and fewer unique souls with their unique gifts to offer the world, but we won't even have the technological breakthroughs which might actually make pipe dreams like getting a lot of our power from the sun or wind possible. (Or that cold fusion reactor that's been back-ordered since the early '90s.)
Finally, although some of the basic facts are got right by the left (yes CO2 levels are rising, yes the world is warming a bit) there is a HUGE amount of hysteria and misinformation that gets associated with "global warming alarmism", such as attributing every single weather related problem to "climate change", as if we'd never have hurricanes if everyone drove a Prius.
The Planet Will Be Fine
One of the phrases that I think throws people off is the constant discussion of the need to "save the planet". This is a problem, but not because we shouldn't care about our planet. It's a nice planet. It's been given to us to take care of, and we'd rather see it beautiful and full of interesting creatures than a barren wasteland. But the fact is, the planet itself can survive quite a lot.
65 million years ago, the planet got hit by a massive asteroid, plunged into a global night and winter, and most species of land and sea animals went extinct. And yet, the planet remains beautiful and wonderful and now it sports creatures such as us, rather than dinosaurs. Things change, but the planet itself is in a state of constant change, both affected by the creatures on it and also by outside forces such as that huge piece of rock which hit it one very bad day at the end of the Cretaceous.
If the CO2 level in that atmosphere increased enough and the average temperature increased enough, there could be a whole lot of changes and many species of plants and animals would experience the effects. Some would die out or migrate or change their habits. But the planet has had higher CO2 levels in the past, and it hasn't turned into a barren desert planet. We're not Venus, nor are we going to become so. But the plant itself would survive and continue to be a beautiful and wonderful place. However...
Change Is Bad
What we really need to worry about in regards to the extent to which our burning of fossil fuels could be causing a long term warming of the planet is not the planet, it's us. The planet would be fine with a higher ocean level. The planet would be fine with different weather patterns.
We, however, have based the location of our cities and populations across the world, the foods we grow, and the way we live, on what temperatures and ocean levels have been like for the last few hundred years. We could adjust to a warmer world with different weather patterns, but periods of human migration and disruption tend to be painful and costly. So rather than thinking about anthropogenic (human caused) climate change as mean old humanity messing up the perfect balance of the nature preserve world which is meant to not show our fingerprints, we should think about it in terms of whether the effects of warming might be ones that would be hard on human civilization.
Humanity Finds a Way
One of the things that scares environmentalists about humanity is that we are an incredibly adaptive and tenacious species. We want to live and thrive, and we do so in more parts of the world than any other animal of our size. We have a significant impact on the land we live on (not like other species don't) and as with other species, that could be a threat to us.
But that's just the beginning. We have the ability to invent new ways of producing energy that won't have the side effect of releasing long buried carbon as atmospheric CO2. We may simply grow out of the needing to burn so much fossil fuel. Or we may find other ways to deal with the problem. Maybe we'll come up with some new means of capturing and making dormant the CO2 which we've released -- maybe something similar to but much faster than the process whereby plants fix carbon within themselves and then get buried as inert matter to become fossil fuels over millions of years. Or there are a number of proposals to cool things back down again if the world does warm undesirably.
A lot of these mitigation ideas are not popular with environmentalists, in part because they don't achieve the side objectives of regulating the economy and shrinking the population, and in part because the idea of people artificially messing with the climate is kind of worrying. After all, imagine that for one country, cooling is desirable, while for another warming is desirable. One could imagine things getting really messed up if some major government like China decided to go rogue and try to tweek the world climate to suit their own needs without worrying about how those efforts would affect other. And, of course, unintended consequences can be a bear.
But one thing is for sure: A little realism on issues relating to greenhouse gasses and climate change does NOT necessitate taking on the kind of doom-and-gloom attitude and vision of humanity as a cancer which seem to underlie a lot of environmentalist thinking.