Thursday, July 06, 2006

Why act to block global warming?

The Frontal Cortex points us to Jonah Goldberg's odd claim that:
if global warming were an entirely natural phenomenon - as opposed to a man-made problem caused by greenhouse gases - then "the reluctance on the part of some on the right to fix the problem would evaporate."
I can't imagine why that should be so. These are the reasons I can see why one would back doing something about climate change:
  • It'll be costly
  • It'll destroy natural things of beauty
  • It's immoral to break the natural world
  • We understand so little about the way the world works that we should tread lightly (Precautionary Principle).
Conservatives generally seem to think that the real reason most people back doing something about climate change is that we all just really hate corporations, but that's a straw man.

Which of those change if we suddenly find that climate change isn't a result of human actions? Doing something will still be costly, the effects would still be a disaster for nature, and it'd illustrate just how little we understand, the profound harm that can result from messing with a poorly understood system to block a natural process would be even more obvious, and the moral case would then weigh more heavily against action than in its favor.

This also offers a handy way of answering the second question:
If global warming were entirely "natural," would environmentalists still be agitating for change? According to Goldberg, the answer is no: "The reluctance to 'tamper' with nature would cause at least some environmentalists to second-guess global warming science."
Of course, Goldberg (being a perpetual contender for the stupidest man alive) manages to mangle a simple question. The issue isn't that anyone would question the science. They'd base their decisions on the science and their personal moral compasses. And the calculus might well weigh in favor of taking protective action but not for trying to create anthropogenic global cooling. Put up dikes, improve hurricane defenses, start scouting farm land further north, whatever, but don't try to conduct an uncontrolled experiment with the global climate.

That would essentially be the same case as the case for remedial action now. If the change isn't our fault, it's hubris to try to reverse it. If it is our fault, it was hubris to undertake a change to global climate, and we should reverse course. The important thing, one often glossed over by those like Goldberg, is that we base that assessment on the science, not on our skepticism about the implications of the science.