Monday, December 14, 2009

Right for all the wrong reasons

The hue and cry in Copenhagen is emotional, largely sincere, opportunistic and political. Science is but a shrinking handmaiden in service to more powerful forces. Protesters are demanding changes in the way humans organize their economic efforts throughout the world and especially in developing nations. Though they are demanding positive change, they may be doing so for all the wrong reasons.

There are two basic camps in the discussion. On the one hand are the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) proponents, claiming that climate change is caused by anthropogenic CO2 production, and we must reduce atmospheric CO2 in order to avoid a climate catastrophe. On the other hand are the climate change deniers, who claim that climate change does not exist, and is a conspiracy of environmental groups, developing nations and one-world government supporters. Somewhere in the wilderness between these two camps are climate change skeptics, those who examine the data, methodology and conclusions of climate change research and dare to cast doubt on the "consensus" reality of both camps.

In fact, these are only the black and white extremes of a multicolored reality that masks the true nature of the political, economic and social forces at work in the climate change debate.

The AGW side claims we must act quickly to reduce atmospheric CO2 in order to reduce anthropogenic CO2 forcing of global warming. Yet, we do not understand the complex interaction of greenhouse gases of all flavors (methane, water vapor, CFCs, etc) and their relative contributions to global positive energy imbalance. Nor do we understand
the role of solar magnetic fluctuations, cosmic rays, global cloud formation and oceanic heat in long term cycles of climate fluctuation. We don't even know what causes ice ages, let alone decadal temperature fluctuations.

It is premature to assume that anthropogenic CO2 is solely responsible for the observed upward trend in global average temperatures, if indeed such a concept as global average temperature has any meaning at all. And it could be a grave mistake to assume that by lowering CO2 levels in the atmosphere to a certain arbitrarily determined level that we are safe from climate fluctuation for ever and ever, Amen.

The danger is that we are proposing to put all of our climate mitigating eggs in one CO2 basket, while ignoring all the other factors involved in climate fluctuation evident throughout geologic history, and failing to prepare for the effects of climate change on our societies, regardless of its ultimate cause. We are proposing to commit our economic effort to one end, assuming that will be the solution to our problems.

What happens if we are wrong? We have cast our fate to the winds of of CO2 reduction, and abandoned any other approach to dealing with climate change.

If instead, we work to reduce ALL human economic activity in ALL societies in the world, we would then reduce all factors in human society that are contributing to environmental imbalance. We would reduce CO2 production, as well as production of all greenhouse gases and pollutants. We would reduce habitat loss, deforestation, desertification, resource depletion, topsoil loss, salt water intrusion, fresh water depletion, ocean dead zones, species extinction. We would begin to degrow our societies to fit within the carrying capacity various bioregions of the earth in a gradual, designed decline, rather than a precipitous crash.

It is not CO2 production alone that threatens human societies across the
globe, as well as all other life. It is the unrealistic and unsustainable neoclassical economic concept of perpetual economic growth that is driving human societies to social and perhaps even species extinction.

Without abandonment of the concept of economic growth, it doesn't matter what level we reduce atmospheric CO2 to, even if that were possible. The human economic growth juggernaut will overcome any such simplistic band-aid approach.

Degrowth, economic contraction to a steady state economy, is the only viable solution to the natural environmental constraints on human economic activity.

If we don't choose to do it ourselves, Mother Nature will do it for us.
And we won't be happy with the outcome.