Thursday, November 10, 2011

Climate Change Is Real, But It Doesn't Matter Anyway

I believe in climate change.  I believe that the consensus of scientists around the world is valid--indeed, the Earth is getting warmer, and this will have dramatic effects on local temperatures, making some warmer, some colder, seasons more erratic, drought in some places and floods in others.  Some animal species will be threatened, some coastal cities will flood, and in general, bad things will happen.  However, it is my contention that this won't literally be the end of the world.

In the early 1800's, Thomas Malthus, an economist, proposed in his writings that there would be a population boom that would lead to eventual starvation and destruction of a fair part of the human species.  At this time, the world population was nowhere near the total 7 billion lives we now know.  Malthus, like many thinkers, failed to account for the genius of human creativity and invention to help ameliorate human problems.  Left unchecked and without new innovation, then the population explosion would have been disastrous.  Fortunately, however, improvements in agriculture, pesticides, fertilizers, and biotechnology have enabled us to keep up with demand.  The world didn't end.  While the world cannot feed an endless number of people, it has been shown that once many economies throughout the world improve, the fertility rate drops dramatically.  Once people have more money, they have less children.  This means the world population will eventually stabilize, well before it is all gloom and literal doom.

Both sides of the climate change debate get bogged down on whether it is caused by humans or not.  If it is a natural trend, then there's nothing we can do about it.  If it is caused by human activity, then we need to make changes now or people will suffer and die.  I believe these arguments are a waste of time.  What we believe isn't going to change anything.  The scientific consensus is that if climate change is human-made, then we need to make drastic reductions to our contributions of carbon to the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, even if this is true, on a world wide scale the poorer, emerging nations like India and China have already stated that they are unwilling to curb their emissions of fossil fuels.  They believe that the U.S. and Western Europe already had their chances to use these dirty energies to become First World nations.  Why should the Third World suffer?  The citizens of the world are simply unwilling to make the kinds of sacrifices to their lifestyle and income that would be required to make any kind of real dent in stopping climate change.  In the U.S., Obama lacks the cojones to push any sort of climate change legislation, and the Republicans certainly won't help him on this one.  Plus, with the economy in its current state, energy restrictions and carbon taxes would only cause the economy to sink even further into the abyss.  The bottom line is that climate change legislation within the U.S. and around the globe is a no go.  Europe is too busy bailing out failing Eurozone members to bother with climate change legislation as well.

If climate change is not human-made, then there's little we can do to stop it.  The supposed bad effects of it are going to happen one way or another, so we might as well spend our energy adapting to it.  After all, the planet will still be here, it will be less habitable and more miserable, but with the right adaptions we as a species can still survive.

Perhaps innovation and creativity may save us once again.  As it stands now, we are betting on climate change ruining all the fun.  But we haven't wagered on the introduction of newer technologies to help save the day.  Each year solar technology gets better and better.  Within the next 20 years, it should be powerful enough to provide enough of our energy needs.  Advances in nanotechnology and other technologies should provide alternative energy sources that are meaningful in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.  According to Ray Kurzweil, futurist and analyst of technology progress:

"Solar panels are coming down dramatically in cost per watt. And as a result of that, the total amount of solar energy is growing, not linearly, but exponentially. It’s doubling every 2 years and has been for 20 years. And again, it’s a very smooth curve. There’s all these arguments, subsidies and political battles and companies going bankrupt, they’re raising billions of dollars, but behind all that chaos is this very smooth progression."

According to Kurzweil, within 16 years there will be 8 doublings (every two years solar technology is doubling), which is an exponential growth of this technology.  When it happens, if we can capture 1/10,000th the sunlight that falls on Earth, we could meet all our energy needs with little difficulty.

Why have fossil fuels been so prevalent despite the rapid advances in technology?  It's because they are so cheap compared to the amount of energy you get from them.  Electricity from coal is cheap, reliable, much less hazardous than nuclear power, is abundant, and sourced from the good ole' U.S. of A.  The problem is that coal is dirty.

When it comes to climate change, we must be realists.  People aren't going to make the sacrifices needed to stop climate change meaningfully.  If it is not caused by human activity, then it's going to happen regardless of what we do.  Either way, it's going to happen.  We can adapt to it, or die out.  This is what happens to all animals and species.  Whether we can meet this challenge as a human race remains to be seen.  Somehow, given our track record, I feel pretty good wagering on human ingenuity.

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