Environmental Arithmetic

by Quinn

Apparently, the weather for the rest of this month is likely to be “spring-like”, following that cold snap last weekend. It has certainly confused a ceanothus bush near where I live, which already has some of its bright blue horse-cake blossom on its branches. But nowadays, what is meant by spring-like?

My wife was born on the 21st of March; the first day of spring. On the day she was born, so the story goes, her father was sledging in Lyme Park. Two years ago, on her birthday, we were sat by the banks of Windermere, having a drink in the beer garden of the Wateredge Inn, Ambleside, on a sweltering hot day.

Is this evidence of global warming? Obviously not, not by itself. I should say now that I am not a fully signed up member of the environmental brigade; I do think that spring is getting earlier and winter milder, as many phrenologists suggest, but I do wonder at times if this is just due to getting older. Everyone thinks winters were colder and snowier when they were young. On the other hand, I still find myself tutting when I hear global warming referred to on the news as if it were pure scientific fact; I know that there is still debate in the scientific community on the matter. What surprises me more, though, is the number of non-scientists who are absolutely convinced that global warming is a fantasy, that it is “junk science”. Even as a non-scientist myself I know enough to believe that the basic theory makes sense, even if the evidence itself may not be conclusive.

Some people argue that there is nothing to suggest that global warming is a problem, but this is nonsense; there is rucks of evidence. Whether or not you believe it is another matter, and of course, there is also evidence which suggests that all is well. I am not qualified to argue the science, but I do wonder why people as unqualified as I am seem so sure that there is nothing to worry about. For some people, it seems all it takes if for them to hear “environmentalists warn that…” and they have heard enough. They already disagree with what the environmentalists think, whatever it is they are about to say.

It is argued that the temperature of the Earth is constantly changing over time, and so why are we concerned? It is true, of course, that the Earth at times has been much warmer than it is now; but as I understand it, one of the reasons the Earth cooled down was that there was a massive growth of forests across the planet billions of years ago; in other words, the reverse of the greenhouse effect which is currently the concern. But even then, just because the Earth temperature fluctuates, does that not mean that we can seek to influence it, if that is for the benefit of mankind? Or should we just sit around and accept it; perhaps we should tear down our flood defences while we are at it, on the basis that if it floods it floods and it is all a perfectly natural state of affairs?

Another often heard argument is a simple one; that of course global warming doesn’t exist, or if it does then it is a natural phenomenon, because it is ridiculous to think than mankind can effect his environment to such a degree. But why not? We have it in our power to blow the world up many times over, to chop down every tree and to use up every natural resource on the planet. Of course we can effect the environment; you don’t surely need to be a scientist to see that.

George Monbiot, who, unlike me, certainly is an environmentalists, wrote an interesting article regarding a couple of studies often cited by the critics of global warming. One is the “petition produced in 1998 by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and ‘signed by over 18,000 scientists'”. This, according to David Bellamy, shows that “the link between the burning of fossil fuels and global warming is a myth”. This petition is often produced to debunk global warming; sadly, according to Monbiot, the signatories include Geri Halliwell and (even more bizarrely) the cast of M*A*S*H.

“Its petition was attached to what purported to be a scientific paper, printed in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, the paper had not been peer-reviewed or published in any scientific journal. Anyone could sign the petition, and anyone did: only a handful of the signatories are experts in climatology, and quite a few of them appear to have believed that they were signing a genuine paper. And yet, six years later, this petition is still being wheeled out to suggest that climatologists say global warming isn’t happening.”

Later in the same article Monbiot refers to another report, by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician. This report does not deny that global warming is happening, or indeed that it can be prevented, just that it is not worth bothering. Monbiot writes that “Lomborg claimed to have calculated that global warming will cause $5 trillion of damage, and would cost $4 trillion to ameliorate. The money, he insisted, would be better spent elsewhere.” Monbiot counters that

“The idea that we can attach a single, meaningful figure to the costs incurred by global warming is laughable. Climate change is a non-linear process, whose likely impacts cannot be totted up like the expenses for a works outing to the seaside. Even those outcomes we can predict are impossible to cost. We now know, for example, that the Himalayan glaciers which feed the Ganges, the Bramaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the other great Asian rivers are likely to disappear within 40 years. If these rivers dry up during the irrigation season, then the rice production which currently feeds over one third of humanity collapses, and the world goes into net food deficit.”

Now, unlike George Monbiot, I do not know what will happen to the Himalayan glaciers in the next 40 years, and I dare say another study will contradict this claim. And in fairness to Lomborg, his article in The Times does argue for action on global warming; just that the Kyoto Protocol is not a particularly effective way of doing it. But he also admits that some people “only pay attention to half of what I say about global warming”. They find his cost/benefit analysis argues against action; this is all they need to decide we should not bother to tackle global warming.

And I think it is this attitude, that people can’t be bothered, that explains such antagonism in the face of common sense. People can’t be bothered to be careful about non-renewable resources like oil, and so we just rattle along using up resources as if there is no tomorrow; but there will be. People can’t be bothered to recycle plastics and metals, even though everyone knows these things cannot last forever. People can’t be bothered not to dump things in a landfill, even thought it is clear we cannot carry on doing this. And I am as bad; by son is a little landfill site all of his own thanks to his nappies; although considering the contents of a used nappy, you would thing a biodegradable one would be an ideal compost (I even saw someone once arguing against recycling and for landfill, saying that landfill is just a type of compost; but I am not sure what nutrient value the land would get from an empty tin of beans and an old bottle of Coke wrapped inside a bin liner). So people are not bothered; they don’t want to go to the bottle bank, they don’t want to stop driving their cars, they are happy to use 12 carrier bags per trip to Tesco, they don’t want any further costs put on businesses, and they certainly don’t want to be told what to do by a load of sandal-wearing doom-mongers talking about how many of our essential natural resources will start drying up by the middle of the century.

Personally, the prospect of fossil fuels running out is not too much of a concern for me; it’s not as if it is a thing of beauty which we need to keep in the ground for posterity, and as it runs out and it becomes more difficult to extract, I would imagine the price will rise until the cost of alternative, renewable resources becomes more attractive. As more people switch to renewables then economies of scale will lead to price cuts for solar panels, wind turbines and so on. I may be being naive, but with a bit of luck I think we will be alright.

But just a minute; what am I talking about? When fossil fuels run out and we are all forced to switch to renewable resources? When that happens, won’t it mean that the alleged main cause of global warming will have disappeared? Panic over? That makes sense doesn’t it? Is this all a little too simple, or have I missed something?