Global Warming. Again. Sigh.

Can we stop talking about the global warming “debate” yet? I continue to receive emails from people hearing about how scientists are “torn” on the issue. Let’s get something straight: the overwhelming majority of mainstream scientists (i.e., those working on environmental science projects within recognized universities and institutes) agree that this is a serious issue; detractors tend to be economists, statisticians, TV weathermen and employees of the energy industry. With that in mind, here’s the lowdown:

  1. Global warming is a fact. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the mean surface temperature of the earth has increased by about 0.6 degrees Celcius. Over the last 40 years, which is the period with most reliable data, the temperature increased by about 0.2-0.3 degrees. Warming in the 20th century is greater than at any time during the past 400-600 years.

    Additionally, mountain glaciers the world over are receding; the Arctic ice pack has lost about 40% of its thickness over the past four decades; the global sea level is rising about three times faster over the past 100 years compared to the previous 3000 years; and there are a growing number of studies that show plants and animals changing their range and behavior in response to shifts in climate.

  2. While the overwhelming body of evidence suggest a warming, there are but 2 studies that raise any doubts. The first is the satellite temperature measurements since 1979 which show a warming but only half the value of surface measurements over this time. The second is a 1991 statistical study suggesting changes in the cycle of seasons are responsible for the global temperature changes over the last 100 years. At present, neither study poses a threat to the ocean of other kinds of evidence.

  3. That human activity is the cause of global warming is still a theory, but a compelling one. A 2002 report to the United Nations presented by scientists working for the US government concluded that “human activities such as oil refining, power generation and car emissions are significant causes of global warming.”

    Our planet is still emerging from a mini-Ice Age which ended about 12,000 years ago. That might be the real base cause of the warming; I surely don’t discount the possibility. Or maybe it’s a combination of factors. Heck, it might even be a cyclical affair, with temperatures dropping again in a century or two. This point –the true cause of the warming– is the only one that is legitimately open to debate.

  4. But even if human activity is not the cause of global warming, the phenomenon might still be catastophic for human civilization, and thus requires our immediate attention. We can’t wait a century or two for temperature to maybe drop again. Imagine the Asian tsunami reproduced in every coastal city on the planet. Think our civilization can survive that?

Do you get it now, people? Even if the Kyoto Accords don’t end up affecting global temperatures significantly, they are surely worth the effort and pain. Heck, anything is worth the effort to slow down or eliminate this very real threat. Kyoto is only a start, and I admit it disproportionately punishes Western countries. But you gotta start somewhere.

Why Tsunami Relief Matters

The unavoidable tsunami relief backlash has arrived. Commentators, such as this guy, are echoing the Rand Institute’s position that government money should not be spent on aid; and at many social gatherings I’m hearing frustrated mutterings complaining about tsunami aid overkill and overexposure. I myself no longer watch images of devastation on the news, and indeed my latest column explores assertions that tsunami aid is taking attention away from equally needy causes, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria control.

But let’s put things back into perspective, shall we? While it is true that the Asian tsunami has “only” killed 160,000 people (small compared to annual death tolls from war, hunger, malaria and AIDS), loss of life is not the only issue here. At least 5 million people remain homeless and suffering in refugee camps on the beaches of stricken countries. And yes, there are homeless in our own country, too, but our homeless problem can’t be solved with a few million dollars investment in reconstructed infratructure; ours is a much more economically and medically complicated phenomenon. The Asian case, however, is one than can be dramatically improved with sufficient initial investment in this brief window of time. These are peoples with skills and jobs, but no longer any industry infrastructure, such as a pier from which to fish. And unlike our situation, there is no social safety net large enough to absorb so many people for a prolonged period.

Additionally, it’s not just about loss of life and homelessness. The stricken nations are among the fastest recovering of Southern economies. The Indian economy was projected to grow by 8% this year, Thailand’s by 6% and Indonesia’s by 4%. (No figure for Sri Lanka, sorry, though the country was on its way to recovering from 20 years of civil war.) These nations are ripe markets for our exports and thriving environments for Northern/Western manufacturing —for better or worse. My point is that devastation in SE Asia means potential economic shrinkage in other parts of the world. And unlike malaria or HIV/AIDS, which at this point require sustained global efforts, sufficient and focused tsunami reconstruction/relief investment now might just head off calamnity later. Just imagine if we’d had the wherewithal to address the AIDS epidemic in the early days, well before it became a pandemic.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for the movement of HIV/AIDS funds to tsunami relief. Heck no– I consider myself a rabid AIDS fighter! Rather, I want you to understand that the tsunami affair is not overblown by the media. It’s a gosh darned honest to goodness catastrophe and a potential global nightmare.

Zero-Sum World Economics

There are, it seems, two competing views of world economics. The first is the most common and goes almost unquestioned in everyday affairs; it holds that there is no limit to potential wealth and that everyone, conceivably, can be wealthy at the same time; all you need is something to trade.

The other view holds that global wealth is a zero-sum affair wherein for one cluster of people to be wealthy another must be poor. The latter view has been inaccurately characterized by a regular visitor to this website as “communist” and “pure Marxist posturing.” In economic terms, Marx’s only real contribution was the (correct) suggestion that labour can be a kind of capital, which has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. Today’s economics are more or less Keynesian and hold that macro-level trends tend to overwhelm individual behaviours.

The zero-sum scenario only makes sense when all factors of economic transaction are accounted for. A problem is the idea of an “externality”, or the cost that others must pay for you to use your product. You pay a price for gas at the gas station, for example, but that price does not necessarily reflect the “external” price of producing and transporting the gas; such costs are often not monetary but environmental.

In the non zero-sum world, there are no appreciable external costs. Rather, unquantifiable externalities are absorbed by the “commons”, the shared pool of human assets, such as the earthly environment. Garret Hardin captured the world’s imagination with his 1968 article, The Tragedy of the Commons, in which he pointed out that regulation of pollution and depletion of the commons is a losing affair. This is partly because those who have acquired wealth also dictate the terms by which the commons can be exploited. In this sense, those who acquire wealth deny it for others by skewing exploitation of the commons toward their own advantage.

Here’s a good way to better understand the situation. Play the Tragedy of the Bunnies game! By some measures, the world may be wealthier now than it ever has been before. But by other measures it’s never been poorer. Don’t close your mind to either measure. Don’t let wishful or defensive thinking blind you.