By MASON RAYNER
Few issues have proven to be as divisive as climate change. Unfortunately, the ideological rancor from both sides has resulted in a debate that has become highly politicized, with a complex and nuanced issue of science and economics being reduced to a simple believer/skeptic dichotomy.
Climate change itself is a scientific issue, while addressing it is an economic issue. Therefore, there are certain economic and scientific facts that should be laid out.
The climate is and always has been changing. Global temperatures have risen and fallen throughout history in a cyclical pattern. These natural cycles have always existed, regardless of human activity, and will continue to occur, regardless of what we do.
However, climatologists are in nearly unanimous agreement that there has been significant anthropogenic warming, or warming that results from human activity, in recent decades.
Although global temperatures have been roughly flat since 1998, that is because the year represented an outlier in terms of temperature—it was one of the highest on record. There has been a clear upward trend in temperatures, particularly in the last half of the 20th century.
The dominant cause of anthropogenic warming is the emission of CO2, or carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is an invisible, scentless, and tasteless gas. It’s also a greenhouse gas, meaning that it traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 39 percent since the early 19th century, according to data collected by NASA. There is not a perfect correlation between the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide intensity and the earth’s temperature, but there is a strong one.
A warmer climate can have some positive effects, such as increased agricultural fertility due to longer growing periods. The MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen has noted that much of the evolution of life on earth occurred in periods when the climate was warmer than it is now.
However, there are also many harmful effects, such as rises in sea levels (resulting in increased flooding and increased water scarcity as saltwater mixes with groundwater in coastal areas), increased acidification of the ocean (resulting in the potential extinction of many species) and greater expansion of deadly diseases such as malaria, which flourish in warm climates.
Even worse, there is also the potential for positive feedback loops, in which the occurrence of warming itself leads to more warming. For instance, as the planet warms, the permafrost of the Arctic will melt. As it melts, it will release large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, which will trap more heat in the atmosphere.
Similarly, a warmer planet will have increased evaporation and decreased condensation, leading to the presence of more water vapor in the air. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, trapping more heat in the atmosphere.
The result of these positive feedback loops could be a situation in which temperatures begin to accelerate upward sharply and unexpectedly, with humans powerless to stop it. Picture yourself on a skateboard rushing down a massive hill, accelerating faster and faster with each second. This is the kind of momentum an increase in temperatures could have if a feedback loop starts.
There are plenty of reasons to want to allay temperature increases. But the skeptics do have a point when it comes to the costs of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is deeply intertwined in our lives: when we charge our cell phones and iPods, turn up the air conditioning in the summer and the heat in the winter, drive to meet friends or get a bite to eat, flip on the TV, surf the internet, play Halo 3, wash and dry our clothes, and so on, we use carbon dioxide.
Because of this, simply turning off the lights when you leave a room or taking shorter showers, as some environmentalists are fond of suggesting, will not make any difference.
And while politicians frequently discuss “green jobs,” it is undeniable that there is a tradeoff between economic growth and environmental stewardship. We use coal and oil for our energy needs because they are the cheapest and most efficient sources we have.
Wind and solar energy have been showered with billions of dollars of subsidies from the federal government, but still only account for one-sixth of 1 percent of energy production in America. The only way renewable and nuclear energies can be made competitive is to raise the price of oil and coal to punitive levels. How much of our standards of living are we willing to sacrifice to prevent climate change? $7 for a gallon of gas? Electricity bills 3 times as high as what they are now?
What’s worse, it all might not make a difference anyway. The United Nations Environment Program has predicted that temperatures will rise an enormous 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, even if all countries meet their most extreme targets for reducing emissions.
If the U.S. reduces emissions by 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 (putting our per capita emissions at 1870s levels), it could conceivably make no difference, especially if India and China, who are understandably more concerned about lifting their citizens out of poverty than combating climate change, continue to grow at surging rates while using fossil fuels.
Of course, the chance of the U.S. actually cutting emissions by that much is essentially nil, even without mentioning all of the other nations who would have to meet similarly draconian goals.
So we are left with an unpleasant dilemma: either do nothing and deal with the potentially dire consequences of a rapidly warming planet, or undertake a massively costly attempt to avert the warming that has no guarantee of working and significantly lowers our standards of living.
Thus the facts are often painful, which may be why both sides have so frequently avoided them in the climate change debate.