The question I pose in the title is frequently asked, in one similar form or another, by many people who do take an interest in the ‘climate change’ debate, and it was raised by a reader at this website the other day. It was expressed in this way: ‘it seems to me to be a better course of action than to wait until it is potentially too late to act. With the scientific consensus suggesting that something is happening, and with the weight of the conjectures put forward, we should be taking this more seriously than we are.’ In a further exchange, the reader said ‘My common sense tells me it is more reasonable to act before we have a very real, visible problem than to wait until it is too late to act at all.’
These are apparently sensible positions to take, and I do not reject them out of hand. But they require the kind of extended comment that amounts to an essay on the website — and this is it!
There are two separate domains in this issue. The first is whether or not ‘the science’ is sufficiently advanced to be able to provide a clear and robust account of the world’s climate and what is happening to it, whether or not human activity is responsible for any of it, and whether or not what is happening is likely to be dangerous to humanity. Both the reader and I agree that the science is immature at this point, but …
The second domain, assuming that ‘the science’ has got it more or less right, is what we can do about it. Curbing human greenhouse gas emissions is the consensus position, but it doesn’t automatically follow from the science. Indeed, it is a political response, not a scientific one. There are many other proposed solutions, conventionally called ‘solar radiation management’, that might involve changing the albedo of the earth, creating sulphur aerosols, fertilising the ocean with iron, putting big mirrors into space, and so on.
None of them has been tried out on a large scale, and both the 4th and 5th IPCC reports pooh-poohed them. The reason is plain: the IPCC wants to see a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It has even been suggested that talking about geo-engineering solutions creates a ‘moral hazard’, in that people will then think they don’t have to reduce their emissions! The choice that is facing the world, then, is between reducing greenhouse gas emissions, undertaking one or more engineering solutions, and doing nothing much. Because the rate of warming we have been having seems to have been good for humanity I am not attracted to attempts to curb it, and the failure of attempts to create a global compact suggest that nothing is going to happen, at least for quite a while.
Now the good news, at least to me, is that the pause in warming continues, which much reduces the possibility that we are facing Thermageddon. Such a long pause, while carbon dioxide continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, suggests at the very least that there are other factors at work in determining global temperature. And that suggests also that the mad rush to curb greenhouse gas emissions is at least premature. I have written before about the notion that we must prevent temperature’s rising above 2 degrees Celsius. At the present rate of warming, someone has worked out, that 2 degrees target is 800 years away.
So my position, like that of the reader, is that the science is immature. I then go further, and argue that the proposed threat simply doesn’t stack up, on the observational evidence. Therefore, unlike the reader, I think we have plenty of time to wait, and while we wait, do some serious work on natural variability, rather than more and more work on the threat from carbon dioxide, what will happen to the habitat of the wingless goose, and so on. That’s domain one.
Domain two is about the efficacy of the proposed solution. I have argued before that the arithmetic of the targets Australia and other countries have set for greenhouse gas reductions simply doesn’t make any difference to the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. You can do the calculations yourself on the ‘Calculator’ referred to in that essay, and it’s entirely kosher in design and uses only IPCC data.
The truth is that all this fuss about carbon dioxide is just fatuous, or ‘nutty’ as I said in my essay, a term I used to describe those who insist we are doomed (their privilege) unless we curb greenhouse gas emissions, but are plainly unaware that even if we stopped every human emission tomorrow in the USA, the reduction in temperature would not be noticed. And so often, the person or group concerned is not interested in doing the sums — which is why I am increasingly drawn to the notion that what we see here are quasi-religious beliefs that have little or nothing to do with science.
Back to the question in the title. What is my answer? We should learn more, and adapt, as humanity has always done. Climate hazards are part of life. We have just had damaging fires in New South Wales, and there will be droughts and floods ahead, as well as more fires. Adapting to them, and learning from them, seems to me the way to go.