Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Nuanced Argument for The Benefits of Global Warming – Watts Up With That?

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Kyle Schutter

For an audio discussion of the pros/cons of global warming, listen to this podcast with Kyle, Partner @Grant&Co fundraising consultant in Africa, and Amo Rebecca, Behavioral Scientist.

People often ask me, “Do you believe in global warming?” as if it’s a religion. But “belief” is not how reality works. More useful questions could be: What’s the probability that the

  1. climate is changing?
  2. change is bad?
  3. change is worse than the alternative?

It’s worth thinking about to see if we understand the world properly. I researched this topic for strategic reasons for our business—is climate something we want to invest in? Anyone who has a more accurate prediction of the future has an advantage.

The discussion of climate has become muddied due to conflicts of interest. We can’t trust the coal miner or the conservative politician when they say “Global warming is a non-issue,” nor can we trust the left-wing or solar startup that global warming is the biggest threat to humanity.

“You cannot get a man to understand something that his salary depends upon him not understanding.”

Meanwhile, we sit somewhere in the middle: environmentalists in the traditional sense and we do raise funding from climate-related groups.

Climate activists say 99% of scientists agree that the climate is warming and humans are responsible for it. But that disguises the consensus. Are all of those scientists 100% convinced? Or are they 51% convinced? If they are truly 100% convinced, then I’ll happily make a 100:0 bet with them as I would have no downside. No one so far has taken me up on this offer.

The Dutch have built dykes since the 1300s. 40% of the Netherlands was reclaimed from the sea, and even today, some of their land is still as much as 7 meters below sea level. Can we, with 21st-century technology, also build dykes to protect land that is 1 meter below sea level?

But, people say, what about places like Africa, which are most affected? Yes, but a well and irrigation would make people resilient to decreased or unreliable rains. These are known, albeit costly, solutions, and thus, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

We can handle the immediate effects of a warmer climate, but, people argue, global warming can spiral out of control: the warm weather melts more ice, less ice means less sunlight reflected and a positive feedback loop that makes the planet warmer ad infinitum until the whole planet is drier than the Sahara.

But there are also negative feedback loops; more carbon dioxide and warmer weather means more plant growth. Plants sequester carbon and reduce temperatures. In fact, the world has become greener over the last few decades with increased forestation in Europe, North America and China, and more greening (think tree crops+forest) in Brazil and Southeast Asia.

Forests in China, Scotland, France, Costa Rica and the US bounced back. Brazil, Peru, and DRC forests are still in steep decline. The world’s net forest cover is in decline, but the decline is slowing with every decade; at this rate, there will be a net increasing forest cover by 2050.

So climate change is possibly neutral to possibly very bad. But good and bad don’t exist in isolation. There are pros and cons of every choice…

We did pump a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, but carbon-based fuels have saved billions of lives in the last 2 centuries through advances in medicine and sanitation, not to mention improved quality of life for billions more. There wasn’t a viable alternative to carbon-based fuels to have saved those lives at that time. So would we rather have a 1-3°C temperature increase or 1-5 billion dead?

People often say climate change could kill millions of people. But what if it’s more complicated than that. What if modern technology, made possible by fossil fuels, saves millions of people. Just look at the data.

It’s almost as if the same thing that increases CO2 levels also decreases climate disasters. Based on 1920s Climate-related Death Rate of ~0.25% and considering there are 8b people on earth now, 20m people each year are saved compared to 1920s levels. EM-DAT, CRED / UCLouvain (2023)

This is not just a question of the past—billions still remain in energy poverty. Is it fair to prevent them from saving perhaps a billion more lives?

Let’s look at the environmental alternative. Is global warming better than global cooling? This is not an idle remark. In the 1950s, climate scientists noticed there was global cooling. In fact, due to the predictable changes in the earth’s orbit and axis of rotation, we can (very roughly) predict when we would possibly have had an ice age. The period of ice ages is about 21,000 years. The last ice age started about 21,000 years ago. Did we just narrowly miss having another ice age? We can never know for sure. But would we rather have 1-3°C warming than an ice age where the average global temperature dropped by 14°C and glaciers came all the way down to New York?

I just read Why the West Rules…For Now, detailing human development from 14,000BCE to present and a shocking number of times civilization collapsed right as we had a mini ice age. A worthwhile read.

Maybe we don’t want the world to get 1-3°C warmer. But we definitely don’t want it to get 14°C colder. If we could modulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to stay somewhere around what we have now AND relieve energy poverty around the world, that would be great. If only there was a way to maintain our current lifestyle AND carbon dioxide concentration…

We already have it! Nuclear power is abundant, reliable, safe and cheap (if the government just allows a plant to be built). Climate change is a solved problem (technically). Politically, there are still roadblocks. But politics is just made up of people like you and me. If you say let’s use nuclear and I do too and a billion other people do, then we could maintain slightly elevated levels of carbon dioxide to stave off an ice age. I have little sympathy for environmentalists against nuclear power; We can have our cake and eat it, too. At COP28, 22 countries committed to increasing Nuclear Power 3x by 2050.

I’m concerned that by 2100, we will have moved from a Military-Industrial Complex to a Carbon-Industrial Complex; we will have created an entrenched group of lobbyists and special interests that incentivize removing carbon from the atmosphere even though doing so is no longer needed. This could create a bullwhip effect that overcompensates and pushes us back towards too little carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing low plant growth and another ice age. I have not heard anyone talk about a Carbon-Industrial Complex before, and hopefully, people a century from now will laugh at my wrong-headed theory. But maybe not… History rhymes—if there’s one thing I’m 100% sure of, it’s that humans have proven repeatedly successful at overcompensating.

Closer to home than 2100, consider the parable of the Baptists and the Bootleggers. The religious baptists wanted to ban alcohol in the US in the 1910s to 1920s. Who could blame them? Less alcohol abuse seems like a good thing. But whenever there is someone with good intentions there is someone else who hides under good intentions. Who else wanted alcohol to be banned? The bootleggers! Originally environmentalists had good intentions. Hell, I’m an environmentalist who previously ran a biogas company and attempts permaculture farming when I can. But then the “bootleggers” (*ahem* power-hungry statists) saw the opportunity to centralize power by applying a moral purity test under the guise of environmentalism. It’s too soon to really sort out who are baptists and who are bootleggers but people who conveniently became concerned about the climate right when it benefitted them are suspect. Just like communism, “we need to control people for their own good.” How many climate bootleggers are there? We don’t know. But we know there are power hungry people who would do anything to get what they want so there are certainly some.

I try to be pragmatic. If carbon credits can raise capital for entrepreneurs who can replant trees or provide funding for rural solar projects, I’m all for it—for better or worse, such projects are a drop in the bucket for global carbon. However, I have not heard the unintended consequences of carbon credits discussed. Like giving away free clothes in Africa, thereby destroying nascent textile businesses, there are always unintended consequences.

What do you think?

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