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Climate Change Confusion

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I was just listening to an old Talk of the Nation - from 22 Feb - with Jonah Goldberg, Dan Kammen, and Barry Rabe talking about (in)action to mitigate climate change. You can download the mp3 here - the discussion is perhaps 30-40 minutes at the beginning of the segment.

After listening to Neil Conan describe the discussion about to take place, I thought I should write something to dispel a few major misconceptions about climate change and the debate around it. Neil Conan asked if "global cooling" or "reversing" climate change would be too expensive (this is the claim made by Goldberg).

To my limited knowledge, no one is seriously talking about "reversing" global climate change. We are talking about slowing it or, for the ambitious, stopping it. This is to say that we are going to slow human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Slowing substantially or stopping climate change will be a herculean effort - reversing it is almost beyond contemplation just now.

So to be clear, most arguments about climate change are about whether we should slow GHG emissions and at what rate.

In the discussion on TotN, Goldberg noted that a rising temperature on Earth is not that big of a deal because the earth has been warmer and cooler in the past. He also later claimed that talk of a rising ocean level is not persuasive to him. I find this odd because the ocean levels have been both higher and lower in the past.

It does not take much to figure that a higher temperature will impact the ocean levels. Even without melting ice, warmer water takes up more space than cooler water (called thermal expansion). Thus, there are two main contributors to higher sea levels. At this point, this is little scientific certainty as to how rapidly sea levels will rise with a warming climate but I have not heard of a single scientist predicting shrinking sea levels.

Goldberg's argument that we should not mitigate GHGs comes from the apt observation that millions of people die every year from problems that could be solved with the money and attention that is being paid to global warming. He cites a number predicting 1 million climate change related deaths in 100 years and believes we are focusing on the wrong problems based upon that metric.

This seems to be THE main argument from economists for inaction on climate change. If one only valued human life and only knew that 1 million death prediction (I believe this describes many economists) then it makes sense that they argue our focus on climate change is misplaced.

However, climate change impacts all creatures on earth and there are significant moral questions to valuing cheap fossil fuels over mass extinctions. Even from a human-centric view, these mass extinctions can be dangerous because humans depends on food chains for sustenance. Nonetheless, there are far greater costs to global climate change than most economists take into account (in part because it is difficult to place a monetary value on them).

On the other hand, scientists are often specialists. They know a lot about things like climate change, biological diversity, and the dangers of them. They rarely spend time deciding if the money used to prevent problems in their field would create more utility for humans (or the planet) if it were used somewhere else (say to alleviate poverty in poor countries).

Thus, scientists and economists argue in part because they do not understand where the other comes from.

Another issue I have heard recently in popular culture is the idea that the ozone hole is/isn't healing and that it means we cannot stop climate change.

Climate change is occurring regardless of the problems in the ozone layer. The ozone hole is dangerous for other reasons beyond just climate changes. Healing the ozone layer will not stop global warming. These are two different problems that are interrelated, but not in the sense that solving one will solve the other.

The final issue on climate change is the terminology. I use the term "global climate change" rather than "global warming" because idiot talk radio hosts are obsessed with refuting "global warming" by noting any low temperature or cooling trend in the world. While the average temperature of the planet is warming, it does not get warmer everywhere by the same degree. Some places may even cool.

I prefer climate change because it is easier to explain to the lay person because it does not have the connotation as global warming. However, some argue that climate change suggests it is a natural process rather than one caused by human actions. Though it may that impact on some, I still find it a more accurate term.