A Hopeful Response to Global Warming

The scientific consensus is that human activity is a major factor in global warming. In the December 2004 issue of Science, Naomi Oreskes presented an article, “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus On Climate Change.” She analyzed 928 abstracts published in selected scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, listed in the ISI database with the keywords, “climate change.” “The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.”

When the Greenland ice cap melts, the world’s ocean levels will rise 23 feet, coastal areas will flood causing migration that the world has never seen. Jered Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed describes the breakup of civilizations due to unwise use of their resources. On Easter Island, the inhabitants chopped down the last tree. In the past, there were other places to go. Now that the earth is filled up with people, there is no refuge. Instead of open arms, the refugees will find hostile border guards and gunboats.

The movies give the idea of a catastrophic event in the future, which is entirely possible. Global warning’s economic effects are happening now. Ski resorts managers, Gulf of Mexico fishermen and farmers see shorter winters, hotter ocean temperatures and hotter summers. The 2003 heat wave in Europe took 49,000 lives. Hurricane Katrina’s recovery costs are estimated at $200 billion.

To be sure, past civilizations and generations have endured wars, pestilence, famines, Holocaust-type events, religious persecution and slavery. One remembers Thomas Hobbes’ famous description of life being “nasty, brutish and short.” Our philosophers, theologians, economists and politicians have had the rich experience of wisdom learned and earned over the centuries which is of little help now. The production of goods and services in rich countries and population growth in the poor countries is leading to eroding soils, depleted fisheries, contamination of our air, water and soil, clear cutting our forests, aquifer depletion, dead zones in our oceans, dying coral reefs, the devastation of the Amazon rain forest, hot temperatures, expanding deserts and melting ice caps on a world wide basis.

Our difficulty lies in too much dumb production of one-time use products, the throw away culture. On the other hand, Germany and Japan require manufacturers of automobiles, appliances and office equipment to be designed so that the machines can be disassembled and its components reused. Our society’s use of bottled water which costs 1,000 times as much as tap water is environmentally damaging. The manufacturers recommend using the bottle only twice. Our landfills receive this throw away material for water that is no healthier or safer than what the City of Houston provides. The City of Houston performs thousands of tests per day while there is little regulation of the bottled water. Hopefully, someone will design a fashionable canteen.

Lester R. Brown in his book, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble offers hope in the form of global plan that funds universal primary education, adult literacy, school lunch programs, assist preschool children and pregnant women, provide reproductive health and family planning, provide universal health care, reforest the earth, protect topsoil on cropland, restore rangelands, stabilize water tables, restore fisheries and protective biological diversity. Implementation of his plan would run about $161 billion per year for an indefinite period. The cost would be shared among the rich countries.

The total amount is about one-third of the current US military budget. Our nation spends as much on garbage bags as 92 of the 210 nations spend on everything. The mobilization would resemble the industrial effort of World War Two but would last longer and be less intense.

Most of us are old enough to remember the inefficiencies of the Soviet Union’s planed economy where there was no market based on supply and demand. In a similar way, tax breaks, subsidies and externalities distort the costs of fossil fuels and nuclear power. World fossil fuel subsidies total $210 billion per year. Elimination of the tax breaks and subsidies, a tax to provide health care for those breathing contaminated air and a tax to reimburse the military costs of operations in protecting oil sources in the Middle East would make our gasoline $11 per gallon in a market system that counted all the costs. The people of the world are paying that price now, $2 and something at the pump, along with the taxes for the military deployment in the Middle East and health care costs.

The Price-Anderson Act limits liability to the power industry to $7 billion per incident. The nuclear power industry would collapse if it were to buy liability insurance on the open market.

That does not stop the fossil fuel industry and the nuclear power industry from moaning and groaning when the new alternative fuel gets a few crumbs off the table subsidy.

Mankind must face global warming, a type of slow genocide for the planet. In our religious traditions, the Supreme Being made mankind stewards of her creation, not its destroyers. The difficulty is recognizing the threat for what it is. One may remember Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm where he described his frustration of the British and French societies not recognizing that menace of Nazi Germany. Some like me feel that frustration now. The threat posed by the Axis Powers was pale to the subtlety and power of global warming.