CATEGORY: EnvironmentNature

Global warming debate is a waste of time

Climate disruption is a result of human nature, and human nature isn’t going to change.

Here’s what I learned visiting St. Eustatius. The debate over global warming is a waste of time.

St. Eustatius is a tiny Caribbean Island. In its day, the place was a big deal, one of the world’s busiest trading ports with 3500 ships a year. It’s best known for being the first place to acknowledge U.S. sovereignty, but it also played a key role in the Revolution. Most of the guns used by the Continental Army came through Statia, as it’s now known.

Today, it’s a lovely, quiet sleepy little place of 3500 people, 2 miles by 5 miles, although most people live in a one square mile area in the center of the island. Much of the island is taken up by rainforest and there are only 14 miles or so of roads, most narrow and many in poor condition. The climate is mild. Incomes are low and prices are high, especially for gas.

Given all that, you’d expect this would be a pedestrian paradise, with paths dominated by walkers, bicycles, scooters and the occasional golf cart. But it’s not. It’s absolutely full of cars. And not just any cars. BMWs. SUVs. Four wheel drive extended cab pick-ups. Even a muscle car or two.

No one walks, except tourists, and people stop and try to convince them to accept a ride back to town. I saw a couple get in a vehicle and drive from my hotel to a nearby restaurant in the same time it took me to walk it. Statians simply love cars and they will have them. Whether they need them or not.

People in Statia, and America, and China, and everywhere else, want the things that an energy intensive economy provides. Cars, climate control, leisure time, affordable organic foods and out of season fruits, big screen TVs, international travel. (Or if you live in Japan, electric toilets.)

Yes, we can combat global warming through conservation and changing the mix of fuels we use, but that’s fiddling around the edges. Carbon taxes would end up being a rort, with cheating and a corrupt secondary market. To really make progress it would be necessary to cut back on global consumption. That’s not going to happen. Sure, people will make token changes, like putting plastic bottles in a different trash container, but they simply will not make the degree of lifestyle change necessary to address the problem.

Some problems, like CFCs and water pollution, might be tractable. A problem that requires a fundamental change in human nature is not. It’s not about rational arguments. In a rational world, Coloradans would be lining up to turn in their guns, but instead they’re arguing they need more.

If Statians won’t give up their cars, good luck getting those yahoos in Houston to give up central air.

11 comments on “Global warming debate is a waste of time

  1. I thought Brian wrote this and I was thinking “Hey, that’s not what I had in mind!” but then I see the true perpetrator…Ha! Pragmatic nihilism has its place but in this case it disregards continually evolving disruptive technologies Otherwise.

    I’m bullish on humanity and have some reasonable expectation that our current energy sourcing will not be our children’s energy sourcing. Ultra high energy density batteries are in the works and that’s the next step in useful harvesting of solar, wave, and wind energy.

    Very nice to see you back and posting sir.

  2. Perpetrator? :)

    As for being a pragmatic nihilist, have you read Alex Rosenberg’s “Athiest’s Guide to Humanity?” Amazing book. One of two books in my life that has fundamentally changed my world view.

    Clearly, technology has proven over and over that it can delay or ameliorate human-created crises. The Cato Institute has a great book called “It’s getting better all the time,” that points out that notwithstanding Malthus, things have gotten better for thousands of years. And indeed, are still getting better despite what most people think. Maybe it will again. It’s got a good track record.

    However, in this case you’re fighting two things–the virtually insatiable desire of humans for energy-assisted living (e.g., powered items that don’t need to be powered, like corkscrews, and toilets,) and the enormous existing investment in fossil-fuel power. I saw an analysis once that basically said if you covered Britain in wind mills and solar panels, you’d still be short, which is what I’d expect.

    Now, one mistake all the doomists make is to assume the effects will be peanut buttered, i.e., spread evenly across all geographies and societies. That’s not usually the case. The famous Club of Rome study, which is often derided by Chamber of Commerce types, was actually pretty spot on, it’s just the things it predicted have occured in Africa and Asia, which tends to escape out attention.

    So maybe you folks in high, cold country will be fine. I don’t think so. But maybe.

  3. Thank you for the kind and civil response Otherwise it is appreciated. Perhaps “penetrator” would be a better nom de plume as you always seem to strike for the heart of things. I have not read Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality but just added it to my Amazon book list.

    Humans are greedy pigs no doubt. Money, possessions, the big house and fine cars and wasteful too…Guilty guilty guilty. Yet as you note things are getting incrementally better, less sickness, longer life spans, more education. It would be hard to find a more mixed bag of nuts than the tribe of hairless apes now ruling the earth.

    For myself given the option of optimism or pessimism I choose the former simply by nature. In our lifetimes, mere nanoseconds in geologic time, we’ve seen the beginnings of space travel, quantum leaps in science and medicine, and most importantly the shrinking of distance for communication to mere keystrokes.

    The web is at most 40 years old and in common use less that 20. We have barely a glimmer of what this technology will do in the near future to bring us into synchronicity with one another. So while I agree climate disruption is a result of human nature I absolutely disagree that debate is useless. From a chronological perspective the discussion has barely begun.

    Don’t be a stranger…now to go find the famous “Club of Rome Study” because we’re not all as erudite and handsome as you (G).

  4. I agree with you to a great extent, Otherwise – people want things that are energy intensive, and until one or more parts of that statement changes, a lot of the debate about global warming is pointless. It’s depressing sometimes, but it’s true.

    But that statement isn’t immutable fact. We can change people’s wants, change the relationship of those wants to energy, and/or change the nature of the energy. None of those things are easy, however, and technological progress can’t address them all.

    And all of them require a general agreement that there’s a problem.

      • A magic wand would sure be nice. Most of the people who say that energy efficiency and renewable energy will get us there are unconscious technoutopians who aren’t living in the real world. Efficiency and renewables are necessary, but I don’t think that either will be sufficient on their own. I think we’ll need more nuclear plants too, a shift to distributed electricity generation (which will drive a major shift in how utilities function, and one that they won’t like at all), major building refits and energy shifting technologies, huge new DC power lines to bring industrial-scale renewable energy to where it’s needed (and improve grid reliability in the process), and so on.

        But I don’t think any of that will be possible without some major changes in culture. I suspect those changes will be even harder, and will probably not happen until all the cheap and easy stuff has already been foreclosed by delay and denial (and until after millions of people and/or trillions of dollars are lost due to natural disasters that are undeniably climate-related).

  5. You know, I actually think the tech problems, resistance of the elec industry (i’ve worked for those guys and you wouldn’t believe how they think,) etc are tractable. Not sure human nature is.

  6. While no techno-utopian I can think of several instances in the recent past where humans worked together to quickly solve an emerging problem. Y2K, Apollo 11, the Manhattan Project off the tip of my typing fingers..

    There have always been and will always be doomsayers. Fuck em, if we keep talking and working at it, problems eventually get solved. Of course solutions beget more problems, but they’re different problems.

    Humans will always be graced with the loftiest of ideals and stricken with the basest of desires but as long as we keep trying odds are good we’ll survive. If we ever give up we’re toast.

  7. Well, we’ll never give up. We’re hardwired not to give up.

    Nor will we stop debating it, because we’re hardwired to argue, too. In the case of global warming, we have three camps, all of whom love to argue–denialist dopes, techno-utopians who say “we’ll figure it out,” and gleeful SHTF-ers/doomsday dreamers. So me pointing out that it’s pointless is in and of itself pointless.

    However, it is a problem without an effective economic driver, and problems without economic payoffs don’t get solved. Period. But of course that could change, and technology could change it. Probably not, but you never know.

    Now having said that, I’m not convinced that climate disruption will be the thing that ends human existence. I don’t think we really know enough to know what the effects of warming will be, yet, and anyway, there’s a lot more competition for the honor of destroying-human-species. From viruses to asteroids. Something will, surely, but what and when is hard to know. Certainly the odds are that it will not be our problem to solve.

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