What is the right global temperature?

Tim Haab says George Will raises an interesting question in a recent Washington Post column:

> The housing perhaps-not-entirely-a-crisis resembles, in one particular, the curious consensus about the global warming “crisis,” concerning which, the assumption is: Although Earth’s temperature has risen and fallen through many millennia, the temperature was exactly right when, in the 1960s, Al Gore became interested in the subject.

This strikes me as the opposite of an interesting question. It strikes me as utter sophistry, but in case anyone is really wondering why we shouldn’t be enthusiastic about the prospect of a more pleasantly balmy world, here are a couple of reasons off the top of my head:

**1\. The current world is the one humans actually live in.**

Here’s a chart of human population growth over the course of history.

population-growth.gif

As you can see, thanks to industrialization — the same process responsible for global warming — we’ve been a rather successful species this past century. We’ve also built our cities, our food production systems, and our, well, everything around the contours of the world as it presently exists. Although one can certainly imagine better worlds for humans (more fjords, please!), changing midstream is an expensive proposition.

**2\. Those stupid plants and animals just won’t stop dying.**

It’s not just the change in temperature that’s a problem. It’s also the rate of change. Species and ecosystems that evolved over millenia have a difficult time adapting to climate change occurring over a scale of decades. Humans have compounded this issue by chopping up wilderness and potential migratory routes. Effectively, we’ve set a fire and blocked the exits. Biodiversity loss is one of the consequences of global warming that we’re likely least able to prevent, even if we act aggressively to cut carbon emissions now.

**3\. Feedback loops mean we’re rolling the dice.**

No one knows what the full consequences of global warming will be, but one thing we do know is that we’re not adjusting a carefully calibrated thermostat that we can crank up or down at will. The distribution of possible outcomes tilts much more heavily to the very bad than to the good. And basically we’ve got all of our chips on the table. Would a nice, stable 0.11° C uptick in global temperatures be a net positive for humanity? Who knows? Who cares? That’s not the situation we’re dealing with.

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  1. Mick - May 15, 2008

    Evolution happens because of extinction and domination of species by other species.
    If the original habitat of life was preserved eternally then we would still be blobs in the primordial goo.

  2. Adam Stein - May 15, 2008

    Um…no it doesn’t. And even if this were true, which it’s not, what would be the point exactly?

  3. John.F. - May 21, 2008

    When looking at newly evolved species it seems the availability of ecological niches is the driver for evolution- not a changing environment. Historical evidence points to a changing environment causing extinction events, then species evolve. It is therefore necessary to wait for significant periods to observe nature adapting/evolving. As can be seen at present, extinction rates are up 10x (possibly 100x) and yet we humans (probably the most adaptive complex species on the planet) are having problems adapting to the “as yet” minor changes of changing rainfall patterns and increased intensity of storms. It seems most of us have evolved into ostriches without even realising.
    The time to do….. and stop talking is here!

  4. Wendell - May 21, 2008

    There is a technology that can reverse global warming incidental to producing electricity
    by using the 28 degree F Arctic sea water to drive a heat engine and expelling the waste heat into space. The sea water is returned to the ocean 11 degrees cooler as a part of the process thus creating ice. http://www.Ergenics.com
    Properly located, the ice serves as a barrier to Arctic storms that erode away land belonging to northern villagers saving massive relocation costs.
    During summer, the ice produced reflects a substantial portion of solar energy back into space of course.
    The electricity thus produced can be used to displace that which is produced by generators fired with Arctic grade diesel fuel in northern villages thereby reducing costs, eliminating yet another source of carbon dioxide and pollution, and eliminating supply chain costs and pollutants.
    This would work just as well in the Antarctic, but the need in the Arctic is much greater, as polar bears and all species that eat leftovers from their hunts are endangered by the several degree increase in northern temperatures measured in recent years.
    Regards, Wendell