Climate change dilemma

Its causes will determine how states respond to it

Climate change is real. There is a fair amount of scientific and policy debate on how much, but no reasonable person today can deny the upward trend in average global temperatures. This leads to melting ice-caps, rising sea levels, drying rivers and unusual weather conditions. [See this report on the impacts of climate change]

An important determinant of how states will respond to climate change has to do with how the discourse over its cause is framed. The dominant, and at least the popular view, is that climate change is primarily the result of human activity: atmospheric pollutants—nasty byproducts of human progress—cause global warming. If only human beings stop or reverse the course of environmental damage, it is possible to prevent the disaster from happening. [See this report on the impact of economic growth on climate change]

An alternate view is that rising temperatures are part of a geophysical cycle that has little to do with human activity. It is part of the same cycle that caused the climate to change dramatically in the Middle Ages, the melting ice allowing Vikings to sail across the Atlantic and land in America. They called the landmass they found en route Greenland, not because of some kind of medieval sarcasm, but because, well, it was green with forests when they found it. Newfoundland is frigid today. But the Vikings called it Vinland after the fine wine it produced. Today, like Greenland, Newfoundland is under ice most of the time, and certainly not because of anything the Vikings did. The element of geophysical inevitability underlying this explanation of climate change implies that there is not much that we can do about global warming, other than perhaps, invest in Siberian real estate.

If it comes to be accepted that it is human activity that causes climate change, then states will find it in their interests to co-operate with one another, as their survival becomes contingent on it. Although channeling this into an effective international mechanism will pose an unprecedented challenge, there is still room for optimism as all states will have similar incentives.

But if its all geophysics and human beings can at best buy more time by changing their behaviour, then the game quickly becomes one of ‘every country for itself’. Countries that can afford to prepare for the deluge or the drought—the large ones, and the rich ones, generally—will do so even at the cost of worsening the conditions of those that can’t. In this scenario large-scale international co-operation is impossible, and conflict inevitable. And the world’s poor will suffer the most.

Without even considering their economic priorities, given these uncertainties, states are likely to be cautious about international co-operation on climate change. It is, of course, possible to make a disarming middle-ground argument that the two potential causes are not mutually exclusive, and irresponsible human activity is only accelerating the environmental doomsday. This will allow the world to do something about it until science delivers a definitive verdict.

14 thoughts on “Climate change dilemma”

  1. “miggle-ground” ?

    Is this some kinda J.K. Rowling’s language? 🙂

    Whether it’s human or natural climate change, I think Indian response so far has been good – cautious, we’ll see, let our economy grow first, attitude.

    I tend to think it’s the latter (added with lot of emittance from the not so human global cow population grown around the planet to be consumed) only because I know a things or two about computer modeling, especially climate modeling, and how complex it can get, and because the guys who postulate the correlation theory won’t release their raw data to general public (I am with Michael Crichton on this) and I am usually warily of doomsday scenarios – the death of earth is near – such as those proposed by Al Gore. And for most environmentalist causes, beyound humans being evil, the earth is at steady state (pretty unchanging) and that steady state is what we knows about earth for the past 50 or 100 or 150 years.

    But I wonder if the opposite was true – if there was global cooling – will the same people say we should burn more carbon based products, dirty coal to wood to petrol to keep the earth warm? Fortunately and conveniently the earth is warming.

    Again, whether human or not, we should be wary of any one who says we should all cap our energy usage at the current levels – a big no no for poor countries.

    I am all for cutting/stopping pollution, if not for stopping the unstoppable warming then for protecting human health, but not at any price.

  2. Know very little about climate change and how much of it is because of geophysical, exogenous causes versus men…

    However, check out Cass Sunstein: says that India & Africa are going to be the biggest losers if it does occur…

    while China and the US have the least to lose vis-a-vis their emission output…


  3. Chandra

    “miggle-ground” is what you get when a little naughty girl does all she can to prevent her father from typing.

  4. Nitin – I agree with your hopes vis-a-vis policy and such.

    But there is a factual error in your reference to Greenland and Vinland. Greenland was never really forested and green like that. This nomenclature was driven a ploy used by Erik The Red. He was exiled to these colonies and wanted to get more people to migrate with him and so he lied. Jared Diamond covers the anthropological, geographical and climactic history of this land in detail in his book Collapse


  5. PS The Wikipedia link to Greenland in your post also refers to Erik The Red’s marketing ploy.

  6. “When politicians and journalists declare that the science of global warming is settled, they show a regrettable ignorance about how science works.” Nigel Calder, “An experiment that hints we are wrong on climate change”, Sunday Times (11 Februrary 2007)

    One residue of the present global warming hysteria is that if — and, probably, when — the whole story dies, science will be considered to be even less credible than it is already is by a growing number of dumbed-down products of Western state education. (In America now slightly more than half of American state school biology teachers believe in Creationism rather than Darwinian/Wallacian evolution. And the number of such undereducated biology teachers is growing in this country, too.)

    There’s no doubt that we have been experiencing a period of global warming (mainly in the northern hemisphere), and there’s also no doubt that anthropogenic Carbon dioxide (CO2) has been increasing ever since we started to burn fossil fuels abundantly since the 1800s. But no-one has yet proved whether CO2 produces more global warming or whether global warming (from other causes) produces (and/or sustains) more CO2. All we have is a correlation.

    Almost nothing is known about the great heat engine of the upper atmosphere which sheds heat into space and which is affected by incoming cosmic radiation. All the discussion concentrates on the heat-blanketing effect of the lower atmosphere. Also, while the discussion is centred on the melting of Arctic sea-ice (and some Greenland glaciers), and also the melting sea-ice of the western Antarctic peninsula, the increasing amount of snow and ice of the eastern Antarctic is hardly ever mentioned. Equally ignored is the recent world-wide ocean survey by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory which shows that ocean remperatures have been cooling steeply in the last few years. The oceans contain far more heat than the atmosphere and it can only be a matter of time before the atmosphere starts cooling, too, if the ocean temperatures decline continues as they do now.

    But why and how did the global warming hysteria start in the first place? First of all, it was right to worry. Global warming was definitely going on and CO2 content was obviously rising, too. It needed investigation and it was taken up with enthusiasm by hundreds of young research meteorologists. And then the civil servants got involved. What a golden opportunity for them! — forever on the look-out for new ways to control the public, expand their departments and increase taxation. The European Union Commissioners started pushing the need for fossil fuel restraint and carbon taxes more evangelistically than anything else they have ever taken up since the formation of the EU.

    It was an opportunity, too, for present-day left-wingers — of whom I was certainly one when young — to resume their general anti-business stance — ideological grounds for which have been largely lacking ever since the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and central Europe. More lately, for reasons of political expediency, Russia, China and America have tended to make soothing noises that they might be persuaded about the danger, though they are far from convinced.

    Nigel Calder, a former editor of the New Scientist has already written a book (The Manic Sun) which shows that the sun has a far bigger influence on climate change than anything we can do by way of errant industry. He has followed this up with another, The Chilling Stars, which also includes the latest research by those who believe that it is the interplay between solar radiation, cosmic radiation, and clouds in the upper atmosphere which has a powerful, if not predominant, effect on global temperatures. This book is due out next month and, together, with the results of high-tech experiments in the bubble chambers of the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, we may soon see some extra light and rationality within the whole debate.

    [Keith Hudson, Bath, England]

  7. The previous comment I posted is from Keith Hudson’s excellent “Sapientia” daily wisdom mailings from Keith’s . Here’s another one for the record.

    DAILY QUOTE 426 — Applying caution to Blair’s histrionics

    “Two leading UK climate researchers have criticised those among their peers who they say are “overplaying” the global warming message.” Pallab Ghosh, BBC Science Correspondent, BBC Online, 17 March 2007

    At last, some sensible scientific caution is beginning to enter the climate warming debate. Correction — some sensible scientific caution is now entering the persuasive Anglo-American meteorological lobby about possible catastrophic future scenarios for mankind. Prof Paul Hardaker, and Prof Chris Collier, eminent members of the Royal Meteorological Society, are voicing their concern at an Oxford conference.

    They are saying that descriptions of long-term impacts of the present warming cannot be justified by what is known at present. They are saying that a more reasoned explanation should be given about the uncertainties involved. Convincing evidence to back the claims has not yet emerged. In effect, Profs Hardaker and Collier are joining a minority of eminent American scientists and many more in Europe, China and Russia who are not joining the public debate until much more is known about the mechanisms behind what may prove to be fairly short periods of global warming and cooling. Correction — mainly North Hemispherical warmings and coolings.

    There are two main theories about the present global warming. The first is the well-known one that man-made CO2 is causing the warming by means of its effect on the atmosphere beneath the “roof” of the greenhouse — the low-cloud layer up about 2 to 3 kilometres high. The second is that magnetic sunspots prevent the more powerful cosmic radiation from outer space seeding low-cloud formation from the water vapour in the air. When there is less low-cloud cover, the earth tends to heat up by direct solar radiation. When there is considerable low cloud cover, then their brilliantly white topsides reflect most of the sun’s normal heat back into space, and thus the earth cools down.

    The prevailing hypothesis is not yet proved scientifically but indicated only by mathematical models run on computers. Persistent global warming due to CO2 is only suggested by highly complex computer models with many assumptions and algorithms thrown in before the actual temperature data of the last 200 years are added. (And some equally sophisticated computer models show opposite effects.) The second theory is partially proved by Danish weather scientists who have shown that cosmic rays are, in fact, able to seed the formation of low-clouds. More proof (or disproof) of this alternative theory will be revealed by bubble chamber experiments by 40 international particle physicists at the CERN accelerator in Switzerland towards the end of this year and during 2008.

    The popular theory says that CO2 causes global warming. The second theory suggests that global warming causes more CO2 to be released from the oceans into the atmosphere.

    Profs Hardaker and Collier are brave individuals to publicly question the prevailing Anglo-American mainstream — which is now threatening to become hysterical, particularly when Blair’s histrionics are involved. They are also acting in the true tradition of science.

    [Keith Hudson, Bath, England]

  8. Manu,

    Thanks for the illumination on the Greenland/Vinland and the Viking trickery (Loki at work). This post arose from a discussion with Peter Schwartz and I got that nugget from him. I only did a superficial check on that front, Vikings being peripheral to the case.

  9. I was hoping there would be more discussion on this subject – I guess most of our extremely emotional guys are busy burning our cricket heros (they were at least until Saturday) scarecrows and destroying their homes. Poor players.

    In any case, Hindu reproduced an article from Guardian, as it usually does – apparently most of the climate change scare is America’s fault (poor Bush – I am sure it’s news to him that most of his Kyoto policy bashing came from within) – Don’t exaggerate climate dangers, warn scientists. At least Al Gore got rich to support his life in a mansion and heated swimming pool along with an Oscar!

  10. Chandra,

    I came across this post by a New Zealand blogger, which I think is quite informative. Also check out Grist.

    Btw, a post on security implication for India due to climate change in the region (Tibetan plateau, Bangladesh, Indian Ocean) is coming up.

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