Alastair’s Place

Software development, Cocoa, Objective-C, life. Stuff like that.

Global Warming

Stephen Fry on Global Warming and the differences in attitude between the Britain and the United States:

For another difference we have to face between our cultures is that the average position on global warming in Britain seems to be: ‘It exists, we humans are causing it, we’d better do something about it’, whereas the average position in America might be interpreted as, ‘I’m not convinced and anyway America certainly shouldn’t sign up to do anything about it if China doesn’t.’

It occurs to me that it is almost supremely ironic that a nation like Britain, whose total annual CO2 output is a tiny fraction of global emissions, should consist largely of people who have been fooled into thinking that anything they do could affect climate change, while the United States, which is by all accounts responsible for around 25% of all CO2 emissions and whose citizens might conceivably make a difference if they changed their behaviour, seems largely composed of sceptics. Here in the U.K., our influence on the problem is overstated by the environmental lobby to a frankly ludicrous degree, and often in a fairly underhand manner (For instance, you are more likely to see a graph of CO2 output by country per capita than as a percentage… why? Because it puts the U.K. near the top of the scale rather than near the bottom where it belongs. Perhaps U.S. citizens are better educated and therefore would not fall for that kind of cynical ruse?)

I am slightly sceptical myself, in as much as it is without a doubt much easier to obtain funding for research that supports the man-made climate change conclusion than research that goes against it. And whether or not the conclusion is true, this funding distortion will certainly contribute to some exaggeration.

It is also the case that the world has been a lot warmer at some points in the past, so I often think that the doom-sayers would do well to qualify their remarks by explaining that the primary catastrophe that they are concerned about is the effect on human civilisation and they might also consider stating openly the fact that the Earth’s climate may well have warmed up anyway, just not as fast.

And don’t get me started on the precautionary principle; I don’t find that old chestnut in the least bit persuasive. Why? Because I can use it to justify anything. Well, almost anything.

Let me give an example: there is a risk (only a very tiny risk, but a risk nonetheless) that walking through the streets of Fareham I might encounter a hungry lion. Say it’s escaped from a nearby zoo. Now everyone knows that hungry lions are not the best thing for a human being to bump into. In fact, the consequences of such an encounter would likely be pretty dire (bluntly: I’d most likely die). So, invoking the good old “precautionary principle”, it is now essential that I carry on my person equipment to defend myself against hungry lions. The argument is ridiculous, of course, but it’s the same as most other uses of the precautionary principle; the flaw is that it does not take into account a proper assessment of the risk of the event in question, often because the person invoking the principle has no idea of the magnitude of the risk, though they may appreciate that a particular event may have rather dire consequences if it does in fact happen. You can substitute for the hungry lion any manner of other things. Getting cancer from E/M radiation from mobile phones (or WiFi). The possibility of life on Earth being extinguished by a gamma ray burst. The risk that the sky will, in fact, fall on our heads. The list is endless.

So, do I think we should continue to churn out CO2? You may get the impression from the above that I do. You would be wrong. I think we should move to nuclear power generation as soon as possible. And I think we should spend vastly more money on the international fusion project, at the same time bringing the timetable forward by at least a few decades. But should we panic and enact the kind of legislation that would make every New Luddite proud? No, I don’t think so.

On this the U.S. view is quite right. The way to avoid global warming is innovation. Many of the tools we need are already at our disposal or are actively being worked on. Rather than supporting unsustainable and silly ventures like on-shore wind power, or downright dangerous propositions like biofuels (which still produce CO2 and have the additional downside of markedly distorting the agriculture market to the extent that we now have a wheat shortage), we would better spending our resources furthering research that will end the problem for good.