The answer to an anthropocentric view of the environment (humans are all that matter) is not a biocentric view of the environment (nature reigns supreme.) What we need is a theocentric view in which humanity is the steward of God’s resources both in terms of the material world and socio-cultural creations. This was the gist of my last post. So what should our economic/political/scientific response be to climate change?
From a scientific perspective I think the answer is difficult because the science behind many of the issues we are talking about is very unclear. For instance, global warming models show higher levels of the atmosphere heating up first, causing the atmospheres near the earth to heat up. Yet the opposite is happening. Furthermore, it is not clear that the net result of climate changes is bad. For instance, most of the global warming in recent years is attributed to warmer nights during the winter months at latitudes away from the equator. Contrary to what is being reported in the press, a decrease in the difference between polar temperatures and the temperatures found at the equator should mean the number and severity of violent storms lessens. Warmer winters should also decrease the demand for heating fuel in regions where large populations live in the northern hemisphere. Also, The United States is the single largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the world yet the net carbon dioxide emitted in North America is a negative number. Why? Partly because trees and foliage have been proliferating for at least the last fifty years. In fact, some studies suggest that increased carbon dioxide (combined with other factors) actually improves the efficiency of plants to taken in and process nutrients. Some believe this effect my have had a direct impact on the Green Revolution in crop productivity that has allowed us to feed the world. (For example, this article at the NASA site gives some idea the science involved with carbon and plants: Rain Helps Carbon Sink)
The bottom line is that we don’t know enough about the complex interaction of variables involved in climate change to chart a specific course of action, despite the insistence of alarmist about consensus. The alleged consensus is the opinion of scientist about the relationship between greenhouse gasses and global warming. It is not based on real world measurements but on computer models (and there are several) that are completely dependent on the assumptions scientist have feed into the models. Yet these models vary considerably in their assumptions about how variables interrelate. To date they have had little predictive value. With opinions but no scientific model, where do we start, particularly when the alleged consensus is heavily influenced by a nexus of mutually reinforcing interests that have a vested interest in perpetuating a crisis. Let us start with the science we do now.
What we do know is that fossil fuel puts pollution into the air. Particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter can be taken deep into the respiratory tract. The United States has cut its absolute level of pollution by 25% over the past thirty years even though there was rapid growth in population and productivity. The US cities with the highest levels of particulate matter (measured in mpcm, micrograms per cubic meter) are Los Angeles at 38, followed by Chicago at 27 and New York at 23. But look at the level for cities outside the US.
Dehli, India = 187
Cairo, Egypt = 178
Kolkata, India = 153
Bejing, China = 106
Sophia, Bulgaria = 83
Bangkok, Thailand = 82 (1)
These cities are in nations that are in stage two or three of the Demographic Transition. Development and implementation of technologies that lessen the use of fossil fuels or the emissions from fossil fuels would improve plight of countless millions of people. Increased prosperity would also lead to a greater demand by the populace for just such improvements. Prosperous societies create far less pollution on a per capita GDP basis than do poor ones. The wealthier a society becomes the more concerned they become about the environment. The poor are not stewards. They are desperate survivors. The world needs every person to become a steward so that every corner of the earth can be filled with people using resources efficiently with least amount of harm to the natural order.
Property rights and capital markets are the central issues blocking the growth of many developing countries. Until property owners know they will reap the rewards from investments they make in land and production facilities, they will not take the risks required to make improvements. As soon as they do the government or some powerful interest will simply seize what they have built up. Capital markets can not flourish because there are always clouds of doubt about who actually owns what. Property rights and capital markets in many impoverished countries would set the on a track toward prosperity and eventually less pollution.
There is an axiom that says that negative incentives encourage people to do the minimum they need to do in order to avoid being punished. Positive incentives encourage people to meet and excel the minimum. Therefore, we need to find ways that get people invested in environmental protection and avoid government mandated behaviors whenever possible. Here is one example from Africa.
There many endangered species in Africa, elephants being one of them? Several countries have tried to protect elephants from poachers through tough regulations and they virtually all fail. The fact is that for villagers and people who live in close proximity to elephants, elephants are far from being considered a desirable exotic creature. They are more like rats. They trample crops and destroy property. So when a poacher comes along and offers some cash to a villager for info on the location of some elephants, what do you think the villager will do?
Safari operators have an interest in conserving the wildlife but they face an economic challenge. If they spend money on conservation it benefits not only them but all the either safari operators. They have to either increase their prices or reduce their profits relative to their competitors, so they too have incentives not to address the problem.
So why not do what Costa Rica did? About 25% of the land has been set aside as a rainforest wildlife preserve. They offer eco-tours for people who want to view the wildlife and take pictures. Approximately 11% of their national income comes from these tours. No wildlife, no profits. There is an incentive to protect it. The same could be done in Africa. Create large preserves and license safari operators to give tours with a portion of the profits going to the government. The villagers and the safari guides would have incentives for conserving the wildlife, the villages would be rid of destructive animals and poachers would find much less assistance in their activities. (2)
We need to resist central planning and draconian measures like the Kyoto Accords. The Kyoto Accords would have required the United States to cut its greenhouse emissions by 10% over a few short years but left China and India free to produce what the wanted. Had the Kyoto Accords been approved and honored, it likely would have caused a retrenchment in the world economy (US alone by about 2-3% in annual GDP) and caused more pollution. Why? The Accords would have made many manufacturing operations finically unviable in the United States. Factories would close. Places like China would have picked up the slack in production. But Chinese pollution technology is much inferior to that in the West. They are without the trees and foliage that cover North America which is essential for processing carbon dioxide. Therefore, we would have been taking manufacturing away from the producers who produce the most products with the least amount of input and the least amount pollution per product, and would have been giving it to the nations that are the least efficient and most polluting. If reducing pollution and carbon dioxide emissions is the aim, then this is not the answer.
A more viable concept seems to be something like the pollution credit model I described earlier. An international body would set standards for the maximum level of air pollution allowed in a geographic area. Pollution credits would be issued to each factory based on several factors like capacity, technology used and past performance. Factories that choose not to upgrade to cleaner technologies must buy credits in order to cover their excess pollution. Factories that do upgrade to cleaner technologies will have a surplus of credits to sell to other factories thus off-setting much of the cost for upgrading. You can either pay more and pollute or pay more and upgrade. At some point it simply becomes cheaper to upgrade. An important feature of this arrangement is that rather then mandating technologies to be used it gives an incentive for factories to be innovative and possibly find pollution cutting methods that exceed existing technologies.
Additionally, I think USAmericans need to be pushing for alternative fuels. My concerns are less about greenhouse gasses than they are about national security. Some of the most radical regimes on the face of the planet are funded through our consumption of petroleum. Alternative energy sources would both decrease the amount of money that flows to these radicals and the need for the USA to factor petroleum issues into its national security. Cutting off the flow of money to the powerbrokers who run these regimes might actually create an environment for more healthy societies to emerge.
Finally, there are the things we can do in our personal life. Here is a sampling of some things the Evangelical Climate Initiative (which I have been critical of) suggests you might do:
- Organize your life so that it is easier and more desirable to walk, bike, car pool and use public transportation.
- When a new passenger vehicle is required, purchase the most fuel efficient and least polluting vehicle that truly meets your needs.
- Keep your car's engine tuned up, the tires properly inflated, and don't carry weight unnecessarily in the car (e.g., using the trunk for storage).All save gas.
- Weatherize your home to conserve energy and cover your water heater with a fire-safe insulator. (Check to see if your utility or your local or state government offers an incentive or rebate program to help you weatherize your home.)
- Purchase compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy efficient appliances. (Look for the "Energy Star" label.)
- Choose electricity produced from renewable sources if available in your area.
- Support businesses that are reducing their global warming pollution by your investments and purchases.
I have no problem with this list and already do many of them. Yet this highlights my concerns about the new Religious Left mantra on global warming. Sound Christian stewardship of economic and material resources would suggest that actions like these are good actions regardless of whether there is anthropogenic global warming or not. So rather than trying to scare people into stewardship with questionable apocalyptic visions, why not instill within people a sound basis for Christian environmental stewardship and let that have its ramifications throughout the culture? There is an adage that says that a marriage of science and religion soon makes religion a widow. Where will be if (and I think when) global warming is shown to be something far different than we have been led to believe but we have grounded our motivation for environmentalism in that scientific assumption? Our basis for Christian stewardship needs to be grounded in the Word of God not in a pseudo-scientific political strategy for countering political forces we don’t like. We need a stewardship that honors the role of humanity as productive beings bringing the earth to its fullness all the time honoring the beauty and majesty of the created order.
(1) “The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2006.” New York: World Almanac Books, 2006. 301.
(2) Charles Wheelan, “Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science.” New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 2002. 24-25.