Is expansion of material abundance destroying environment? That is an extremely loaded question. By definition, accessing resources, processing resources, and human activity in general has an impact on the environment. Yet human beings are material beings (i.e., part of nature and the natural order) whose flourishing is a sign of a healthy environment. Nature isn’t just that which is non-human. Thus, an environment where humans flourish is a healthy environment. As I’ve noted before, the biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends in a garden-city. Human culture, government, art, and cities are a human contribution to the created order. They are part of the New Creation at the end of the narrative.
Darrel Cosden notes that the natural world is both our habitat and the object of our work (see the stewardship commission in Genesis 1 and 2.) Humans were not placed on the earth as preservationists. We are to be stewards, bringing the created order to fulfillment. But the created order isn’t mere fodder for our every whim and desire. God created the earth and it is good. It is worthy of our conservation. The problem is when human flourishing becomes destructive to the habitat God placed in our stewardship.
Of course, the hot environmental topic today (pun intended) is anthropogenic (human caused) climate change. The leading theory is that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing a greenhouse gas effect that is causing global warming. Those of you who read this blog know that I’m deeply skeptical about the degree of significance CO2 has on the warming trend we’ve been experiencing but I wish to set that aside for the moment. Along with environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, we will assume that CO2 is the driving cause. CO2 emissions must be reduced. That leaves us with options of reducing our CO2 by switching to alternative power options and/or contracting the global economy.
The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Control (IPCC) estimates that global temperatures will rise by about 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Lomborg has looked at the IPCC reports and other research to get some idea of the impact of such warming will have. There will be problems but nothing approaching the hyperbolic apocalypse portrayed in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and similar media. The following is just a sampling of the exaggerated problems placed in perspective by Lomborg. (I’m drawing heavily on Lomborg’s book Cool It with some supplemental additions. I highly recommend the book for the full story.)
Extreme Hurricanes and Cyclones
Al Gore claims that warming will lead to dramatic increases in hurricane activity. The UN World Meteorological Organization (parent organization to the IPCC) published a report in 2007 that says that no conclusion can be drawn from science that conclusively links hurricane activity and global warming. (Lomborg 73) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association released an updated report of hurricane statistics last year that concluded that, “These records reflect the existence of cycles of hurricane activity, rather than trends toward more frequent or stronger hurricanes.” The reason the most recent cycle of hurricanes appears more intense is because so many more people now live in their potential path of these storms. Therefore, we take greater notice of the events. Had the Miami hurricane of 1926 occurred with today’s population where it is today it what have been twice as destructive as Katrina. The 1900 Galveston hurricane would have been greater than Katrina as well.
Heat Related Deaths
Al Gore gives us images of people dropping dead from extreme heat. The fact is that cold climates are much greater (by magnitudes) human killers than heat. Since the nature of the warming we are now experiencing is driven by more moderate temperatures in the winter, warming will lead to fewer net deaths. A 2006 survey of the world estimates that the net result of warming by 2050 would be 1.4 million lives saved each year. Only Africa showed a net loss per year of 50,000 people. The study further reported that this trend would continue until at least 2200. (Lomborg 38-39) Rising temperatures will create problems for some people in specific areas but those are problems that can be addressed on a localized basis.
Melting Ice Caps and Rising Sea Levels
In Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore shows what happens if the ice cover on Greenland or half the ice in Antarctic were to melt. Sea levels woud rise 20 feet. But no scientific body suggests that anything remotely near this level of melting will occur. Melting polar ice does not raise the sea level any more than ice cubes in your glass increases the liquid level in your glass of ice water. Sea level increase come from glacier’s melting and running to the sea, as well as rises in temperature that cause water to expand. The UN estimates a one foot increase over the next century. (Lomborg 60) How serious is that? The IPCC estimates that a three foot rise (triple the estimate) would cause less than $6 billion dollars damage over the century. Consider that sea levels have risen by about one foot over the previous 100-150 years. People gradually adapt to these changes. The fact that I had to inform you that we have just experienced the same level of change over the past century should tell you how threatening this is.
It is also worth noting that ice is forming in some places in the world while receding in others. For instance, much has been made of the melting of the Larsen B ice shelf of the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years. Yet ice core samples show that the area was likely open water 6,000 years ago and reached its maximum ice accumulation over the last two hundred years. It is now contracting from this maximum expansion. Ice accumulation and thawing is constantly in transition at the poles.
New Ice Age in Europe
A year or two ago you may have seen the movie The Day After Tomorrow, where climate change leads to a tipping point that results in a reversal the Gulf Stream ocean current, ushering in a cataclysmic ice age over most of North America and Europe. The Gulf Stream last shut down about 8,200 years. Yet scientists estimate that the resulting net temperature drop was about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Virtually all of the ice on Greenland would need to melt to repeat the events of the 8,200 years ago. The IPCC expects the melting over the next century to achieve one one-thousandth of the effect necessary to cause such an event. (Lomborg 87-92.)
Polar Bears and Species Impact
One of Al Gore’s most heart tugging presentations is polar bears drowning to due to melting ice. Over the past forty years the population of polar bears has expanded from 5,000 to 25,000. Eighteen of the twenty or so subpopulations are stable are growing. Only two have experienced some decline and that is largely due to hunting. It is also the case that the two declining populations are located where the climate has been getting colder, while the two populations that are growing the fastest are in areas where the climate is getting warmer. (Lomborg 5-6) While warming well likely have a negative impact on some species it will cause others to flourish. The threat to various species is far more related to encroachments of humans on habitats rather than changes in climate.
Lomborg addresses a host of other cataclysmic claims (malaria, food production, water shortages) and the fact is that the impacts of global warming over the next century are mixed. The most problematic ones are not that challenging to address provided that people across the globe have the resources to address them. Still, if CO2 truly is the driver in warming the planet then we must eventually find a way to reverse the CO2 problem.
Strategies like the Kyoto Accord’s plan to reduce emissions back to 1990 levels will cost about $5 trillion over the next century. The net result will be that the warming will have been reduced by 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit for 4.7 degrees to 4.4 degrees. It would postpone the 4.7 degree rise five years from 2100 to 2105. (Lomborg 22. He insists that this is “scientifically entirely uncontroversial.”) The net savings from this $5 trillion investment? $2 trillion dollars. (Lomborg 33) Kyoto, and similar emission reduction strategies for existing technologies, are exorbitantly wasteful.
Lomborg argues (and I strongly concur) that the solution to reducing CO2 is implementation of new energy technologies. The money being poured into emission reduction would be far better spent in technology development. In the meantime, we should be taking some of the money wasted on Kyoto schemes and doing our best to expand material abundance around the globe. That will enable people to better address whatever future challenges they may encounter. We are better off investing our resources in preventing HIV/AIDS, addressing malnutrition, expanding free markets (particularly the elimination of trade barriers in Europe and the US), and in wiping out diseases like malaria. For relatively small investments we can make an enormous improvement in the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.
As people become more economically prosperous, and as they experience greater economic and political freedom, they become more and more concerned about their environment. Pollution per capita, as well as CO2 per capita, has been dropping in the United States for years. According to an EPA as of 2001, between 1970 and 2001 the population grew 39%, energy consumption rose 42%, vehicle miles traveled rose 149% and GDP rose 161%, while pollution dropped 25%. While there was an overall increase in US CO2 emissions from 1997-2003 of 4.7%, there was a per capita reduction of 1.5% (better than most Western European nations.) The areas that have suffered the greatest pollution and environmental degradation are the former Soviet bloc nations and poor nations.
There are challenges to the expansion of material abundance around the world. But as we saw in the previous post, exhaustion of resources is not one of them. Furthermore, climate change, to the degree it is caused by human factors, can’t effectively be addressed by living more simply (read ascetically) or by buying carbon offsets. We need new technologies.
Therefore, while there may be sound reasons for living with material limits, preventing the exhaustion of resources or fighting climate change are not compelling reasons. Are there other reasons we should think about limits to our abundance? I think there are, as we will soon see.