By Donella Meadows
–March 4, 1993–
Well, according to Rush Limbaugh and the Mobil Oil Corporation, we can stop worrying about global warming.
Says Mobil in an ad titled “Apocalypse no”: “Unfortunately, the media hype proclaiming that the sky was falling did not properly portray the consensus of the scientific community…. Subsequent colder than normal temperatures across the country cooled the warming hysteria…. The jury’s still out on whether drastic steps to curb CO2 emissions are needed.”
Says Limbaugh, “I don’t believe that the earth and her ecosystem are fragile, as many radical environmentalists do…. The earth is a remarkable creation and is capable of great rejuvenation. We can’t destroy it. It can fix itself.”
These pronouncements make me sad — as sad as I felt in 1988, when the media inflated one hot summer into a global catastrophe. The greenhouse effect is HERE! The greenhouse effect is NOWHERE IN SIGHT! These extremes don’t help us make sensible policy. They claim scientific backing, but they are brought to us by people with strong political or economic reasons for wanting, or not wanting, global warming to be real.
Oil and coal companies prefer not to believe in a greenhouse problem, because it would mean we should burn less fossil fuel — their business. Both the far right and the far left also work hard not to believe climate warnings. One side fears that any environmental problem would provide an excuse for government control over private enterprise. The other side, as demonstrated in the former Soviet Union, fears that environmental problems could encourage citizen control over government.
Greenhouse alarmists, on the other hand, are people who don’t automatically gag at the idea of government doing something, and who believe that energy efficiency, solar energy, less pollution, less dependence on Middle East oil, would be good ideas, even if there were no such thing as global warming.
The skeptics focus their attention on THE DETECTABLE WARMING. They don’t see any. No problem. No need to do anything.
Indeed, temperature records, while they do show warming, especially over the past 15 years, are confusing. The earth’s temperature jiggles up and down with every El Nino or volcanic eruption. Finding a signal in this noise is not easy. Most scientists would agree, however, that the greenhouse effect should have produced more warming by now than has actually been measured.
The skeptics say that’s because the earth is correcting for the rising greenhouse gases. Limbaugh speaks from faith: “It can fix itself.” There are scientifically reasonable, though far from proven, mechanisms by which it might do just that.
The alarmists focus not on the temperature, the effect, but on THE GREENHOUSE GASES, the cause. There is no scientific doubt that gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) are increasing, that they block escaping heat and therefore warm the earth, and that human activities are causing their rise. Warming is not yet clearly measurable, say the greenhouse believers, for two reasons. First, though greenhouse gases are warming the earth, other things (including other human-generated pollutants) are cooling it — temporarily. Second, planetary responses are delayed. It can take decades for the ice sheets, the ocean currents, the forests to respond fully to a warming atmosphere. By the time a climate change is obvious, it will be too late to do anything about it.
We are gradually turning up the heat under an enormous pot of water and land, say the alarmists. The stuff in the pot is bound to get hot sooner or later. Furthermore, for every compensating mechanism our complex planet might bring into play, one can postulate at least one amplifying mechanism that could take a small warming and turn it into a big one.
Both sides of this debate are on solid scientific ground. Their positions are disputable but not disprovable. The Mobils and Limbaughs and Sierra Clubs selectively quote the ones they like and ignore the others. One favorite of the skeptics is Dr. Robert Balling, a climatologist at Arizona State. Dr. Balling knows his science as well as anyone. The fact that his research is supported by Mobil, the government of Kuwait, and the British Coal Board is, I truly believe, a consequence of his skeptical interpretation, not a cause of it. But Balling is a political conservative. So is every greenhouse skeptic I know. Every one of the alarmists I know is a political liberal.
Now if everyone on one side of a scientific argument is of one political persuasion, and everyone on the other side is of a different persuasion, the argument is not about science. It is about fairness, power, ethics, values. Above all it is about risk. Given great scientific uncertainty, how much risk should we take, and who should bear it?
To assume that global warming could be serious is to impose strong penalties on the owners of oil and coal reserves, and to venture into new energy sources that could be inconvenient or expensive (or maybe not). To assume global warming away is, essentially, to bet the planet, to continue business as usual and, if we’re wrong, to let nature and future generations suffer.
That’s a political decision. It should be made not just by scientists or environmentalists or oil companies, but by all of us.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993