I’d initially planned on writing about the tension between freedom of information versus security for this week’s posting, but this week’s weather has given rise to some musings that seem a bit more relevant and immediate. So – I hope you’ll indulge me in discussing what I’m sure hundreds (or thousands) of other bloggers (not to mention every news outlet in the world) are covering. But (I hope) looking at the topic from a somewhat different angle. I should also apologize that, because my internet connection is still sort of spotty, I am not embedding links into this piece as I normally do. But next week ought to be better! I should start off by saying that, in spite of living in New York City, the storm’s impact on me has been more of an inconvenience than anything else. I lost cell phone and internet service for a day (although I was able to stay in touch with family and friends at a local coffee shop with free WiFi), but I never lost electrical power, didn’t lose any property, or even TV reception. This being New York, the complete shutdown of mass transportation means that I can’t get anywhere that’s more than walking distance (I don’t have a car) – but this being New York, everything except for my office is within walking distance. Compared to what I’ve seen on TV I have no ground to complain – and I haven’t.
What got me thinking, though, was the television coverage – once again we have a major weather event and a slew of experts commenting on the role of anthropogenic global warming on the weather, plus the expectation that storms like this will only become more common as Earth’s temperatures continue to rise. I know that there continue to be avid proponents of both global warming (and humanity’s role in it) as well as those who, for whatever reason, feel otherwise –it is not my intention to take on this debate, but it does raise some interesting questions. In fact, to some extent, there is room for fruitful discussion without even tackling the question of anthropogenic global warming. So here goes….
First of all, while there has been a great deal of discussion as to whether or not the Earth is actually warming. But whether the Earth is warming or not, there is no disagreement over the fact that we have only a finite amount of oil, gas, and coal on the planet. At some point all of these will run out – maybe sooner and maybe later, but eventually they will all be gone, and long before that the cost of finding and extracting them will begin to rise exponentially. Whether we believe in global warming or not – whether we believe that our actions can cause global warming or not – we will at some point need to have an exit strategy from fossil fuels. And if it turns out that our fossil fuel consumption really is driving climate change, so much the better for us for having made the transition!
If we assume that global warming is a real phenomenon then there’s even more to think about. And, I should hasten to add, it doesn’t matter if the warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions or if it’s simply the expected climatic change of a planet in an interglacial period and orbiting a slightly variable star. If we accept that the Earth is warming then we have to accept that two results of this warming are melting ice (and the concomitant rising sea levels) and that there will be more thermal energy in the atmosphere and oceans to help drive severe storms. It doesn’t matter whether warming trends are driven by human activity or by nature – what matters is that temperatures are rising and what this rise might portend.
So if temperatures are rising then we have only a few options. We can try to find a way to bring the temperatures back down, we can try to find a way to live with them, or we can pursue both paths simultaneously.
Rising sea levels and severe weather both put hundreds of millions of people and a huge number of the world’s major cities at risk. Working on a technological fix for the problem is tempting, but it assumes that we can understand what’s happening, that we can develop a cost-effective (and technologically feasible) way of reining in rising temperatures in a manner that is itself not harmful to the environment (or to people). And we have to do it before those living near sea level are harmed. I have a lot of faith in our science and technology, but I also know that we can’t produce scientific breakthroughs on a schedule – look at all the effort that’s gone into trying to cure (or prevent) cancer, AIDS, or even the common cold, not to mention energy from nuclear fusion. I’m not sure that I feel comfortable with hundreds of millions of lives depending on our ability to crank out a solution to global warming in a timely manner. The search for an elegant solution to global warming is tempting, and may turn out to be the answer, but do we dare to put all of our eggs into this single basket? Or does it make sense to hedge our bets?
If so, it might also make sense to try to think of how to help stave off the worst that might happen, if only as a sort of insurance policy – a sort of climatic Pascal’s Wager (which I wrote about in another context a few weeks ago). With hundreds of millions of lives and dozens of major cities at risk – and this doesn’t even get into the possibility of droughts in some areas and flooding in others – it seems to behoove us to try to figure out how we’ll respond should sea levels begin to rise and should “100-year” storms become decadal in frequency. I have a mental image of New York City surrounded by walls two hundred meters high, with only the tops of the tallest buildings sticking up high enough to see, just as I have a mental image of Bangladeshis trudging northwards carrying what they can as they try to find a new home. And we can picture the same of London, New Orleans, Singapore, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Montevideo, and any number of other of the world’s great cities. And it’s not only the people – a great deal of our global cultural heritage resides close to sea level as well. We cannot save these people, these cities, or this heritage at a moment’s notice – if the stakes are high enough, as they surely are in this case, then it might behoove us to try to prepare and to adapt in an orderly and well-considered manner rather than trying to slap together a quick fix at the last minute.
So – it doesn’t matter whether or not we think that the world is warming, we need to find a replacement source of energy because we know that a finite supply of fossil fuels will run out at some point. And if the world is warming, it doesn’t matter whether the cause is natural or human activity, we have to try to find a way to reverse the effects or to adapt to a warmer world with (possibly) more violent weather. And we should consider the impact of this week’s storm, and what it might be like if the “storm of the century” turns into a decadal or annual event.