Humans have had a huge impact on the Earth, and it’s silly to say otherwise. You can literally see the impact from space, especially at night. Further, we are responsible for the extinction of a large number of animals, both recently and in the past. We have polluted — and cleaned up — the great lakes and the Hudson River, and there are many other places around the globe that are now terribly polluted. Air quality in most of the major cities of the United States used to be terrible, and now the air above them is mostly clear. We used to hear about the dangers of acid rain all the time, but when was the last time you even heard the term? Yet, China is now facing the same air pollution problems over its cities. We have over-fished our oceans, cleared out large swathes of rain forest, and caused deserts to expand.
So there should be no question that our burning of hydrocarbons, creating large quantities of carbon dioxide, has contributed to global warming. Annually, we release far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than do all the world’s active volcanoes, and a good eruption will certainly cause atmospheric disruption.
If we use linear models, things look desperate. Temperatures are predicted to continue to rise. Seas are predicted to rise. Droughts are predicted to spread. However, none of these linear models have ever worked out. Predictions of ice ages and mass starvation in the 1970s never happened. Quite the contrary: now we’re worried about greenhouse warming, and we now have more people than ever, while global food production has increased and global poverty levels have plummeted. The linear models are wrong.
The problem is that the biosphere, like the economy, is a complex, self-organizing network process with both positive and negative feedback. If you create models with only negative feedback, you get an equilibrium — which doesn’t describe the world at all. If you create models with only positive feedback, you get runaway increases (in temperature, etc.) — a model which has become populate of late, but which has also not shown itself to accurately describe the world. What we have in fact seen has been temperature increases for a few years, then those temperatures plateauing. That is, an S-curve emerges, which is what actually happens in complex, creative systems, which are prone to what is called “punctuated equilibrium.”
Let’s take a look at how these things get played out in a complex system like the biosphere.
We logically assume that higher temperatures will mean melting polar ice caps — but this is linear thinking. We have to think non-linearly. We have to think about the entire system and how it all interacts. The oceans absorb more than 90 percent of the heat produced by greenhouse conditions. Warmer waters results in more evaporation, and higher air temperatures means an atmosphere more able to hold water. More water in the atmosphere means more precipitation, and more precipitation in the winter means more snow. While we do see retreating ice in the north, we see increasing ice over Antarctica. The south pole is colder than the north pole, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the latter continues to accumulate snow. The fact that Antarctica is a continent, meaning warm water cannot get under the ice to melt it, contributes to keeping the south pole frozen and growing in ice cover.
The warming of the northern ice fields, though, is also not so clear-cut as we like to imagine. The oceans are interlaced with huge currents that move around the earth, from ocean to ocean. We are familiar with the Gulf Stream, which brings warm water up from the Gulf of Mexico (some of the warmest water in the world), keeping Europe warmer than would otherwise be the case given its latitude. It also keeps the entire north warmer than the south. However, when that warm water hits the cold ice fields, that water cools and drops down, then flows south. This water cycles around the globe, eventually rising again, eventually running through the Gulf of Mexico again, and eventually coming back north.
However, if the northern ice fields are melted, that cycle is disrupted. The flow slows down dramatically, and eventually, far less water travels from the Gulf of Mexico to the north. That means the northern seas won’t be warmed and, as they cool, the conditions for greater snowfall and greater ice accumulation occurs. The system will thus cycle back and the northern ice sheets and ice fields will expand and cool the earth once again.
Another concern people have is the expanding of the deserts. Deserts, though, actually help to cool the earth. The low humidity allows more heat to escape at night, and the light color of the deserts (the high albedo) actually reflects back a lot of heat as well.
Of course, from a purely human perspective, expanding deserts is not really a good thing. More deserts means less arable land — less farmland to grow less food. However, the same warming that creates more deserts is also creating more arable land in the north. Global warming could actually create more farmland, and thus more food to feed more people.
More people is not a problem. More people actually means more ideas, and the more ideas we have in the world, the more technological, economic, political, scientific, artistic innovations we will have. The more ideas we have, the more potential solutions we will have to solve various problems. We do not and cannot know what will solve our social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental problems — it is the height of hubris to think we can know — so we need to have more ideas. Meaning, we need the conditions for more ideas to be created. More people living better lives is how that occurs. Fortunately, abject poverty is at the lowest level in human history.
This means a lot of people are emerging out of poverty. Historically, though, this has meant more pollution being created in those countries — and India and China are two prime examples of this tendency. Since the wealthiest countries are the cleanest, this would suggest it’s vital we ensure places like India, China, Brazil, and all of Africa develop as quickly as possible to become as wealthy as possible. Wealthy people have the luxury of wanting to live in a clean environment; poor people are busy surviving and ensuring their children survive — and rightly so. If we want the people of the world to have the same concerns as the West, they need to have the same political and economic conditions as the West. We have to give them time to develop, and we shouldn’t be doing anything to slow that development and growth.
These are just the tips of the complex iceberg of environmental, cultural, social, economic, and political factors involved in solving our environmental problems. Retreating to a pre-industrial period isn’t an option. It’s also not an ethical option, any more than are some of the eugenic propositions being floated of discouraging people in places like China, India, and Africa from reproducing. Government control also isn’t the solution, as the environmental wastelands of the Eastern Bloc showed. The world is too complex, and our solutions will end up taking those factors into considerations. Anything else won’t be a solution to anyone’s problem except how to gain more power over others — which is always the solution sought by the world’s elites.
What, then, should we do? Should we try to cut back on carbon dioxide production, try to maintain, or try to reverse it as much as possible? How many trees do we need to plant to reverse it? Should we engage in geoengineering programs like ocean fertilization to induce plankton production that will absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide — or will that itself have unintended negative consequences? Should we try to completely convert to solar and wind, which themselves have different kinds of environmental impacts, and neither of which are remotely sustainable at the present time? Or should we go with nuclear power? One could go on and on and on.
The truth is, we don’t know what will work. It won’t be a single thing. It will be a large number of different things, and most of those solutions have yet to be thought of. We shouldn’t have the hubris to believe that we know what will work, or that we even have the solutions at the present moment. The likelihood is that we don’t yet have those solutions, and we cannot know when those real solutions will emerge. What I do know is that those solutions will not emerge if we try central planning solutions, subsidizing “solutions” that are neither effective nor efficient (or they wouldn’t need subsidies), or reducing the world’s wealth and freedom. Every tax dollar taken from the people and put into the pockets of those the government chooses to subsidize is a dollar subtracted from finding true solutions.
The real solution to our environmental problems is more freedom, more market processes, and more technological innovation, These are what will result in even more efficient uses of our natural resources — and more efficient uses of our natural resources should certainly be an aim of any green movement. We need more ideas, more economic growth if we are going to improve our lives and the health of the planet. We will get there, but only when we have the right models, the right understanding, and the time and wealth needed to realize those true solutions.