Don’t Panic

Global warming? I think some people are getting hot headed and should cool it. The latest example of climate confusion was a polar bear that floated from Greenland to Iceland on some melting sea ice. Apparently, this was our fault because of our careless use of non-renewable energy. Thank goodness the Monaco luxury yacht show is a carbon neutral event. However, the Arctic ice sheet is actually larger than it was in 2007 and as of last year global temperatures started to fall and it’s global cooling that is now starting to look like a threat.

So is the world’s thermometer going up or down? As far as I’m concerned very few people know what’s going on and absolutely nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen next. What I am fairly certain about is that climate change is the latest in a long list of issues that we are using as a focus for our everyday anxieties. Remember the threat of a global flu pandemic that we were worrying about a few years ago? Or how about Deep Vein Thrombosis on long-haul flights? The list goes on to include rogue asteroids, Y2K, acid rain and digital privacy.

But here’s the thing. Many of these issues will prove to be real but most won’t be nearly as much of a problem as we imagine. In short we’ll muddle through as we always do. There are problems that need to be confronted but compared to what previous generations endured our current concerns are a walk in the park. On almost any measure that matters the human race is better off than it was 25, 50 or 75 years ago. Life expectancy has increased, infant mortality has decreased, literacy levels are up and chronic hunger has fallen significantly worldwide.

But what about oil I hear you shout. Well we’ve been here before. In the late 1700s Britain suffered from ‘peak wood’. Land was being deforested to make way for agriculture and a rapidly growing population was putting pressure on the fuel supply. I imagine the doom merchants of the day thought we were all screwed. It was a wood based economy after all. But the rising price of wood led to the emergence of new fuels and the doom merchants were soon replaced with coal merchants. It’s also worth remembering that in the first half of the 19th Century, people used sperm whale oil for lighting and in 1820s it cost $200 a barrel in today’s money. Sound familiar?

So, to sum up, a little bit of perspective please. Our achievements over the last hundred years have been considerable and we should stop focussing on worst-case scenarios and celebrate the odd successes once in a while.

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5 Responses to Don’t Panic

  1. Scarlett says:

    Hi I came across youor blog while during some research. Do you think Eco friendly holidays, whether it is in the UK or abroad will be a big thing in 2009? Or is it already last season?

  2. Richard Watson says:

    I think the trend is real enough although value trumps values slightly in the current economic climate.

  3. Andrew Curry says:

    Richard,

    The science seems pretty compelling to me, if you read any of the IPCC work. Most of the research suggests that the IPCC projections lag behind actual rates of change because of feedback effects which are under-estimated in their models. And if you read Six Degrees you get a pretty clear story about the savage differences between 2 degrees increase in climate (which we’re almost certainly going to get) and four degrees (which we may still avoid). The first we can probably adapt to without huge loss of life.

    Reading your post, I’m reminded of Pascal’s wager – he argued that it made sense to believe in God because if you did, and He didn’t exist, you were no worse off, but if you didn’t believe, and He did exist, you only had fire and flames to look forward to.

    I think the same is true of climate change. If we do nothing but put it down to general anxiety, and the science is right – it’s not a good outcome.

  4. Richard says:

    I agree with Pascal. From a risk management point of view we would be crazy not to address things and, moreover, at a down to earth level the way that we live is not sustainable in the long term and we should be addressing issues such as sustainability regardless.

  5. Andrew,

    Have a look at http://joannenova.com.au/globalwarming/scepticshandbook1-1.pdf. Pascal’s wager is not necessarily applicable as if the science is wrong then we will be worse off in having diverted resources to the wrong cause (ie carbon).

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