Global warming critics have taken two primary approaches. First, deny the facts based on the incentives for scientists to fudge the data to get prestige and research dollars (see, for example, the East Anglia emails), based on the inherent limitations of humans to build global weather models to predict the temperature 100 years from now, and based on humans’ Chicken-Little tendencies.
Second, criticize the decision to spend money on global warming now. This could either be because other problems are more pressing, because raising energy prices may cause an economic downturn that causes significant human suffering, or because money spent today may turn out to be wasted either because our predictions about warming are incorrect or because future technologies will be able to solve any future problem much more cheaply. (This last criticism is a question of inter-generational bargaining — imagine someone from 100 years from now coming back to us today and we asked her whether we should spend the money now or instead us it to create wealth that future generations could use to solve the problem. The answer to the question is not at all obvious.)
While there is lots to be said, both pro and con, to these criticisms, I want to ask a different question:
What would we do if we knew observed increases in global temperatures were the result of natural causes, say solar or volcanic activity?
If we knew for certain that humans were not to blame, we would be focused on reducing the expected costs of any systematic change in global climate, instead of trying to stop it. So what would we do? Would we try to develop technologies to stop the changes or would we focus more on trying to ameliorate the costs? If the former, what would those be and how much would they cost? Would we be more or less likely to engage in global cooperation and wealth sharing if we were not pointing fingers at each other about who was to blame?
These questions and others in the same vein are worth asking for two reasons. It may be that the costs of these strategies would be lower than the costs of trying to stop the problem in the first place. I’m not an expert or qualified to even make a guess, but it seems like a question worth asking. In addition, and more importantly, the questions about remediation and prevention raised above are the same questions we would ask if we accept there is insufficient political will to stop climate change. This seems like a fair description of today’s reality. Things may change — China and India may be convinced to focus more on the weather in 100 years than pulling hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty, and the US consumer may agree to be a lot poorer to leave a cooler planet to our great grandchildren — but I doubt it. And, until they do, we need to at least think about what we would do if we aren’t to blame.