I’d invite readers to have a look at this two-minute video, titled, “Humans have caused climate change for 180 years”:
Here’s an excerpt from an article in the ANU Reporter, dated 25 August 2016 (emphases mine):
An international research project has found human activity has been causing global warming for almost two centuries, proving human-induced climate change is not just a 20th century phenomenon.
Lead researcher Associate Professor Nerilie Abram from The Australian National University (ANU) said the study found warming began during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and is first detectable in the Arctic and tropical oceans around the 1830s, much earlier than scientists had expected.
“It was an extraordinary finding,” said Associate Professor Abram, from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.
“It was one of those moments where science really surprised us. But the results were clear. The climate warming we are witnessing today started about 180 years ago.”
If I could turn back time…
I learned about this research from a recent report in Science Daily (January 4, 2017). Reflecting on the results, an interesting “virtual history” hypothetical suggested itself. Back in 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first person to claim that humans burning fossil fuels might eventually give rise to global warming. As it turns out, Arrhenius actually thought that the warming would occur over thousands of years, and that it would be beneficial to humanity. But let’s imagine that instead, he warned that it could lead to a future calamity for the human race, and let’s imagine that his warning was issued decades earlier than it actually was, giving humans the opportunity to avert man-made global warming altogether. Let’s also imagine that the scientists and politicians of his day took his warning to heart, invoked the Precautionary Principle and concluded that the burden of proof lay on people burning fossil fuels, to establish that the combustion of these fuels was safe. No such proof being forthcoming, let’s suppose that politicians in all countries enacted bans on fossil fuel emissions, thereby slowing the onset of the Industrial Revolution around the world. Would we be better off today?
It’s easy to see that we wouldn’t. Most of the world would never have benefited from the Industrial Revolution. We would have missed out on mass production, too. In this pristine agrarian world, it’s fair to say that we would never have developed the technologies that enabled most people to live past the age of 40, escape from rural isolation and squalor, and improve the quality of their daily lives, especially after the year 1850. In the absence of industrialization, the scientific and medical research enterprise as we now know it simply wouldn’t exist. There would be far fewer people (owing to higher mortality rates), and they’d be far more miserable than we are today, but they wouldn’t have to worry about man-made global warming.
I have a time machine here, if anyone wants it:
(Image courtesy of J. Morton, Oto Godfrey and Wikipedia.)
Would anyone care to go back to 1830 and call off the Industrial Revolution, before it spreads from Britain and north-west Europe to the rest of the Continent?
Let’s try another experiment. Let’s turn the clock back to 1980, by which time many scientists were aware of global warming. Cumulative man-made CO2 emissions over the course of history were at less than half their current level. China, however, had not yet industrialized, and its decision to do so during the 1980s, and to open up its economy to market forces, helped lift 680 million people out of poverty. Would anyone like to go back to the year 1980, tell China’s leaders to call off their experiment with free-market capitalism, and tell their people to meekly endure another few decades of absolute poverty and high infant mortality before some 21st-century genius invents a way for a large country to industrialize without burning any fossil fuels? No? I didn’t think so.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t worry about global warming. What I am saying is that even if it is going to be catastrophic (as some scientists think), its occurrence was inevitable (following our discovery of the astonishing power-generating capacity of fossil fuels), and what’s more, it would have been unethical to stop global warming at its inception. Too many people have benefited from living in a world where our politicians didn’t genuflect on bended knee to the Precautionary Principle, but chose instead to industrialize first and ask questions afterwards. Historically, humanity has always progressed by getting rid of one problem by creating another problem, and kicking that can down the road for future generations to deal with. That may sound short-sighted and irresponsible, but it has worked, thanks to human ingenuity. And I would argue that this approach is ethically defensible, too, provided that there are no strong grounds at the time for believing that the future problem will be a catastrophic one, or that future generations will be unable to stop it. Of course, anything might happen, but we have to make our decisions based on what appears likely, in the light of our current (and imperfect) knowledge. That’s life.
For my part, I’m a pragmatist: I believe in whatever works. But perhaps some readers have a different perspective on this question, so I’ll throw the floor open. What do you think?