Climate Change and World Issues

Climate Change

and Other Critical Issues Facing Humanity

 Posted in March, 2010; minor revisions since then

There are a number of global crises that are hitting humankind all at once.  Many of these issues are not being treated, by governments and politicians, with the seriousness that they deserve.  There are even leading politicians who, in the face of a large body of evidence that points strongly to a looming catastrophe, have put aside the science and reduced the whole issue to popularist party politics.  I refer in particular to Mr Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition in the Australian parliament (now, 2014, Prime Minister), and his response to the issue of climate change.

When I first set up this page, I had in mind two critical issues (also called crises in this page).  They are, first, climate change and second, the linked issue of the future quality of life—i.e. quality of life for humans, but very much also for other species, many of which face the likelihood of extinction.  On further reflection however, I place five crises in the top tier of importance.  I shall number them as items 1 to 5, without any implication that this gives the order of importance of the five.  All are of great importance. I decided also to add a second tier of key issues—labelled as items 6 to 10, again without implying any particular order of importance within the second tier.

 

1.  Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) (“Anthropogenic” means “caused by humans.”   AGW is commonly referred to as Climate Change).   The science gives a very strong indication that this effect is in train, and will lead to dire consequences if nothing is done.  Yes, some serious sceptics have raised valid points; but even so, the claim that there is no AGW or that nothing much needs to be done could be taken as scientifically responsible only if the sceptics put forward a whole body of theory, along with good evidence, to back their claim—as those that are convinced of AGW have done.  It must be noted that we do not have the luxury of waiting until the answers are known with certainty.  The losses threatened by AGW are so high that we must take very significant measures now.

References:

(1) Brett Harris, Responses to Questions and Objections on Climate Change, viewed 7 December 2009, http://tinyurl.com/BPClimateFAQs (48 pages).  The document outlines scientific responses to questions and objections proposed by climate change sceptics.  It is quite comprehensive and, I believe, does not attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes.  The author, a PhD, is both an economist and a geologist.

(2) Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal, Poles Apart: Beyond the shouting, who’s right about climate change? (Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2009).  Here two intelligent laypersons interviewed, and questioned at length, leading scientists on both sides of the debate; with the result that the two authors present not only their own conclusions, but also how they arrived at those conclusions.  (In a number of cases, the conclusion is of the form that “There is not enough evidence to decide” or “The evidence gives support to the conclusion, but not overwhelming support.”)  When you study the book, make sure you read the final section.

2.  The accelerating extinction of species due to the activities of humans.  There are two main causes of these extinctions, as follows.  (i) AGW.  The expected temperature rise of say 5°C (if we continue “business as usual”) doesn’t sound like much, but the effects are great.  This is because the rise will occur so much more quickly than even in the geological past when ice ages came and went.  The ebb and flow of ice ages did not involve such a high rate of change of temperature, and so ecosystems had a lot more time in which to adapt.  (ii) The second cause, arguably having a bigger impact even than the first, is the destruction (by clearing, and to a lesser extent by polluting) of the habitat needed by species.    Humans have taken over— what fraction?—say 80%, or effectively 90%—of Earth’s land area, and are still clearing.  How much more do we want?    Furthermore, the fraction (80 or 90%) does not tell the full story, because much of the uncleared land is in small pockets, like National Parks.  In the face of global warming, adaptation tends to require animals, and plant species, to move to higher latitudes.  But being trapped in small pockets makes thia response impossible.  Putting the causes (i) and (ii) together, the number of predicted extinctions in the next 100 years is huge compared to anything that has ever happened before in such a short time-span (except perhaps if you go as far back as 65 million years, to the mass extinctions thought to have been due to an asteroid colliding with the Earth).

What are the ethics of this?  (I shall put aside, for the purposes of this discussion, the various benefits that humans derive from the diversity of species.)  Taking a very wide view (following the present-day philosopher Peter Singer, as well as other thinkers such as Douglas Hofstadter), I have a suspicion that, in the final resting-place of humanity’s ethical views, we will have a much more compassionate attitude towards other living beings, at least towards sentient animals.  Why?  Do animals have “rights” that matter much?  Well, the “higher” animals, at least, pursue various goals—though their goals are less sophisticated than ours, and they are considerably less aware of their goals than we are of ours. What right have we, first, to reduce their numbers (which is defensible up to a point), and secondly, to knowingly cause species to go extinct (which appears to me to be a considerably more serious matter)?  I can’t justify these claims in terms of widely-held philosophical principles … but what may be needed is a change of heart.

3.  World poverty.  To my mind it is a scandal that the developed nations have not done far more towards eliminating the poverty in the poorer countries.  In the Western world (such as in Australia), it is accepted that transfer payments from the non-poor to the poor—within the one country— should be a significant fraction of gross domestic product (GDP).  But humanity is one: in an important sense national boundaries are artificial.  Why should it not be the case that we redistribute wealth internationally as we do within the nation?

OK, there are some reasons: corrupt governments in some of those countries siphon off the aid from reaching the needy; it is often claimed that many poor societies are not prepared to do their bit towards raising their standard of living; and so on.  And there are complicating factors: Rather than give food, which provides only temporary respite, it is more valuable in the long run to provide appropriate capital goods (wells, computers), better health practices, etc.—and, most importantly, education.  But, having taken on board the above difficulties, we are still left with a striking imbalance when it comes to the transfer payments that we make to the poor, as a percentage of GDP.  The contrast between the 15% (say) that we give within the nation and the 0.4% (say) that we give to the poor elsewhere, is very stark indeed.

4.  The energy shortage, linked to the running-down of fossil fuels.  This problem has been on our radar since 1973!  It hasn’t gone away, but ironically it has been overtaken by an even more urgent problem: global warming.  At last, windmills, solar panels, hybrid cars and more efficient light bulbs are becoming more than a curiosity.  But I would argue for considerably more money to go into research and development, to see how the costs of solar and other alternative energy sources can be brought down.  Also, let’s take the stigma off nuclear power.

5.  Overpopulation—the madness of it.  We know that the present exponential rise can’t go on for too many more decades, yet overpopulation is almost a taboo subject to politicians (except in China).  Not only is the world’s population rising steeply, but, very likely, it is already past what is sustainable.  All of the above problems are strongly exacerbated by overpopulation.  As well as the first three problems listed below.

But what can be done?  What can be done without the strong intervention of the state—essentially the sanctions that were introduced to implement China’s one-child policy—which many citizens in the rest of the world find unaccepable?  Actually (as many have pointed out), there is a way by which considerable progress can be made.  The countries that still have a high birth rate tend strongly to be countries in which the people are poor, and poorly educated, and the women play a subservient role.   Boosting the general education of women is said to be the most effective, non-invasive way of bringing about a drop in the birth rate, for then (as experience in other countries has shown), the women themselves choose not to have large families.  Of course, it makes sense at the same time to encourage gender equality and make available cheap contraceptives.

Incredibly, a couple of presidents of the USA, including George W. Bush, banned American aid agencies from distributing condoms to third-world countries.  This, even in the face of the enormous prevalence of the AIDS virus there!

Personally, I would not be opposed to the introduction of a “one-child” policy (or a “two-children” policy) in countries that are poor and crowded and whose population is not levelling off.  Yes, China has found that there is an emotional cost in terms of having no (or almost no) aunts and uncles, etc.  But look at what overpopulation is doing in terms of:  • pollution,  • the drive to clear what forests remain (and destroy other wildlife habitats such as marshes), • the pressure for higher total energy usage,  • the upward pressure this places on greenhouse gas emissions,  • the increasing pressure on food and water resources, and finally  • making more difficult the task of eliminating world poverty.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 

Moving now towards the end of this article, I’ll briefly set out the second tier of key issues or “crises”.

6.  Food shortages in many countries—which could easily get worse.

7.  Water shortages in many countries—almost certain to get worse.

8.  Pollution.

9.  The debt of many third-world countries.  This was a big talking point about eight years ago.  It was said that the huge debt owed by such countries to other countries could never be repaid, and that before too long it would be necessary for the creditor nations to “forgive” a large part of such debts.  I’m not sure why this problem has gone off the radar.

10.  Predictions that there will be further “global financial crises” like the one of 2008 that is still upon the world.  And that these GFCs may come more frequently, because, while the causes of the present GFC are known, governments have done almost nothing towards preventing a re-occurrence of these causes.

11.  Terrorists and rogue regimes.  Yet, to give some sort of perspective, the average Westerner is hardly affected by these two problems.

12. The aging of the population.  Following the discussion of the first ten items, this problem seems rather minor.

(A note:  Although I have chosen to use the word “crisis”, I do not mean to imply that any of these problems will be with us and then will be over in just a few years.)

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Return to top of this page, i.e. Climate Change and World Issues

Return to top of parent page, Philosophy of Life, etc.

Return to David Blair’s Home Page

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