Let’s not be lulled by a lull in global warming

A few news stories don’t make a trend, but it seems as if the mass media are misreading some short term trends to present a more optimistic view of our future on earth than we really face.

Much of the news media has covered the news that the average global temperature has failed to rise over the past 15 years, despite the soaring levels of greenhouse gases we have been pumping into the atmosphere.  While no reporter has quoted Desi Arnaz yet, the tone of the articles could clearly be captured by his stock phrase, “Lucy, you have some ‘splaining to do.”

The argument that treading water for 15 years disproves or calls into question the theory of human-induced climate change is absurd for several reasons. First of all, the earth is still much hotter than it was 150 years ago, much of the icecaps have already melted and we still have dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide in our oceans.  And while the average temperature on earth may have remained the same over the past 15 years, some parts of the earth have grown warmer, including the United States and most of Europe and China.

Secondly, those who only look at the last 15 years make the mistake of trend localization: They are judging changes that take centuries on the basis of a few years. The earth goes through natural cycles of warming and cooling. Most phenomena act that way—the stock market doesn’t go up every day even during a raging bull market and children don’t grow the same amount every month or even every year, but grow by spurts. The important question is whether the average temperature on earth would be lower during the current cycle without the impact of all that additional carbon we are generating. I’m betting the answer is yes.

There is also the issue of the complexity of life on earth—our ecosystem comprises a number of cycles and smaller interlocking ecosystems. It’s possible that the earth has made a partial adjustment, but if we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate, sooner or later, the earth will become less flexibility. The increase in drought areas, the thriving of jellyfish in the oceans, the extinction or threatened extinction of so many species—so much is happening that tells us we have to change our ways or risk destroying our planet. By all means, scientists should continue to study the models that predict global warming. But we shouldn’t use a misinterpretation of short-term facts as an excuse for keeping our heads in the sand about climate change.

One environmental challenge—and I see it as the main one—is the sheer number of human beings walking the planet, about seven billion right now. It’s very convenient to ignore population control. The religious issues aside, most economist and politicians love an increasing population because it’s an easy way to grow the economy and they are addicted to growth. Any campaign to stabilize or reduce the population requires a plan to address how an economy may thrive without growth—in a solid state or even shrinking. My idea of thriving clearly doesn’t mean “growing bigger” but rather producing a high quality of life and economic opportunities for all its members.

Like the end of easy oil, reaching a population level that in unsustainable is the unspoken fear. It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.  Many people, then, must have breathed a sigh of relief to learn the news that the standard forecast for population growth may be too high.

But like the report of a stable temperature over 15 years, “not as bad as” still doesn’t mean “good.” Instead of predicting that the world’s population will reach 10.9 billion by 2100, the latest statistical model says our population will peak at 8.7 billion by around 2055 and then decline to 8 billion by the turn of the next century. The models are based on the theory that as nations develop their citizens have fewer children. It’s a corollary of the idea that animals follow one of two reproductive strategies—have a lot of offspring and pay them no attention, or have a few and put a lot of energy into helping them, to survive. In human terms, when people get wealthier, they tend to have fewer children.  The experience of Europe, the United States (except our immigrants) and Japan seems to support this idea.

The only problem is that even our current population of seven billion is too high. Half that amount is too high. The earth cannot carry so many humans on a long-term basis. We use too many of the earth’s non-renewable resources and leave too many messes in our wake. And imagine if most of the world raised its standard of living to the levels of Japan or Western Europe—they might produce fewer offspring but each person would be using a lot more resources!

I doubt that we will be able to formulate an adequate response to global warming and resource shortages without lowering the population on earth substantially.

Historically there have been three ways that human populations have decreased: war, famine or epidemics.  Let’s hope that instead of riding these three horses of the Apocalypse, most countries will instead decide to pursue aggressive policies to reduce our population in a more peaceful way: birth control. More people must make the decision to have one child in their lifetime, be it by following a new social norm or a draconian law.

So don’t believe that there’s good news about global warming and populations trends. These recent optimistic news reports are the equivalent of learning that you won’t die in six weeks, but in eight weeks—if the trends stay lucky.

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