‘The Climate Cliff,’ about as big a threat to mankind as the fiscal cliff

In recent weeks, I have been thinking more and more about the similarities in tone and substance of climate change alarmists on the one hand and federal budget alarmists on the other.

Each is concerned with an impending cataclysm that will bring with it the end of civilization as we know it. Both groups have been raising the alarm for the decades, but neither offers plausible reasons why we can’t wait until the effects of the crisis actually begin to materialize before mobilizing against it.

The two groups are much alike in their hypocrisies as well. Most climate alarmists continue to drive their cars and run their A/Cs and in countless other ways continue to contribute to further green house gas emissions. Federal budget alarmists continue to vote for debt ceiling increases, new taxes, and new spending on everything from hurricane relief to continued expansion in defense outlays.

But, today was the first time I heard anyone else make an explicit comparison between the two. On the latest episode of NPR’s Alternative Radio, Bill McKibben – described on the show’s talk page as “one of the first to sound the alarm on climate change” – discusses The Climate Cliff, with the tag line that:

The most dangerous cliff we are facing is not a financial one but rather the climate one.

[The irony of a law cutting spending and raising taxes being called a ‘fiscal cliff’ is occurring to me only at this moment.]

Only a liar would claim to have spanned the Grand Canyon in a single bound…

…only a fool would try.

The UN’s annual climate change conference is taking place in Qatar this week. On the way to lunch I caught a few minutes of some foreign science guy being interviewed about it on NPR. He spoke at a break neck pace about how serious a threat to mankind all this global warming is and how necessary and urgent it is for global governmental intervention.

I don’t know if global warming or global climate change or whatever it’s called these days is real. What I do know is how much uncertainty and misunderstanding there can be in even the most basic systems and how significant is the opportunity for unintended consequences to arise from seemingly straightforward decisions like curbing global CO2 emissions.

Here are the my hurdles to be overcome before any governmental attempts at action deserve serious consideration:

Step 1: Global warming is taking place

You would first need to prove that global warming is taking place; that over some finite period of time, temperatures are rising; that there is a trend and that the trend falls outside the margin of error.

Step 2: Warming is harmful to human survival

Then, you need to prove that this level of warming is having or will have some substantial harmful effects. Are sea levels really rising? How do we know the causal link doesn’t flow in the other direction? What level of harm should warrant intervention? How do we account for the balance between bad things like population displacement and good things like an increase in farmable land? Is it not possible that short run displacements are balanced by – or even lead to – long run (and thus unforeseeable) improvements for the human race?

Step 3: Rising GHG levels are causing global warming

Once you have proven that global warming is real and is harming people, you need to prove what is causing it. Is it ozone depletion as we heard about in the 1990s, or is it an increase in CO2 as we are now told*, or the increase in a different greenhouse gas (remember that water vapor is a GHG), or is it normal cyclical warming or something else entirely?

Step 4: Fossil Fuel Emissions causing rising CO2 levels

Once you prove that rising CO2 levels are causing warming with negative consequences, you need to identify the source of the rising CO2 levels. Is it emissions from carbon based fuels, emissions from animals, rainforest depletion, algae in the oceans?

Step 5: Avert harmful effects of global warming without creating other problems

Supposing now you had proven that the emissions from burning fossil fuels were not only the most significant, but the primary, majority, or singular cause of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and that these rising CO2 levels were the central cause of substantial global temperature increases, and that these temperature increases were decidedly negative to the life prospects of future generations of humans, you would then need to have the capacity to devise and implement a global program for resolving the problem in a way that does not lead to even more negative consequences than the original problem of global warming.

Thinking of the track record for failure in central planning schemes as well as the propensity for uncertainty, revision, bias, and lies to complicate the science in any domain, there is no way that any body can speak with certainty on either side of the debate. Anyone that does is a liar or a fool. For my money this means keeping global governmental intervention out of the equation.

* CO2 levels are alleged to have increased from 0.028% of the atmosphere at the start of the Industrial Revolution to a whopping 0.0397% of the atmosphere today.