Of Carbon and Consequences


By Jared Stutzman

I am about to utter a heresy — a cringe-inducing, social embarrassment of a statement to those who consider themselves intelligent. Here it is: the level of carbon in the atmosphere is not a moral or religious issue. The use of fossil fuels is neither evil nor good, and it should not be preached about from your church pulpit. Gasoline does not deserve to be the primary focus of your duty as a Christian or even as a secular humanist. But wait — before you pull out your hockey-stick charts and accuse me flat-earthism, let me explain.

It is our moral duty to care about earth around us—the trees, the dirt, the water, the animals, the air, the Mississippi river, the Magnolia tree, and the Monarch butterfly. It is also our duty to care about the quality of life of the seven billion people on the earth, and these two duties are, to some extent, intertwined. The problem is that we have become obsessed with catastrophic global climate change as the face of all environmental concerns. It is a fallacy — a terrible, divisive distortion — that the duty of conserving the natural beauty of the earth is limited to concerns about climate change. Because of the near-insoluble nature of this problem, and because of the ignorance, impracticality, and ineffectiveness of the solutions proposed to it, this issue has alienated the segments of society who would normally be most concerned with environmental issues — farmers, ranchers, hunters, and others who live closest to the earth.

If impending climate change had a definite, clear cause and a definite, clear, practical solution with little or no human cost, then taking steps to avoid its consequences would be our moral duty. But that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. Instead, the solutions we see are driven by moralistic fervor, born out of first-world arrogance, are extremely unlikely to have any real impact, and would likely cause as much human pain and suffering as the problem they’re trying to solve.

Let’s be clear. It is entirely logically consistent to hate the idea of dead fish floating belly-up in a stream while also questioning the efficacy of the Kyoto treaty. It’s entirely possible to love being in the forest, to love Yosemite and the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Everglades, while also hating the idea of a carbon tax. There is no reason that someone who decries the use of artificial preservatives in prepackaged food must also decry the use of gasoline. No one supports factories dumping noxious chemicals into rivers. No one is celebrating overflowing landfills or littered roads. No one likes it when topsoil erodes. Farmers and environmentalists alike are opposed to suburban sprawl, and no one wants a side of pesticide with his salad. No one is happy about high mercury levels in streams that prevent us from eating the fish we catch.

But these kinds of conservation concerns no longer match our concept of “environmentalism” because that word now refers almost exclusively to catastrophic global climate change. The older term, “conservation,” fits better. Most of the people who are opposed to environmentalism feel differently about conservation. They can appreciate localized, common-sense solutions to known problems — they want to take care of the land we live on while appreciating and cultivating its long-term beauty and health. But they also want no part of the sweeping hubristic global predictions, the arrogant self-righteous fervor, and the futile, silly, thimble-in-the-ocean solutions of environmentalism.

In 1975, Newsweek magazine published an article about climate change — it was entitled, “The Cooling World.”

“There are ominous signs that the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically … The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it … the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded. … To scientists, these seemingly disparate incidents represent the advance signs of fundamental changes in the world’s weather. The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth’s climate seems to be cooling down…they (meteorologists) are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century … satellite photos indicated a sudden, large increase in Northern Hemisphere snow cover in the winter of 1971-1972. … Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. … The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climatic change once the results become a grim reality.”

Sound familiar? The article even speculates about possibly melting the polar ice cap by covering it with black soot. It’s all there—the scientific consensus, the data, the satellite photos, the extreme weather, the dire consequences. The only item that doesn’t fit the climate-change discussions of 2013 is the detail—admittedly tiny and insignificant—of the direction of the thermometer’s imminent precipitous shift.

Thanks to climate-change deniers, it has become the single most-quoted article in Newsweek’s history. The fact that a single article has achieved such notoriety is evidence of its rarity, and contemporary environmentalists justifiably point out that the article’s claim of consensus was drastically overstated — that our current consensus on a warming planet is far more universal than what amounted to the collective educated guesswork of the 1970s. A single mistaken article in a popular news magazine 40 years ago in no way proves that global climate change isn’t occurring.

But, while the Newsweek article hardly invalidates the entire field of climate science, it does give us some things to think about:
First, and most obviously, it illustrates that predicting a century’s worth of global weather is, to put it mildly, an inexact science with a high degree of uncertainty — and that localized severe weather events (tornadoes) have been used before as evidence for such predictions.

Second, it demonstrates that doomsday scenarios play well in magazines, newspapers, books, PowerPoint slides, and movies, but that their ubiquity or popularity does not necessarily correspond with their reliability — I’m looking at you, Mr. Gore.

Third, it raises questions about confirmation bias and group-think — there was at least some kind of consensus about a wrong-headed prediction in 1975 — how did that happen, and how should that affect our trust in current predictions produced by computer models created by climatologists, which use and produce data interpreted by climatologists, which is compiled into reports written by climatologists, which are peer-reviewed by climatologists?
Fourth, and most importantly, it shows that our proposed solutions to these types of scenarios—that is, sweeping global environmental catastrophes dependent on millions of variables forecasted decades into the future — are poorly understood and ineffectual at best and downright harmful at worst.

It is this fourth idea that brings us back to my original distinction between environmentalism and conservation. Conservation proposes simple, common-sense solutions to localized problems where there is a clear understanding of cause and effect. It takes into account both the human cost and the effectiveness of any proposed solution. Use zoning to protect farmland from suburban sprawl. Prohibit companies from dumping chemicals into rivers. Fine litterers. Encourage terrace farming to protect topsoil in hilly areas. Plant trees in riparian buffer zones next to streams as a haven for wildlife. These are common-sense local solutions, the outcomes of which are well-understood and predictable, and the human cost of which is low. Covering the polar ice-caps with soot, in contrast, is laughably wrong-headed and impossible, and we may well one day look back on current attempts at carbon restriction with the same feelings of mirth…if we aren’t crying. Environmentalism prescribes sweeping national and international policies which may or may not be effective in preventing a future catastrophe, but which often have an immediate and definite human cost in the present.

To make this point a little clearer, let’s take a detour and talk about DDT. It was one of the earliest pesticides created, and it was used in the U.S. to help eradicate malaria (by killing or repelling the mosquitoes that carried it). It was also used extensively as a farm pesticide. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” pointed out that widespread DDT use was harming birds and insects and having a detrimental effect on the entire food chain. It was a watershed moment—in the U.S., where malaria was already gone, DDT was eventually outlawed. The environmental outrage in the U.S. affected its availability in developing countries in Africa where the battle against malaria was still ongoing. Though several countries had almost beaten the disease in the early 1960s, it came roaring back in the absence of DDT. Today, malaria still kills nearly a million people per year. The World Health Organization finally re-recommended the use of DDT against malaria in 2006—34 years after it was banned in the U.S.

DDT was a harmful residual chemical—it shouldn’t have been in widespread use on farms. But the knee-jerk, global condemnation of it had profound consequences, and probably cost millions of African men, women and children their lives. That’s serious stuff—it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to compare it to genocide.

It is our God-given responsibility to take care of the natural world around us. But our solutions need to take into account the human cost of any action. The earth may, in fact, be warming and the oceans rising. New York City and Florida might be under water in the year 2100. The burning of fossil fuels may, in fact, be a part of the reason. Nevertheless, environmentalism’s solution to this problem—some kind of world-wide carbon restriction—has a high human cost and an extremely low probability of making an actual real-world difference. Carbon restriction policies require costly global cooperation between countries that are not allies in an attempt to reduce one of the many variables scientists believe may affect climate change decades from now—can you see, perhaps, why a policy of that sort might be laughably ineffective? Even if a miracle occurred and the nations of the world cooperated with each other and burned less oil, has anyone proven that earth’s temperature wouldn’t rise anyway due to other factors, such as changes in land use? The world looks nothing like it did 150 years ago. This isn’t a controlled experiment in a science lab where we can change one variable at a time to see what the real culprit is.

More to the point, however, think about the human costs if we succeeded in drastically reducing coal and gasoline use worldwide. Just as occurred with our DDT policy, those who suffer the most would be the poorest in their societies, who would suddenly find themselves priced out of basic heat, transportation, and home electricity. Carbon restrictions like “cap-and-trade” disproportionately hurt both the poorest in any given nation (i.e., the U.S.) and the poorest in the world, who tend to be most dependent on fossil fuels and have the least access to alternatives. Think about how dependent an industrial or developing society is on oil. Think about how environmentally and humanly devastating a pre-industrial society, with its low population density, extremely low crop yields, and archaic tillage methods would be with our current population. Would it really be worth it to return to a pre-industrial society if it drastically reduced the life expectancy of seven billion people? If it caused mass starvation? How is that ethical?

It is nice, if wildly optimistic, to think that alternative energy sources will one day provide the necessary electrical power for the world. But alternative sources aren’t pristine, either … witness the fight over solar farms in California that interfered with a desert habitat, or look at the gigantic armies of wind turbines clawing at the prairie skies of Illinois, with their vast concrete bases forever spoiling a patch of the richest farmland on earth. Nuclear power, which has the most potential as a long-term energy source, has its own, obvious set of objections. It is at least debatable that a world full of enough wind turbines, solar farms, and nuclear plants to meet our electricity needs would despoil the earth more in the long term than our continued use of fossil fuels—it is absolutely certain that it would cause more immediate damage and direct disruption in the short term. The solution — even if it is attainable — might be worse than the problem.

So please … do not preach sermons about global warming and the use of fossil fuels—or at least, if you must, then preach about the human cost of your proposed solutions and do not make it heresy to question the effectiveness of those solutions. Recognize that our moral duty is not to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere, but to care about people and the world God has created, and that decisions about how to carry out that duty involve tradeoffs and are never black-and-white. Do not accuse those who disagree with your particular interpretation of that duty of pillaging the earth, being ignorant, and hating science and God and humanity. They don’t — they just prefer to spend their energies where they can actually make a difference without making matters worse.