2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Theoretical physicist; cosmologist; astro-biologist; co-Director of BEYOND, Arizona State University; principle investigator, Center for the Convergence of Physical Sciences and Cancer Biology; author, The Eerie Silence and The Cosmic Jackpot
The fight against global warming is lost

Some countries, including the United States and Australia, have been in denial about global warming. They cast doubt on the science that set alarm bells ringing. Other countries, such as the UK, are in panic, and want to make drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. Both stances are irrelevant, because the fight is a hopeless one anyway. In spite of the recent hike in the price of oil, the stuff is still cheap enough to burn. Human nature being what it is, people will go on burning it until it starts running out and simple economics puts the brakes on. Meanwhile the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will just go on rising. Even if developed countries rein in their profligate use of fossil fuels, the emerging Asian giants of China and India will more than make up the difference. Rich countries, whose own wealth derives from decades of cheap energy, can hardly preach restraint to developing nations trying to climb the wealth ladder. And without the obvious solution — massive investment in nuclear energy — continued warming looks unstoppable.

Campaigners for cutting greenhouse emissions try to scare us by proclaiming that a warmer world is a worse world. My dangerous idea is that it probably won't be. Some bad things will happen. For example, the sea level will rise, drowning some heavily populated or fertile coastal areas. But in compensation Siberia may become the world's breadbasket. Some deserts may expand, but others may shrink. Some places will get drier, others wetter. The evidence that the world will be worse off overall is flimsy. What is certainly the case is that we will have to adjust, and adjustment is always painful. Populations will have to move. In 200 years some currently densely populated regions may be deserted. But the population movements over the past 200 years have been dramatic too. I doubt if anything more drastic will be necessary. Once it dawns on people that, yes, the world really is warming up and that, no, it doesn't imply Armageddon, then the international agreements like the Kyoto protocol will fall apart.

The idea of giving up the global warming struggle is dangerous because it shouldn't have come to this. Mankind does have the resources and the technology to cut greenhouse gas emission. What we lack is the political will. People pay lip service to environmental responsibility, but they are rarely prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Global warming may turn out to be not so bad after all, but many other acts of environmental vandalism are manifestly reckless: the depletion of the ozone layer, the destruction of rain forests, the pollution of the oceans. Giving up on global warming will set an ugly precedent.