It is a problem humans are not likely to solve; Global warming's vagaries

By Lester Thurow
Copyright 1998 Boston Globe
September 8, 1998

In what for many parts of America is the hottest summer on record, "global warming" has begun to sound plausible.

Horror stories can be told about what might happen if global warming were to occur. Half of Bangladesh is under water - 100 million people lose their homes. The flow of the gulf stream is disrupted in the Atlantic Ocean and Europe becomes as uninhabitable as northern Canada. Plant and animal species unable to move to cooler climates die out by the thousands. Human agriculture is disrupted and millions starve. Storms become more frequent, and humans find the globe a much less comfortable place to live.

All of this may prove to be true, but if there were ever a problem that humans are unlikely to solve, it is global warming. Human nature and human socioeconomic systems were simply not built to solve such problems.

The reality of the problem can always be denied. Whatever the weather in any one year and in any one place may all be because of natural statistical variance.

Changes have to be huge before one knows for sure that events are outside the realm of normal statistical variability. There is after all a small chance of getting 100 heads in a row if one is flipping coins. Even the decade of hot weather we're having does not prove that global warming has arrived. And once we are sure that global warming is here, it is too late to prevent it from arriving.

Even after it is agreed that the world is getting warmer, it all may be because of natural causes. At various times in the past the world has been much warmer than it is now. Perhaps we are just entering a naturally warmer period. To agree that the weather is warmer is not to agree that human activities are causing the weather to get warmer.

Even if it were possible to agree that human activities are making the world warmer, there may be natural feedback mechanisms that prevent those effects from becoming very large. Warmer weather would lead to more evaporation from the oceans and more precipitation. If this precipitation came down in cold climates (the Arctic or Antarctic) in the form of snow, it would reflect more sunlight back into space and stop average temperatures from rising further even if the human causes were to continue to occur. Straight-line extrapolations of adverse effects are clearly wrong. There are natural feedback mechanisms.

The effects of warmer weather are uncertain. Many species of plants, sugar maples for example, will have to migrate farther north to survive, but they may be surprisingly good at doing so. No one knows for sure that they can't.

If the ice of Greenland and Antarctica were to melt, some countries would lose much of their land area (Bangladesh and New Zealand), but other countries might have better, longer, growing seasons (Canada and Russia) and be much better off. Some areas may become drier while others will become wetter. Depending upon exactly where those areas are (something no one can predict), neither may be bad news. The world may become a better place for human beings to live.

Forecasts predicting that average temperatures will be a few degrees warmer might sound like a good message to those living in the frost belt. Heating one's home is more expensive than cooling one's home. Snow tires cost money. Instead of humans migrating to the sunbelt, the sunbelt will move to them.

Everyone agrees that the costs of eliminating human effects on climate will be huge since they involve finding a cost-effective substitute for fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they discharge when burned. Today nothing on the horizon is remotely cost competitive with oil, natural gas, and coal.

Poor people living in developing countries don't want high energy costs postponing their development and the quality of their lives. Rich people in developed countries don't want reductions in their standards of living. Those standards may look unnecessary to those on the outside looking in but they do not look like unneeded luxuries to those that enjoy them. Current standards of living quickly become necessities.

To talk about people using their cars much less to prevent a problem that has not yet emerged is to talk about something that is not going to happen.

If global warming is on the way, humans are unlikely to stop it.

Lester C. Thurow is professor of management and economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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