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Global Warming: Considering The Lesser Evils | Scoop News – Scoop


Earlier this week the final report from the IPCC (press
release
) on climate change was released. While it
indicates that it is still technically possible to limit
global warming to 1½ degrees; such an outcome is both
unlikely and may require more than lots of trees to pull
excess carbon from the atmosphere.

While climate
change is a major ‘existential’ issue – and may prove to
be the most important of such issues – it is hard to focus
on it at the moment, with two other more immediate
existential issues facing us, neither of which are going to
go away in a convenient manner: pestilence, and Putin.
(Covid19 is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the broader
pestilence issue, which was unleashed into our consciousness
in 2020; the wider issue relates to the socioeconomic causes
and consequences of disease, and other forms of contagion
– which are not viral in the microbiological
sense.)

There are three determinative options re
climate change: prevent, adapt, and hope. These are not
mutually exclusive; we (humankind) can and should seek to do
all three. But these options represent three different
emphases of action or inaction.

Hope

This is
not about hoping that the science of carbon gas emissions,
global warming and climate change is wrong. Instead it is
about gaining a better understanding of what science is and
is not, and about the ‘stochastic’ nature of all prediction;
including (indeed especially) scientific prediction, which
is based on an incomplete and evolving knowledge
base.

‘Stochastic’ means that there is a range of
statistically possible outcomes, even if our knowledge of
the present and past (‘the science’) could be perfect. The ‘unmodified future’ is based on the midpoint of a range of
projections (or predictions). If accurate (ie unbiassed),
there is a fifty percent chance that the outcome will be ‘worse’ than predicted, and a fifty percent chance that the
outcome will be ‘better’ than predicted.

Thus, we may
hope that – in the absence of any substantial global or
national policy initiatives – the climate change outcome
will be substantially better, by pure chance, than the
midpoint prediction. Aligned with this, we may hope that, by
chance, future scientific discoveries will lead to
favourable modifications of our present range of
predictions.

As a rough ballpark estimate, I would
suggest that the chances of a fortunate outcome following a
strategy of inaction might be around five percent; maybe
even ten percent. On the opposite extremity of this
probability spectrum there would be a similar five to ten
percent chance of a truly catastrophic outcome (eg similar
to the sea-level impact of Canada’s Laurentide ice sheet
melting, just over 10,000 years
ago).

Prevent

Assuming the current midpoint
scientific prediction, there are – it is argued – policy
options that must be implemented in the early 2020s that
would lead to a midpoint outcome which falls within the ‘acceptable range’ of 1½ degrees of global warming. (Note
that, if we bring this midpoint prediction just to the cusp
of the 1½ degree threshold, there is still a fifty percent
change of breeching that threshold in practice.)

The
question here is: What is the chance that the
required political interventions will take
place?
Given our track record so far – and
given the noted existential distractions – the chance that
correct and sufficient interventions will take place is
about one in a million. Possible, yes, but highly
improbable
.

This does not mean that
preventative policy strategies should not take place; such
strategies could increase the chance of a hopeful outcome
(eg to twenty percent), and diminish the chance of a truly
catastrophic outcome (eg to two percent).

Important in
this context is that we may need to adopt a ‘lesser evil’
strategy. And the most important such strategy –
increasingly discussed – is a nuclear power
strategy.

(Another possible strategy, or even
complementary to nuclear power expansion, would be for
people to increasingly settle in sunny environments near
coasts – including desert environments – whereby solar
power could be abundant, and water supplies would be
extracted via solar-powered desalination of sea water. This
would mean less human encroachment on good farmland, and
possibly an increased reliance on urban-hydroponic ‘market-gardening’ for food supplies. And, similar renewable
technology could facilitate the development of
technologically-advanced hybrid shipping to enhance the
supply chain. ‘Hybrid’ could include a greater role for
wind, solar, and uranium as fuels for freight
transport.)

Nuclear power is clearly a classic example
of a ‘lesser evil’. There are well-understood risks of
catastrophic accidents with very long-lasting environmental
impacts. Further, nuclear power plants are obvious military
targets, making it possible to conduct nuclear war without
the use of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, we (in the
west) have been lax in developing nuclear technology in ways
which minimise such risks. This is despite that fact that
nuclear fuels – especially uranium – are less
concentrated (than oil and gas) in politically problematic
countries such as Russia, Iran, and Saudi
Arabia.

China has been less lax. Indeed China, for all
its faults, has probably actually done more to decarbonise
the earth than any other polity. First, through its
post-1980s’ industrialisation, it has enabled much
deindustrialisation to take place in the west. This is
significant. Second, China has not been afraid to do the
research and development work required to bring about
twenty-first century nuclear technology, as well as solar
and wind generation.

The west can work with China. To
some, such cooperation would fall into the ‘lesser evil’
category. The west could start by cutting back on the
excesses of ‘political gaslighting’ of China that have been
increasing in recent years.

I read the following in
the New Zealand Listener (12 March 2022) in a story
titled ‘Sino things to come’: “China is happy with nuclear
reactors, with 54 of them producing power and another 14
under construction. It has built a new kind of reactor,
which doesn’t run on uranium but on thorium. This weakly
radioactive metallic chemical element has the potential to
produce safer and cheaper nuclear energy while generating a
much smaller amount of long-lived radioactive
waste.”

This is the kind of initiative that Germany,
for example, should and could have been undertaking; instead
of becoming reliant on Russian gas while supposedly both
decarbonising and denuclearising. What has happened is that
Russia has ‘played Germany’, Russia’s greatest historical
rival. Whatever happens in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has
already defeated Angela Merkel in his politico-economic
gamesmanship. And this ‘victory’ of Putin is as much a part
of the west’s problem in dealing with him today as is his
possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Germany is
dependent on Russia.

Just about anything we can do to
tilt the odds away from environmental catastrophe can be a
good thing; albeit with the understanding that replacing one
scenario of catastrophe with another less probable scenario
of catastrophe should be undertaken with eyes
open.

Adapt

As noted, the probability that our
climate-change political target will be met is probably
about one in a million. (Anything that helps is better than
nothing, of course, though bearing in mind that unintended
consequences from political actions – possibly arising
from wilful blindness – can undermine the overall success
of political interventions.)

Thus, we must adapt to
the environmental consequences of our past, present and
likely future ‘bad habits’. A commitment to adaption need
not undermine preventative policies; it need not be a case
of either/or. Adaption strategies should not be seen as
acknowledgement of political failure; rather they represent
survival realism. Further, the ‘expected investment return’
on a pure adaption strategy would most likely be
substantially higher than the expected return on a pure
prevention strategy.

We need to learn how to live in,
and insure ourselves in, a warmer and stormier world. An
important part of this will be indirect, enabling a more
equitable world in which it is in the interest of everyone
to look to the future as well as to subsist in the present.
Further, if we as free(ish) agents are given sufficient
autonomy, we can make better choices without looking to
governments to make those choices for us. Such ‘civil
society’ choices can facilitate a lessening of climate
change as well as adaptation to it.

Adaptation to
climate change is a mitigation, a lesser evil. Elimination
of a problem is clearly better than having to live with a
problem. Nevertheless, that’s how life works. Through
realism. Our lives are imperfect. Yet we survive, by making
difficult trade-offs and by performing practical balancing
acts.

————-

Keith Rankin (keith at
rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a
retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in
Auckland, New
Zealand.

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