Friday, September 28, 2007

Global Alarm Bells

A new article by Bjorn Lomborg reasserts the denialist credo on polar bear populations, which was trotted out earlier this week by Walter E. Williams:

Consider a tale that has made the covers of some of the world's biggest magazines and newspapers: the plight of the polar bear. We are told that global warming will wipe out this majestic creature. We are not told, however, that over the past 40 years - while temperatures have risen - the global polar bear population has increased from 5000 to 25,000.
As I mentioned earlier, there's no evidence for the initial figure of 5000. And the fact that polar bear numbers have increased - as a result of conservation efforts - doesn't mean they're not threatened by climate change.

Since mentioning global warming seems to shut some people's brains down, here's a simple analogy. Suppose hunting reduces a population of antelope to 500, and as a result, a ban on hunting is enacted. Suppose further that after ten years, the antelope population has rebounded to 5000, but scientists are worried that a persistent regional drought could reduce the population to 400 or less. Obviously, you can't calm the scientists' fears about drought-related mortality by pointing out that hunting-related mortality remains low, because they're two different things.

If Lomborg's training in economics gave him (or left him with) any ability to appreciate such ethereal distinctions, he's keeping it to himself. In fact, he proceeds to apply the same basic error to human society: our life expectancy is going up, so how could it possibly go down?
Things have improved immensely in both the developing and developed worlds. In the past 100 years, scientists have won many of the most important battles against infectious diseases, to the extent that poverty is now the main reason for a lack of treatment. Global average life expectancy in 1900 was 30 years; today, it is 68....

Perhaps most importantly, all of these positive trends are expected to continue. The United Nations estimates that average life expectancy will reach 75 years by the middle of the century, and that the proportion of those going hungry will drop below 4 per cent.
The United Nations also estimates that global warming will disrupt food supplies, and cause water shortages, and increase disease, and destroy prime agricultural land; and that these problems will be especially devastating in the developing world. (Also, if we killed everyone in countries with life expectancies below sixty years, the global average would go up from that point forward; that doesn't necessarily mean that the survivors would be happier or better people. Life expectancy and quality of life are very different things.)

In summation, all this talk about the expected continuation of positive trends reminds me of Bertrand Russell's gag about inductive reasoning in chickens.

The rest of the article reiterates Lomborg's call for economic triage and care rationing; like shrewd investors, we should put our money where it'll earn the highest return. This sounds reasonable enough, until you remember that a lot of the problems Lomborg's talking about are interrelated, or even synergistic; and that in addition, attempts to remedy them must take projected climate change into account.

As an example, Lomborg mentions the vast number of people who don't have clean drinking water. Water supply and climate, obviously, are pretty intimately connected. Also, improving water safety involves issues like drainage, land use, and the ability of infrastructure to withstand flooding; all these things are likely to be affected by climate change (and we should bear in mind, here, that Lomborg is not a denialist when it comes to AGW).

There's also a larger issue, which is that a good deal of poverty and immiseration in this world is caused, sustained, and sanctified by the free-market orthodoxy that Lomborg champions as Our Only Hope. I'm not exaggerating here; Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus identifies free trade as one of the humanity's four "top priority concerns"; the other three are hunger, AIDS, and malaria.

They probably should've included pathological guilt among the wealthy, which is increasingly being touted in his circles as the most dangerous possible side-effect of climate change:
Global alarm bells might cause pangs of guilt for wealthy Westerners, but they don't give us an adequate understanding of what is going on. We all need to hear both sides of the story.
Except when it comes to trivialities like polar bears, or water availability, in which case Lomborg's say-so should be good enough for anyone who's not a doomstruck Marxist sourpuss.

1 comment:

Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

Fuckin' A Tweety, brudda!!!
I heard Lomborg interviewed the other day on Morening Edition by Stevie Insqueak, who had absolutely NO KNOWLEDGE of the subject, and so--
quite naturally, when faced with an expert with whom the interviewer REALLY WANTED TO AGREE--Squeaky let him expostulate endlessly, without ever uttering a critical or cautionary word. I wanted to throttle both of 'em. Or break out Mr. L.V. SLUGGER...