Humans have time to adapt to global warming

Published: 
Thursday, May 28, 2015

Originally appeared in National Review on May 28, 2015.

In a speech last week at the Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony, President Obama reiterated the assertion that “climate change is real.” He then leapt to the conclusion that “climate change will mean more extreme storms,” before predicting that we would see a “rise in climate-change refugees” caused by droughts, hurricanes, and water shortages.

Scientists, however, caution against making a connection between climate change and severe weather. Responding to a handful of ad hoc correlations between rising temperatures and weather events reported in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 2014, Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann said he was “unconvinced that these special reports properly inform the larger public discourse” and feared that “they create more confusion than clarity.”

Claims such as those made by Obama add to confusion about global warming because they detract from the long-term nature of the problem. The president is correct in saying the earth is warming. A simple trend-line of the Earth’s global land-ocean surface temperature from 1880 to the present shows that temperatures have been rising at a rate of 0.67 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) per century (measured in terms of the deviations of annual mean global temperatures from the 1951–80 average).

At that rate, however, it will take more than 500 years for the earth to heat up 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) — the temperature that many scientists claim would be catastrophic. Even by fitting a curve to the data, rather than a straight line, it would still take more than 130 years to reach the danger level.

Of course, these estimates are based on historic trends, not the sophisticated computer models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but even those models predict that it will take 50 years for temperatures to rise by 4 degrees Celsius.

Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency’s website notes that “if we stabilized concentrations and the composition of today’s atmosphere remained steady (which would require a dramatic reduction in current greenhouse gas emissions), surface air temperatures would continue to warm.”

Regardless of whether temperatures follow the historic trend or some accelerated rate, there is no need for the policy panic called for by President Obama. When a category-five hurricane hit Vanuatu last March and a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit Nepal last month, the people affected had no time to prepare. But global warming is not like a hurricane or an earthquake. Whether it takes half a millennium or half a century for catastrophic warming to occur, we have the time to prepare and adapt — and we’ve already started.

In a new book, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, journalist McKenzie Funk reports on dozens of ventures dealing with climate change. They include developing giant water bags to float as much as 5 million gallons of fresh water across oceans to places where droughts are anticipated, and the construction of sea walls to keep rising sea levels from inundating coastal areas. John Dickerson, founder of Summit Water Development Group, is purchasing and brokering water rights in the American West and Australia as a way of hedging against shifting rainfall patterns.

Plant scientists predict that global warming could reduce bean production, one of the world’s biggest sources of protein, in developing countries. But the BBC reported last month on a breakthrough by Ciagar, a global research consortium, which holds out the promise of a temperature-resilient bean. Such a bean would add to a long list of climate-resilient crops such as corn, cucumber, eggplant, tomatoes, and sunflower. Already some wine producers are moving to England from France, in anticipation of rising temperatures.

Catastrophes such as those in Vanuatu or Nepal remind us why prosperity matters. Poor countries experience more destruction from hurricanes and will be less able to adapt to global warming. Bangladesh, with a per capita income of $3,190, does not have the means to build sea walls and tidal diversions. The U.S., with a per capita income of $53,750, does. Yet compounding Bangladesh’s current 6 percent growth rate for 50 years would lift the country’s per capita income to almost $50,000.

As science writer Matt Ridley recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, it won’t do to tell “the poor to give up the dream of getting richer through fossil fuels.” That dream will give the developing world the wherewithal to better deal with global warming.

Recent anthropological research by Penn State University’s Pat Shipman, built on a complete sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, shows that Neanderthals survived many periods of abrupt climate change, including a “volcanic winter” caused by a massive eruption near what is now Naples. If they survived and adapted to abrupt climate change, surely modern man ought to be able to adapt to long-term changes, provided government climate policies don’t stifle human progress and economic growth.

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Terry L. Anderson is a senior fellow at PERC and the former President and Executive Director of PERC as well as the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His research helped launch the idea of free market environmentalism and has prompted public debate over the proper role of government in managing...
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