Global Warming – the questions

Tim, a regular contributor to this Blog, has suggested that we need a column on Global Warming. It is a most important subject with undoubted moral elements. But I hesitate simply because my expertise on the issue is limited. So I want to enlist your help. I am jotting down here some questions which come to mind, and I am sure there are others. If you can contribute some answers and discussion of the topics I may well be able to do a column, or more than one column, for the newspaper. In fact I am rather attracted to the idea of formulating columns which will be joint endeavours from us all.

1.   We know that global warming is occurring but how confident can we be that it will continue to occur?

2..  What is the good case/bad case scenario for the future, and what confidence can be place on the predictions?

3.   This appears to coincide with a massive increase in carbon emissions resulting from the Industrial Revolution. But are the two really linked?

4.   What proportion of global warming can be attributed to carbon emissions, and what to natural fluctuations in the world’s temperature?

5.   If there is international agreement on target emissions, and if these are accomplished, will global warming recede, be slightly modified, or continue as before?

6.   How do we deal with the question of developing countries where it might be argued that industrial growth justifies high emissions?

7.   Will alternative sources of energy be a help, e.g., wind farms, hydro electric, use of tides, nuclear power? Might carbon emissions come down because carbon production becomes unnecessary?

8.   Would we do better to maximise investment in protecting the world from the worst effects of global warming, whether this is preparing to move populations, or to build better infrastructure in the right places, or to accept that we must develop genetically manipulated crops which can grow under dry conditions?

9.   Is this simply a secular matter or do we have specific obligations as Christians? If so, would this be based on our duty, given to us in Genesis, to care for God’s creation, or is it based on our general love of neighbour?

*     *     *

I would prefer as many contributions as possible to appear on the Blog, but if anyone would prefer to email me directly, please don’t hesitate.


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8 Responses to Global Warming – the questions

  1. gerry says:

    QUESTION 2. Good case scenario. Is there one?
    Bad case scenario from James Lovelock

    Did you know the exhalations of breath and other gaseous emissions by the nearly seven billion people on Earth, their pets and livestock are responsible for 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions? If you add on the fossil fuel burnt in the total activity of growing, gathering, selling and serving food, all this adds up to about half of all carbon dioxide emissions. Think of farm machinery, the transport of food from the farms and the transport of fertiliser, pesticides and the fuel used in their manufacture; the road building and maintenance; the supermarket operations and the packaging industry; to say nothing of the energy used in cooking, refrigerating and serving food. Like it or not, we are the problem.

    We are trying to undo some of the harm we have done and as climate change worsens we will try harder, even desperately. But it is not simply too much carbon dioxide in the air or the loss of biodiversity as forests are cleared; the root cause is too many people, pets and livestock – more than the Earth can carry. No voluntary human act can reduce our numbers enough even to slow climate change. Merely by existing, people and their dependent animals are responsible for more than 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions of all the airline travel in the world.

    © James Lovelock 2009 Extracted from The Vanishing Face of Gaia by James Lovelock,

    Below from Gerry

    Comment: We are not doing enough to slow the growth in our numbers growth, never mind reducing our numbers.

    Question 6. Developing countries will try to improve their lot and we will try to help them. This improvement – if it successful – will greatly increase the greenhouse gas emissions thought by most to be the cause of global warming.

    Question 9. We look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church and wonder at the huge intellectual feat involved and yet know that its authors believe that using artificial contraception is a grave sin, but seem to see no sin in the destruction God’s creation by the excessive multiplication of our species. Moral theology needs some major changes.


  2. tim says:

    Taking the questions as numbered:
    1. Fairly confident. Not everyone believes that GW is occurring, but the balance of scientific opinion is that it definitely is. The more difficult questions are, what bad effects will it have, how severe will they be and what will be the best way of coping with them?

    2. Gerry’s given the worst case (from a very distiguished scientist, talking – let us hope – through his hat). The best case is that global warming occurs at the lower end of current predictions: and that we take advantage of the resulting good effects, while minimising the bad ones by suitable measures that do not unduly slow economic growth.

    3. Yes, very probably.

    4. It is fairly clear that CO2 emissions are not the sole cause of temperature fluctuations. The sun, and changes in the earth’s orbit, have had clear effects over geological time. But, of course, we have more control over CO2 emissions than over the sun.

    5. Two big ‘ifs’ – and it would depend on what they agree on. I’m not tempted to speculate.

    6. We have first to decide what’s important to us. See below.

    7. Yes.

    8. Yes.

    9. Certainly we have specific obligations as Christians. One is to be properly informed: which includes finding the right balance between scepticism and credulity. Then we have obligations to God and to our neighbours, including our descendants. Prudence is an important obligation (and includes the obligation to investigate what is prudent). Also, coming down the scale a bit, Catholics need to avoid giving scandal: which here means not unnecessarily giving the impression that we don’t care about the environment or future generations.

    To speak more generally: this topic raises scientific, economic, political and moral questions. For each of these we non-experts must rely in varying degrees upon authority, combined with the exercise of our own reason. We have to give appropriate credit to the views of scientific experts, but primarily on their science: when they propose economic or political solutions, their views carry less weight. It’s not a case of scientia locuta est, causa finita est. Economic and political experts require less deference, even in their own sphere. As to moral experts, I leave you to judge.

    What is the priority? Not to preserve the world exactly as it was when we arrived in it. Emissions of carbon dioxide are not evil per se – only in some of their effects. We can avoid these effects in two main way: by emitting less CO2, or by coping better with the resulting problems (mitigation or adaptation, in the jargon). The former is technically more elegant and appealing: the disadvantage is political difficulty (perhaps impossibility) and inordinate expense.

    To come back to question 6. It is more important (I say) to help the poor in the developing world than to slow down CO2 emissions (a false choice, you may say, but hear me out). One excellent reason for slowing down emissions is the damaging effects they will have on the developing world. But if we rely solely on slowing down emissions, the price is enormously slowing down economic advance. At reasonable rates of growth, most of the developing world will be as prosperous in 90 years’ time as the developed world is now – and well able to pay for their suppers (as well as for flood defences, etc.). By slowing economic growth, we put that possibility at risk.

    Politically, compromises are required. A carbon tax might be good, provided it was at a sufficiently low level not to impact too heavily on the poor. By all means let’s spend money, but on things which as many people as possible can agree will be worth while. Research on alternative energy sources, by all means. Malaria is a good example (well done, Bill Gates!). Some say malaria will increase as a result of global warming – others completely disagree. But malaria is a problem now, so money spent in finding solutions to it won’t be wasted in either event.

  3. Horace says:

    7.   Will alternative sources of energy be a help?

    I agree with tim rather than with gerry’s Malthusian predictions.

    “The best case is that global warming occurs at the lower end of current predictions: and that we take advantage of the resulting good effects, while minimising the bad ones by suitable measures that do not unduly slow economic growth.”

    One day in the early 1970’s I was walking along the corridor in the University of Edinburgh when the door of Steve Salter’s lab opened and he greeted me with “I have solved the problem of the Fuel crisis!” (Remember the 1970’s Fuel crisis?). He took me into the lab and showed me the first prototype model of what later came to be called the ‘Salter Duck’. This device could provide really significant quantities of electricity from the ocean waves on our western shores with negligible environmental impact. Unfortunately the idea never took off – I have been told because of opposition by the nuclear energy lobby.

    Nuclear energy was fatally disabled by fears of “weapons of mass destruction” and by the disaster at Chernobyl and the near disaster at Three Mile Island.
    Nuclear fusion has very considerable advantages but seems always to be about 10 years away from practical application.

    I am heartened to find that Steve is still very much active – not only still developing the Duck (I was reminded of this by last week’s headline article in The Economist; “How long till the lights go out?” – another fuel crisis looms!) but also he, with John Latham at Manchester, has suggested a plan to produce cooling regions by enhancing marine stratocumulus clouds. This could at very least be used to buy time until other methods of non-CO2-producing energy sources become available.

  4. claret says:

    The difficulty with all this is who to believe and what statistic to put your faith in. It was only a couple of weeks ago that i read that the earth was actually cooling down to where it was just a few decades ago and that the polar ice cap is greater now than what it was then!
    Without carbon emissions we would all be dead! All that we can say is that everything has a cause and effect. If we followed Gerry’s line of arguement we should kill off all our animals and then all die of mass starvation and hope that evolution would
    re-create human beings millions of years from now when the earth would be clean again and the rotting bodies had long since ceased to give off poisonous emmissions!
    Even in my short lifetime I well remember predictions of a new ice age that followed a few harsh winters. Now we are predicting about holidaying on the coast at Doncaster.

  5. Ion Zone says:

    The problem with the Global Warming debate is that regardless of what anyone thinks, we need to do something, if we don’t and Global Warming is a false alarm, 0k, fine, made a bit of a mistake, cost a lot of money, but cancer and asthma rates are going to drop as a result, and we will gain several thousand other benefits too. If it isn’t a false alarm then we have reduced or removed a problem that would result in the destruction of almost all civilization.

    This is a bit moot, though, because this is seen as something that will affect short and long term profits, and so will be given little more than carbon-footprint lip-service.

  6. Iona says:

    1. Very confident; in fact, it seems to be accelerating (see melting of ice-caps and glaciers).

    2. Bad case – very bad; droughts, floods, famines, likely breakdown of civilisation. Good case – similar to bad case but more limited.

    3. They are linked; but the problem goes back much further, to deforestation as population increased and people became more ambitious, seeking wood for building, boat-building, fuel etc.

    4. Probably a lot more to carbon emissions, since the recent (i.e. last few decades) global temperature rise seems to be unprecedented.

    5. If it’s an adequate agreement, and people stick to it and do what they’ve agreed to do, then warming would at least be modified.

    6. A difficult one. It would be quite unacceptable for developed countries to try and prevent developing ones from developing, on the grounds that they’re contributing to global warming. Perhaps the only way forward is for alternative methods of energy production (alternative to carbon-emitting ones, I mean) to be developed and brought into large-scale use by first and third world countries alike.

    7. See 6. Deserts such as the Sahara lend themselves to solar power, while here in Britain wind-power and tidal power could produce much if not all of the energy we need (combined with vastly improved insulation of homes and workplaces so we would need less energy, and reduction in unnecessary use of energy e.g. for motor racing at one extreme and electric carving-knives at the other.

    8. I think moving populations would be a last resort.
    As for genetically manipulated crops which will grow in dry places, – that’s an ironic suggestion, considering that biodiversity of plants and animals is one of the casualties of human activity. Species have evolved to fill any and every niche, but are currently being lost at a great rate, as diverse habitats are destroyed to make room for monocultures.

    9. We have obligations, and they’re based on both good stewardship and love of neighbour. (Have just bought a little CTS booklet on Global Warming but haven’t read it yet, – but it starts by making the point that this is very definitely an ethical matter not just a practical one).

  7. Superview says:

    There is enough evidence that human activity on our planet is causing a problem with ‘global warming’ for any reasonable person to act on. Tim’s point about the obligation to act and behave prudentially is therefore surely right. It has the added merit of being intuitively desirable; no right-minded person can fail to be disturbed by the pollution of our air, by the reckless waste of energy, and by the greedy over-consumption of the world’s resources by both individuals and by developed nations.
    We have a duty as moral beings to act comprehensively to try and put things right, which means supporting meaningful governmental actions, but also as far as possible in our own behaviour. A big part of the problem is caused by millions of individuals doing certain things unnecessarily, and if those individuals can stop doing these things then the problem is diminished to that extent. But lots of us resist changes to our lifestyles (I am weak when it comes to cheap flights to the sunshine and my wife is weak when it comes to leaving lights on). Our current mantra is ‘think of our grandchildren’ and it is very effective. To take seriously our legacy to future generations is a vital aspect in modifying our current generation’s unintended selfish behaviour.

  8. DJPNicholls says:

    One of the biggest ambiguities with the global warming debate, to me, at least, is the role of Carbon Dioxide. We are continually told that CO2 in the Upper atmosphere leads to the greenhouse effect and thus to global warming, but what I don’t understand (and hope someone can explain to me) is how the CO2 gets into the upper atmosphere in the first place. It is a well-known property of CO2 that it is heavier than oxygen, which is why it is used in fire extinguishers to smother fires. So how does CO2 overcome the seemingly large difficulty of its weight to get into the upper atmosphere? I’m sorry that this is, in fact, a question and not an answer, but perhaps it can serve as another side to the argument to consider (and if anyone can show me what is erroneous in my reasoning, I’d be grateful).

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