02 December 2009

Knowledge, Consensus & Dissent

I've been following the kerfuffle over the disclosure of stolen e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of East Anglia University, England. This post is prompted by an article by Jonah Goldberg and a report on NPR.

I am as concerned as the next person about the condition of the earth and of man's impact on the environment. In high school I circulated a petition to have styrofoam cups and plates removed from the cafeteria, which was adopted by the school. I had read 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Planet, and tried to do as much as I could. I was an early advocate of recycling and got my parents to use detergents that didn't contain phosphorus. I tried not to be preachy, but I was a teenager and well...I was. But I wasn't smug and I didn't look down on those who didn't agree with me. You see? I am just that fantastic.

But there was then and, to a far greater extent, there is now what seems to me a galling lack of critical thinking among climate scientists and ecologically minded folks.

First and foremost, the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and has changed, to varying degrees, over that entire time. It's been pelted with meteors and asteroids, it has endured sulfur rains and liquid rocks flowing along the surface (still does that from time to time). Despite all of this, life generated and has been sustained by adapting to present conditions. These changes are all almost incomprehensibly long and slow and, from our fixed position, imperceptible; observable only from the fossil record, geological studies and the sheer quantity and diversity of species.

Based on this, I would say that anthropogenic climate change, if possible, would be inconsequential as far as the earth and a majority of species is concerned. Adaptation would continue. Not to say that I want human existence to be snuffed out by human activity, but

To the extent that man should limit his impact on the environment, make an effort not to have an unreasonably adverse affect on ecological conditions, and try not to eliminate a specific species or class of species, I am in full agreement. But like anything in life, things can be taken too far.

Consider the trees.

Everyone I know makes at least some effort to recycle paper. And jamming a piece of paper into a trash can that is next to a recycle bin will draw some dirty looks from most observers. If you ask most people why they do this, either actively recycle refuse on their own or hold those who don't with contempt, they say it's to save the trees. A wonderful sentiment, which would be all the more so if it were true.

Unfortunately, large scale recycling reduces the amount of land dedicated to trees. That's right, recycling paper causes more deforestation. I first read this in Steven E. Landsburg's book, The Armchair Economist (Chapter 24, "Why I Am Not An Environmentalist, the Science of Economics Versus the Religion of Ecology"). You see, paper companies need trees. Lots of them. Trees are an entirely renewable resource with a significant time investment, so paper companies and lumber suppliers need to "budget" for future consumption. But if you own a paper company and someone runs in and tells you, "hey boss! I just found a way to reduce the amount of wood needed to produce paper by 20-30%!" Then you (and every other paper producer) will reduce the demand for wood, the supply of wood will be reduced, over time) so the natural price equilibrium can be found (take this all with a heaping dose of all other things being equal, ceteris paribus). The land that was used to produce trees can now be used for other, more productive purposes. QED. Murray Rothbard discusses this in his lecture on Conservation and Property Rights which I hope to write about more later. This isn't just right-wing nuts, either. In his book Filthy Lucre, Joseph Heath writes "one way to increase the number of trees being planted is for us to consume more paper."*

I guess this is all a long way of saying that critical thinking matters. And that guy you see dropping paper into a trash can may well care about the planet just as much as you. And saying that anthropogenic global warming may not be happening may make you an apostate in the eyes who hold environmentalism as a moral issue, it doesn't make you a science-hating ostrich.

There is consensus in the scientific community (boy howdy do I hate referring to "communities"), and that consensus should be taken seriously. It should also be challenged. Mr. Darwin's elegant little theory was published 150 years ago and has been challenged ever since. Good science can and will withstand scrutiny. John Derbyshire has an excellent article here.

*This onion has a lot of layers. I hope to address it more later.

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