Environmental Grownups

The validity of any argument is independent of the character of the person making the argument and even the rashness with which the argument is delivered. Nonetheless, there is something reassuring about passionately believed arguments delivered with directness and humility and without resort of ad hominen. Thus the rash and hyperbolic remarks of Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are deeply disappointing.

Bjorn Lomborg is a Danish statistician who has questioned the conventional approach to global warming issues. In an interview in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten, Dr. Pachauri said, “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s? You cannot treat people like cattle. You must respect the diversity of cultures on earth. Lomborg thinks of people like numbers. He thinks it would be cheaper just to evacuate people from the Maldives, rather than trying to prevent world sea levels from rising so that island groups like the Maldives or Tuvalu just disappear into the sea. But where is the respect for people in that? People have a right to live and die in the place where their forefathers have lived and died. If you were to accept Lomborg’s way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing.”

Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist has argued against unnecessary and unjustified hyperbole with regard to environmental issues. Lomborg does not dispute climate change. Indeed, he has bases his analysis on data and conclusions contained IPCC reports. In recent testimony before Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science and Technology, Lomborg concluded, “Global warming is real and man-made. This point has been made in many places, but perhaps most strongly and convincingly by the IPCC.” Lomborg’s argument disagreement with many on the environmental Left is that IPCC conclusions about global climate change and its effects do not support the notion that expected climate change will have “strong, ominous and immediate consequences.” Moreover, in deciding on the best strategy to deal with global climate change, it is imperative to weigh the costs of alleviating climate change directly against the costs of coping with its effects.

The reference Pachauri made to the Maldives, a group of atolls in the Indian Ocean, is associated with the fact small republic highest point is only 2.5 m above sea level. If sea level rises enough due to global warming 300,000 people who live there will be forced to move. This involves human and economic consequences felt most acutely by the Maldivians.

There also human and economic costs associated with the disruptions associated with reducing carbon emissions. These costs will increase unemployment, decrease wealth (or at least the rate at which it grows) and these costs will most likely affect the poorest among us. Lomborg suggests that these total costs and benefits of reducing climate change must be balanced against coping with the impact of such climate change. All resources are finite, and it is not unreasonable to maximize the benefit of such resources to all. One does not have to be callous with respect to consequences to the Maldivians, to be sensitive to the consequences on others radical and immediate reductions in carbon emission. For this assertion, Lomborg is compared Hitler.

If one reads Lomborg’s works or listens to him speak he does not display the anger of the hateful, but the concern associated with humble inquiry. This lends credibility to his presentation. On his better days, I suspect that Pachauri is not given to the mean-spiritedness he displayed in the interview cited above. Nonetheless, it is immature to will an end without appreciating the means to reach the end. If Pachauri wishes to reduce climate change he must be willing to acknowledge the costs of doings so.

Reducing climate change is not the ultimate good. Human well being and respect for individual human rights are the highest goals governments can lend themselves to. It is not too much use available resources to maximize these goods not necessarily to minimize the impact of humans on the Earth. We called to be stewards on the Earth, but stewards in the service of the Earth’s most value asset, us.

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