The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen ends Friday. The participants have been working on guidelines to deal with anticipated climate change. Despite this broad mandate, practically all of the proposals are focused on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
I believe this narrow focus is a big mistake. The science surrounding climate change is very controversial, but the need for action is independent of this controversy.
The "global-warming orthodoxy," represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is summarized by their statement: "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-engendered] GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations."
The most prevalent human-produced greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which is created by combustion. The panel predicts that the world will continue to get warmer due to the current high levels of GHG in the air and particularly due to continued increase in levels caused by spreading industrialization.
The policy conclusions most activists have drawn from these conclusions is that we need to act urgently to limit CO2 emissions. But the premises don't justify such a narrow agenda.
It is very plausible that the world is getting warmer all the time from greenhouse gases and that the warming can cause many kinds of harm. Our objective should be to mitigate the harm, not necessarily to attack the cause. Even many "warming believers" believe that the damage can be mitigated much more effectively and inexpensively by dealing directly with the symptoms.
For example, Bjorn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist has pointed out that while global warming is likely to raise sea levels, building dikes and levees to protect built-up areas would cost a tiny fraction of the cost of reducing emissions enough to forestall the changes.
Another possibility is to forestall warming by directly blocking solar radiation. One promising method is via man-made clouds, which can be created by comparatively inexpensive technologies.
Even if we do want to target the causes, the obsession with CO2 seems very ill-advised. CO2 is only one greenhouse gas among many; perhaps limiting others would be more cost-effective.
Against this orthodoxy there is a large group of "global-warming skeptics" who have a number of counterclaims. One is that the global-warming orthodoxy, like any orthodoxy, is shaped to a large degree by a political rather than a scientific agenda.
They point out that while the most commonly used models do predict a warming trend, they do a poor job in tracking the actual historical rise in temperatures, and in particular they don't accurately account for the last 10 years of measurements, which fail to show the warming predicted by models.
They also point out that world climate is a highly complex and poorly understood mechanism, and that it is impossible to predict temperature trends even a month or two ahead, so predicting changes years or decades ahead is foolhardy.
Often the conclusion of the skeptics is that there is not enough evidence to justify action - certainly not the very expensive actions being contemplated in Copenhagen. Again, I don't think the premises warrant the conclusion. The skeptics point out that we actually know very little about climate. That should be a cause for worry, not reassurance. Maybe instead of gradual warming, we humans will cause an ice age or some other kind of catastrophe.
The research of MIT economist Martin Weitzman points out that even if the most likely scenarios for climate change are benign, we have to take into account even a small possibility of truly catastrophic change. A 95-percent chance that everything will be fine and a 5% chance that the earth will be rendered uninhabitable sounds to me like a recipe for action, not inaction.
There is another reason that warming skepticism does not translate into complacency. Humans can affect the climate in many ways besides warming. Prominent meteorologist Roger Pielke Sr. says "skeptically" that "Global and zonally averaged surface-temperature trend assessments, besides having major difficulties in terms of how this metric is diagnosed and analyzed, do not provide significant information on climate change and variability on the regional and local scales." But immediately afterward he adds: "Significant, societally important climate change, due to both natural and human climate forcings, can occur without any global warming or cooling."
The warming orthodoxy may be distracting us from other, equally serious, threats to climate.
In my opinion, all approaches imply that if we do nothing, there is a meaningful chance that our lives will be made much worse in the coming decades by a variety of changes in world climate. Coordinated international action via conferences such as the UNCCC is essential. For this very reason, it is disappointing that the conference is adopting the extremely narrow and unhelpful focus on reducing CO2 emissions.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).