Monday, January 4, 2010

The Logic of "We Cause Environmental Problems"

Matthew Yglesias links, with strong approval, to a piece in the NY Times.

Many people in Bangladesh have fled their rural homes to live in miserable, overcrowded conditions in the city. The immediate cause of their move was usually flooding, either from a cyclone or river erosion. Nowhere is there an actual estimate of how many people are involved, how many have actually lost land and homes, etc. But of course everything is somehow linked to global warming.

Natural calamities have plagued humanity for generations. But with the prospect of worsening climate conditions over the next few decades, experts on migration say tens of millions more people in the developing world could be on the move because of disasters.


Taken literally, this seems to mean that the calamaties so far in Bangladesh are just the kind of thing that has always happened to human beings. As Machiavelli says in the Prince: people traditionally think that floods result from fortune and God, but he knows (and following him, modern people know) that it is possible to build dams and dikes. Subsistence living, punctuated by drought, floods, and famines, has been the norm for much of human existence. The article does not actually say global warming has caused any new problems yet.

What is different now? Yglesias spells it out more than the Times:

The historical and archeological records are full of examples of wrenching changes forced by past instances of climate change. But those fluctuations have always taken place on a much longer, slower time frame than the current era of climate change induced by human industrial activity.


Cyclones used to take longer than they do now? Floods? Droughts? I doubt it. All logic and skepticism seem to be gone. Bad things are happening; they are going to get worse because of global warming; they will be the direct result of preventable human actions; realistic action is possible to prevent all this. Except for the first, obvious statement, this is all extremely doubtful. Perhaps a case could be made that river erosion has resulted from rising temperatures, but neither the Times nor Yglesias goes to the trouble of even trying to show that.

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