Sunday, December 03, 2006

Adapting vs. Curbing Climate Change #2

Suppose those predicting a serious climate change apocalypse are right. Suppose we're actually right to believe there's a going to be a 5,000,000 degrees centigrade rise in temperatures and we'll all burn rapidly to death because of global warming (or some less 'paraphrased' version).

Now, we can either respond to this by trying, probably in vain, to persuade people to do serious damage to the world economy by trying to combine reductions in energy use with rising living standards in the developing world. We can harm the UK economy by making energy intensive industry more costly in the UK; at the same time increasing the incentives to greater energy use in other countries as competition from the UK is hamstrung. Or we can spend a small portion of that cost, avoid the economic distortion and have a chance at finding new planets as Dr. Hawking recommends.

While there is, of course, technological risk that the investment will not pay off there is equally risk in attempting to curb climate change as we cannot claim to have an accurate picture of the difference marginal changes in the human carbon dioxide emissions will make to climate change; they could wind up being as useless as a mass of stalling interstellar engines. It is even possible we could do harm; if global cooling makes a comeback, all the rage in the 70s, might we wind up rather regretting our rash decision to stop filling the atmosphere with warming gases?

It is also worth noting that if climate change winds up amounting to less than we expect, perhaps because the market would respond rapidly to rising fossil fuel prices and energy intensity fall anyway, then if we've paid for curbs to emissions then we'll have little to show for our efforts. By contrast, if we've spent our money on interstellar travel even if we still have a healthy Earth to play with we'll have plenty to show for our extraterrestrial adventures; new real estate and the like.

Colonising other planets may still be science fiction but so is a climate change apocalypse; the problem deserves the solution.

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