Is It Dangerous to Stop Global Warming?


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Lukewarmers believe people shouldn’t try to stop global warming; they believe its effects are exaggerated, and any actions could be counterproductive. So, is action not warranted? Will the ecosystem balance itself out? Is climate change nothing to worry about?

Image of a factory polluting the air.
According to lukewarmers, the effects of global warming are often exaggerated. (Image: Tatiana Grozetskaya/Shutterstock)

Lukewarmers Are Gravely Mistaken

Unfortunately, lukewarmers are not right about global warming. And that shouldn’t be too surprising because those who advance their arguments, like science writer Matt Ridley, and atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen, receive money from companies like Peabody Energy—a coal company that participates in misinformation campaigns, just like Exxon.

One mistake lukewarmers make in their arguments involves decision theory, the branch of philosophy that studies the rationality of decision making. Even if there was no agreement about the severity of climate change, people should still take action to prevent it.

Why? Just like environmentalists might be wrong about the effects being severe, the lukewarmers might be wrong about them being mild. But the risks of inaction are far grander than the risks of action. 

If the lukewarmers are right, the most extreme consequence is a global recession—which is bad. But if the environmentalists are right, the survival of the human species is at stake. If there’s not a consensus, rationally, people should err on the side of caution and guard against the more extreme consequence.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Prediction of Deaths Averted

Another point lukewarmers make is about the predictions themselves. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb said that the world’s population was going to outstrip food production sometime in the 70s. But since that didn’t happen, why take any environmentalist’s predictions seriously? If Ehrlich’s predictions about population growth weren’t accurate, why think climate scientists’ predictions are? 

Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t work. The things they’re comparing are too different. Predicting technological advances is not like predicting physical systems. It’s hard to imagine someone saying eclipses can’t be predicted because no one saw the internet coming? The climate may be more complicated than planetary motion, but it doesn’t mean accurate climate predictions can’t be made. 

Indeed, climate scientists’ predictions—some of which are more than 100 years old—have already come true: how increased temperatures and greenhouse gases would correlate, that the upper atmosphere would cool while the arctic would warm especially fast—oceans rise, more rain, intensified hurricanes. This has all already happened.

Learn more about The Prime Directive and postcolonialism.

Global Warming and Ehlrich’s Predictions

But Ehrlich being wrong about overpopulation then is no reason to think that 97 percent of all climate scientists are wrong about climate change today. In fact, Ehrlich may have only been wrong about people’s ability to prevent the disaster. He was likely right that people were on the brink of mass starvation; given the past ability to grow food and the rate of population growth, it was just math. What Ehrlich didn’t anticipate was advances in farming technology.

This raises the question: “Could there be a similar technological fix for climate change?” Well, existing fossil fuel technology can be replaced with green energy technologies to stop human production of CO2 and halt the warming because much of the technology already exists; it just has to be invested in. 

A company called Climeworks did develop a building-sized device capable of extracting 900 tons of CO2 a year. But it would take 75 million of them to capture all that people produce. Maybe some other major breakthrough is right around the corner, but it can’t be counted on. Anthropogenic climate change is real and is a serious threat. People need to act now before it’s too late.

The Real Disagreement between Climate Scientists on Global Warming

Arctic ice melting.
The disagreement between climate scientists is regarding how fast temperatures will rise. (Image: Bernhard Staehli/Shutterstock)

Another mistake of lukewarmers involves a logical fallacy—an equivocation on the word ‘disagreement’. There is disagreement among climate scientists, but not about the severity of climate change’s effects. It’s about how quickly temperatures will rise.

Although temperatures are already more than one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, different models do project different rates regarding how fast warming will continue. But there is definitely agreement that the effects of temperature rise will be exceptionally severe. This was demonstrated most clearly by journalist and science writer Mark Lynas in his book Six Degrees.

His research consisted of a year spent at Oxford’s Radcliffe Science Library, reading thousands of papers by climate scientists and then collating their predictions into a spreadsheet to find the consensus. What he found was terrifying.

Learn more about Starship Troopers, Doctor Who, and just war.

Incidence of Natural Disasters Rise

At two degrees Celsius, life becomes very difficult because of droughts, floods, and food shortages. Low-lying coastal cities like Miami go underwater. Constant threats of natural disasters—like the severe hurricanes and massive wildfires seen in 2017—become commonplace. 

Flooding in a small town.
If global warming continues on this path, future generations will experience floods and droughts. (Image: David Steele/Shutterstock)

At four degrees Celsius, large portions of the planet are uninhabitable—too hot for the human body to tolerate. Rising sea levels take out New York and Boston, and constant severe hurricanes make the rest of the coasts unlivable. Plummeting food production causes massive famine, which in turn causes wars and refugee problems. Of great concern is that if the temperature models are averaged out without action, this is where the temperature will be by the end of the 21st century.

At six degrees Celsius, to survive, humans will have to herd to shrinking habitable areas near the Poles. The food supply could simply dry up, and humans will die as a species. Indeed, before even six degrees, because of ocean acidification, all sea life might die, which could destroy the entire ecosystem.

So, in a way, the lukewarmers are right. If left alone, the ecosystem will balance itself out; it will eradicate the cause of the imbalance, humans, like an immune system eliminates a virus: with a fever.

Common Questions about the Dangers of Stopping Global Warming

Q: Why is it better to do something about global warming even if there’s not a consensus on the matter?

If lukewarmers are right, the most extreme consequence is a global recession. But if the environmentalists are right, the survival of the human species is at stake. Rationally, people should guard against the more extreme consequence.

Q: If the temperature models are averaged out without any major action, how would things look by the end of the 21st century?

If no action is taken to stop global warming, the temperature will be four degrees (Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by the end of the 21st century. Large areas of Earth will become uninhabitable. Sea levels will rise, severe hurricanes will occur, and food production will plummet causing famine.

Q: What is the disagreement between climate scientists?

The disagreement among climate scientists is not about the severity of climate change’s effects but about how quickly temperatures will rise.

Keep Reading
The Infinite Rebirth of the Universe
The Uncertainties of Our Universe
How Scientists View Quantum Physics