One Planet, One Experiment

A reply to Jack Powelson's CLQ 29

Karen Street (Friends Energy Project)

At the November Friends Committee on National Legislation discussion of the new environmental policy, the most frequent question was, "What makes this a religious policy?" Many complained that Friends have not yet begun meaningful discernment on what are the issues in environmental policy, or of our individual and corporate niches in the answer.

Jack’s letter did not effectively address these questions: Where do we get our information? What do we believe? What is important and what is not worrisome? Where do our responsibilities lie?

Lomborg is not a scientist. He went from one extreme of disrespect for science (Greenpeace) to another (The Skeptical Environmentalist).

Nevertheless, many of Lomborg’s points are valid, particularly when he accuses some scientists, such as Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb was not peer-reviewed), and many environmentalists of exaggerating, sometimes for purposes of fund-raising. Environmentalists are happy to discuss drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a good moneymaker, but say much less about the coal plants Bush is proposing and the use of the ANWR oil, which will be more damaging than the drilling itself. Ehrlich’s major points are certainly true: growth cannot continue forever, and quality of life will decrease if there are too many people. But he gets many of the details wrong. Careless statements by careless scientists and environmentalists do deserve to be criticized; many environmentalists as well as some scientists are careless.

But Lomborg goes beyond such criticism. He criticizes peer-reviewed work outside his understanding, and conclusions reached by consensus. He does not test his ideas among scientists to see whether they see important insights in his points; economists, not scientists, praise his work. I've seen some of his mistakes analyzed, though not thoroughly. Examples: Lomborg criticizes the rule-of-thumb formula that a 90% reduction in habitat reduces species by half, and points to the counter-example in the US with birds and forest loss. He neglects the fact that the majority of US forest birds live in both forested and non-forested areas. Lomborg uses the analysis of one economist to argue that the cost of the Kyoto protocol is too high. (Kyoto, by the way, is seen by the scientific community as a tiny first step, meant to be achievable but not nearly enough.)

Most Friends have little experience in the scientific community, little understanding of how difficult consensus is to achieve, how many challenges are brought by very knowledgeable and thoughtful people. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports are example of scientific consensus. Their conclusions are very conservative, and therefore believed by essentially every knowledgeable person today. I doubt that there is any comparable process to scientific consensus outside of the scientific community: Friends’ unity could learn much from scientific consensus, with its active participation of so many seeking after truth.

If one tries to sort out who is correct by trying to understand the subject, without a background in the subject, without a willingness to engage in serious study, success is unlikely. Science is hard to understand: it is complex and requires years of study, and policy suggestions are often written in an understated manner with alternative paths rather than unambiguous rights and wrongs. And some predictions, if true, would require us to think deeply and carefully about the way we live and the public policy we support. It IS important to hear what scientists are saying, to understand what they are saying, but it is perhaps hubris to believe that one can understand they are wrong without first learning their language.

What do scientists say about biodiversity loss and climate change?

In the scientific community, there is consensus that the loss of habitat that has already occurred and that is projected to occur over the next 25 years, under current trends in population, development, and land use, will set in motion the forces that will lead inexorably to the loss of somewhere around  one fourth of all terrestrial species. The losses may not happen right away because some species can "hang on" for a while before extinction occurs, but around a fourth of all species will be doomed by the year 2025. There is great concern that climate change will kill off the coral reefs by 2030, and with them half of marine diversity. There is no consensus on how much to reduce carbon emissions, which are expected to produce significant loss of life and significant environmental damage in the 21st century, though probably not climate catastrophe. Nevertheless, many recommend that the world reduce carbon emissions by half or more, with a much larger reduction made by the US.

Yes, the people who have studied the issues the most say that they are guessing, that there is a lot they don't know, but this is their best estimate. A loss of one quarter of species by 2025 is a consensus figure: almost everyone knowledgeable believes that the loss will be that high or higher. When scientists eventually got firm numbers on the ozone problem, it was worse than had been predicted; after we've killed off large numbers of species, we’ll likely have a better sense of the effect of our policy and personal decisions.

E. O. Wilson said, "If enough species are extinguished, will ecosystems collapse and will the extinction of most other species follow soon afterwards? The only answer anyone can give is: Possibly. By the time we find out, however, it might be too late. One planet, one experiment."

The problem is not that scientists are guessing about biodiversity loss. It is rather that people worldwide want to believe that there is nothing wrong with how we consume, how we drive and fly, and how we neglect our fellow beings.

In our world, exciting, interesting people travel and live fully. Commercials reinforce this: increased consumption improves our lives. Most just ignore the consequences of our behavior; others go through an intermediate step of justifying themselves because a very small number of people in science, and quite a few people in economics and public policy, have told us worry is unnecessary. In addition, most public policy discussion are driven by baby-boomers and their parents, who grew up with the expectation that they would drive all of their lives, and who do not want to have to revise their views.

Will the consequences of our current behavior be serious enough to warrant  more cautious behavior on our part? Is it better to assume that a few naysayers hold truth, and that we don't have to do much, or is it better to worry that most knowledgeable people could be right?

Interestingly both scientists and the public believe caution is important, but Friends are more likely to worry about nuclear waste and transgenic crops (because they cannot be proven 100% safe) and less likely to worry about fossil fuels, suburbs, and current farming practices. Scientists are more likely to worry about the way we live our lives and overexploit the Earth.

If the consensus of scientists is wrong and Lomborg is right, those who were led to act according to their best light would have have made a few unnecessary choices, such as living close enough to work and shopping to forego the use of a car, rather than driving many, many hours each week. Or walking to an urban park on warm days rather than watching big-screen TV in air-conditioned comfort. Or travelling by train or bus to vacation nearby rather than choosing a more resource intensive vacation. They may waste time evaluating what is important to them as humans, as children of God.

If the opposite is true, if the scientific consensus is correct, then people my age and younger may see perhaps a quarter, perhaps half or more, of Earth's species extinct or doomed to extinction in our lifetime, a paucity of biodiversity likely to exist for the remainder of the lifetime of our species.

Instead of engaging in serious study to understand science, should we use our time and energy searching for support for our current beliefs and a justification of our current behavior?

Or should we instead ask: Do we live in a way that makes us happy? Do we live so that we are happy with ourselves? Are these different questions?

The choice belongs to each individual and to our Society to determine which questions belong to God. Whether we will ask them, whether we will answer them.