The Global Warming Uncertainty: Is “Doing Something” More Ethical Than “Doing Nothing”?

However great your task or the challenge ahead, it’s better to do something rather than nothing. We may only be as small as a grain of sand on the beach, but we can make a lasting impact especially if we work together.

— Peter Hawkins

Although Dr. Hawkins was not addressing climatology with his quote, it accurately expresses a common philosophy employed by most environmentalists. Are the skeptics of mankind’s complicities in causing global warming (or climate disruption, or whatever is the term du jour) guilty of negligence in the face of potential global catastrophe? Are the “deniers” who disdain costly regulations over individual liberty guilty of the sin of “doing nothing” when it would be far more ethical “to do something”? Let’s take a look at recent climatological history.

As late as the 1970s, the world’s leading scientists predicted that the earth was headed for an ice age that would wreak havoc on civilization if we were not adequately prepared. Real Science and Popular have collected numerous news articles (with their accompanying “scientific” graphs) that predicted a global catastrophe was imminent, lest we do something immediately to prepare for it. Here are just a few:

  • A New York Times article (1/5/78) sported the headline, “International team of Specialists Finds No End in Sight to 30-Year Cooling Trend in Northern Hemisphere.” While a minority of the climate scientists was not concerned, the majority urged that federal policy be instituted to make preparations. A majority of scientists couldn’t be wrong, could they?
  • A Newsweek article (4/28/75) cites April of 1973 as having produced “the most devastating outbreak (of tornadoes) ever recorded.” It also noted that NOAA’s satellite pictures confirm a “sudden, large increase in northern hemisphere snow cover in the winter of 1971-72.” Further, NOAA’s scientists found that the amount of sunshine reaching the ground in the continental U.S. “diminished by 1.3 percent between 1964 and 1972.” All these examples and more were used as clear and compelling evidence that global cooling was inevitable.
  • The journal Science (7/71) published an article fearing that typical consumer aerosols were contributing to observed global cooling, stating that they “reduce the surface temperature of Earth.” Curbing aerosol use was presumed to help stem the pending global freeze.
  • A CIA report (1974) concludes that the global cooling trend that started in the 1960s has been “confirmed” by science. For the first time, the CIA officially considered a pending climate threat with such a concern that it altered its international relations policies due to the destabilizing political impacts expected to arise from vast crop harvest failures and tremendous population relocations that were sure to follow.

Does this theme of climate alarmism sound familiar? Contemporary science had “concluded” that we were all doomed to a frigid life of local starvation and global political unrest if we did not take immediate and significant actions. Yet what would the world have look like today, had we felt compelled then to “do something — anything” at the time, based on the best available research promoted by an impressive consensus of scientists?

What if we had employed the actions promoted by concerned climate activists, such as covering the arctic ice cap with black soot, increasing its melting rate in order to maintain the sea levels? Or stockpiling millions of tons of American grains in silos at the expense of exporting it to foreign countries that could not produce enough grain to feed their own people? Or pumping tons of extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to counteract the coming freeze by inducing… global warming? Would it really have been more ethical for us to just “do something — anything” in the face of less than universal scientific consensus, in the holy name of saving our planet? I do not think this is what Dr. Hawkins meant when he encouraged us into “making a lasting impact.”

Comments (4)

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  1. J Z says:

    This article makes a very, very good point, meaning that we (intended as humanity) really may just be throwing vast amounts of money at phenomenas we do not fully understand, just for the sake of ‘acting before it is too late’.

    On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like we as humans really are testing the environment more and more. It seems logical: if we produce more, use more resources, drill deeper and chop more forests than ever before in the history of mankind we must be having some form of increased impact on Earth, right?

    Having said that, it doesn’t mean that we know exactly what impact we are having or how to counter it, and like you say, history seems to suggest we really don’t have much of a clue.

    I always find the ‘mitigation vs adaptation’ debate extremely interesting. Nice article!

    • Jane Shaw says:

      Are we “testing the environment more and more”? Perhaps, but the remarkable thing is that as we become more wealthy as a society — and ultimately as a globe — we lighten our footprint. Consider how the forests in the United States have grown back from their low points in the 1920s; the environmentalist Bill McKibben called the regrowth of eastern forests the “great environmental story of the United States.” We grow more wood each year than we cut down. Think about the surge of wildlife — foxes, deer, bears — that we are finding in our cities and suburbs. The truth is often quite different from what we assume.

      • J Z says:

        That’s very true too, and it is something we perhaps don’t hear about as often actually.

        I would still say that while there has been admirable work in lightening our footprint in the developed world, the less developed countries (and actually even Brazil and China, for example) are still placing a massive strain on the environment. I am thinking about the Amazon rainforest but also the levels of pollution in China, for example.

        Still, you make a very good point. Some parts of the world have actually taken huge steps to lighten their impact in the world.

  2. Mike Stroup says:

    Thanks for commenting on my blog, JZ! You make the point that while developed countries tend to have relatively light ecological footprints from producing products and services for their citizens to consume, developing countries like China and India tend to have heavy ecological footprints. There-in lies the fundamental choice facing all governments of developing countries: what political and economic institutions should be used to promote economic prosperity while leaving the smallest ecological footprint? In my earlier blog article “Profiling Environmentalism Part 3” I show some compelling evidence that those nations pursuing free market institutions are leaving a cleaner environment and emit less greenhouse gases per dollar of GDP that they produce. In other words, capitalist economies around the world tend to pursue a “greener” path towards prosperity than do socialist countries. The URL to my blog article appears below: