An Economist's Take

Dr. Peter Tsigaris, an economist at Thompson Rivers University, says that taking steps to curb global warming makes sense from both an environmental and an economic standpoint. He estimates that addressing global warming by changing our dependency on fossil fuels and other behavior would cost an estimated one percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per year, while taking no action could cost 5 percent of global GDP each year. Extreme climate change could result in a cost of 20 percent GDP or greater. [Source: Science Daily]

Is Global Warming a Real Problem?

Despite a scientific consensus on the subject, some people don't think global warming is happening at all. There are several reasons for this:

  • They don't think the data show a measurable upward trend in global temperatures, either because we don't have enough long-term historical climate data or because the data we do have isn't clear enough.
  • A few scientists think that data is being interpreted incorrectly by people who are already worried about global warming. That is, these people are looking for evidence of global warming in the statistics, instead of looking at the evidence objectively and trying to figure out what it means.
  • Some argue any increase in global temperatures we are seeing could be a natural climate shift, or it could be due to other factors than greenhouse gases.

Most scientists recognize that global warming does seem to be happening, but a few don't believe that it is anything to be worried about. These scientists say that the Earth is more resistant to climate changes on this scale than we think. Plants and animals will adapt to subtle shifts in weather patterns, and it is unlikely anything catastrophic will happen as a result of global warming. Slightly longer growing seasons, changes in precipitation levels and stronger weather, in their opinion, are not generally disastrous. They also argue that the economic damage caused by cutting down on the emission of greenhouse gases will be far more damaging to humans than any of the effects of global warming.

In a way, the scientific consensus may be a moot point. The real power to enact significant change rests in the hands of those who make national and global policy. Some policymakers in the United States are reluctant to propose and enact changes because they feel the costs may outweigh any risks global warming poses. Some common concerns, claims and complaints include:

  • A change in the United States' policies in emissions and carbon production could result in a loss of jobs.
  • India and China, both of which continue to rely heavily on coal for their main source of energy, will continue to cause environmental problems even if the United States changes its energy policies (critics of these policymakers point out that this approach employs the tu quoque logical fallacy).
  • Since scientific evidence is about probabilities rather than certainties, we can't be certain that human behavior is contributing to global warming, that our contribution is significant, or that we can do anything to fix it.
  • Technology will find a way to get us out of the global warming mess, so any change in our policies will ultimately be unnecessary and cause more harm than good.

What's the correct answer? It can be hard to figure out. Most scientists will tell you that global warming is real and that it is likely to do some kind of harm, but the extent of the problem and the danger posed by its effects are wide open for debate.

In the next section, we'll see if there's anything we can do to help prevent global warming.