For the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that the debate about global warming has become so polar that it might be time for environmentalists to change track. As a paradigm shifting discourse, global warming has gone as far as it can. Those who accept the mountains of data verifying the reality of global warming may be convinced of the righteousness of their cause, however, those who deny the validity of global warming are also entrenched in their own ideas. I use the term Ostrich Theory to describe such individuals. They are so invested in their beliefs that they will ignore any evidence to the contrary and embrace any supporting evidence regardless of it’s inanity. Another term for this is “confirmation bias.”
That’s not to say that environmentalists and scientists should stop educating us on global warming. Indeed, there may be some whose minds are not made up. There’s the upcoming generations, those who will be most affected by global warming, who need to know what they are walking into. Also, it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that some global warming deniers can be convinced of the validity of global warming claims (of course the same could be said about those who accept global warming!)
Regardless, the debate has stagnated. Instead of a didactic discussion in which the merits of one side prevails over the other, we are faced with a polar issue with clear and equally entrenched lines of division and disagreement. Environmentalists, those who are driving the debate on global warming, can only lose legitimacy in such a contest.
For this reason I suggesting chancing our paradigms for encouraging the development of alternative fuels. Yes, burning fossil fuels is the cause of a significant amount of global warming, but it is so much more harmful than that. There are significant health costs associated with the burning of fossil fuels. The New York Times reports that as many as 20,000 people die every year due to health complications resulting from the combustion and pollution of fossil fuel.(1) The Times is referencing an extensive report by the National Academy of Sciences that puts the unaccounted health costs of burning fossil fuels at $120 Billion!
If anything, this report understates the hidden costs of fossil fuel as it only includes those attributed with energy production. The profound damages caused by extraction and waste or accidents (such as the TVA coal ash spill in Tennessee pictured below), as well as the political costs of being dependent upon other nations for our energy needs, were not included in this assessment. The study also excluded trains, ships and planes from its cost analysis. If all costs were included it’s likely that the figures would be much more dramatic.
Global warming is an abstract concept laced with a certain amount of futility. On the one hand, the convolutions of as dynamic a system as the global climate is so far beyond the understanding of most people (including the scientists who study it) that it’s hard to make a concrete claim. The complex mathematics that describes global warming can be reshaped into convincing arguments that global warming is not an issue at all, perfect for the “Ostriches” noted above.
Even if convinced, one must deal with the ominous reality that this is a global issue requiring people all over the world to work together toward a common solution, something that has never happened in all of history. How can we as activists affect change in the face of the awesome obstacles of dynamic climactic phenomenon as well as the daunting task of getting politicians to put their immediate national interests aside to come up with a global consensus. Then there are the economic contingencies that are so complex as to defy description.
But the information in the above study is clear and disturbing in its conservatism. People are dying and the rest of us are losing billions of dollars in the fossil fuel game.
The costs of fossil fuels are not just defined by the digital score keeper on our gas pumps. There are hidden costs that need to be brought to light in a study even more comprehensive than the one mentioned above. When these costs are factored into the final billing for fossil fuels, suddenly the benefits of alternative energy becomes much more marketable. This is true even if global warming is not included in the discussion. Wind energy and solar energy, so far billed as being too expensive to replace fossil fuels at this point, are comparatively more affordable in light of the NAS study.
1. The number of dead does not include those who die as a result of global warming. The World Health Organization estimates that over 150,000 people worldwide die every year as a result of global warming.