The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 12, 2017

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On Climate Change
P. E. Hodgson - 02/13/09
trees blown in storm

From the current edition of Modern Age (50:4)

Part One: The Energy Crisis

Part Two: Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis

When I first became interested in the applications of nuclear physics I was most concerned by the coming shortage of energy. Since then it has become clear that this is not the main problem. There is plenty of energy for the next few hundred years: enormous deposits of coal, substantial amounts of oil and natural gas, and the likelihood of increasing contributions from nuclear power.

The main concern is now the effects on the world’s climate from the pollution of the atmosphere from fossil fuel power stations. It will be many decades before fossil fuel power stations can be replaced by non-polluting sources such as nuclear and renewable energy, and all that time the pollution will increase. Detailed studies by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change show that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is inexorably increasing and the evidence for its effects on the climate is steadily becoming more convincing. In addition, the predicted rise in sea level will have catastrophic effects on low-lying countries.

It is now becoming clearer that the principal danger is not the effects of gradual changes in the climate but the possibility of rapid and irreversible changes. We tend to think of the earth and its climate as a reliable and generally stable system where the weather remains more or less the same when averaged over long periods. There is now increasing evidence that this may not be true, that there is a distinct possibility of large, unexpected, and irreversible changes that quite rapidly have catastrophic consequences.

The study of climate changes is fraught with serious difficulties. Since time immemorial the weather has fluctuated unpredictably, with cold and hot periods, heavy rainfall and droughts, hurricanes, and earthquakes. How can the changes due to man’s activities be distinguished from these natural changes? It is notoriously difficult to establish the presence of a new trend in a fluctuating quantity, and the difficulty is compounded when the fluctuations are on several different timescales, as is the case for climate. There are changes from year to year and ice ages on a much longer timescale. If a trend over a few decades is established, how do we know whether it is soon to be reversed by a major change acting on a longer timescale?

When definite evidence for climate change has been found, it is important to understand the underlying causes and to deduce what is likely to happen in the future. The earth’s seas and atmosphere form a highly complex system, and although much research has been done we still know very little compared with what there is to know. This is an area of highly speculative science, where hypotheses are made to explain a few observations and are then refuted by the discovery of new facts. Scientists group themselves into schools of thought and argue fiercely with scientists of other schools. An agreed consensus may arise one year and dissipate the next. There is only one thing on which all agree, namely that the more we know the more frightening are the prospects for the future of the world.

Even if we understand the forces determining the climate we still have the problem of deciding what to do about it. Even if we have decided on the optimum course of action, we then have the problem of persuading governments to do what has to be done.

This article is concerned with the evidence for climate change and the possibility of future catastrophic changes. The political problems will be discussed in the next article.

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