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Global Warming: Lukewarm Policy, Red-Hot Politics

Barun Singh

Over the past decade, there has scarcely been an environmental issue as concerning to the general population as the threat of global warming. With two of the worst hurricanes on record now having hit the U.S. within weeks of each other, the debate is likely to escalate once again.

One cycle of above-average intensity hurricanes is far from conclusive evidence to prove any assertions regarding the impact of global warming, but it is more than enough political ammunition for those looking for it. Which leaves us to decide: are the policy decisions of our oil-loving government dooming us to increasing weather-related catastrophes, or is global warming just an over-hyped excuse to push against the political right-wing that we can’t do much about anyway?

The existence of global warming is now a well accepted (on both sides) fact — the Earth has in fact warmed over the past century by about 0.7 degrees Celsius. Any statement beyond that, however, remains a source of contention. As is always the case, politicians and interest groups relay portions and stretched versions of the true situation through their public statements and appearances. This time around, many in the science community have also gotten in on the act, playing salesmen to the masses.

For those of us who have not devoted our lives to the study of global climate change, it is still possible to gain some understanding about the true situation, but one must research both sides of the debate and be willing to read between the lines. Doing so reveals that while we can accept with great certainty that global warming is a reality, and that deforestation and emissions have had a noticeable effect on greenhouse gases, the same level of certainty does not exist regarding the extent of humanity’s role in causing the warming to occur. Science is less certain still regarding what we can expect for the future, and even how much of an effect temperature variations will have on our civilization.

Given the lack of certainty regarding global warming, how can policy makers ever hope to make any real decisions? On one side it is argued that lacking proper conclusive evidence, it would be unreasonable to make any sort of policy decisions (why hurt our economy because of a science-fiction fantasy?). Another side argues that given even moderate evidence, it is crucial to act (if the worst case scenarios are true, couldn’t it mean the potential destruction of our entire civilization?). Such binary reasoning is, however, a result of extreme oversimplification of the situation.

Putting the politics aside, a policy maker must make decisions through risk analysis, and global warming is no exception to this general approach. Given all of the available evidence, a rational agent whose goal is to produce the most optimal policy must analyze things in terms of their probability. How probable is it that a change in human activity can do anything about global warming? If a particular policy decision is made (for example, if we did agree to the Kyoto protocol), what is the expected cost and benefit? If we fail to act, what will the expected cost be? For those of a statistical bent, consider this a simple hypothesis test. As the science progresses, the values of the probabilities involved constantly change and the test must be performed again.

So where does this leave us when examining the Bush administration’s policies towards global warming? The most contentious area of dispute regarding global warming has been the Bush administration’s refusal to agree to the Kyoto Protocol. Too high cost with too little gained, they say. This may in fact very well be the case. The variation in cost estimates for Kyoto from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration is staggering. Furthermore, there are many conflicting claims about how helpful Kyoto would actually be.

Let’s expand our consideration beyond Kyoto. What do this administration’s other environmental policies tell us? This administration has severely weaken or eliminated numerous clean air and water provisions, removed countless animal and habitat protections, allowed deforestation and drilling in areas previously protected from such abuses, failed to provide any meaningful leadership (and in many cases drastically reducing funding) towards the development of sustainable energy — and the list goes on and on.

All of the evidence from the previous five years points towards a blatant disregard for environmental concerns by this administration, and strongly suggests that its various policies regarding global warming have, in fact, been driven more by various political interests than the desire to make decisions that are optimal for the future of the nation. The result? — we all end up as losers. After all, not everything that we do to our environment is necessarily reversible. One can only hope that the political fighting that is sure to come as a consequence of Rita and Katrina can have some positive impact and help us make some more intelligent environmental decisions before it’s too late.

Barun Singh is a graduate student and former president of the Graduate Student Council.

Singh welcomes comments at his Web site (http://barunsingh.com).