CO2 is the Food of Trees! Why Do You Hate Trees?

I just read that the Danish Nationalist Party suggests we give more money to Bjørn Lomborg.  This made me happy.  Bjørn Lomborg is known for suggesting that just throwing money at the environmental problems with no regard for how we spend the money may not be right.  The environmental debate has been polluted by sensationalist jerks out to sell books or films, and nobody really asks whether global warming is a reality (it may be), whether it is human-induced, whether we are able to stop it, and how to stop it if possible.  Bjørn Lomborg suggests that rather than wasting money on measures, we are not sure actually have and impact, we find out how to best spend the money – on prevention and/or damage control.

Whack-job's View of Global Climate Change
Fig. 1: Whack-job's View of Global Climate Change

Whack-job’s Argument

I once saw a video on YouTube by some whack-job.  The whack-job draws a grid and uses it to argue that we really need to panic and waste money on feel-good causes.  His argument is shown in Fig. 1.  Basically, global warming 9called global climate change) can happen or not and we can take action or not.  If we take action but global warming was a fad, the cost would be economic downturn.  If we didn’t act and global warming was a fad, we would be happy (as nothing bad happened).  If global warming, on the other hand, was true, and we acted, we would be mostly happy – we would have economic downturn, but would have averted the catastrophe of global warming and not acting, which would mean the end of the world and all sort of scary things.  The argument is then that we cannot control which row we end up in, but we can control which column we end up in, and so we should act to eliminate the change of ending up in the last cell.

The whack-job even ends his video arrogantly asking if anybody can find a hole in his argument, because he cannot.

Slightly more nuanced view
Fig 2: Slightly more nuanced view

Simplistic Argumentation

Well, the whack-job has several problems in his argumentation.  Let me first address the most severe and easy-to-accept for everyone, namely the fact that Mr. Whack-job (let us call him whacky in the following) oversimplifies.  Whacky wants us to “act”.  But how does he want us to act?  I can get to the crapper and take an epic dump.  That’ll be acting, but that is hardly what the esteemed Dr. Whacky wants.  But he doesn’t seem to know what to do, he just wants us to do “the right thing”.  Let me use the professor’s mode of argumentation and draw a friendly figure with smiley faces and all.  My slightly more nuanced view is shown in Fig. 2, and is an expansion of Fig. 1, where I’ve expanded the cases where global warming does occur to take into account that what we do may not have any impact.  If it doesn’t have any impact, regardless of whether we act or not, the world ends up in flames, death and more taxes.  In fact, event though the cells for not acting and the cell for acting and still ending in catastrophe contain text, the ones where we don’t act are of less severe character, as we at least have an economy that allows us to enjoy the last years on earth.

I don’t really care how you see the “global warming is true but what we do does not fix/alleviate the problem” row.  It could be that we “just act” without regard for what to do (what is currently happening because nobody dares ask the grave question, I started this post with), because we simply not fix the problem, or something third.  The fact is that now none of the two solutions seem very attractive anymore.  We can of course introduce a third solution, namely evacuate a portion of the human race (and perhaps some of our preferred animals, like steaks or bacon) to a shelter.  That will put sort-of-happy faces in all rows as, at least, we will have saved the human race, if not everybody.

We’ll of course have to carefully elect the right people, so they can continue the human race after the catastrophe has waned.  We will also ned to carefully guard the shelter, so nobody tried to force their way in, because if people can do that they will and this will compromise the shelter and put the entire human race in danger (as the elected few will not have enough resources to sustain themselves throughout the crisis).  We may have to go as far as shooting people on sight when they get near the shelter.  We’ll need to bet everything on these few, so we may need to expropriate huge areas for the shelter, we must ensure that the shelter has enough food, water, etc. to sustain themselves for hundreds or thousands of years.  This may cause famine, but we are willing to do that because this new third column is the only way we can escape the disasters possible in the other columns (we still cannot control which row we end up in).  Are we willing to do that?  Because that sounds suspiciously like what happened in the 1940s…

This illustrates that by adding or removing rows and/or columns, I can make mostly any action permissible and desirable.  I’ve just argues, using Dr. Whacky’s own argument, that nazism is the only way to cope with global warming.  My model is also too simplistic, of course, but illustrates that a simplistic argument is just not good enough.

Informed Decisions

Obviously, we can sort of control which of the two lower rows in Fig. 2 we end up in.  By taking the right action, we can improve the probability that what we do has an impact.  Of course, if we had unlimited resources, we could just go and do anything that is no obvious harm, but that is not the reality; we have limited resources, and we need to use them correctly in order to get the most out of them.

We therefore need to investigate how to use the money.  In Denmark, right now, we are talking about reducing CO2 emissions.  Why?  Well somebody think that CO2 is a/the cause of global warming.  We therefore need to use the resources required to reduce the emission.  This is a great example of resources used wrongly.  Let’s just for argument’s sake assume that CO2 is indeed the cause of global warming.  In Denmark we have filters on all smokestacks, we use cars with cat, our houses are superbly insulated,  and in general we only emit a fairly small amount per persona.  The United States do not insulate their houses and thus uses a lot of energy (and thus emit a lot of CO2) to heat their houses in the winter and to cool it in the summer.  Maybe Denmark is not a place to start, maybe it makes more sense if we use our money to alleviate some of the problems in the states.  Yes, it’s outside our borders, but global warming is not going to pass Denmark by just because I have to pay 10% for my electricity.  China is just on the verge of industrialization and has stated that they are not prepared to reduce emissions if it is a hindrance to their industrialization.  India is also just about there.  Africa is bit behind, but quite likely to undergo industrialization within the next few decades.  Should we really focus on 5.5 million people that doesn’t pollute too much when 3 billion people are just about to start polluting like we did in the 1700s and 1800s?

We also need to focus on now – do we want tsunamis killing hundreds of thousands in Thailand now (well, really five years ago) in the name of erecting another wind-mill just because is’t far away?  We cannot afford to just say that we want to be idealistic and solve the problems in the long run.  We have problems now that may or may not be caused by global warming – and I don’t really think the relatives of the people who drowned cares either way – and we cannot simply ignore them because we want to get to the core of the problem.

We need to focus on where we spend our money best to save the most lives.  We need to know where to spend the money – in Denmark or in China – and we need to know how to spend our money – reduction of CO2 emissions, building of sea walls, or something else entirely.

Race Against the Time

Finding out where to spend our money is a race against the time.  The sooner we act, the better (most likely).  But we cannot just “do something”.  If we do the wrong thing and global warming is a reality, we are going to perish anyway if what we do is without (or with very little) effect.

Headlessly focusing on reducing CO2 emission is exactly this kind of risky undertaking.  We need to find out how best to spend the resources we have available, and we should do that now rather than doing feel-good actions that only serve to sooth our bad consciences.  The longer we stall finding the facts, the longer before we can start taking the right actions.  Finding the facts also includes asking the critical questions as well as the uncomfortable task of making a cost-benefit-analysis dealing with peoples’ lives.  I’d rather wait 5 years before starting action, even if it costs one billion people their lives, rather than taking action now just to discover, 50 years down the line that this was the wrong action, causing 5-10 billion people their lives.

Correlation ≠ Causality

A lot of arguments these days come from people who does not understand the difference between correlation and causality.  The CO2 argument is one of those.  We notice that temperature has risen.  At the same time (or a decade or so displaces, depending on who you ask) CO2 in the atmosphere has risen.  This is correlation: knowing the value of one of the phenomena, allows us to predict the value of the other.

Causality is whether a rising value of one causes a rising value of the other.  Many people seem to think that humans have caused CO2 levels to rise, which in turn causes the temperature to rise.  The argument is that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and therefore can cause the temperature to rise.

This may be true, but it is definitely not the only way to explain the correlation.  Another explanation is that rising temperature allows some reaction which produces CO2 or inhibits a reaction that consumes CO2, and the cause is the other way around, rising temperature causes more CO2.  Humans produce CO2 by respiration, so CO2 is produced all the time, and photosynthesis consumes said CO2 and produces oxygen.  Maybe the higher temperature causes more forests to die, which in turn causes more CO2 to stay in the atmosphere.  The rising temperature could be caused by farting cows, which produce methane, known to be a greenhouse gas.  I’m not saying this is a fact, and I certainly don’t have any data to back it – there may even be data disproving this is the case – but on the surface, this explanation is just as plausible as the CO2 is a greenhouse gas explanation.

A third possibility is that an exterior factor impacts both the CO2 levels and the temperature.  This factor could, e.g., be solar flares due to increased sunspot activity (which has happened in the last decade or two).  It’s not implausible that increased levels of energy emission from the sun would cause increased temperatures on earth.  It is also possible that increased energy in the atmosphere would facilitate reactions producing increased levels of CO2.


I’m not saying that global warming is not created by humans.  I’m just saying that maybe there are other explanations.  Knowing whether global warming is just natural divergences in temperature, are natural occurrences, or are man-made is valuable information, as it gives a hint about what to do (nothing, building seawalls, or prevention), and knowing which actions provide the best value for money is better than just “doing something” with little or no effect.  Bjørn Lomborg is one of the few researchers who actually want to research these questions instead of finding the best ways to limit CO2 emission, which may or may not have any effect.

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