Negative consequences of overemphasizing climate change

I feel it’s necessary to begin here by noting that I have close to zero doubt that climate change is a real thing that will cause real problems in the future, and that we need to take strong and immediate actions (a carbon tax! or maybe cap-and-trade, whichever is more feasible) to do something about it. The fact that I feel the need to say that speaks to the strange position of science in American public life – whether you believe in climate change is a litmus test for what kind of person you are. My position marks me as someone who is pro-gay rights, pro-abortion, and more concerned about universal healthcare than about the federal budget deficit. This is pretty bizarre. It doesn’t seem appropriate to talk about whether you “believe” or “don’t believe” in a particular scientific fact. Do you believe in the precession of the perihelion of Mercury? What about the high likelihood that in a few billion years our sun will become a red giant and destroy the Earth? Or that bees can see in the UV spectrum? The correct answer is that these things are either true or false, and that we can look to the consensus of scientific experts to figure out which is the case. I don’t really get how it makes sense for random laypeople to have strong opinions about facts.

With the odd preamble out of the way, I recently was at a party where I was lucky enough to meet Stephen Carr, a renowned agriculturalist and author and general badass. I had heard of him beforehand (many people have recommended his book, Surprised by Laughter, which is currently on my to-do list), but couldn’t place him until after I had gone home. But as he told me a bit about his background, I started asking him about drought, rainfall and harvests in TA Mwambo, since I spend all day looking at the fields and trees out there and pondering how badly-off the kids are.

Carr made a couple of compelling points. First, he argued, Malawi has a high degree of natural variation in rainfall. There are years when the rains last a really long time, and years when they end early. There is also long-term variation – Lake Chilwa dried up very frequently in the first half of the 20th century, and since then has only done so twice. We can see the evidence for these long-term fluctuations in the level of Lake Malawi; because it has no inflowing rivers, its level reflects rainfall in its catchment area, and so is a good proxy for Malawi’s overall rainfall. Malawi is incidentally in the midst of a very wet period, compared to its historical mean.

He pointed out that all these variations have been happening for a long time, and that it’s totally wrong to ascribe for example the drop in the level of Lake Chilwa to climate change. The problem is that people do make just that connection, all the time. My response was basically “who cares?” – sure, people need to spin their issue to fit the sexy issue of the day in order to get money from donors. That’s been going on forever. But, as Carr pointed out, the spin matters. He noted that a couple of years ago the rains stopped before March*, and the government declared this to be climate change. They took this to mean that it would be a permanent problem, and told everyone to switch to early-maturing maize varieties. Fortunately, nobody listens to this kind of pronouncement and so very few people lost their harvests the next year, when the rains carried on strong through March.

Climate change will cause problems for Malawi – it’s going to make it even hotter here in the hot months, which won’t be good. But the hype around the issue in certain circles may have nasty consequences. This is another reason to push for a carbon tax, and not all these other miscellaneous programs to deal with the issue – the former will work, whereas most of the latter have no meaningful benefits and could do serious harm.

*I may have the precise details wrong here, I’m working from memory – any errors are my own and not Carr’s.

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