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Thinking rationally about global warming

Are there benefits to global warming? Yushi Mao sees human knowledge as a tool which will help us to cope in a world where sustainability is more a social than an environmental issue.

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Abstract:

The actual impact of global warming on humankind is unclear, instead of just being a Pandora’s Box which only brings misfortune to mankind, global warming, to certain degrees, benefits us in certain ways.

There is no absolute standard against which we can decide whether the temperature is suitable for living or not as it is very much decided by the adaptability of human beings. If human beings fail to keep up with the pace of temperature increase, then global warming will surely threaten our existence. Therefore, the problem is a race between humans and nature in terms of adapting to a new living environment.

Resources do not only include natural resources but more importantly knowledge and technology. From this perspective, the capital in terms of resources that will be owned by our offspring is much more than what we have now.


Compared with problems caused by natural resources, man-made problems are the biggest threat facing human kind. Therefore, sustainable development is more a social issue rather than an environmental one.

Global warming is one of the biggest issues facing the world today. It has a direct influence on our living environment, one which no one can escape. It has been nearly 30 years since some forward-thinking minds first considered the possible consequences of global warming. Recently, it has become a major focus of environmental protection and is one of the most controversial issues in international politics, attracting the involvement of a number of experts and scholars from various fields.  

There have been many discussions and debates over what is the most accurate model of global warming. Experts disagree with one another on how much the atmospheric temperature will increase by the end of the 21st century, and there is no consensus regarding the possible environmental consequences. What’s more, nobody knows for sure what will happen to our economy as temperatures increase; there is no definitive answer as to how much it will cost if we make up our minds to act, to take preventive measures now. Most of the experts adopt a cautious attitude, saying that they would rather spend more money on preventive measures than run the risk of causing further damage because of our ignorance. I would like to share with you my opinions on global warming after an objective and logical analysis. 

First of all, I would like to point out the true nature of the global-warming issue. Global warming may become problematic, not because humans and animals cannot stand heat, but because we may or may not be able to adapt to it. Nobody can prove that the temperature levels we have now are optimal for humans and other living creatures on earth. Higher temperatures may benefit us more, but no one has provided any real evidence either way.

For example, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere help with plant photosynthesis, which lead to better crop harvests. If the concentration of carbon dioxide were to double, the output of such crops as potatoes and wheat could increase by 20 to 45%. If photosynthesis were to accelerate, the water-use efficiency of plants would be increased by two-thirds, and drought-afflicted areas which used to be unsuitable for cultivating plants could improve and become farming areas. Plants’ resistance to pests could also be enhanced.

In another example, the rise in sea-water temperatures could mean some of the ports on the Arctic Ocean would stay in operation throughout the whole year, boosting their local economies.

These analyses point out some of the benefits that global warming can bring to the world, but the problem is that nobody can tell if the benefits will outweigh the costs, or vice versa. After millions of years of adaptation, humankind and other life on earth has got used to the present temperature levels. If they increase, human beings will have to adapt themselves to a new temperature range, and the result of this process could be good or bad. If it takes too long, or human beings fail to keep up with the pace of temperature change, we will find it really difficult to get used to the new living environment, which will lead to a series of problems. So, the problem is all about human beings and other living creatures adjusting to a new living environment. If we can adapt ourselves to it within a short time, it won’t be a problem.

For example, land will be covered by sea water as a result of the rise in sea levels and properties will be lost to it. According to statistical projections, if the sea level rises by 4.6 meters, the total land area of the 48 continguous states of the United States will be reduced by 1.5%, which will result in a displacement of 6% of the total population and loss of 6% of the real estate.

However, these changes will take place slowly within the next 100 years, and most of the properties will be rotten and out of function before they are covered by sea water. Even if the losses are twice as high than the current projections indicate, losses taking place every year are equal to the subsidies given by the US government to its dairy industry, and much less than its current national defence budget. What’s more, humankind has plenty of time to build dikes to prevent the invasion of sea water in the next 100 years. Building dikes can be done much faster than sea levels can rise, and the costs will not exceed those of such construction projects as the building of subway systems.  

We often worry about our offspring. We are afraid that we may use up resources and leave nothing for them. As a matter of fact, succeeding generations will have much more capital than we had when we were born. Our generation (and previous ones) have built a lot of railways, highways, airports, ports, skyscrapers and modern production plants for them. They can use them without making much further sacrifice. More importantly, the knowledge and technology which the next generations will have at its disposal is more than we had when we were born. The more knowledge they have, the better lives they can enjoy. Today, a lone sailor can travel across the Pacific Ocean safely in a boat just several meters long, whereas 500 years ago -- when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic – he had three big ships and 87 sailors and the task was very risky. That’s the difference knowledge makes.  

If we look at the wider picture, humankind has entered a new stage of fast development since the 19th century. Tremendous wealth has been created and people’s livelihoods have been improved dramatically. Statistics released by various international organisations also demonstrate that the global economy, either in terms of total volume or per capita, is increasing very year. Although there are countries which showed signs of economic setbacks during certain periods of time, or witnessed a decrease in average life expectancy, these have nothing to do with natural resources. These are man-made problems.

A decrease in life expectancy in Russia, the financial crisis in Argentina which dragged the country into economic recession, tens of thousands of lives lost to AIDS and wars in some African countries -- these are all man-made problems. In some cases, environmental pollution and over-consumption of resources may have resulted in human losses, but they have not yet exerted significant influence on humankind as a whole. Therefore, if we, as human beings, can keep doing what we are doing now and keep ourselves away from self-destructive behaviours, it is quite likely that our children will be able to enjoy a much better life.  

In fact, problems within our society are the real threat to human existence, particularly wars, social chaos, hate, prejudice and clashes among cultures and traditions. Each year human losses due to these reasons are hundreds of times more than the losses caused by environmental problems. Therefore, sustainable development is more a social issue rather than an environmental one. What we really need to deal with is not environmental problems but social problems, problems between people. This is not to say that the environment and resources are not issues for sustainable development.

Environmental pollution, for example, has become so serious in some regions that it is threatening local people’s health, even their very lives. While problems such as large-scale deforestation, desertification, soil erosion and damage to ecosystems require urgent action and need to be addressed, they do not yet pose a threat to human existence if we look at the statistics on the total number of these environmental problems. In comparison, social problems may pose far more urgent problems that we need to solve.  

Professor Akerlof knows the Chinese leaders’ minds very well. He’s persuading them to look at this issue from a morality angle, and to take the initiative to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, so that China can surpass the US to become the world’s model in protecting the environment. I agree that whether a country is powerful or not is judged not only by its productivity, but more importantly by its ability to promote its ideology. The US has become the world’s leader because of its people’s success in promoting equality and freedom and because of its political system, which prevents the government from abusing power, as it is under the supervision of its people. What makes the US less trustworthy in international affairs is its arrogant attitude of looking down upon others and its ignorance of international laws. Based on the current situation within China, there is still a long way to go before China can take the lead in promoting its ideology, and it cannot be achieved only by reducing emissions.

 
 

The Author: Professor Mao Yushi is a micro-economist who has held positions at Harvard University and the Beijing Institute of Economics. He graduated in 1950 from the faculty of engineering of Jiaotong University in Shanghai and has been chairman of the Unirule Institute of Economics since 1999.

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Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

大多数研究不会赞成你的观点

我不太明白你想表达的意思,我觉得你的文章读起来有点断章取义。坦白地说,我认为你对解决全球变暖问题提出的建议很好笑。大多数研究表明,人为改变气温和人工降雨会导致土地植被流失,造成饥荒。而且,你还提到“土壤中二氧化碳的高密度集中[会使得]更有益于收获庄稼。”最近由美国农业部门出资资助的学术研究,已经揭示出了你所没有意识到的这个问题的论据。

Most research would not agree

I'm not quite sure what your point is and I can't bring myself to read through your garbled arguments again for clarification. I will just say that your suggestion that global warming may prove advantageous to humanity is frankly laughable. Most research suggests that shifts in temperature and rainfall will create dustbowls and famine. Yet you argue that "higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in soil [will lead] to better crop harvests", an argument which you are clearly unaware has recently been debunked by studies financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中国领导人的意见

你能更详细的说明中国领导人的想法吗?在西方社会,对这方面我们了解的太少。讨论讨论关于精神文明建设方面的问题会更好吧?或是讨论一下创建优势社会的问题?或是谈谈经济的可持续发展问题?他们关心的是什么,他们希望占据怎样的历史地位?

Chinese leaders minds

Can you explain more about the Chinese Leader's minds? We get very little insight into them from the West.

Will an argument from morality work best? Or an argument of creating a dominant world view? Or a long term economic argument?

What are their concerns, their desires for a place in history?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

对评论的答复

对7月7日某君的评论的反映.
你说我的意见不会被大多数研究所赞成,是不是你已经经过调查了.
你说我断章取义.请问我从哪篇文章上断章取义了?
你说我说土壤中的二氧化碳如何如何,请问我在哪儿说了?你看清了我的文章吗?
茅于轼发

Author's response to comment number 1

In response to the comment posted on July 7: You claim that the majority of research would not support my ideas - is this because you have actually investigated it yourself? You claim that my piece is garbled - what would you point to specifically? As for what you said about CO2 concentration in soil - where did I say just that? Have you really read through my article?
posted by Mao Yushi

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

更正翻译通知

茅于轼的文章中有一处英文翻译"higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in soil help with plant photosynthesis" 更正为"higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in atmosphere help with plant photosynthesis"。

我们对此翻译错误表示道歉。

中外对话

note on translation

A change has been made to the english translation of Yushi Mao's article. "higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in soil help with plant photosynthesis" has been changed to "higher concentrations... in atmosphere".

Apologies for the mistranslation.

chinadialogue

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

也来说两句

“问题的性质是调整速度的比赛。”很欣赏这句话!让人从一个新的视角关照人与自然的互动。环保需要争鸣,一边倒的论调并不利于环保!

a few words on Yushi Mao

"The problem is all about human beings and other living creatures adjusting to a new living environment." - I really appreciated this phrase! It gives us a new perspective on the interaction of humans and nature. Environmental protection needs robust debate, only seeing things from one point of view will not benefit environmental protection!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

我喜欢茅先生的观点

茅先生的观点是积极乐观的观点,不仅要改善环境,还要提高人类适应环境变化的能力。大家都在讲气候变化的种种威胁,搞得我们惴惴不安。与其天天指责这个指责那个,不如想办法来提高人们适应气候变化的能力。

I agree with Yushi Mao's viewpoint

Yushi Mao has a positive and optimistic standpoint. He not only wants to improve the environment, but also to improve humankind's ability to adapt to environmental change. Everyone discusses all kinds of threats from climate change, and they get very anxious and worried. It would be better to improve people's ability to adapt to climate change than blame and accuse people.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

茅先生真是可爱!

茅先生的观点类似孩童,天真,认真,较真,但恐怕很多人难以苟同。不过有茅先生的声音,对我们还是很有帮助的。

Mr Mao is really sweet!

Mr Mao's point of view is like a child's, honest, naive and quite genuine, but I'm afraid most people would not agree with him. However, his voice is still very helpful to us.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

我不同意

其实要使农作物长势好,为什么不大量建温室?把工业二氧化碳废气通到温室里,极大增加其浓度,而且温度还高,都促进植物的光合作用。我记得小时候看科普图书,提过这个办法

I don't agree

If you want to make crops grow well, why not build lots of greenhouses? We can channel industrial carbon dioxide emissions to the greenhouses, then greatly increase the concentration and keep the temperature high. In this way plant photosynthesis can be encouraged. I remember reading this method in science and technology books when I was young.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

我不同意茅的观点

如果仅仅是从农作物的产量考虑,可以代替的办法很多很多,要使农作物长势好,为什么不大量建温室?把工业二氧化碳废气通到温室里,极大增加其浓度,而且温度还高,都促进植物的光合作用。

而且茅先生应该给出基本的估算,比较温室效应带来的全球损失与所谓的农作物增产的效益之比。仅仅是定性的讨论根本不够。

温室效应可能带来的一系列后果是不可预料的,但所谓的好处却掐指可算。

I don’t agree with Mao

If only think of the output of the crops, there is a great deal of solutions substituting for. Why not to build large quantity of greenhouses to make the crops grow better? We can discharge the industrial CO2 and waste gas like this into the greenhouse,. It will make the air denser, and the temperature will be high. Those will both promote the photosynthesis of plants. Moreover, M.r. Mao should have given estimation to the benefit proportion of global losses and the so-called crops increased-production that the greenhouse effects bring about. It’s not enough to discuss them qualitatively. It is unforecasted to know a series of consequences the greenhouse effects may bring about, but the so-called benefits are little to count.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

有意图的误导

要公布百分比的数字像1.5或甚至是6都是容易的,但当考虑到事实是3亿(现时美国的人口,先不管它在下世纪的预期增长)中的1.5%,那就是仍然有450万人在等待迁移安排,这些数字却会产生巨大的影响了。中国的人口比美国更多,沿岸的居住人口也更稠密,如果气候变化和环境破坏而导致海平面上升的话,将会有70%的主要城市和60%的国民经济(据新华社的报告)需要重新调整。沿海地区的密度如此集中是因为这是中国最肥沃的部分。下世纪将会是对中国人,以及所有人类的力量的挑战。但是,首先是要把这些危机认清楚。辩论是好且有益的,遗憾和不利于这事的是,当有人有意图想淡化事实和误导读者时,真正有意义的对话就被藏在了“理性思考”的后面。现在,让我们行动起来,看一下事实上可以做些甚么来解决问题吧。

Something called spin.

It's easy to print percentages like 1.5 or even 6, but they belie the massive impact 1.5% or 6% will have when one considers the fact that 1.5% of 300 million (the current population in US, never mind its projected growth in the coming century) is still 4500000 people to relocate and resettle. China's population is much greater and even more densely concentrated along the coast: 70% of major cities and 60% of the national economy (figures from a xinhua news report), all of which must be relocated with the rising ocean levels due to climate change and environmental destruction. There is a reason for this concentration: it is the most fertile part of China. The challenges in the coming century will test the strength of the Chinese people, as well as human kind as a whole. But for them to be met, they must first be acknowledged.

Debate is fine and good, but it is shameful and detrimental to meaningful discourse for one to hide under the cover of 'rational thought' when the true intention is to downplay the facts and mislead the reader.

Now, let's get down to business and see how we can actually make some progress against these problems.
-Jiayi.