“People are too insignificant to affect climate”


Setting aside outright fabrications (1) such as those promulgated by the Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), laughingly selected as the Chair of the House Committee on Science, a common claim in the Comment sections at The Hill and elsewhere is that claims of human interference with climate are evidence of human hubris, and promulgating policies of mitigation arrogance, because humans are just too insignificant to affect the climate, and, no doubt, in every true, religious person’s mind, Christian, Jew, or Muslim (2), the glorious plans of The Creator for human life on Earth.

Skeptical Science devotes a major article to this question.

My take is a tad different.

There was once a bird called a Passenger Pigeon.
Male_Passenger_Pigeon
Generally accepted estimates place their numbers concurrent with European contact and colonization of North America at five to six billion individuals. They were easily the most numerous single type of bird in North America. It is entirely plausible, based upon contemporary estimates, they may have been the most numerous single species in the world.

Today, they are extinct. Why?

These birds were so plentiful, an industry arose to mechanically and systematically slaughter these birds to provide food for the poor and for slaves. Still, the rates of killing must have been amazing. Assuming 6 billion individuals, annihilated over 100 years, well, that requires killing 6800 birds per hour. Sure, it could have taken 200 years, so 3400 birds per hour then. It could have been 5 billion birds and 200 years, so 3000 birds per hour then. Big deal. What probably happened, as happens with many biological populations, was that a great number were killed in a short time, and, then, the natural sustaining mechanisms of the population, such as finding mates and nests, collapsed, since their ecosystems were destroyed, and natural forces did the rest. The end result, extinction, was the same nevertheless.

Oh, so right, don’t you feel so much better the last stroke was made by ‘natural forces’ rather than people? Of course you don’t: Anything to get off the hook.

Six billion to zero. That’s a pretty powerful human influence.


(1) The cited IPCC Report actually says (with the exception of footnotes, which I have removed for clarity, because they can be found in the original report, and because here they are superfluous)

Economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters have increased, but with large spatial and interannual variability (high confidence, based on high agreement, medium evidence). Global weather- and climate-related disaster losses reported over the last few decades reflect mainly monetized direct damages to assets, and are unequally distributed. Estimates of annual losses have ranged since 1980 from a few US$ billion to above 200 billion (in 2010 dollars), with the highest value for 2005 (the year of Hurricane Katrina). Loss estimates are lowerbound estimates because many impacts, such as loss of human lives, cultural heritage, and ecosystem services, are difficult to value and monetize, and thus they are poorly reflected in estimates of losses. Impacts on the informal or undocumented economy as well as indirect economic effects can be very important in some areas and sectors, but are generally not counted in reported estimates of losses. [4.5.1, 4.5.3, 4.5.4]

What Smith took out of context and reported in isolation is the highlighted section of the following quote:

Economic, including insured, disaster losses associated with weather, climate, and geophysical events are higher in developed countries. Fatality rates and economic losses expressed as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) are higher in developing countries (high confidence). During the period from 1970 to 2008, over 95% of deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries. Middle-income countries with rapidly expanding asset bases have borne the largest burden. During the period from 2001 to 2006, losses amounted to about 1% of GDP for middle-income countries, while this ratio has been about 0.3% of GDP for low-income countries and less than 0.1% of GDP for high-income countries, based on limited evidence. In small exposed countries, particularly small island developing states, losses expressed as a percentage of GDP have been particularly high, exceeding 1% in many cases and 8% in the most extreme cases, averaged over both disaster and non-disaster years for the period from 1970 to 2010. [4.5.2, 4.5.4]

Increasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of long-term increases in economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters (high confidence). Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded (high agreement, medium evidence). These conclusions are subject to a number of limitations in studies to date. Vulnerability is a key factor in disaster losses, yet it is not well accounted for. Other limitations are: (i) data availability, as most data are available for standard economic sectors in developed countries; and (ii) type of hazards studied, as most studies focus on cyclones, where confidence in observed trends and attribution of changes to human influence is low. The second conclusion is subject to additional limitations: (iii) the processes used to adjust loss data over time, and (iv) record length. [4.5.3].

Note Smith conveniently skipped quoting “Economic, including insured, disaster losses associated with weather, climate, and geophysical events are
higher in developed countries”, something which bears upon United States policy.


(2) This narrative, that humans are chosen by a Creator or Higher Power from among all creatures for a special role in creation is one of the most damaging characteristics of developed and organized religion. No religious tradition, in my opinion, including Unitarian Universalism, can have a proper environmental sentiment until it condemns and distances itself from that idea. The official UU take on “interdependent web of all existence” in fact down plays its environmental connection, called it “a profound mistake” if it is exclusively applied to the environment. Maybe so, but do expand it beyond the environment minimizes the deep connection we have to the natural world, the deep obligation we have as caretakers, and the deep collective burden and guilt we should bear for initiating the latest planetary extinction event, not only through climate change, but in our treatment of innocent co-partners on the planet, like the Passenger Pigeon. Humanism must extend to beyond humans.


About hypergeometric

See http://www.linkedin.com/in/deepdevelopment/ and http://667-per-cm.net
This entry was posted in biology, Boston Ethical Society, carbon dioxide, citizenship, civilization, climate, conservation, ecology, environment, history, humanism, rationality, reasonableness, science, Uncategorized, Unitarian Universalism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “People are too insignificant to affect climate”

  1. Interesting and sad. A religious affiliated group called Arocha works hard on conservation issues and to inform the church about this. Planet wise blog and a man called Dave Bookless. Arocha started in Portugal and then UK and has worldwide links now. Dave is very good on bible and environment and our responsibility. For me I think we use economic motives but can see how religion may have affected attitudes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s