I often think that those who say we face “climate change catastrophe” mustn’t really understand the most basic tenet of evolutionary theory: that life involves a struggle for existence.
Consider, for example, what the Sunday Times television guide says about tonight’s wildlife documentary on BBC2, The Polar Bear Family and Me: “polar bears are the world’s largest carnivores, but global warming is making it more and more difficult for them to find food”.
In fact, individual polar bears have always found it difficult to find food. Whenever less food was available, their numbers fell, as more of them succumbed to various causes of death. Most such causes have always been related to food shortage: diseases of malnutrition, exhaustion through having to travel long distances to find food, attacks by other hungry polar bears, even killing at the hands of human beings they wouldn’t have approached if they hadn’t been so hungry.
Whenever more food was available, their numbers rose – up to the point at which food was difficult to find again. That brings us right back to the situation described in the previous paragraph. Polar bear numbers are not decided by ancient “polar bear wisdom” with which they thoughtfully control their own numbers, nor is there a “delicate balance of nature” in the Arctic that perfectly suits polar bears. The issue is always settled the hard way – by food shortages and by death.
As Arctic ice melts, polar bear numbers may be rising or falling – and no one seems to know with much confidence which. Polar bears are good swimmers, and they get most of their food in the form of other swimming animals such as seals. It might be that more open water has the effect of increasing the availability of food – a situation that sustains larger numbers of polar bears. Or it might be that more open water allows more polar bear competitors into their “turf”, which help to use up the food supply. Or that less ice means fewer air-holes where seals can be caught. These are situations that sustain smaller numbers of polar bears. But fewer bears means fewer competitors for each individual bear, which makes finding food slightly less difficult. Which reverses things a bit. Via many swings and roundabouts of fortune, a sort of balance is struck. It isn’t a balance that arises through design, or anything like it. It’s a balance that results from the “chips falling where they may”.
Whichever way the chips may fall, the difficulty of finding food remains roughly the same. The degree of difficulty is always approximately a matter of life and death.
I’m not sure why so many climate alarmists seem to be unaware of this situation, which exists pretty much everywhere in nature. It might be that their area of specialization has nothing to do with evolution, which makes them no better qualified than any other layperson to guess the effects on life of a changing climate. Or it might be that the insight Darwin credited Malthus for bringing to his attention has been largely forgotten in today’s attitudes to “ecosystems”. These attitudes assume that there is something akin to design in nature, and suffering gets much worse when a supposed “way things were meant to be” is disrupted.
Wherever there’s life, there’s a struggle for existence. Whether sea levels rise or fall, whether ice caps retreat or advance, whether the climate warms or cools, whether the earth is beset by floods or droughts, even if everything stays exactly the same – living things have to battle against each other and their environment as a matter of life and death. There’s a lot of suffering in all that strife, and changes are just as likely to bring a little relief from that vast tapestry of suffering as to make it a little worse.