Monday, June 9, 2014

Did America Irreparably Screw Up With Global Warming?

Those who believe in anthropogenic climate change go under the premise that unless we do something to cut back on our carbon outputs, we're going to have such erratic shifts in the climate that will essentially wipe out mankind. Ezra Klein, who now works over at Vox, is so pessimistic about it that he said a few days ago that "I don't think the United States, or the world, will do nearly enough, fast enough, to hold the rise in temperatures to safe levels. I think we're fucked. Or, at the least, I think our grandchildren are fucked." He proceeded to give reasons as to why "we are fucked," which I would like to now analyze.

1) We've waited so long that what America needs to do is really, really hard--maybe impossible. Klein pulled his projections from a study by Sanford et al. (2014), and is making his apocalyptic assumptions based on the worst-case scenario of a temperate increase of 4.9° Celsius. I wanted to take a look at some different projections. I started off with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to see what they had to say. In its recent National Climate Assessment, the EPA is predicting that by the end of the century, the increase will be anywhere from 4-11° Fahrenheit. Giving such a wide range is academic jargon for "we really don't know what's going to happen." Let's take a look at chart below provided by the EPA website that provides scenarios with given levels of emissions.

I don't think my eyes are that terrible, but if we use the historic trend line as our proxy, we're going to be on the lower end of the lower emissions scenario, which is to say that it's not so bad. It does make me wonder whether alarmists are overstating climate sensitivity to make a point, which is something I have wondered in the past.

2) The people most affected by climate change don't even get a vote. Klein points out that Standard and Poor's, a credit rating company, recently stated (also see their report here) that climate change was going to be a major factor in credit ratings. He even provided a nifty map of who is going to be affected (see below).

Some of the vulnerability has to do with geography, and there is no way to really get around that. A place like the Netherlands has really low sea levels, and will feel some sting. However, notice how that it only has "intermediate vulnerability." In spite of its geographic faults, it still has a potential to withstand some nasty climate change because it has the resources to do so. Humans have historically been able to adapt to lousy weather conditions. I would contend that having a more liberalized economy that respects property rights, voluntary economic transactions, and cuts back on its corruption issues is much more likely to weather climate change than its counterparts. Take a look at South America. The only country in that region that is not prone to the woes of climate change is Chile (which is a country with a major coastline on a fault line), and that's because it has great economic freedoms and thusly the ability to deal with earthquakes, floods, or whatever else Mother Nature decides to throw at it. To echo my thoughts from last week, if you want to stop climate change, invest in R&D that not only creates more efficient energy, but also technology that can better withstand adverse weather conditions.

3) We're bad at sacrificing now to benefit later. Part of that is just how politics works. Social Security is a wreck and we should do something about it. However, it's more politically expedient to simply kick the can down the road. Going back to Point #1, it's even more difficult to sacrifice now for some worst-case scenario that might happen. Combine that with the global effort required (see Point #4) and economies that are taking years to recover from the Great Recession, and it should be no surprise that it's difficult to get countries on board to truly fight climate change.

4) The effects of global warming are not easily reversible. Klein says that there is a "game over" quality to climate change. Although it is way too much to try to cover every effect of global warming in this wee paragraph, I'll touch upon his "sea level" argument. Looking at IPCC data, the history for about the past century has been a drop in the sea level. Looking at a study done by Church et al. (2011), the sea levels have shown a constant upward trend over time, even in spite of the major increases in carbon output. Even with the increased global warming, there is also an increase in Antarctica's ice sheet. Again, it's hard to put qualify, let alone quantify, the effects of global warming and declare "game over" when your prediction is so many years out.

5) The Republican Party has gone off the rails on climate change. I'm not one for partisan squabbling, and will consequently skip this point of Klein's.

6) The international cooperation required is unprecedented, and maybe impossible. The extent of the international cooperation required is based on the extent to which other countries are emitting. Global warming transcends borders and is made more difficult when some players try to maintain or increase carbon emissions. Vox provides an interesting chart of who the "guilty parties" are:

Although America emits a disproportionate amount of carbon in comparison to many other countries, America is not the largest emitter of carbon: China is. The best way to mitigate China's carbon emissions issue is to lend them some green technology to cut back on carbon. However, China loves its coal extraction because it's a relatively cheap way to provide energy (And to think none of this considers the fact that other countries are necessary for the process because they also emit carbon). I agree with Klein that international cooperation is going to be a doozy. Whether you have China's cooperation or not, you should still look at policies in terms of how much the temperature will decrease with reduced carbon emissions, and whether that will make a difference at the end.

7) Geoengineering is nuts. I'm not particularly persuaded by either the pro or con side, and will not be providing further comments on geoengineering at this time.

8) Climate change attacks American politics where it's weak. This goes back to Point #3. The potential effects of climate change will take place by the end of the century. Midterm elections are in a few months. Politics tend to be myopic. Even with the recent regulations from the EPA, I am skeptical about efficacy. Our best chance to deal with carbon output is to work on developing or expanding technologies that reduce our carbon footprint. Without getting into the nuclear power debate, one of the joys of nuclear power is its infinitesimally small carbon footprint. Closing the price gap between petroleum and alternative energies would help, as would stopping the subsidies of oil and coal. I can't really share Klein's pessimism because I have too much skepticism as to what is going to happen decades down the road. If I had something more precise than a wide range of estimates, I might share Klein's pessimism. But until then, I can't agree that "we are fucked."

1 comment:

  1. Carbon dioxide is an odorless, tasteless, transparent gas that is absolutely mandatory for all life on earth. Change to its current level has no significant effect on climate. Calling it pollution is scientific incompetence. Calling it carbon makes it sound more ominous and distracts from attending to real atmospheric pollutants from coal such as particulates, mercury, NOX and sulfur (as the Chinese are discovering. The US uses precipitators to remove the real pollutants).

    Search using keywords AGW unveiled to discover the two drivers that explain measured average global temperatures since before 1900 with 95% correlation and credible values back to 1610.

    CO2 change is not one of the drivers.