Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Scope of the Problem

So today is Blog Action Day and the topic is Climate Change. Since that is mostly what this blog is about,  I signed up to write something.

What I want to talk about is the scope of the climate change problem. My feeling is that much of the discussion in the media about climate change is really quite superficial and underestimates the depth of the commitment we are going to have to make as a civilization in order to solve it. The noise made by "climate change deniers" is quite evident and also, in the face of the scientific evidence, quite ludicrous. Most people realize that by now. But there is a more serious problem with the bulk of the population. I think most people truly believe there is a problem but they don't rate solving it as very important, or maybe they believe that the solution requires minor changes, like putting in a couple CFLs as in my last post (not to say that CFLs aren't part of the solution, but they aren't the full solution). Tom Friedman, in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, discusses this problem in some amount of detail. It is easy to see reasons why this might be the case: general media laziness that seems to have crept in over the last 20 years, a desire not to alarm people by disclosing the depth of the problem, perhaps a lack of understanding of the underlying science.

To illustrate the scope of the problem, consider the graph above. This graph shows the yearly increase in CO2 concentration measured at the top of Mauna Loa from the start of measurements in 1959 until 2008. The first thing to note is that the yearly increase, itself, is increasing, especially since around 1998-2000. Now, we all know that the base level of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, but what this graph is saying is that the *rate* at which the CO2 concentration is increasing is, itself, increasing. So it's like a car which is accelerating, going faster and faster. The problem would be bad enough if the level of CO2 was increasing with the rate of increase being constant, but the fact that the rate of increase is increasing means that we are likely headed for serious changes in the climate much sooner than most people expect. Most media reports on climate change don't talk about this problem.

The next thing to note are the blue rectangles. These rectangles are the approximate locations of economic recessions. In every case, an economic recession is accompanied by a decrease in the rate of CO2 increase. Sometimes the effect lasts for a couple years after the recession is officially over. As we all know from the recession of 2001-2002 and the current recession, the date that a recession is declared "officially" over often precedes by a considerable amount of time the date when people actually feel economically well off enough to declare that it is psychologically over. This effect does seem to have been picked up by the media, I've seen estimates that U.S. CO2 emissions have decreased by around 6%  year over year since 2008. The reverse correlation - i.e. that decreases only occur with recessions - can't be maintained though. There are decreases in 1964, 1996, and 1999 that don't correspond to recessions.

These two observations, in a nutshell, describe how serious the problem has become. The increase since 2000 is most likely due to India and China. These countries are building coal fired power plants, their people are buying cheap cars, and they are, generally, behaving like Americans did in the 1950's, Europeans in the 1960's, and Japanese in the 1970's - becoming more and more prosperous and thereby generating more and more carbon emissions as a byproduct. Unlike other pollutants, CO2 is an inescapable byproduct of prosperity (hence the decrease noted during recessions). At least, that is so given our current economic system - which needs growth for people to feel happy and well  off - and our currently affordable energy generation technology - which is based on fossil fuels.

The Indians and the Chinese rightly complain that it is our fault that the atmospheric capacity is used up, and why should they suffer because we hogged all the goodies? In a sense, they are right. And I would not put it past the Chinese to become the first industrialized society that bends their carbon emissions curve downward. With their authoritarian government, all it would take is a serious commitment, and, lately, they seem to be getting serious about carbon reduction. In the Western democracies and India, however, the evidence has been a sad lack of ability to act. The most environmentally aware societies on the planet are in Europe, and the Europeans have been consistently unable to bend their carbon emissions curve downward while maintaining economic growth,despite the appearance of political will since 1990. Their attempt at cap and trade ended up in political horse trading. Something similar is happening in the US. The Waxman-Markey bill is a joke, neutered by coal-state representatives. Most of the carbon credits are given away free to polluting industries and the emissions goal for 2020 is ridiculous. The Senate bill - should it ever happen - will probably be even worse. And the prospects for any kind of treaty in Copenhagen in December are slim (not to say that the US Senate would ever ratify one). Today I even read that the Saudi Arabians are brazenly demanding that they be compensated if the world's oil usage goes down!

These goings-on are what one would expect and what typically happens when people try to solve a problem: jocking for advantage, trying to blame the problem on someone else, trying to avoid having to do anything oneself, etc. It's just politics. The problem is, this is not a problem that can be solved by the usual political horse trading, we simply can't bull***t this problem anymore. We have run out of time. It is a basic scientific fact that the more carbon and other greenhouse gases we dump in the atmosphere, the more likely there will be serious changes in the climate. And if we dump in greenhouse gases faster and faster, the day of reckoning will come even sooner. Today, I saw a report that the Arctic is likely to be ice-free in 10 years. When the IPCCC did their first report, they estimated it would be 2100 before that happened.

The fact that I'm so pessimistic about solving the problem on a political level is one reason I'm writing this blog. What it will take - and I really want to be clear about this - is a fundamental change in what people value. I think we need to start in the US, Europe, and Japan, because the bulk of people in China and India are still quite poor and we cannot expect them to bear the brunt of solving this problem (though I do believe they can benefit from our efforts and will). The kinds of changes in lifestyle I will be talking about later in the blog, like renewable energy technology, are not cheap, but I believe the US, Europe, and Japan are prosperous enough that we can really afford them. Somehow (and I don't underestimate the difficulty of this), people need to value carbon reductions and other environmental measures enough that they would rather take out a HELOC on their house for a solar thermal hot water heater than  for a trip to Maui or a plasma TV. Maybe that's expecting too much, and of course the government needs to help with incentives, but I don't think we can solve a problem of the scope of climate change in any other way.

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