Friday, May 15, 2009

Climate Change -- Some Inconvenient Truths

One of my favorite columnists, Paul Krugman, has a piece in today's New York Times, entitled Empire of Carbon, that I have some serious problems with. Focussing on China, a favorite target of NY Times China-bashers for a great many years, he writes:

The scientific consensus on prospects for global warming has become much more pessimistic over the last few years. Indeed, the latest projections from reputable climate scientists border on the apocalyptic. Why? Because the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are rising is matching or exceeding the worst-case scenarios.

And the growth of emissions from China — already the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide — is one main reason for this new pessimism.
I felt impelled to respond with the following comment:
I am alarmed and disheartened by the persistent manifestations of naivete, hysteria, and yes, neo-colonialist arrogance, on the part of intelligent, well meaning individuals, many of whom, as is certainly the case with Dr. Krugman, should know better. Yes, global warming is undoubtedly a reality. Yes, in all likelihood it is caused, or at least hastened, by human activity. And yes, it is likely to present the human race with some serious challenges over the next 50 to 100 years. Nevertheless, there are some other truths, no less apparent, compelling and “inconvenient,” that must also be taken into consideration when evaluating this situation.
For examples of what I am talking about, I directed his readers to this blog. Here are some of the "inconvenient truths" I have in mind:

1. The Earth has undergone many cycles of climate change in the 150 to 200 thousand years we Homo Sapiens have roamed the planet. In every case, humans have found ways to adapt.

2. While persistent droughts in parts of Africa have been attributed to global warming, “a new study of lake sediments in Ghana suggests that severe droughts lasting several decades, even centuries, were the norm in West Africa over the past 3,000 years. The earlier dry spells dwarfed the well-documented drought that plagued West Africa in the late-20th century . . .” While drought is naturally of great concern in Africa, as elsewhere, global warming due to industrial activity is clearly only one, relatively small, part of the problem.

3. Many sources of greenhouse gas have nothing to do with industrial activity: “By burping, belching and excreting copious amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas that traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide — India's livestock of roughly 485 million (including sheep and goats) contributes more to global warming than the vehicles the animals obstruct”; recent studies of “black carbon” emissions (aka “soot”) from the inefficient stoves of hundreds of millions of third world households have shown that they, too, have a significant role to play in global warming: “ ‘It’s hard to believe that this is what’s melting the glaciers,’ said Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, as he weaved through a warren of mud brick huts, each containing a mud cookstove pouring soot into the atmosphere.”

4. Any attempt to slow global warming by imposing economic restrictions is sure to have devastating effects, not only on the economies of emerging industrial nations such as China and India, but the poorest of the poor in every part of the world. And in the face of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the effects on many working and middle class families may also be dire. If global warming can be characterized as a man-made disaster, ill informed and panicky attempts to reverse it can be seen as part of the same depressing trend, founded in human arrogance, hubris and sheer pig-headed ignorance. If nothing else, the recent ethanol farce should give us pause before we embark on yet another, possibly far more costly, folly.

5. A recent study suggests that global warming has already reached a point of no return, where the worst of its effects may well be irreversible, no matter what we do: “The damage will persist even when, and if, emissions are brought under control, says study author Susan Solomon, who is among the world's top climate scientists."

6. Global warming is a potentially disastrous, but also slowly developing, trend that we will have ample time to prepare for. The key to dealing with it clearly does not lie in desperate, hasty, attempts to reverse the irreversible, but in the sort of long-term planning that would help us adapt. Not emission control, but population control, thus emerges as a key factor in facing the coming challenge. Since China has been a leader in dealing, however clumsily, with this absolutely fundamental problem, the many criticisms that have been directed at this country with regard to climate change are both ironic and disturbing in the extreme.


  1. Regarding your first point, that humans have always adapted in the past. Yes, and those adaptations were frequently accompanied by great loss of life. But let's not focus on the adaptations of Pleistocene hunter-gatherer groups; let's consider the adaptability of modern civilization to climate change. How will our coastal cities adapt to sea level rise? Will we build dikes along every coastline on the planet? How much will that cost?

    I agree with you that we should not talk in terms of cataclysm or catastrophe. Instead, we should do a cost-benefit analysis of our options. Current estimates of the costs of climate change are all over the map, but I think that $200 billion is a good median value of the estimates I have seen. That's the *current* cost -- and all indications are that it is rising steeply. I believe it safe to say that the costs will exceed a trillion dollars per year within 10 or 20 years. And when we look further down the road, it seems obvious to me that climate change costs will rise so high as to reduce global economic growth to nothing, or possibly even negative. And history shows that, when the economy goes downhill, the natives get restless. What happens when the whole world's economy is falling, and continues to fall indefinitely? Climate change will not cause a catastrophe, but our response to its effects could well be catastrophic.

    2. Africa is one place. We're talking about *global* warming. At the global level, this will increase total precipitation and storm energy. But increasing temperatures will require greater use of irrigation water. Many areas will experience a jump in precip during the winter, followed by a hot dry summer -- bad for agriculture.

    3. Yes, there are many other sources of greenhouse gases. So what? If half of all infant deaths in Africa are due to malaria and half are due to dehydration, should we give up any attempt to combat malaria?

    4. I agree that extreme economic measures will be harmful -- that's always true. But the most common proposal is for a carbon tax. We could start it at a nominal figure, say $5/ton, at the same time reducing other taxes to achieve net revenue neutrality. Along with this, we publish a schedule showing how the tax will increase over the coming years. This gives everybody a chance to make rational economic decisions, and most economics agree that such a plan would impose minimal economic damage.

    5. So if your car gas pedal is stuck, you're going 20 mph, and you're approaching a brick wall, you might as well hit the accelerator?

    6. I agree that we need to make long-term plans, not short-term plans. But even if human population froze at 7 billion, there's still the fact that many of those 7 billion are now enjoying rising incomes, which entails increased carbon emissions. It's economic growth that is causing our carbon emissions to increase. Do you want to stop that?

  2. Everything you say makes sense, Chris. However, for me the bottom line is clear. We have three choices. We can institute some sort of carbon tax or some other half measure that will be adopted by some countries but not by those responsible for the most greenhouse gases (e.g., China and India). Judging from the alarms I'm hearing these measures will not be nearly enough. So the cost of fossil fuels will simply rise, the cost of transportation, food, heating, etc. will rise, and to what end? Possibly a delay of a few months or maybe a year before the worst effects are upon us (assuming AGW is for real.)

    The whole world can agree to drastically reduce all burning of fossil fuels to the point that, possibly, within 50 or 100 years the planet might see a leveling off of the seas and a cooling of the atmosphere (assuming "the science" is on the mark). This remedy discounts the inconvenient truth that the world is now, for better or worse, dependent on fossil fuels. Drastic reductions in this area cannot be offset by solar or wind or hydraulic or anything else that's in the works anywhere in the near or possibly even distant future. So: very simply: people will begin to die. The neediest first. They will not be able to afford the costs of heating or food, which will also be affected indirectly by the shutoff.

    The only alternative is nuclear power, which actually isn't all that clean either. It takes lots of fossil fuel to construct and maintain a nuclear plant. I for one am not willing to consider that alternative because the possibility of a serious accident or a terrorist attack is too great.

    Our ONLY recourse is to adapt, and hope for the best. As I see it, if your gas pedal is stuck you don't shoot yourself in the foot, you try to ride it out.

  3. Well, most of these issues are matters of judgement which, unlike the science end, is full of important uncertainties. A few points, though:

    1. Everybody seems to want to disavow any responsibility on the part of America because China is emitting more greenhouse gases than the USA (India isn't.) But the counterargument is that the *per capita* emissions are as follows:
    USA: 17 tons carbon per capita per year
    China: 6 tons carbon per capita per year
    India: 1.6 tons carbon per capita per year
    By any reasonable standard, the USA has a much greater responsibility to reduce its per capita emissions than China. To put it another way, all of the developing countries are right to assert equal claim to the use of the atmosphere on a per capita basis -- are Americans truly entitled to emitting three times as much carbon per person as Chinese?

    2. You're right that, if we take insignificant action, we will get insignificant results. But there's another argument to consider: supplies of oil are running out; we have *already* passed "peak oil" by its original definition. We are now getting lots more oil, but at a much higher price. And that price will continue ratcheting upwards. We've got lots of coal, but again, all the easy stuff has already been taken, and the price of coal will also rise, although more slowly than that of oil. The fracking revolution has greatly expanded the supply of low-price gas, and that gives us some breathing room, but even gas has its limits, and there's no question that we will begin to experience steep rises in price by the end of this century. Indeed, almost all the projections I have seen conclude that, by the end of this century, fossil fuels will be too expensive to contribute much to our economy.

    3. So we MUST make the transition this century anyway, and our best strategy is to smooth it out as much as possible. We cannot afford another fiasco like the 1973 oil crisis. Our top priority is to phase out coal, because it's the worst source of carbon AND it makes all sorts of other pollution. I would prefer to eliminate ALL subsidies to ALL energy industries, and let them compete on a level playing field. But a level playing field includes Pigovian taxes that properly reflect the true costs of each energy form.

    Your proposal is that we accept the inevitability of climate change and hope for the best. I am actually more cynical than you in this regard. I am quite certain that humanity is simply too stupid to understand the situation, and will not take action until it's much too late. Seriously, the fact that climate change deniers aren't laughed off the political stage speaks volumes about how dumb we are. Climate change will grind away our economic output, create millions of climate refugees, and increase the amount of geopolitical tension to unsurvivable levels. In our desperate efforts to hang onto a lifestyle that cannot be sustained, we will end up fighting resource wars with vastly more destructive weapons than we have now.

    In the larger evolutionary view, this makes perfect sense. We are at heart Pleistocene hunter-gatherers trying to fake it as civilized people, and we're not doing a very good job. The further we have moved away from our hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the more strained has become our intellectual capacity to manage the world we have created. There is no reason to expect that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers have infinite capacity to change their world faster and faster, and comprehend and cope with the consequences of those changes. There is undoubtedly a ceiling to our ambitions, and it appears that we are nearing it.

    I give civilization a century at most. Certainly by 2200, the human population will be down to a few million.

    My own purpose is to delay the inevitable as long as possible. But since nobody sees it coming, we're just racing forward to our doom.


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