Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Anthropogenic Climate Change

We moved around a lot when I was growing up. I went to six different schools by the time I was in sixth grade, and lived in Melbourne (mild, like a California down-under), Seattle (rainy, lots of slugs), Anchorage (often quite cold indeed, but a great place to be a kid) and just Northeast of Santa Barbara (perfect weather almost all the time).

Maybe that's why Global Warming doesn't freak me out. I'm pretty confident about the human species' ability to adapt; I wouldn't choose to live in the snow like an Inuit or in the desert like a Las Vegan or behind a dike like a Netherlander, but I would adapt if forced.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm not a Global Warming Denier. The scientific evidence is pretty convincing that Global Warming is happening, and that we're almost certainly the cause.

I'm just skeptical that it will be a Global Environmental Crisis, and that it requires Drastic and Immediate Action. I think it would be easy to over-react and spend (say) a trillion or three dollars on a War on Global Warming. The War on Terror and the War on Drugs haven't exactly been shining examples of efficiency and effectiveness.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, so if we spend heaps of money fighting global warming that means we're not spending that money on something else. If the "something else" is a war overseas, then sign me up! Coming up with clean (or cleaner) energy solutions is certainly a more productive use of resources than killing people and blowing stuff up.

I'm not smart enough to figure out where the War on Warming should be on the list of Global Issues-- I have no idea if we should spend more money finding a cure for cancer, finding a way to burn coal that doesn't put carbon dioxide into the air, growing more corn for ethanol, producing solar cells to put on our houses, or banning cars that get less than 42 miles per gallon.

Nobody is that smart. I think the best we can do is create a society where smart, creative, dedicated people can work on the issues that they care about, and be confident that some of those smart people will figure it out.

PS: Looks like we're going to get biofuels in our home heating oil soon, just like we get ethanol in our gasoline-- not because it makes environmental or economic sense (it probably doesn't), but because somebody in our government thinks they're smart enough to know that doing so is The Right Answer.

I like making wild-ass predictions, so here are two:
1. Biofuels (of the sort they're mandating that we use now) will turn out to be worse for the environment, and more expensive, than oil/gas/coal, once all of the hidden costs are accounted for.
2. Within 25 years some smart person somewhere will figure out an insanely great way of creating energy, that's a lot cheaper and cleaner than anything we're using today.


Anonymous said...

Several points in response:
1) My understanding of the situation is that, as long as we're burning something somewhere, we've got a problem with climate change.

2) I am more optimistic about finding automotive technologies that either burn cleaner or don't burn at all than I am about bringing about the cultural changes necessary to get us all riding public transportation.

3) The situation is more dire than is commonly acknowledged, and we need to be taking modest steps NOW. See Australian Tim Flannery's "The Weather Makers" for an enlightening read on the subject, that helps you get your brain around the problem. He's not a sad sack. For example, he talks about powering cars with compressed air; he's not kidding.

4) You don't have to accept every horror story about the problem. There's still much debate about whether global warming is linked to our recent streak of horrendous weather events, as Al Gore asserted in the movie.

5) I'm still talking to otherwise common sense folks who are in major denial. Usually it takes the form of asserting that this is one of a series of climate cycles and humans have very little to do with it.

Unknown said...

One response that makes me very nervous is the shift I've noticed in people who used to be at best neutral on nukes and now assert that we have to choose nuclear power now that global warming is a definite. Centralized power, run by very large corporations, with massive taxpayer funding and inadequate oversight by large , inefficient, spineless, lobby-influenced government agencies freaks me out. It's in line with your nervousness that the "war against X" machinery will kick into gear on climate change too and you can bet that centralized everything, including nukes, fits squarely into that picture. I am a big believer in the power of Route 128/Silicon Valley for technology solutions. And I'm a big believer that any real change is going to be grassroots, not government mandated. But government mandates and investment, done right, can have massive positive impacts. Witness the Internet. The recent mandate in France that in the very near future all new construction has to be zero net energy will have highly positive effects and will help further European innovation in building construction and materials. But the flip side is that Washington Republicans in particular are actually Francophiles to the bone and mandates like that in France are actually double-edged swords that Washington would be thrilled to wield. I'm not remotely as sanguine as you are about our adaptability as a species. For anyone earning less than $150k per year in this country global warming is a part of the big economic consequences on our horizon. And certainly for those at the bottom of the pyramid, global warming will spell death, destruction and dislocation on a massive and unparalleled scale.

Gavin Andresen said...

To Richard: Thanks for the book recommendation, I'll check it out (looks like Jones library has a copy).

To Joseph, RE: nuclear power: for me, the key is to get rid of the hidden subsidies (e.g. nuclear power plants should be required to pay for their own liability insurance instead of getting a special waiver from the government) and figure out a way to pay the hidden costs (I'd support a carbon tax if I knew the money was going to be used productively, and not to make pet corporations richer or make our military bigger or...).

As for global warming bringing death, destruction, and dislocation: yes, I wouldn't want to be a poor Bangladeshi, they're going to be miserable. Then again, that's nothing new, see: I think the best option for mitigating the coming disaster(s) is to encourage economic development and open borders, so poor people have the option of moving to higher ground as ocean levels rise. Even if we're wrong about global warming, encouraging economic development and open borders will have big positive effects anyway!

Unknown said...

Gavin, this post on Real Climate (LINK), in response to a WSJ editorial is relevant here. Concluding point: "For years the Wall Street Journal has been lying to you about the existence of global warming. It doesn't exist, it's a conspiracy, the satellites show it's just urban heat islands, it's not CO2, it's all the sun, it's water vapor, and on and on. Now that those arguments are losing traction, they have moved on from denying global warming's existence to soothing you with reassurances that it ain't gonna be such a bad thing."

Gavin Andresen said...

It's too bad the RealClimate article ends with the "Argument from prior error" logical fallacy. They should stick to rebutting any unsubstantiated claims.

"Argument from prior error
This form of ad hominem logical fallacy argues that the current claims of a person or group are incorrect because of errors committed in the past. Creationists, for example, often point to fossil frauds, or the discovery of living coelacanth previously thought to be extinct to counter the current evidence for evolution."
(From the New England Skeptical Society web site)

Matthew Cornell said...

I'm pretty confident about the human species' ability to adapt Actually, I'm more on the gloom and doom end of the spectrum. I suspect the situation is a lot worse than you think. Yes, the species will survive, but will the "grand experiment of civilization" be so fortunate? Sounds extreme? There are some big problems converging in the next few decades: Peak oil, a climate crisis, and radically increasing population and fuel demands.

...will figure out an insanely great way of creating energy, that's a lot cheaper and cleaner than anything we're using today. First, it turns out there's nothing like oil - the energy density is very high, it's portable and stable, and extremely versatile.

Second is what James Kunstler calls "the Jiminy Cricket syndrome" — the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.

There's a common confusion between energy and technology. You can't create more energy, you can only convert it. New technology isn't going to create some fabulous miracle, sadly.