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Global Warming: Beyond the Big Fix

In his book on climate change (“Cool It”), Danish environmental writer and statistician Bjorn Lomborg uses the image of a big climate knob and many smaller social policy knobs to illustrate the options we have in dealing with global warming.

Turning the “climate knob” refers to slowing climate change directly. We could do this, on the one hand, by attempting to intervene in nature’s processes through geoengineering—perhaps trying to reduce the amount of incoming sunlight absorbed by the planet (difficult and risky), or to withdraw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and move it someplace else (possible, and less risky). Geoengineering remains largely in the talking stage.

A second, more realistic, way to turn this big knob is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. So-called greenhouse gases, it will be recalled, result from the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. The gases emitted by this combustion, largely carbon-containing, are thought to gather into a sort of shell around the earth, a shell that—like the glass of a greenhouse—traps inflowing heat energy from the sun, and leads to global temperature rise.

Turning the social policy knobs, on the other hand, refers to protecting the planet against the many effects of global warming, independent of reducing the warming itself. We might make air conditioning more widely available, for example, build seawalls against expected sea-level rise, undertake new construction to ensure continuity of water supplies, regulate settlement in high-risk areas through legislation and strengthened codes, and continue to develop heat-tolerant crops.

The climate knob gets most of the press, and, to the extent that the social policy knobs are acknowledged, they are considered of secondary importance. Why? Because global warming is widely thought to be a catastrophe in the making, a threat that must be attacked head-on and stopped in its tracks, or at least slowed. Talk of seawalls and air conditioners is treated as a silly distraction akin to the proverbial rearranging of the Titanic’s deck chairs.

Disturbed by slick presentations such as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” most politicians and the press seem convinced we are headed over a climatological Niagara Falls. Never mind that the same press, as recently as the 1970s, was hand-wringing over the certainty of global cooling and a new Ice Age. Since none of us can predict the future, we must admit the possibility of our being on track to a catastrophe, but it’s just as likely that we are not.

Where do global warming data come from, and what do they tell us?

The data are gathered and processed, and the deep thinking is done, by hundreds of scientists around the globe, gathered loosely into an organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This group, operating under the umbrella of the U. N. Environment Program, crunches temperature and other data from all over the world, then issues exquisitely vetted assessment reports. The most recent, the Fourth Assessment Report, was issued in 2007.

The 2007 assessment tells us that the planet is clearly warming, and that our emission of greenhouse gases is “very likely” responsible for “most” of this warming. A range of consequent scenarios has been constructed, from the relatively manageable to the disastrous, with the caveat that no scenario is, at this point, more likely than any other. The IPCC suggests actions to slow the global warming process, including both mitigation (climate knob) and adaptation (social policy knobs)—both of which, it says, are needed.

Opinion-makers have generally fastened on the IPCC’s mitigation recommendations, appearing to believe mitigation capable of striking a telling blow against global warming. Yet many seem to ignore the inefficacy of extensive manipulation of this big knob, and to be whistling their way past the cost graveyard. The IPCC’s adaptation recommendations, relatively easier and more economical to implement, go largely unreported and undiscussed.

Both the confident Mitigators and the more cautious Adaptors point to the IPCC’s admission of uncertainties in its assessment.

The Mitigators see this uncertainty as a reason for immediate action, invoking (paradoxically for their boldness) the precautionary principle that if a devastating event is possible, immediate protective action is called for. A reflection of this position appeared in a recent Economist article: “Action on climate is justified, not because the science is certain, but precisely because it is not.” Yet the precautionary principle followed to its logical conclusion would dictate that we wear protective gear in the bathtub lest we slip, and never venture out in a thunderstorm for fear of death by lightning. This is not a useful model for living, either at the individual or societal level.

The Adaptors, on the other hand, see IPCC uncertainty as a reason for not diving into “solutions,” noting that the true uncertainty is not about global warming itself, but about how serious it will be. This argues, they maintain, for measured action in a non-hysterical atmosphere.

M. L. Khandekar, a former expert reviewer on climate change for the IPCC, asks, “Why is the present change in the earth’s climate so dangerous, and for whom?”

“Most countries with a perpetual hot climate in Asia,” he points out, “have done well economically and have substantially increased their grain and food output in the past 25 years. The economies of India and China have grown by more than 7 percent for the past five years.” Instead of making exaggerated claims about the dangers of climate change, he says, “the IPCC should push . . . for a simple adaptation strategy to combat future change.”

The United States has embarked on a voyage of limited climate-control goals aboard a ship named the American Power Act. This approach to manipulating the big knob was recently introduced in the Senate by Sens. John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman. The goal is to cut U. S. greenhouse gas emissions—within one decade—17 percent from 2005 levels, and over 80 percent by 2050. It reportedly aims to reduce dependence on foreign oil by 40 percent by 2030. Cap-and-trade (i. e., capping carbon emissions and trading unused emission credits among emission sources) is restricted to electric utilities only. A green light is given to offshore drilling.

The coal industry would be supplied with $10 billion to capture and store its own carbon emissions (a species of geoengineering). Enough loan guarantees and incentives would be made available to provide for the construction of 12 nuclear power plants. (Whether they would ever be constructed is another question.)

The setting of a price per ton for emitted carbon dioxide—the most abundant greenhouse gas—is being anxiously awaited by the energy sector, since it will make possible a decision on how much may be economically allocated to research into clean energy, the long-awaited centerpiece of any mitigation action. It has been reported that, once these costs are known, billions will be unleashed for this research.

Importantly, the bill pre-empts the Environmental Protection Agency’s lately acquired authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The new yardstick in this area would presumably be regulations under the American Power Act alone.

What chance does this bill have? If its provision for offshore drilling remains intact in the wake of the Gulf coast disaster, probably not much. And if this provision should be watered down or removed, which is likely, its energy-independence goals will be seriously weakened. As a bill, it will be competing for senatorial attention with immigration reform. Perhaps most importantly, the law will ultimately hit consumers in the pocketbook as carbon-emissions costs are passed on to them. For all these reasons, political support may cave.

Jim Manzi, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, comments: “Raising a carbon tax high enough fast enough to realistically change the economy fast enough to blunt (at most) the impact of a potential disaster scenario . . . would be enormously expensive—an impractical, panicky reaction unworthy of a serious government. If a climate disaster were really in the offing, we would be much better off armed with the options that would result from a focused program to build technologies for averting the worst outcomes.”

Even if this legislation were passed in substantially its present form, will it slow global warming? The short answer is no, not at all, especially since it would represent the effort of only one nation, and that a nation not busy creating new pollution sources as, for example, an unregulated India or China. The true value of such legislation would be to get our nation “in the game” for the first time. Its provisions can be tightened and improved through future regulations. But while the American Power Act is the right thing to do, there should be no illusions about its value as a climate-change brake.

This brings us to adaptation, or the “social policy” knobs.

At the same time as we implement affordable mitigative measures—ways of slowing climate change through direct action while developing sources of clean energy—we should be looking at adaptive changes, namely, ways of protecting ourselves against whatever is coming. This IPCC point seems to have been lost in the present debate.

Again, Manzi: “Adaptation . . . is by far the most cost-effective means of addressing climate risk.” Plant more trees, he says, use more reflective paint, develop heat-tolerant crops and more intelligent zoning codes for coastal areas.

No matter what mitigation legislation we enact, we can’t stop glaciers from melting and we can’t stop sea levels from rising. We can’t stop extreme weather (still not officially linked to global warming anyway) or flooding. We can’t stop the increase in starvation or malaria or water shortages that will occur with shifting meteorological patterns.

We can do nothing to save the snows of Kilimanjaro.

But we have adapted in the past, and we can do it again. How many people know there were more heat-related deaths in New York City in the cooler 1960s than there are now? (More air conditioning now.) How many people know the sea has risen a foot since 1860? Would any of us have considered sea-level rise one of the outstanding problems of our lifetime? (Protective action has been taken.) How many people know that temperatures in several of our cities have already risen to levels expected worldwide by century’s end? (We’ve added green spaces, parks, fountains, and ponds.) We’ve coped.

The only reason for us to be concerned about global warming is its potential effect on humans and the environment. But—to paraphrase Bjorn Lomborg—do we help Tanzanians best by cutting carbon dioxide, which would make no difference to the snows of Kilimanjaro, or through HIV policies that would be cheaper, faster, and have greater effect? Do we help polar bears more by keeping polar regions from melting—a forlorn hope—or by curbing hunting? Will we keep people cooler by cutting carbon dioxide emissions at great cost, or by extending electrical service and air conditioning to the poor, planting trees and building parks at a fraction of the cost?

Mitigative measures should be undertaken, to whatever point we can afford, and a serious research effort begun into developing new energy sources. But adaptation is where the rubber will meet the road.

As Manzi has summarized: “Global warming is a manageable risk, not an existential crisis, and we should get on with the job of managing it.”