Saturday, March 17, 2007

Why It's a Bad Idea to Try and Stop Global Warming

I've been meaning for some time to write about how the current global warming dialog is detached from reality. Now, with little else to distract me but the NCAA Tournament in the background, I think I'll take a crack at it.

I'd like to frame the current global warming consensus (i.e., the voice heard loudest in the media and among politicians) as the sum of the following propositions:

(1) Rising CO2 emissions are causing rising world temperatures.
(2) The predominant cause of these rising emissions is human burning of fossil fuels.
(3) The rising world temperatures will cause a great deal of harm to mankind.
(4) The amount of human-induced CO2 emissions may be reversed with (a) not too much pain to mankind (i.e. less than (3) would cause), and (b) to such an extent that world temperatures will no longer rise or will be reversed.

I call this the "consensus" because if any one of these propositions are not believed there is no point in restricting CO2 emissions.

I am fully ready to buy-into propositions (1) and (2). I'm not a scientist so I can't really do much other than read the different summaries of scientific studies, but it does seem logical that humans are releasing a lot more CO2, and that more CO2 would mean higher temperatures. However, with that being said, I am skeptical of (3), and I am convinced that (4)(a) and (4)(b) are utterly fantastical. After reading the following, I invite others, particularly other Movers, to try and refute me. I warn, though, that it will take a lot to convince me that efforts (not just "current efforts" but any efforts) to "combat" CO2 emissions are not the greatest waste of human resources since China unintentionally incentivized its people to not harvest food.

There has been much talk for years about how much of a hike in global temperatures would result from rising, unchecked, CO2 emissions. Some more "skeptical" scientists have stated that it will be less than 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Others estimate it will be much higher, possibly as high as 6 degrees Celsius, or more. The difference between 2 and 6 degrees is quite profound. Warming of 2 degrees might result in some rise in sea level, changes in farming cycles, and the like, but nothing that humans can't adapt to in their usual course of business (i.e., as they adapt to other changes in the environment and society). However, changes of 6 degrees would be much more challenging, perhaps triggering some of the doomsday scenarios we sometimes hear about, such as the flooding of entire countries and mass famine. I tend to think that the lower range projections are more in-line, particularly because a group that few have accused of being in the pocket of the vast right wing conspiracy, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, estimate that the rise in sea levels will be between 19 and 59 centimeters by 2100. That's a rise, but nothing that will bury nations beneath the oceans. (To be fair, the Panel states that sea levels will continue to rise after 2100, perhaps more than 80 centimeters by 2300, but that's a heck of a long way away to be basing policy upon.)

But even if the truth is closer to 6 degrees than 2, I don't see a good reason for pursuing policies mandating a drop of CO2 emissions. This is because of the "dirty little secret" that almost no one is talking about: a meaningful reduction of emissions--enough to actually stop an increase in temperatures--would be of such a degree that it would cause more suffering than a rise in temperatures would.

One fellow who has been talking about this "secret" is Robert J. Samuelson of Newsweek. He points out that the only way to actually combat "warming" is for massive cuts in CO2 emissions. That just won't happen because:

In 2004, world emissions of carbon dioxide . . . totaled 26 billions metric tons. Under plausible economic and population assumptions, CO2 emissions will grow to 40 billions tons by 2030, projects the International Energy Agency. About three-quarters of the increase is forecast to come from developing countries, two-fifths from China alone.

These countries won't cut their economic growth, continues Samuelson, because they only account for a fifth of current emissions and are more concerned with things like electricity for their populations than climate change. In addition, the use of alternative fuels will only slightly lessen the rise in CO2 emissions. Alternative fuels just do not offer enough to effectively slow or cut emissions. In another piece, Samuelson states that even if we adopt all manner of policies to cut emissions, such as alternative fuels, plus higher fuel standards, plus using less coal, emissions will still rise by between 6 and 27 percent by 2050.

More importantly, however, is what people are missing on how much we need to cut emissions to actually prevent warming. The figure quoted varies, but in general emissions would have to be cut somewhere upwards of 70 Percent to actually avert rising temperatures. Unless we have unforeseen technological breakthroughs, that would mean near-totalitarian like controls on human activity. If actually successful, which given the success of governmental programs it likely wouldn't be, would wreck western economics and abort developing countries' efforts to grow out of extreme poverty. It's something that countries won't try and do--and thank God they won't.

In short, a cut in anything near 70% of CO2 emissions would be more devastating to humanity than a 6 degree rise in global temperatures. And, since we will probably have warming unless we have something like a near 70% cut in CO2 emissions it's a choice of one or the other. A feel-good Kyoto-like policy, where we have controls such as higher gas taxes and ethanol subsidies, will do nothing for warming, and only serve to line the pockets a few insiders (e.g., corn farmers, some of the plaintiffs' bar, etc). It won't actually cut global warming, the whole point of the exercise.

Therefore, given these two real choices I vote we do nothing, move to higher land if necessary, try to get richer in the meantime so we can afford to do so, avoid the massive growth in bureaucracy that the global warming movement threatens to initiate, and get on with our lives. Now, I could be wrong about some of these figures, and I'd like to hear how. But if they're right I don't see "what all the fuss is about." Any thoughts?


Anonymous Jurificus said...

We'd need to cut over 90% of CO2 emissions to have a miniscule effect on climate. China and India would make up the difference, so in the end there'd be no change in the trend, whatever it may be in reality.

Global warming is more a political than a scientific movement. In politics there are winners who wouldn't otherwise win, and losers who wouldn't otherwise lose.

3/17/2007 9:46 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Let's assume all of your numbers are right and that it is too much to expect to stop global warming. In the meantime, isn't it worth slowing it down to the extent that we can?

3/17/2007 10:10 PM  
Blogger Nico Jacobellis said...

Steve- My comments were than even slowing it down will require totalitarian measures, so we shouldn't try. It's not like there's a happy medium out there. Again, my numbers may be wrong, but my 70%-ish figure is the amount of a cut in CO2 emissions you'd need to have a meaningful change. Less than that is a waste of time and money, not to mention liberty.

3/18/2007 12:05 AM  
Blogger David said...

I heard that one gallon of ethanol takes 1.5 gallons of oil to produce byu the time you look at trucking to and from the refinery and delivery.

More importantly, it's driving up the cost of those fresh ears of corn we love to eat in the summer time.

6/22/2007 12:18 AM  

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