Thursday, June 25, 2009

Global Warming II - Do we have the political will to solve the problem?

In 1798 Thomas Malthus predicted that the world would be reduced to subsistence living as a result of overpopulation. Here we are in the twenty first century. Population has consistently expanded and, by and large, the Malthusian projections have not materialized.

Malthus underestimated the capacity of human beings to adapt to change. He did not anticipate the industrial revolution that has allowed many more people to live on this planet.
We will ultimately adapt to global warming. The question is whether we have the capacity and will to address the threat intelligently and effectively.

There are reasons to be pessimistic. There is considerable uncertainty over when the gradual increase in temperature will reach the tipping point. Governments work best in a crisis mode.

We watched Hitler storm across Europe without making more than minimal preparations for the impending war. It took Pearl Harbor to convince this country to realize that World War II was for real.

There is a strong possibility that our government and others will slack off on the global warming issue in the same manner. A massive effort to reduce carbon emissions would carry an enormous price tag, and it is hard to believe that we will place global warming the top of our priorities soon.

Moreover, as Sam Rayburn famously stated, all politics are local. Democratically elected officials respond best to the narrow interest of their separate constituencies. Global warming is not a local issue. An effective attack on global warming will require a heavy dose of altruism, which is in short supply in the world of geopolitics.

On the other hand, the environmental lobby has been very successful in capturing the attention of western democracies. The water and air quality in this country has been transformed since the Environmental Protection Agency was created during the Nixon administration. Maybe we will wake up, but crisis cannot be avoided merely by tilting wind mills and burning corn.

A United Nations sponsored group drafted the Kyoto Protocol which, among other things, required industrialized countries to reduce emissions on the average by 5.2% below 1990 levels.

Although almost all the major industrialized countries and underdeveloped countries signed and ratified the protocol, the United States never ratified it.

President Bush was bludgeoned by many environmental groups for withholding the treaty from the Senate, but opposition to Kyoto was bipartisan. In 1997, before the protocol was submitted to the countries for signature, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution, sponsored by Senator Byrd of West Virginia among others, condemning any treaty that failed to imposed limitations on underdeveloped countries, which is the case with the Protocol. President Clinton never submitted the treaty for ratification. President Obama deftly avoided the issue by stating that there is no reason to ratify it now because it will soon be terminated.

The Protocol has not done particularly well even on those countries that ratified the treaty. Many of them will not comply with the terms of the treaty. In the mean time, although environmental regulation has been rigorous in the United States, the emissions increased by 20% between 1990 and 2007. Moreover, it has been predicted that compliance would cause a 1% to 4% reduction in our gross national product by 2010,and even the proponents concede that compliance would have a minimal effect on global warming.

One bone of contention has been the fact that China was exempted from limitations placed on other industrialized countries. China was not even on the map in 1990 with respect to carbon emissions. It is now the largest emitter in the world, although its contribution is more modest on a per capita basis than the United States.

The Kyoto Protocol has served the useful purpose of laying bare the complex matrix of differing national interests with respect to carbon emissions. Hard choices must be made to decide what are the legitimate needs of countries in various states of economic development.

Unfortunately seems to have withdrawn from its role as leader on world environmental issues by refraining for joining the Protocol and filing to initiate constructive alternatives. Like it or not, nothing will be accomplished without effective leadership coming out of the largest economy in the world.

We are probably farther away from constructive solutions than ever, even though we have a president who ran on a pro-environment platform. President Obama’s dance card is quite full. He may talk a good game on the environment, but look at his agenda. The economy has slipped into the top spot and allowed him to find new ways to spend amounts never imagined before. But he is not through. He is trying to avoid making universal medical care another empty promise. We are told that another trillion thrown at medical insurance will still leave a gigantic gap of uninsured persons. The social security mess will most likely come up again. And, by the way, did you notice? We are carrying on two wars in the Middle East. We can now update the old cliche and note that a trillion dollars here and a trillion there can add up to real money.

I suspect that a really serious effort to handle global warming is decades away, unless we can find a way to deal with the issue in a simpler less expensive manner. But that is the subject for another posting. See you next time.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Global Warming I — Is Global Warming a hoax?*

Wallace S. Broecker wrote an article in a 1975 issue of the Science magazine in which he asserted that "We may be in for a climatic surprise." That sentence has instigated a maelstrom of scientific activity related to what we now know as global warming.

Critics have frequently commented that environmentalists are more concerned about the snail darter than human beings, but global warming is not simply an effort to preserve ecological balance. True, the polar bear is endangered, but human habitats are also directly at risk. Our grandchildren may witness an abrupt rise in the sea level that will submerge coastal areas and turn lowlands into swamps. Desert areas would expand dramatically, further reducing the livable areas in the world. The Arctic and Antarctic regions would melt and become more moderate climates causing adverse effects on the ecological system. The destruction of major habitats for humans may well result in gigantic economic catastrophes as well as land wars among millions of people displaced by the revamped earth. To help understand how people can fight over living space consider the ferocity of hostilities generated the last sixty years over a relatively small geographic area in Israel-Palestine. It is not a happy prospect.

We cannot afford to underestimate the threat. Nevertheless skeptics are alive and well. Politicians and various special interests believe that the cost of reducing carbon emissions is not justified by the evidence produced by the scientific community. The question is whether global warming is like the swine flu where the alarmists anticipated an epidemic that never came or more like the levees of New Orleans where the warnings were oft repeated, but nobody listened.

It appears to me that in order to disbelieve Broecker’s science, you must successfully challenge at least one of three premises. They are as follows:

1. Carbon dioxide and other gases collectively known as the greenhouse gases preserve heat in our atmosphere. The first proposition has been an accepted fact since the nineteenth century. Without these gases, heat from the sun would bounce off the earth, and we would freeze like other planets. On the other hand excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will overheat the earth. I understand that even the severest critics do not contest the existence of the greenhouse effect.

2. Over the last century, industrialization has been accompanied by carbon emissions of unprecedented amounts. This second premise is based on a plethora of scientific measuring that has been thoroughly documented for at least fifty years. Fossil fuels are far and away the principal contributor to this increase. I am not aware of much dissent on that issue either.

3. If the greenhouse emissions continue to grow, the livability of the planet will be materilly affected at some time in the future. This third proposition is the bone of contention. Are gases being emitted of sufficient quantity to cause a material alteration of climate?

The mean temperature on the earth has been rising over the last century. The year 2005 is reported to be the hottest year on record. Glaciers are melting, and rain forests are receding. The dissenters contend that the rise is fully explainable by the natural rhythms which occur in nature. They deny that fossil fuel deposits are a significant factor. It is noteworthy that the critics have not been very successful in convincing their peers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the most influential worldwide body in climatology, concluded that greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the rise in temperatures in recent decades. That conclusion has been endorsed by 40 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries.

I do not claim to have any expertise on a subject so complex and futuristic as global warming. Nevertheless, I have more confidence in the scientists of academia than those employed by political lobbies to come up with a specified result. Scientists, good scientists, are loyal to the advancement of knowledge regardless of the consequences. When Galileo declared that the earth revolved around the sun, he was merely reporting his findings. The church that forced him to recant had a fixed view on the universe and expected science to affirm its own dogmatic vision.

It would be unfair to characterize any one who disagrees with the scientists as seeking to alter the truth. Nevertheless, the case for an impending global catastrophe seems to represent the work product of the best minds in the world who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of our environment.. Moreover, the skeptics are up against Pascal’s wager. If the skeptics should persuade us that global warming is a hoax and they are wrong, the consequences would be horrendous. On the other hand the risk of error by the scientific establishment is not so great. Admittedly the collective cost of a wild goose chase would be significant, but the reduction of carbon dioxide would still produce a more pleasant, healthier climate. On balance, I consider it risky for our society to ignore the warnings of a coming global warming surprise.

[I have relied on Broecker and Kunzig Fixing the Climate (Hill and Wang 2008) and the article on global warming in Wikipedia for most of the material of a technical nature. Both are provocative, informative and excellent reading for a mainline novice such as me.]

* This posting is the first of three installments discussing global warming.