Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 10, 2015

The two different goals in addressing climate change

If anything substantial comes out of the climate change conference now going on in Paris, the result is likely to be what I will call here a “public goal”. By that term I mean that it will be a compromise between what should be done according to the best science on that topic and what the delegates feel might be possible to accomplish given the difficulties of changes required.  I am certainly not going to criticize the efforts being made in Paris here because they might provide at least a beginning of coordinated international action. Nevertheless, while those deliberations are proceeding, it is also useful to know what that other goal, which I will call the “science goal”, might be.  For that purpose, I am going to repost below a post I placed on this web site three years ago in December 2012. That post was coupled to a lecture provided by Kevin Anderson, a leading climate modeler at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in Great Britain. That lecture can be seen and heard at https://vimeo.com/62871951.  My summary of Dr. Anderson’s comments – provided three years ago on this web site – follow.

“I hope that you have all listened to Dr. Kevin Anderson’s talk that you were just pointed to. While the data he presented concerning CO2 emissions was very clear, the implication of that data is very heavy stuff and listeners are likely to come away with different impressions.  For what it’s worth, the following is what I came away with – all of which, I think, is consistent with what Dr. Anderson is trying to tell us.

1)  We are not going to be able to retard warming to less than 2 C, as we have previously hoped [and note that this is still the modest goal being sought in Paris].

2)   We are headed, instead, for at least 3 C or warming and more likely, 4 C, with even higher levels possible by the end of this century.

3)   All of this is very bad news.  We are already seeing what a warming of only about 0.8 C has done to our planet.  It is generally agreed that a warming of 4 C would cause changes that are incompatible with existing forms of civilization – and that is where we appear to be presently headed with “business-as-usual”.

4)  The developed nations of the world are largely responsible for existing detrimental conditions on Earth and the emerging countries, such as China and India, are expected to cause the bulk of CO2 emissions in the future.

5)  Nevertheless and because we have so little time left for addressing this problem, all world wide emissions of CO2 must be reduced starting immediately using unprecedented rates of reduction – even if those levels of reduction demand the diminution of financial growth and prosperity throughout the world.  That rate of global emission reduction must be about 10% per year starting now with the goal of eliminating all CO2 emission throughout the world for energy product within the next 20 years (minimal emissions will still be required for food production).

6)  Existing economic theory must take a back seat in planning until that theory matures to a level appropriate for dealing with to a new “quantum age” in which we now live – where large step changes are occurring rather than the smooth, smaller, and more predictable changes of the past.  Just as Newton’s insights cannot tell us anything about subatomic particles, existing economic theories are of little use for addressing the “discontinuities” and environmental uncertainties that will kick in during the coming decades.

7)  A lion’s share of CO2 emissions can be attributed to a small minority of the world’s population.  In general, the lifestyles of the wealthy persons among us cause most of the CO2 emissions. Whether or not this statement is fair does not matter – it is simply a fact that must be recognized and used.  In order to reduce emissions rapidly in the next couple decades, we must focus on reducing emission where the vast majority of them occur – that is, the ongoing activities of the wealthy among us – in all countries of the world whereever wealthy people live.  Of the 7 billion people in the world today, the majority of them are poor and any changes we can encourage in their lifestyles will be of minor importance to total CO2 emissions resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels. The ball is clearly in the courts of the wealthy inhabitants of the Earth if we are to make substantial reductions.

8)  Who are the wealthy ones among us.  Look in the mirror.  I am certainly one as are essentially all of the other scientists and professionals with whom we have daily interactions in the USA.  This includes, for example, everyone who flies in an airplane at least once per year.

9)  If you are either a travel agent or a frequent flyer, for example, you might not like to think about the implications of what I just said in point 8.  So the obvious next question is: would we prefer to deal with a 4 C hotter world instead?  That is our choice – one or the other.

10)  We like to deceive ourselves with the notion that something in the various fledging fields of BIG TECHNOLOGY is going to come to the rescue at some future time.  Improvements in those areas are actually occurring.  But, unfortunately, the time scale required for the industrial scale implementation of all of these (such as carbon capture and sequestration or the construction of nuclear power plants) is too great to address our critially important and immediate need for reductions in CO2 emissions RIGHT NOW.  Many of these BIG TECH schemes are great ideas that should have been implemented 30 years ago.  I still favor many of them today because they might help a great deal in another 20 years – if we can also do what needs to be done in the next 20 years.  Ours is not so much a “long term” problem as it now is a “short term” problem.  The reason for this was made clear by Dr. Anderson.  CO2 emissions are presently the greatest they have ever been and it is the ACCUMULATIVE  TOTAL emissions that matter.  We can make a significant dent in those cumulative emissions of CO2 only if we act NOW when they are so very great.  What happens 20 or more years from now will be of little consequence if we use too much of our cummulative emission allowance in the present and next decade.

11)  Doing all of this will require an unprecedented amount of both bottom up and top down leadership, sacrifice, and hard work at both the national and global levels. Many Americans will dismiss all of this because of their profound distaste for all things “governmental”, “communal” and especially “global”.  I would not even be surprised if some would prefer that they and their descendents perish in a 4 C world than sacrifice what they believe to be their own personal “freedom”, whatever that is.  On the other hand, perhaps the words of Benjamin Franklin might have some meaning for even the “ideologically pure”.  Upon signing the Declaration of Independence, he is reported to have said “Gentlemen, we must now hang together, lest we hang separately”.

12)  While we do not seem to have attractive choices before us, we still must do the best we can.  Our planet is now a relatively small place and we know of nowhere else in our universe that we can move to.  We should not simply give up, however, and if you saw pictures of my grandchildren, you would know why I say that. On top of that, I have been raised in a religious (Norsk Lutheran) environment in which I was taught that we are obliged to use the gifts we have been given while on this Earth. In the case of human beings, that would include a brain which reportedly is one of the best among the species that have survived, to date.  Being very new arrivals to the planet, however, it is not at all clear that our species will be able solve the problem its very presence has created.  Approaching this problem with unwarrented hubris will be suicidal.  Our species is not yet that smart. ”

Written by Eric Grimsrud three years ago. [Sorry to say that far too little change has occurred since then but I hope that the present conference in Paris provides a beginning, at least,  if not an adequate solution.]


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