Thursday, September 07, 2006

Optimistic Global Warming

Gregg Easterbrook takes a look at the latest thought in global warming.  He’s not one to freak out over environmental issues and is pretty level headed, so when he declares the global warming debate over and the certainty of human-caused warming I had to read up on it.

Basically he spends little time defending the statement that it’s an open and shut case by telling us that almost all scientists are in full agreement now (which I find debatable), but also that even the Bush administration has begun to give in as well.

      In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences joined the science academies of the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, China and other nations in a joint statement saying, "There is now strong evidence that Data Center said research now supports "a substantial human impact on global temperature increases." And this month the Climate Change Science Program, the George W. Bush Administration's coordinating agency for global-warming research, declared it had found "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system."

OK, remains to be seen what the “influence” of man is on the climate, and how much of the warming is natural (recall that no one is denying that there’s been a climactic warming over the last 50 years, the debate is whether it’s human caused).  Easterbrook points out later that Earth’s climate has a history of fluctuation.

      We live in an “interglacial,” a warm period between ice ages; our interglacial is called the Holocene. Ice-core readings from the interglacial period that preceded ours, called the Eemian, suggest that it was common then for global temperatures to shift from warm to cool and back again, with climate havoc ensuing. Why these shifts occurred is unknown. But during our era, Earth’s climate has been magnificently stable—almost strangely so. For roughly the last 8,000 years, coinciding with the advent of the controlled agriculture on which civilization is based, global temperatures, ocean currents, rainfall patterns and the timing of the seasons have varied by only small amounts. Scientists don't know why the climate has been so stable during the last 8,000 years. We do know that stable climate is associated with civilization, while climate change is associated with mass extinctions. We would be fools to tempt that equation.

Gregg spends lots of text talking about possible global problems that could occur if the earth warmed by a few degrees in the next 50 years.  It’s interesting, and Gregg is nothing if not to the point on each issue without going over the edge, but it’s worth noting that each item is dependent on a number of factors that we are unaware of as of yet.

He also points out that there might be benefits to global warming, like increased arable land for farming and settling (like in Siberia).

After spending a bit of time putting the Kyoto treaty in it’s place, he starts to talk about possible solutions, and to his credit they are market driven solutions.  Take the “unsolvable” problem of smog in the 1970s (it was widely considered to be unsolvable then).

      Today, any make or model new car purchased in the United States emits about 1 percent of the amount of smog-forming compounds per mile as a car of 1970, and the cost of the anti-smog technology is less than $100 per vehicle. Air pollution in Los Angeles, as in most other American cities, has declined spectacularly fast, at unexpectedly low cost. Nationally, smog-forming emissions have declined by almost half since 1970, even though Americans now drive their vehicles more than twice as many miles annually.

Easterbrook points out that, given our history of overcoming environmental problems and coming out charging economically, it’s a cinch that the U.S. can reduce greenhouse type gasses without Kyoto-style restrictions or other restrictions on our productivity.  The real worries at this point should be developing countries like China and India, who are expected to surpass the output of pollutants that the U.S. emits very soon.

      The Kyoto Protocol might not have been right for the United States, but a mandatory program of greenhouse gas reduction is. For decades, the United States has led the world in technology development, economic vision and pollution control. Right now the catalytic converter and "reformulated" gasoline, anti-smog technology invented here, are beginning to spread broadly throughout developing nations. If America were to impose greenhouse gas reductions on a solely domestic basis—keep the United Nations out of this—it is likely that the United States would soon develop the technology that would light the way for the rest of the world on reducing global warming. The United States was the first country to overcome smog (ahead of the European Union by years), the first to overcome acid rain, and we should be first to overcome global warming. Once we have shown the world that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced without economic harm, other nations will follow our lead voluntarily. The United States needs to start now with mandatory greenhouse gas reductions not out of guilt or shame, but because it is a fight we can win.

Gregg is uber-optimistic here, and I can appreciate that.  The whole scare going on about oil and gasoline, and how scarce it’s going to become in so much time ignores our history.  When one resource we use becomes scarce we tend to find some other resource to take it’s place.  Once upon a time people were freaking out because of the scarcity of whale oil, and once restrictions on whale hunting went into effect the world was supposed to come to a halt.  But petroleum was there waiting in the wings.  In the 20th century there was no shortage of innovation where energy generation was concerned. 

Note that Easterbrook once again gives the Bush administration kudos in it’s environmental programs.

      Methane reduction, meanwhile, is already being advanced by a 2003 multinational agreement initiated by the Bush administration. In fact, President Bush’s methane reduction agreement—bet you didn't even know it existed—may do more to slow global warming than perfect compliance with the Kyoto treaty.

      Finally, the fact that the Bush administration already has an unheralded greenhouse-gas reduction program is an indictment of the U.S. media, which refuse to report the existence of the program because it spoils the preferred narrative of “Bush as Kyoto villain.” Otherwise, the methane program is an optimistic sign. President Bush must believe artificial global warming is a real danger or he wouldn’t have a methane reduction program. The president must also believe that America can lead the world in fixing the greenhouse effect problem, or he wouldn’t have put the United States at the forefront of methane control. With two and a half years remaining in office, President Bush has ample time in which he could speak to history by starting the great project of global warming reform. Who better than a Republican oilman from Texas to propose the first binding controls on U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases? Any serious greenhouse gas program that President Bush proposes is likely to work faster than expected and be cheaper than expected.

Easterbrook has a healthy section of evidence of global warming at the end of the document.  However, I see lots of evidence of naturally occurring climactic change in the evidence and there’s no real feel for how much humans have affected the process. 

But he points out that not doing anything when there’s some evidence of human tampering is like putting a single bullet in a 6 shooter, spinning the chamber and trying to decide whether to legislate putting the gun to our heads or not.  Worth a read.

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