Archive for December 8th, 2009

Copenhagen Dreaming

As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to begin negotiation on a successor treaty to the 1992 Climate Change Convention and subsequent Kyoto Protocol, I am optimistic that the corner may have been turned and the world can act in time to have a chance to mitigate the worst dangers associated with global warming.

Last October I gave a pessimistic view of what the future will be like, given the dangers of climate change.   That still stands.   Yet as the US moves to more aggressively combat CO2 pollution, and the EU proves that cutting emissions does not hurt the economy — indeed, it seems to help as it yields new types of research and development — I believe our chances of avoiding the worst future scenarios are improving.

First, a few things that need to be made clear.   There is very little controversy about the fact that the earth is warming, and warming in correlation with a rise of CO2 levels.   That is obvious.   Moreover, despite efforts by some to make a minor e-mail scandal at one university involving just a few scientists out to be something big, it’s not.   Nothing in that “scandal” calls into doubt the overwhelming evidence that global climate change is happening, and that humans are likely involved.   In fact, it takes an ignorance of science to think that it could — most of the evidence has nothing to do with the three or four people involved there.   Finally, it is also true that there are alternative theories about why the earth is warming, and many believe that the correlation with the increase in CO2 may be due to other factors, and point out that the climate science is full of uncertainties.

If you get past the politics-induced views on all sides of the issue, the question splits in two.   First, is climate change occurring?   The answer: Yes, with about as much certainty as possible in this field.    Second, are humans to blame?   The answer: it is very probable that humans are a significant portion of the cause.  It is possible that humans are not a major cause.

We can quibble, but those questions seem pretty settled by science (recognizing that settled science does sometimes change — we no longer think that light waves flow through an invisible ether, for instance).   The harder question has always been “what should we do about it?”    There, I think, the answer is coming into view.

First, libertarians, skeptical of big government, are right to be cynical about the ability to have government action and agreements regulate us out of the crisis.    The emphasis many on the left put on Kyoto or hopes for a new Copenhagen treaty ignores the limits of international law, and bureaucratic costs of regulation.   Indeed, because so many are focused on arguing against the science rather than the policy, this skepticism of regulation as the solution has been understated.   The skeptics lose the debate about science, but if the debate is about policy they could win some major points.

Second, fears about the economic consequences of limiting CO2 emissions appear misplaced.   It does not cost jobs nor does not hurt the economy to cut emissions.   In fact, if done right it can yield economic gains and ultimately will render us less susceptible to another energy crisis caused by our oil addiction.    (One of the most vociferous blogs against climate change action has an author who boosts about the junkets he gets from oil companies — hmmmm, no propaganda there, right?)

The EU’s success with the Kyoto targets along with the Obama administration’s willing to use climate change as a way to jump start the economy with new technological initiatives makes me think that we may be very near the day when the developed world stabilizes it’s CO2 emissions and undertakes a rational energy strategy to overcome dependence on oil.   This would address two real threats: declining oil production and climate change.

Once business comes on board recognizing that this is not only good for the earth, but also good for business, we’ll see a sea-change in attitudes about issues such as “cap and trade.”    Government regulations will not have to be overly bureaucratic and tightly enforced, but can be guidelines usually self-enforced.   That’s happened in most of Europe; I think once Obama gets past his early rough patch (every new President has one — though Bush the Younger’s was shortened thanks to the terror attack), this will take hold in the US.

Yet that’s not the hard part.   Right now we’re at about 380 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.   Scientists seem to think that 350 is the last “safe” number, and to get there we have to decrease the amount in the atmosphere.    The target now is generally to allow us to reach 450 ppm, giving us a 50-50 chance to avoid the most dire scenarios.   The increase to 450 will not come from the developed world, but the developing world as it continues industrialization.   China, India and especially Asian emerging markets will drive the increase.

Herein lies the real challenge.   Assuming the developed world does continue its shift to a sustainable output, how can we demand the developing world, where even with economic growth material conditions lage still far behind the West, cease increasing their output?   The only feasible way is through technology transfers, but that involves tricky questions of how they get paid for, if there are patent protections involved, and the potential to give developing countries an unfair advantages on the world markets.    It seems, though, that these are problems that can be dealt with, especially as western energy companies, creating real alternatives to oil, start having an interest in engaging new markets.

Since none of this requires any major level of heavy handed regulation, it could well be that leaders in Copenhagen could work on a process that does not require an actual treaty.   Treaties have the status of law, and in the US 1/3 of the Senate plus one — 34 Senators — can block a treaty.   Given the industrial lobby against regulation, it would be hard to get 67 votes for a significant treaty.   A mix of regulations, global commitments to collaborate and work pragmatically on goals to reduce emissions, create incentives for alternate energy, and handle concerns about technology transfers could be done without an actual treaty.   If they do get a treaty, it could be one palatable to the Senate.

Unfortunately, so many on the “left” have defined success in terms of getting a tough treaty out of Copenhagen that it might be hard to embrace a “soft” approach of incentives and a shift in business culture.   This will also never convince the died in the wool skeptics, many who embrace patently false claims like “the world has been cooling since 1998” and treat this issue as a political football.   They know the result they want, and will make any argument or push any “meme” that advances that goal.   For them, truth is irrelevant, power is what matters.    It will also never be enough for those who want to latch global wealth redistribution onto the climate change issue and use fear of global crisis to address other political goals.

But for those who really are concerned about the future of the planet, want to see CO2 emissions decreased, and hope to cut our dependence on foreign oil, this may be the right approach.   And so, with all due caveats in place, I’m cautiously optimistic — really for the first time in years — that we are on the right path.