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.

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on December 9, 2009 - 17:03

    While I have no problem with reduction in CO2 output, I think the correlation between CO2 and a warming climate are a bit misconstrued. From the documents I have seen in the past it is the warming that preceeds the CO2 increases, in a majority of the cases anyways. There is some flip flop variations in those measurements.

    I am skeptical of a lot of the science, mostly in their conclusions concerning man’s effect, and the supposed tough policies needed to escape the “dire consequences”. On the policy side of things, I see two major concepts here. One is government intervention, in the form of mandates, etc, which often have the right intentions in theory, but in practice are often useless in desired effects, nevermind any unintended consequences that may accompnay them.

    You say Europe has managed to do things without flubbing thier economics too badly, but the U.S. has often not managed to do this with policy. The more policy they initiate here in the U.S. often comes with inflated costs at almost all levels.

    Secondly, when it comes to environmentalists, it seems the more radical ones pursue the harshest of policies, and market them according to the cause of the day, even if managing such new scenarios conflicts with their interests of yesterday. I often find them to be high-minded self serving individuals more interested in the power of shaping national policies than actually doing anything else that might be productive in the real world. Even a Greenpeace cofounder was exiled from the group because he wasn’t radical enough for those who had begun to make a name for themselves. Which in and of itself, I think is often more their mission…to make a name for themselves. Call it egomania, if you will

    While theorists have an important role in society, and always will, it is often teh theorists who work to push their agendas on others, and many will do whatever it takes, including violate their own message to get it across.

    I have no problem with taking care of our environment, but I think when changing the landscape of practices, we should make sure to do it the right way, not just anyway that gets lobbied harder, but may be just as bad or worse than the so called problem activities.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on December 9, 2009 - 21:52

      When I was teaching around 2000 I had a skeptical take on global warming and Kyoto — and whether anything we can do now will really make a difference. Two or three science majors — and superb students overall — took me to task on that, saying I was wrong and needed to better learn the science if I was going to bring that issue up in class. (Our students are delightfully willing to challenge “authority”). So they gave me stuff to read, I talked with the professors (at least one an active Republican) and became convinced that the evidence is extremely powerful and strong.

      They also made the point that even if there was only a 10% chance the science was right, are we really willing to risk catastrophe? We pay a lot for insurance on much smaller risks.

      So I came around to the side that says something should be done, it’s only prudent. That said, prudence rather than radical agendas and theories is my approach. That’s what I tried to stress in my approach — we can’t regulate our way to a better world, but we can try to find ways to make it in our interests to do things differently.

  2. #3 by renaissanceguy on December 9, 2009 - 20:59

    What Mike said, including the part about reducing pollution and cleaning up the environment. I would add that the United States has done a good, perhaps not excellent, job of doing that for about 30 years now.

    I would also add that if the climate change alarmists really beleived what they said, they would put their money where their mouth is. That is, they would not be adding tons of CO2 to the atmosphere by having this enormous conference in Copenhagen (on top of all the other conferences they like to have). They would not fly around in private jets, as many of them do. THey would not consume more energy in their homes than the average person. In other words, I’ll believe it when I see them reacting as though it is true.

    In the meantime, this private peon will continue to live his life as usual, leaving a medium-sized carbon footprint.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on December 9, 2009 - 21:12

      The ‘enormous’ conference in Copenhagen does nothing to alter the general nature of CO2 in the atmosphere. That isn’t really a fair criticism, it’s more the gotcha kind of game where someone says “if that wealthy person really cares about the poor he’d give a lot more to charity.” We shouldn’t be doing ad hominems on an issue like this, but look at the science and policy implications. Argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy.

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