Archive for category Climate Change

Europe’s Bright Future?

Old myths die hard, and for a long time after the fall of Communism many thought that the US with low taxes, small social welfare system and de-regulated economy was a vision for a better future.   Europe with high taxes and expensive social welfare systems was seen as being out of touch with economic reality.   The argument that seduced both the left and right was that the market gets it right, and that the state should stay out as much as possible.

Though the economic crash of 2008 has shown glaring holes in that argument, many people still criticize President Obama for allegedly trying to bring “European socialism” to the US.   The term socialism is used their loosely — fiercely anti-socialist European conservatives tend to get called “socialist” by some Americans, simply because they believe in having a national health care system and a strong social safety net.   But while Europe-bashing remains popular for many on the right, the reality is that Europe is in the midst of a transformation that suggests a very bright future.

Consider:  since 1999 Europe has created 14 million jobs.   The US has created 8 million.   Europe has gotten ahead of the US in many innovative technologies, including green technologies Europeans forced themselves to produce when they vowed to meet (and did meet) the Kyoto accord goals.   I’ve even seen people claim that the Kyoto agreement was a European effort to slow down the US economy by stifling it with regulations.   The reality is that the US neither signed nor met the Kyoto goals, Europe did meet them, and Europe has produced more jobs.    Kyoto has turned out to be a net plus for the European economy.   That myth — that action to fight global warming will hurt the economy — has been debunked.

Europe also leads in the regulation of toxic chemicals in food, skin products and packaging.   In the US an ideology of deregulation alongside the power of the chemical industry has made it extremely difficult to limit the use of toxins in all aspects of our life.    If you want to read a sobering analysis of what this all means, click here and order this book by McKay Jenkins.   My wife and I read it and have started a massive project of changing how we care for our lawn, clean our house, and feed our family.    It’s not that there is proof all of this will harm us, but a lot of evidence suggesting the likelihood that problems such as cancer and increased autism rates can be linked to the chemicals that have become a daily part of our lives.

What does this have to do with Europe?   The Europeans have put regulations on many of these chemicals protect their citizens from possible harm.   They recognize the market can’t really handle this because information about the impact of chemicals is hard to get and most people don’t understand the science.  The US has rejected such regulation, reflecting the power big business holds in the US regulatory scheme of things.   In that sense the US looks more like a third world country, willing to expose its citizens to harm in order not to anger big money.    The good news is that most European products sold in the US follow EU guidelines so if you buy European produced skin products you too can be protected by EU regulations.

Military spending is another area where the Europeans are criticized.  Earlier this week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates chided the Europeans for continuing to cut defense spending.   European defense spending has been declining dramatically in the last decade, even as conflicts rage throughout the Mideast.   This threatens to make NATO irrelevant, as the US will see no reason to spend its resources to protect a Europe unwilling to spend theirs.    Gates may well be right — perhaps it is time to brush NATO aside and for the US to devote less emphasis on Europe.  The Obama Administration has been more overtly focused on Asia and the Mideast than on Europe, a clear shift in US priorities.

But is this bad for Europe?  If you’ve got the aspirations of French President Sarkozy, who pushed for the Libyan intervention and now is calling out for action in Syria, yes.   If you have global ambitions without the resources to follow through, then it sets up failure.    On the other hand, what exactly does Europe need to defend itself from?   War with Russia or China is virtually unthinkable, terrorism can’t be stopped by a large military force, and despite Mideast turmoil it’s not like the Arab world is going to launch an invasion of southern Europe.   Moreover, European armies are very well equipped and trained — they are far behind the US, but ahead of the rest of the world.  If a threat started to rise, they could respond and rebuild their armed forces quickly.   The danger of having too big a military is that one gets tempted to use it in cases where its not necessary.  That can be costly.

Meanwhile, despite the recession, southern Italy shows signs of economic life as they seek to shift towards new technologies and undo decades of stagnation.  East European economies have recovered from Communism and show real productive potential — a few are even in the Eurozone already.    Europe’s emphasis on alternatives to fossil fuel is making them less vulnerable to oil shocks, and deals with Russia and China connect them to new global markets.

So while Euro-bashing may be popular in some circles (often with wildly absurd claims like ‘the Muslims are taking over!’), an economic shift of power from the US back to Europe may be undereway.  While the US still maintains a kind of rivalry with China and Russia, the EU is promoting deeper connections.    Like us, they have problems to over come.   They need to reform their social welfare systems to reflect demographic change as well as find a way to help problem countries over come difficult economic conditions.   They have to cut budgets and continue to balance common EU policies with decentralization of power in terms of local affairs.

Finally, contrary to what US pundits often say, Europe isn’t dominated by leftists.   Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy all have conservative governments.   Rather, both left and right in Europe have taken pragmatic turns since the ideological clashes of the Cold War era.    This pragmatism yields public debate in Europe that is refreshingly common sensical in comparison to the ideological bombs hurled by the left and right in the US.    I think what makes me most bullish on Europe is the sense of realism that both the left and right show.    For the most part they agree about what the problems are, and want evidence based solutions.

Don’t get me wrong — I think the US can bounce back, I don’t think our best days are yet over.   But don’t buy it when the pundits dismiss or belittle Europe.

18 Comments

Uncharted Territory

We live in an exciting era, one of vast cultural change, political transformation, and economic turmoil.   Yet as we near 2011, it feels different, as if we’re entering territory even more uncharted, confusing, and dangerous than in the past.  Even as technology soars and it seems that daily life remains wired (or Wifi) and normal, the list of uncertainties is large.

1.  Oil.   As I noted, we are emerging from the oil century, where very cheap energy allowed a massive increase in production and enhanced mobility.  The IEA believes oil production peaked in 2006, meaning we could be facing tremendous increases in oil prices soon, especially if the economy perks back up.  Even in recession oil is inching back towards $100 a barrel.  What will a perpetual oil crisis look like?  How will the world respond, and how different will the reactions be on different parts of the planet?

2.  Dollars.  The tremendous growth of public and private debt in the US threaten the role of the dollar as the main global reserve currency.  Already shifts towards Euros and Yen are taking place, with the dollar helped by the fact those other currencies have their own problems.   Gold has increased in value, and unless there is some sign that the US can both decrease debt and reduce its current account deficit, it’s only a matter of time before the dollar loses significant value.    That may not be a bad thing, if it’s a moderate loss of value.    In a worst case scenario, it could be hyperinflation.  Of course, Japan has gone into tremendous debt and its suffering deflation.  That’s a possibility too!

3.  Climate Change.   The propaganda war waged by big business in the US has made skepticism of global climate change the norm, but world wide scientists are convinced it’s happening, and we’ve already seen examples.   Weather has gotten more extreme and dangerous, and this is likely to continue.  What will that do to the world economy, to political stability, and world food supplies?   Again, estimates range from complete havoc to relatively minor adjustments.   And it’s not just heat, but extreme cold and harsh winter weather can be an outcome of climate change.

4. Terrorism.   It never warranted the fear that overtook the population after 9-11, but it’s also more dangerous than the apathy the issue of terrorism evokes now.   The most dangerous type of attack would be one that hits oil supplies, but the possibility of nuclear terror as well as simply high profile attacks is real.   There are also home grown radical groups that could strike, it’s not just Islamic or third world terror that is a threat.   Except for terrorism that hits oil supplies, most scenarios suggest limited and minor physical destruction in any terror attack.  Even nuclear terror would be contained to a relatively small area.   Yet the cultural, economic and psychological ramifications could be tremendous.  Terrorism is most effective when it causes the victim of the attack to engage in self-destructive behaviors, something that we experienced after 9-11 as we got involved in a war in Iraq which weakened us, and we opened up the spigots of cheap credit which helped bring about the economic crisis.   What we do in response to terrorism is potentially more dangerous than the attack itself.

5.   Global depression.  Beyond concerns about the dollar noted above, the world economy could remain enmeshed in a global depression driven by high debt levels across the industrialized world, higher energy costs, and no clear engine of growth to pull us forward.   If this persists, crises and war would become more likely in the third world, while the first world would experience growing unrest and instability.

6.  Political jihad.   At a time when our problems are greatest, our politicians seem inept.   To be sure, President Obama does seem willing to try to work with Republicans and look for common ground to solve problems, but in both the GOP and the Democratic party strong forces want to simply fight war with the other side.   At some level this is OK — feverish rhetoric and political theater are the norm, so long as at the end of the day the two sides recognize that they have to do something to address the problems, even if it doesn’t fit their ideological druthers.   Too often, though, deluding themselves that standing in “principle” means never compromising, democracy gets sabotaged by extremists.   The rhetoric on the right seems more poisonous, as talk radio and Fox News skew coverage in a way that to me is clearly propagandistic.  MSNBC does so on the left, but without as much efficacy.   Right now, it’s still more spectacle than reality, but we’re close to a line where democracy could become dysfunctional if people start seeing the other side as evil, un-American or akin to traitors.    This would be a bad time for that to happen.

7.  Regional conflicts.   Tensions in Korea, the Mideast, Iran, and elsewhere could create a crisis that could have disastrous ramifications.   Given the other problems we face, we’d be best advised not to meddle in other peoples’ conflicts.  Unfortunately, the US like any great power has a hard time reconciling a loss of power with a need to reduce commitments.  We have to rebalance our commitments with our capabilities to avoid getting dragged into something very dangerous and self-defeating.

All that said, the future isn’t necessary going to be suffering and pain!   Technology is growing by leaps and bounds, and the globalization that makes us vulnerable to China’s choice of what to hold as a reserve currency also makes China vulnerable to any impact a US economic collapse would have on world markets.   We’re in this together, and as long as leaders can see that, they can avoid taking the path of fear and scapegoating.

In Europe the EU is a shining example of how cooperation and recognition of mutual self-interest yields results far superior to the myopic self-interest of the first half of the 20th Century.   They’ve also been quietly positioning themselves for effective reaction to both environmental and energy crises.   If they can make subsidiarity real, and recognize that new technologies mean more power can be devolved back to individuals and localities, and not centralized in Brussles or even state governments, they can model a new kind of political organization, one that might suggest a successor to the increasingly obsolete sovereign state.

If worst case scenarios are avoided, and cooperative innovation embraced, we can chart a future in which we overcome these challenges.  The key is to let go of past ways of thinking about the world, and recognize that we’re entering a new era where a new kind of thinking about politics, self-interest, and human values is necessary.   Are we up to that challenge?  Can the US play a leading role, or will we try to hold on to old ideals, kicking and screaming as reality brushes aside the old order?  I guess that’s up to us.

18 Comments

Europe’s Century?

Now a days its trendy to be skeptical of the long term future of the EU or the Euro.  A crisis in Greece followed by a crisis in Ireland, whispers about possible financial contagion to Spain, Portugal and possibly Italy, and it appears the Euro is wobbling.   Alarmist (and wrong headed) squeals about “Eurarabia” and the spread of Islam, demographic trends that show an aging European society, and soon gloom and doomsayers are pronouncing Europe all be done for.    Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some of these doomsayers are the usual suspects wanting Europe to fail.   British Euroskeptics have been seeing conspiracies and catastrophes for decades, and many on the American right have been predicting that the “welfare state” mentality in Europe will doom it.    During the heady real estate bubble, Americans gloated that we had found the secret to long term economic growth — deregulation and limited government — and that the rapidly growing low unemployment economy of the 00’s was proof.

In fact, Eurocritics have gotten so used to assuming that Europe was in decline and America remained the indispensable power that despite the recent financial collapse and US debacle in Iraq, many cling to that illusion.   The reality is that not only is Europe not only still viable, but it may be on the verge of returning to the role as the leading world region.  The 21st century may be Europe’s century.

There are two primary reasons why Europe has positioned itself well for the next century: 1) a realistic understanding of the problems they face; and 2) a principled approach to globalization at moves away from myopic self-interest.

The issue of global climate change is one where these two come together and have already yielded substantial benefits for EU states.  First, unlike in the US, the discussion about climate change has not been hijacked by a well funded propaganda machine designed to denigrate, belittle and attack those wanting to take action.   Rather, the climate change scientists are being listened to, the evidence assessed, and they recognize that while there is always uncertainty, the risks are so great and the evidence so substantial that it would be irrational to do nothing, or wish the problem away.

In the US, unfortunately, the issue has become ideological, with many people equating support for action on global warming as a “left wing socialist agenda.”   Scientists are accused of graft, supposedly cooking data in exchange for government grants.   Emotive attacks and derision, repeated on a variety of media fronts, have moved the US public away from an honest consideration of the science to emotion over the politics of the issue.

In 1992 at the Rio Summit, the Climate Change Convention was signed, pledging that developed states would reduce their carbon emissions to 1990 levels.  The process was further refined by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to that agreement, which went into force in 2005.   The US refused to participate.  The result:  The EU achieved the desired result, reducing emissions to below 1990 levels.    To be sure, the fact that the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall was chosen helped, but nonetheless the rise in technology and the effectiveness of the effort to reduce emissions is astounding.  It also provides proof that this can be done without hurting the economy.

In fact, by sticking to realism (and principle) the EU has positioned itself for a major economic advantage in the fields of alternate energy and anti-pollution technology.   These are the fields most likely to radically increase in demand in the coming decades, especially as China tries to switch towards alternative fuels and cleaner burning of coal.  EU companies are at the forefront of this new technology, and will likely profit handsomely from the Chinese market alone.

Meanwhile in the US, not only have carbon emissions increased by 20% since 1990, but we’re only now starting to pick up the pace again on alternative energy.   With the EU pushing for a decrease of 30% of carbon emissions by 2020 (regardless of what others do), and governments very involved in supporting R&D, the chances are very good that the EU will maintain and even expand its lead in this important market.

That’s another point of realism: not letting ideology guide policy.    Many Americans are still enamored with the idea of “the free market does things right,” a now rather discredited ideology given the costs of not regulating the financial sector (see Greenspan’s confession).   Still, it’s a seductive and simple ideology, and speaks to traditional American dislike of government rules and bureaucracy.    The problem, of course, is that markets respond to demand now, based on current conditions.   Humans have the capacity to study and understand trends for the future, including the likelihood of increased oil prices and the danger of another energy crisis.

The Europeans recognize that, and work with markets (not against them) to prepare for a different kind of future.   The market won’t do this on its own, at least not at a pace that will give the EU a comparative advantage when the change comes.   A pragmatic embrace of a government efforts to adjust the market now will likely pay large dividends.

On issues of human rights and efforts to support development, the EU has a mixed, but generally solid record.   On environmental issues, the EU is a clear leader.  The core principle, inherent in the EU shift away from myopic sovereign self-interest, is that working together we can solve problems and create a more just, safe and sustainable world.  This embraces a role for global governance, as states and regions can reach agreement and cooperate to solve problems.

The problem in the US is delusional thinking combined with heavily funded political propaganda which manipulates public opinion to serve the interests of a moneyed elite.   They use very seductive ideas (the market can do it, government is bad, there is no need to worry about global warming, if you cut taxes problems will be solved, it’s all the government’s fault, etc.) to sell a “something for nothing” solution to our difficulties.   Cut taxes, cut government regulations, and everything will fix itself!  OK, that oversimplifies, but we have a public increasingly out of touch with reality, driven either by ideology or apathy.   Americans generally don’t realize how far and fast we’re falling behind.

The result is that slowly the US is fading as a world power.   China is rising, but given the intense problems China faces, including political instability (800 million still live in poverty) and oil price increases, the EU is in a unique position to be a bridge between civilizations, reflecting a core value in cross border cooperation and putting sovereignty aside for the greater good.   Muslims in Europe are modernizing, and can play a role in helping defeat extremist thinking in the Arab world.    The EU also has a generally good reputation internationally, while the US is seen as being militaristic, nationalist and arrogant.  This will also work in Europe’s failure.

The US can turn around this trend, but we first need to move away from myopic self-interest, we have to recognize that sovereignty in the age of globalization means we have to cooperate and be willing to build and participate in international law, and we have to reject simplistic ideology and emotive politicization of issues.   We can do this, but will we?

3 Comments

Obama an Historic Leader?

Something is happening that is going under a lot of people’s radar.   Barack Obama is slowly showing himself to be one of the most effective Presidents in recent history, with a style likely to go down in history.   Remember: you heard it here first.

It doesn’t seem that way when you read the newspapers now.   The conservative press is falling over itself trying to sell a narrative to the public that Obama is ineffective.    As such, they may be fooling themselves into missing what should give them pause:  Obama is making changes that cannot be easily undone, and setting himself up for ongoing success.  His Presidency may end up more successful than even his campaign.

Since that doesn’t seem to be a common view right now — the left is sour that change hasn’t gone fast and far enough, and the right is pointing to low approval ratings and fantasizing about big gains in 2010.   But consider the issues that have dominated this year:

1.   A major economic stimulus of a size and proportion that has not been seen outside of war time.   This package saved states from insolvency, and probably will lead to a spurt of economic growth that will serve the President well come 2012.  Along with the repercussions from the unpopular bailouts, it also has re-defined the government’s role in the economy.    Who would have thought that the Executive Branch could demand lower pay for big financial executives?   That aspect won’t last, and banks are quickly paying the government back (which will also be good political news for Obama) to regain control, but as a whole the political economy will never be the same.

2.   Health care reform.   In the Democratic primary Clinton and Obama fell all over themselves in promising comprehensive and significant change.   Of course, that was never realistic.   Congress must pass health care reform, and those with a vested interest in the status quo have massive power and lobbying clout.   President Clinton was surprised by the blowback from his 1993-4 effort, and when it collapsed in defeat one got the sense that the President called his staff to the oval office and said “let us never speak of this again.”   Health care reform was dead.

It could still fall apart in the next week, but Obama seems to have cajoled and guided from afar a Congressional compromise that gets the most signficant reform possible to pass.  To those on the left who agree with Howard Dean that this is a farce and a gift to big health business, I’d say — yes, that’s how it appears now.   Those groups have so much power that you will NEVER ram anything through that will significantly undermine them.   Never.   Big money dominates in both parties, and corporations run America far more than bureaucracies.    Politics is the art of the possible.   But unlike Clinton, Obama kept the issue alive.   He likely will get reform.   And incrementally he can tweak the system, or when a crisis comes up take a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy to the various interest groups.   They might unite to defeat a big infrastructure change, but if he can lure them into accepting one they see as “not so bad,” he can later focus on one big interest group at a time.   It may take years, even beyond his administration, but Obama could be laying the framework for the most fundamental change in American politics since the new deal.    It looks like he’ll pull it off, persisting despite attacks from the right and left.   It’s pragmatic, persistent, Machiavellian, and the kind of leadership the Democrats haven’t had for a long time.

3.   Climate Change.   First the drama — the talks are falling apart in Copenhagen, and Obama flies in, holds late night meetings, and saves the conference with a “meaningful deal.”     Environmental groups are upset the deal doesn’t go far enough, and the right is relieved that it’s mostly a deal in principle.    But besides emerging with his reputation enhanced, Obama has kept the issue alive, able again to be built upon step by step.   Remember, the Senate in principle voted 95-5 against a climate change treaty back during the Clinton years.   This is another issue where strong, powerful interests and a massive well funded right wing disinformation strategy is attacking those wanting to aggressively cut CO2 emissions.   If the talks had failed completely, Obama would see this issue become mission impossible — he could have still talked a good game, but it would have gotten much harder to make anything happen.

The incremental approach is also seen in the recent EPA announcement that increased CO2 emissions is a health hazard, giving the EPA the capacity to regulate it.   That is just a first step — if it went too far and tried to impose harsh regulations right away, there would be a massive push back from Congress, and Obama would lose.   Now he can slowly coordinate global agreements and slight changes in US regulations, perhaps cajoling Congress to make its own regulations to make sure the EPA doesn’t go “too far.”   In any event, this issue has more landmines in the American political landscape than health care, yet Obama is shepherding in the only kind of change possible: gradual, incremental, and yet potentially foundational.

4.  Foreign Policy.   Obama sent a clear signal to the Pentagon and foreign policy establishment that he was not a push over.   They tried to send him a range of plans for an open ended mission on Afghanistan.   He rejected it, and ignored pressure to make his decision faster, even as the former Vice President said he was “dithering.”  He didn’t let that hurry his pace until he was satisfied with his decision.   He also didn’t go the easy route and appease the  left in his own party by simply removing the troops and dramatically redefining the mission.   Even as we continue apace to leave Iraq, Obama is setting lup a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On top of that, he’s undertaking new initiatives everywhere from the Mideast to our relationships with China and Russia, redesigning foreign policy gradually, but so far with impressive results.   He didn’t let the anticipated political backlash stop him from canceling a missile defense shield set for Poland and the Czech Republic.    He has signaled that the US is not going to provide defense for the world, and will work on more equal grounds with the EU, Russia and China.   On economic issues this has paid off — China has done things that made the economy in the US less in peril.  Russia has signaled new possibilities on START.   More importantly, there is a sense that all powers want to try to bring stability to troubled regions, a true multilateralism.

Seriously, step back and think about it.   A massive stimulus package with profound implications, a major health care reform act (still unfinished — if it fails this whole analysis is weakened), and small progress on climate change, but in a way that keeps the issue alive.   He’s embraced a foreign policy moving away from the kind of arrogant self-importance of the past to one that is cooperative and yet principled.    Issues that stymied Clinton, other Presidents and Democratic leaders, are being pushed effectively by Obama.

Those who thought Obama meant quick change are disappointed.   But as a political scientist, I find myself pleasantly surprised by his pragmatism, efficacy, and recognition that politics is not about short term “wins,” but long term change.    That gives me a real sense of optimism moving forward — more optimism now than in December 2008, even though the country as a whole was more optimistic about Obama at that point.   He’s accomplished a lot on issues that usually halt Democrats dead in their tracks.   And he’s slogging forward.   But if you’re one of those on the left disappointed in Obama so far, or on the right convinced that he’s already failed, you may want to withhold judgment a little longer.

15 Comments

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.

4 Comments

Global Climate Crisis

Right now about 41% of the planet is suffering drought, an increase of about 10-15% since 1990.  Given current trends in global climate change, the UN is warning that up to 70% of the planet could be in drought by 2025, potentially creating a global crisis of unprecedented proportions.   So what does this mean?

First, let’s be clear on one thing.   The earth is warming.   Click the following image: earth temperature.  Note that despite spiky results (e.g., 1997 was an especially hot year, leading to a huge spike and then drop, though now our ‘normal’ result is about at the level of that spike), there is consistent warming on average.   Note that this does not correspond to sun spots but corresponds almost exactly to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.   Here is a short video. Climate scientists are overwhelmingly convinced that global warming is real, and humans are a partial and probably major cause.   Those who dispute that are almost always driven by politics and ideology, not science.  Not that there aren’t scientific detractors — science can and should have doubters of major theories, including the big bang, evolution, and quantum physics.  For most, though, the science is as clear for this issue as it is for the link between cigarettes and lung cancer (which I’m sure also still has some doubters).    Nothing in science is ever absolutely proven.

While I hope the successor treaty to Kyoto, which will start being negotiated in Copenhagen in December, will include the US and a goal of lowering CO2 to 350 parts per million, the reality is that anything we do now is only going to have a significant impact decades from now.   I don’t think we can prevent the crisis, we can just try to mitigate it.    So while the fight to do something to fight climate change is worthwhile, this blog entry is focusing on what is likely to happen anyway, and what it means for us.

First, it is probable that we in the industrialized West will avoid the worst fates.  In South America, Africa and parts of Asia a mix of intense coastal weather and internal droughts could lead to extreme hunger and famine.   This will lead to wars, migration, and an increase in terrorism.   Future terrorism will likely expand to be general “poor vs. the rich” with economic targets.   That’s already happening on the Niger delta, as western oil companies are targeted to protest the way oil revenues go to the elites in Nigeria but aren’t shared with the people living where the oil is pumped.  They deal with intense poverty and environmental devastation.   This kind of conflict could expand, threatening supplies of minerals and other materials the West needs.

So how will this affect us in the West?  First, expect a significantly decreased standard of living.    Unrest in the third world will disrupt commodity markets and lead to a general global slow down.  Second, migratory pressures from South America to the US, and Africa to the EU, will lead the industrialized states to either have to open their borders and try to help as many people as possible, or to become something of a fortress, trying to protect what they have.   Almost nobody thinks the former option will be chosen.

So if the EU and the US become increasingly isolated and worried about migrations, the economic slowdown will lead to localization, energy shortages, and an increased need for self-sufficiency.    The US agricultural belt itself will produce less.   As people decide that the crisis is so severe that they need to change practices to try to turn around climate change, there will be a shift to more sustainable agricultural practices.   Meat will be limited in supply and more costly.   All this is  good for the long run, but will certainly end the “everything in the world you want at the local supermarket at affordable prices” era.     In the future we will have limited and seasonal choices.

Canada could potentially benefit from having greater cropland available, though depending on what happens with the ocean currents, it could be that Northeast US and Canada, as well as Western Europe, will get colder rather than warmer (or the warming may be mitigated).  Katrina like storms will be more numerous world wide, many coastal cities may find themselves losing large amounts of people, and be unable to rebuild afterwards due to a weakened economy.

The most dangerous effect we’ll experience is disease.  Global disease threats don’t respect borders, and while the bodies of third world folk may be more vulnerable due to malnutrition, that often doesn’t matter for severe diseases.   Ultimately the mix of disease, famine and war will yield a de-population of the planet.   That will dramatically reduce CO2 output, and a more livable climate may emerge (long after we’re dead).   Our children will dream less about traveling the planet than making sure they have supplies for the next year.  They’ll rediscover the skills of gardening, hunting, and practical repair work.   Communities will come closer together, realizing they have to cooperate to both survive, and to guard against those who would exploit the situation.

We’ll follow the news on the internet still, read about distant famines, and know that there is nothing we really can do to help.   There will be ideas and plans on how to save people, to use technology to mitigate the worst consequences, and explore different options.  Those with a profound faith in technology might think this will be enough to prevent the worst from happening.   Given the state of current technology, I think that would be a very optimistic faith to hold on to!   By 2100 the international system of sovereign states as we know it will cease to exist.  Some discrete borders will survive, but in the US and the EU politics will be localized as bureaucratic authority is decentralized, while in other areas all will be local.

A century from now people will likely look back at the 21st century as a constant crisis, with optimism that the lessons learned will allow them to build a sustainable future.  They’ll see the world wars and environmental degradation of the 200 years before as the result of a culture that was myopic, materialist, and disconnected from human ethics and the importance of maintaining the environment.  They’ll wonder why we lived as we do, thinking we were deluded and naive, caught up in a materialist fantasy.

For those who doubt global warming, or human involvement in it, the above may seem wild speculation.  I respect that.  But I ask you to investigate the science.   Ask if your disbelief is driven by politics and ideology, or by a cold, rational regard for the data.   Avoid partisan sites designed to debunk or push forward views on global warming.  Look for scientific sites and discussions.   I’ve seen neither Al Gore’s movie nor the “anti” responses.   Those are more political than scientific.  Look and consider the science.    If your disbelief is driven by a dislike of laws forcing companies to comply with regulations, separate that out from global warming.   One can believe it exists and that humans are a partial cause without wanting a big government solution.    What to do is a different question than “what is.”

Finally, now is the time I think all of us can start reconsidering how we live, what our values are, and how connected we are to our community.   We may need to get closer to our neighbors sooner than we realize, we may need to change our life styles and reconsider our values.    We may be at the end of the era of materialist decadence (for the industrialized West).   And, of course, we can be forgiven if we want to enjoy the material fruits of this lifestyle a little bit before it goes away.

I hope my speculation is either wrong or exaggerated.  For my children’s sake, I hope so!   But everything I read convinces me such a scenario is very possible.

2 Comments