Saturday, April 25, 2009



I'm sure I have given you the impression that I am fairly inflexible when it comes to the science behind global warming. Well, I am. But once you have been convinced as to the soundness of the science, what then? I have a major problem with policy makers like Senator Inhofe who try to prevent action to solve a problem by denying the problem even exists. To me, this gives advocates of extreme measures an enormous advantage, since most of the opposition is spending its time wearing itself out fighting a battle which has already been lost - thus rendering themselves impotent when it comes time to craft a solution.

A few years ago I read (and saved) a rather obscure article from the Washington Post by Robert Samuelson entitled "Global Warming's Real Inconvenient Truth". You might want to take a look. From the article:

"The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it's really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don't solve the engineering problem, we're helpless."

This morning's NYT featured an op-ed by Bjorn Lomberg, "Don’t Waste Time Cutting Emissions", which offers a fairly stark and accessible criticism of the strategies currently on the table to mitigate the effects of global warming. One proviso: Bjorn Lomborg has a degree in political science and virtually no credentials as an environmental scientist. His works have been widely panned by academics since, when writing about the effects of global warming he routinely demonstrates a disregard for scientific accuracy - up to and including the actual fabrication of facts. For this reason, he is not the kind of person I would ordinarily cite as an authority in the global warming debate. ...More's the pity, because amateurs like Lomborg represent the only worthwhile opposition to unilateral "cap and trade" proposals being debated in this country today. From the Lomborg piece:

"WE are often told that tackling global warming should be the defining task of our age — that we must cut emissions immediately and drastically. But people are not buying the idea that, unless we act, the planet is doomed. Several recent polls have revealed Americans’ growing skepticism. Solving global warming has become their lowest policy priority, according to a new Pew survey.

Moreover, strategies to reduce carbon have failed. Meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, politicians from wealthy countries promised to cut emissions by 2000, but did no such thing. In Kyoto in 1997, leaders promised even stricter reductions by 2010, yet emissions have kept increasing unabated. Still, the leaders plan to meet in Copenhagen this December to agree to even more of the same — drastic reductions in emissions that no one will live up to. Another decade will be wasted...

...Kyoto-style emissions cuts can only ever be an expensive distraction from the real business of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. The fact is, carbon remains the only way for developing countries to work their way out of poverty. Coal burning provides half of the world’s electricity, and fully 80 percent of it in China and India, where laborers now enjoy a quality of life that their parents could barely imagine.

No green energy source is inexpensive enough to replace coal now. Given substantially more research, however, green energy could be cheaper than fossil fuels by mid-century. Sadly, the old-style agreement planned for Copenhagen this December will have a negligible effect on temperatures. This renders meaningless any declarations of “success” that might be made after the conference. We must challenge the orthodoxy of Kyoto and create a smarter, more realistic strategy."

Now before I go too far overboard - I should point out that in the article Lomborg makes a characteristically ham-handed claim: "Economic estimates that assign value to the long-term benefits that would come from reducing warming — things like fewer deaths from heat and less flooding — show that every dollar invested in quickly making low-carbon energy cheaper can do $16 worth of good. If the Kyoto agreement were fully obeyed through 2099, it would cut temperatures by only 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Each dollar would do only about 30 cents worth of good." And this is just plain false. Lomborg's calculations are based on a distortion of both the science and economics of the issue. Generally, his calculations are based on unrealistically low estimates of global warming's negative impacts and assign (again, unrealistically) greater values to current assets in relation to future ones.

Still, Lomborg does make a good point - which echos in the Samuelson article I cited earlier, and one with which I fear you will agree. Here, from out of the blue, is a parallel: It's all well and good to say a man should grow corn rather than poppies, but you aren't going to stop the heroin trade in Afghanistan until you provide farmers there with an economically viable alternative.

Much as I hate to admit it, the global economics of fossil fuel are stacking the deck against any program to diminish the human contribution to global warming. You can tell a man that paying triple the cost per kilowatt will make things much easier for his great grandchildren, but this probably won't do any good if the man is starving in the first place. And, if government is actually going to make any progress, it should be concern itself with finding a solution to the technology problem first.


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