What Do you Do After the (Climatic) Impossible Fails?

Here’s an interesting back and forth from the combox to ED’s post on climate change. (Found in comment thread #1).

Kyle writes:

I think – to some degree – you’re conflating two theories that don’t have the relationship you’re purporting them to have.

Theory 1 – climate change, Theory 2 – markets and fuel.

You’re right that economic principles will, at some point, force an increase in the price of certain fossil fuels as they become scarcer (a combination of supply and demand changes) and higher energy prices will result in behavioral changes for consumers and changes to the type and number of producers in energy markets. If we assume climate change to be exacerbated by man-made activity, it’s still entirely unclear that by the time fuel scarcity prompts a mitigating change in human caused carbon emissions, there will still be time and resources enough to either reverse the shift or dampen its effects on the biosphere.

Shorter, mother nature knows no free market, only her own rules and timetables. e.g. The Dust Bowl

ED responds:

The Dust Bowl is certainly a good cautionary tale of improper agricultural techniques. I’m not sure it lines up exactly with climate change, however. Just as it’s entirely uncertain that fuel scarcity will prompt a mitigating change in human caused carbon emissions, it’s also entirely uncertain that it won’t, and even more uncertain that cap and trade will do anything whatsoever to curb emissions or slow climate change especially so long as China and India remain out of play.   (my italics)

On ED’s  last point—i.e. cap and trade has to be implemented across the globe or we are in prisoner’s dilemma territory and likely China and India (and Brazil) won’t go for it–I agree (and so does Kyle).

But I don’t really understand what ED is saying in that portion I italicized.  I’ll loop back to this point in a second, but first I’ll start by putting my cards on the table and saying that (as a layman in this field) I basically accept the (so-named) consensus scientific opinion that 350 parts per million is an acceptable level of carbon in the atmosphere. Beyond that we are in danger territory.  That level was passed in 1990.

I’m open to debate on the degree of danger and the best way to deal with that danger while still taking into account the current reality of poverty and disease.  But even there I mostly hold that what should be done is what is being called for by say a climate action network group. (pdf)

I also know politically there is no way what they call for is ever going to happen.

e.g. (from page 3 of the pdf):

“Industrialized countries as a group must take a target of 40% reduction of CO2 by 1990 levels by 2020.”

This statement goes under the “ambitious” category of the threefold “fair, ambitious, and binding.”

In contrast, the Waxman-Markey House Bill and the Kerry-Boxer Senate Bill are calling for 17-20% reduction from 2005 levels.

That bill is going to have one helluva time passing the Senate.  But it’s not even close to what is needed, if we are to accept the policy proposal of the Climate Action Network (which again in rough outlines I do).

The “fair” part requires massive payments from industrialized countries to poorer countries as a kind of “tax” or “sin payment” or reparation for the cause of global warming.  Something the Europeans agreed to do, but got criticized for not doing enough of, which the US won’t do, and the Chinese (holding 2 trillion in reserves) want to receive payment for even while they have become the world’s biggest CO2 polluter.  2 down, 1 to go.

Binding is easy.  Absent an hones to God world government with the ability to enforce any nation-state to abide (probably at the barrel of a gun if it came to that), how is the binding ever going to happen?  Especially when the political waters are poisoned by things like reparation payments, countries that inevitably won’t reach their targets and will go unpenalized.

0 for 3 in other words.   And yet recall that I think these policies are absolutely vital and completely unachievable (politically).  That political impossibility is true I believe whether because countries have election time cycles (e.g. USA) where politicians achieve success through short-term thinking or whether the country’s absolutist hold on power only occurs because it has been creating an “economic miracle” (China) and anything that would disrupt that deal would cause the rather swift collapse of said ruling party.

Now for ED, the solution is a free-market (plus wise governmental policy) one.  While in some ways I wish I could be so optimistic, I’m not.   And I think there Kyle’s critique is on target, and not yet really answered (as far as I can tell) by ED’s response.

I don’t think it’s “it’s entirely uncertain that fuel scarcity will prompt a mitigating change in human caused carbon emissions, it’s also entirely uncertain that it won’t,”.

The carbon that is already in the atmosphere–again for 20 years already over the theorized (validly imo) limit–is not going to immediately dissipate just because oil markets go up and people stop driving their cars as much.  Nature works via feedback loops and in phases of non-equilibrium can go in all kinds of directions.

I support investment into advances in carbon sequestration, alternative fuels and infrastructure, ways to “climateproof” zones of the planet that will likely face the most severe consequences (especially since I live in Vancouver), but there’s still the question of de-carbonization.  Particularly after, as I believe is likely, the Copenhagen Conference will politically fail, given its own definition of success.

Even if markets help bring non-petroleum based energy for transportation, manufacturing, and the rest, how does this deal with the still existing and exacerbated problem of the carbon in the atmosphere?*

In other words, I think we find ourselves in the double bind where what is necessary is not politically viable.

Which leaves humans eventually headed I believe to the only other option that will be left:  geo-engineering.  Not exactly a fail-safe mechanism and one rife with all kinds of potential for negative blowbacks. [For a good piece on the subject, here via The Atlantic.]

In the meantime, I think the best way forward is to build for a post-carbon future on the local level, absent these (imo rather doomed) international treaty talks, but still this planetary level is left to be dealt with.  I think either geo-engineering will succeed or not (or fix some problems and cause others) and absent that reality, these localized communities will need to exist in order for life to continue beyond a potentially very likely crash (or crashing) scenario.

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11 thoughts on “What Do you Do After the (Climatic) Impossible Fails?

  1. Don’t let my girlfriend read your post or I might never spawn.

    Does anyone else simply feel an impending sense of doom when they realize that humanity isn’t going to even get close to fixing this problem while there is time. At this point I think the only we’ll get out of it is if someone suddenly invents a carbon free energy source that is drastically cheaper and shared with all other countries.

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  2. I don’t think at the current phase politically we are going to do what needs to be done. I think there are still other than at the current-time politic options. I admit they aren’t without danger, but I don’t think it’s doom and gloom all the way. I do think there will be consequences to our actions (in all directions).

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  3. This is a very gloomy though I can’t say inaccurate post Chris.
    Seriously though, a 40% reduction by 2020? Ten years??? And based on no actual significant publicly viewable disasters during that same 10 year period? Impossible! Utterly impossible! I mean maybe if tidal waves were washing Florida into the Caribbean or Lady Liberty was being fitted out for copper hip waders -maybe- people would consider cutting our carbon economy almost in half. That’s a lot more than unplugging your TV when you’re not using it.
    Paying a form of carbon reparations on top of that to the collective dictators, juntas and the occasional rare democracies that inhabit most of the third world to get them to get on board?
    Forget about it. Politically speaking the risen Christ himself could probably not get this thing passed through the halls of power. No elected politician would truly consider it (or keep their job if they did) and no autocrat would want to bother. Especially not the Chinese autocrats, they have billions of people to keep happy and employed.

    So we’re left hoping that the AGW crew is wrong. Or hoping that our technology chugs along and produces a solution to this problem as well… or a singularity I guess. If we’re all floating around in brain pods with titanium exoskeletons while our consciousnesses surf in the bliss of the interconnected cranial-net then we won’t be worried about AGW.

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    • Sometimes it feels like dealing with a risen Cthulhu would be easier than solving this problem. No wonder so many people don’t want it to be true.

      I hope the people I think are dead wrong are right.

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  4. What is the *REAL* issue? Treat it like an Engineering problem, right?

    If the problem is too much CO2 and that we are too dependent upon fuels that create more of it, then there are a number of solutions to that particular problem. Nuclear power provides a fairly decent example of a type of power plant that will generate energy without generating a whole lot of CO2.

    Would you say that it is, all things considered, fairly easy to get a nuclear power plant built to replace, say, a coal burning one or fairly difficult to do so? Would you say that the government is cutting red tape to get one built or creating more of it?

    If, at the end of the day, it comes out that an engineering solution to an engineering problem is being shouted down by the people who claim to care most about the problem… one may begin to wonder whether the issue that they are screaming about is the real issue.

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    • well with nuclear plants, they require massive governmental investment to get them going. At least I suppose absent a carbon tax or cap. Either way that doesn’t sound super-libertarian to my ears. As it stands now, no one in the private sector will put up the money for nuclear plants because the market (by externalizing carbon) is tilted against them.

      Nuclear power is also controversial within environmentalism itself of course with smart pro-environment people on both sides of the issue (e.g. Stewart Brand for, Amory Lovins I believe against).

      I just think at the end of the day a path of carbon cutting is not very politically viable. Not the kind of real heavy caps probably necessary. In the interim therefore I would be more for solving the problems we can (a la Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus) and investing big time in alternatives.

      I realize however that policy leaves humanity potentially open to a serious Super Black Swan event. ED’s original post quoted Mark Kleiman as favoring the precautionary principle. I guess my question with that is whether we “know what we don’t know” or whether we are facing an “unknown unknown” (i.e. The Super Black Swan).

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      • I’m not even talking about “libertarian” issues.

        I am stepping back and saying “what is the real issue?”

        If the real issue is that the production of energy entails the production of CO2, it is fair to ask whether there are alternative energy sources that generate energy without generating CO2.

        It seems that there are several that do and out of those several, there is only one that is as reliable as, say, a coal plant when it comes to such things as the difference between peak and non-peak output.

        Is the government making it easier to make these plants or more difficult?

        Are the people screaming loudest about the problem pushing to get rid of the red tape or, quite the contrary, asking for more of it?

        Without getting into how I, personally, ought to feel about government subsidy to power plants, I feel that it remains a fair question to wonder about the real issues here as it doesn’t really seem to be about energy production that entails CO2.

        If the production of CO2 could lead to a super black swan (and, hey, it could!), then we (AS A SOCIETY!!!) have a responsibility to (the children!) ourselves to make sustainable energy more possible.

        If, however, that is not what is happening…

        It’s fair to ask “why?”.

        Whether or not the asker believes in jury nullification.

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    • that would be “E.D.” Kain. I got lazy and didn’t use the periods. I assumed that would have been obvious since I quoted his post.

      Was that supposed to be funny or are you just not firing on all cylinders there Sparty?

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  5. Now for ED, the solution is a free-market (plus wise governmental policy) one.

    But that wise-governmental-policy part is really just another name for effective regulation, hence it isn’t a “free-market” solution. It’s a regulatory solution that anticipates and relies on expected market responses to achieve a public-policy outcome, just as ALL good regulatory solutions do, or would if they were well-implemented. A solution that relies on predictable market responses isn’t a free-market solution, it’s just an effective regulatory solution.

    Apart from that your point about the irreversability of climate change is key. In theory, if the costs of emissions could be internalized (itself a non-market intervention), then a quasi-market solution to the problem of climate change could be reached (and it would be a legitimate market response to the actual problem, not an unrelated coincidence about the particular fuels currently causing emissions — we could go back to wood after all). In that scenario, again theoretically, firms and individuals would gradually begin to see the damage to their own quality of life of the prevailing energy arrangement, and begin to adjust consumption/production decisions (How did we get beyond the mother-of-all collective action problems, even after the people began to ttempt to chage their decisions? I have no idea — I’m just trying to sketch out what the market’s solution to this problem might look like if free-market ideology were what we relied on to solve it.). Over time, perhaps helped by rising fuel costs due to scarcity (though the concomitant reduction in demand would counteract such a rise), perhaps we could wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and other biomass-incendiary methods of energy production voluntarily through the market, and in time — a lot of time — reduce our carbon emissions.

    The problem, obviously, is that this, like all free-market solutions envisions unlimited time and space in which market corrections can operate, as well as unlimited indifference about when and how such corrections take place. But we don’t have that kind of time. The market has no answer to processes of irreversible deterioration that operate along series of discrete tipping points. The time at which the market apprehends and corrects for the problem of our emissions causing culture-bending changes in our climate may well be long past the time after which the question of our reducing emissions has any impact on the problem whatsoever, or at least past the time when the worst outcomes in the worst worst-case-scenarios can be avoided.

    Of course, as E.D. might say it’s “entirely uncertain” that it won’t be before that time as well…so maybe it’s worth a shot. I’m at least as pessimistic as Dierkes, either way.

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  6. Odds are, we are well and truly f*cked. (we being modern civilization.) Personally, I’m unlikely to live much past 2050, unless miracles occur in the field of gerontology (which could easily happen). By then, I expect that drought, crop failure and water rights disputes will be the major topics. In the second half of this century, we can expect attempts at geoengineering and major wars over the secondary consequences thereof. Thereafter, it’s anybody’s guess.

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