Diary of a Tree Stump
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rapid climate change
Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
Climate Change is Here, Ready or Not. So What Now? Part 2
Friday April 12, 2013
So how should we respond? Most obviously, we should stop making things worse. Tax penalties, tax credits, and import tariffs can nudge consumers, producers, and exporters towards reducing emissions without wasting more years on fruitless international negotiations or creating cumbersome new bureaucracies.
Second, we need to start adapting to the changes that are inevitable. Emergency loans and other financial aid to redress the billions in damage from extreme weather of the past couple of years already pressure budgets from the federal government on down. Hurricane Sandy showed the Northeast, for instance, where the vulnerable spots were. If someone wants to rebuild in one of those areas, so be it, but there is no reason that taxpayers should subsidize individual folly. The rates a private insurer would extract to enable a person, corporation or farmer to rebuild or replant in vulnerable areas would largely accomplish the necessary relocations—again with no bureaucracy.
Most importantly, we need leaders with the courage to steamroll the deniers and the vested interests. After a very short respite greenhouse gas emissions are getting worse. The Great Recession largely stalled U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for several years (though globally CO2 increased thanks largely to China). The respite ended in 2012, which saw the biggest jump in CO2 in the atmosphere in this millennium. The journal Science just published a reconstruction of past climate that showed that current temperatures are the highest in 4,000 years. Still, this won’t convince the deniers – nothing will – and the U.S. and the rest of the world are going to have to act over the loud objections of vested interests just as the government took action on smoking over the objections of the tobacco lobby.
A resident walks through flood water and past a stalled ambulance in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 in Hoboken, NJ. (Charles Sykes/AP)
This brings us to a roadblock as formidable as the great ice wall in Game of Thrones—we haven’t had those leaders. Since it’s open to question whether the present Congress would have the courage to take on the tobacco lobby if the link between smoking and cancer first arose today, how can we expect them to act against the vastly richer fossil fuel lobby? How can a political system that could not institute real reform in the financial system even after near collapse in 2008 be expected to act rapidly to impose new taxes—the most polarizing word in the political lexicon—and do that during a time of weak economic growth? The answer is obvious: it can’t—at least not without overwhelming pressure from powerful groups that can’t be bought off or befuddled.
Therein lies the faintest glimmer of hope. With $5 trillion of invested capital, the American insurance industry has as much economic clout as the fossil fuel industry. Insurers lose money if they under-price the myriad risks of climate change. If they can’t raise prices to match the estimated risk, they simply pull out of the market. This happened in Florida where a series of governors stymied insurers’ requests for rate increases to adjust for increased risks of hurricane damage. The insurers said sayonara leaving the state to backstop homeowners who insisted on living in harm’s way. Thus we have the delicious irony of Florida having a free-market champion and climate change denier governor, Rick Scott, presiding over the socialization of climate change risk. A study by the non-profit CERES estimates that government—meaning us the taxpayers’—exposure to climate-related risk has increased fifteen fold since 1990 as private insurers have pulled back and extreme events increased. If government stopped smothering the market signals coming from the insurance market, both adaptation and calls for action on dealing with global warming would accelerate enormously.
Outside the U.S., developed nations take climate change seriously, and if the international community started imposing tariffs on goods coming from nations that fail to address emissions, that would get the attention of Congress. It’s sad, but at a time of imminent peril, we are stuck with a political system that will not act without adult supervision.
President Obama made strong statements about the importance of climate change when he first ran for president. Then, in his first term, he abandoned the issue, just as every other American leader has done since global warming first entered the national conversation. Now he is promising to do what every previous administration could have done by using executive powers to actually lead on the issue. Presidents are said to care about their legacy. Climate change is a civilization killer, and if we continue down the climate rapids, future generations probably will not be thinking about any presidential legacy of our era—except to assign blame.
An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong
Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.
In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.
And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.
It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.
As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.
With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.
The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.
And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.