Avoiding defeatism on climate change

November 1, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Kevin Drum sounds a little bit down in the mouth:

If you were teaching a graduate seminar in public policy and challenged your students to come up with the most difficult possible problem to solve, they’d come up with something very much like climate change. It’s slow-acting. It’s essentially invisible. It’s expensive to address. It has a huge number of very rich special interests arrayed against doing anything about it. It requires international action that pits rich countries against poor ones. And it has a lot of momentum: you have to take action now, before its effects are serious, because today’s greenhouse gases will cause climate change tomorrow no matter what we do in thirty years.

I have to confess that I find myself feeling the same way Andy does more and more often these days. It’s really hard to envision any way that we’re going to seriously cut back on greenhouse gas emissions until the effects of climate change become obvious, and by then it will be too late. I recognize how defeatist this is, and perhaps the proliferation of extreme weather events like Sandy will help turn the tide. But it hasn’t so far, and given the unlikelihood of large-scale global action on climate change, adaptation seems more appealing all the time. For the same reason, so does continued research into geoengineering as a last-resort backup plan.

I don’t think this is really quite the right way of thinking about the problem with it’s all-or-nothing, either-or quality.  I’d like to suggest some other ways of framing the issue that are helpful to me in staying motivated to take action.  As a starting point, let’s look at a few emissions scenarios and temperature projections:

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These aren’t the latest and greatest, but the exact details don’t matter to understand the overall shape of the problem. The charts run from 1900 to 2100 – so the present is roughly in the middle.  At the top are three paths for CO2 – growing from its pre-industrial value of about 280ppm through values up over 800ppm in the case of the A2 scenario, and stabilizing in the mid 500s by century end in the case of B1.  Note that we are currently up to about 394ppm (seasonally adjusted) and still climbing fast.

You can imagine better scenarios, but bear with me a minute.  The three scenarios above at least represent a huge range in how well humanity responds to the problem.  If you now look at the resulting temperature projections in the lower panel, two things become evident: 1) there’s almost no difference at all in the temperature path in the next few decades based on emissions trajectory, and 2) by century end, it makes a really big difference in the total temperature change.

So, firstly, it seems to me that we have no choice at all but to do quite a bit of adaptation.  There’s already been enough climate change to make a noticeable difference in the weather – bigger, nastier heat-waves and droughts, more precipitation extremes, etc.  Given that we’ve got a bit less than a degree Celsius of temperature rise so far, we can be confident we are going to get at least another degree pretty much regardless of what we do.  There seems very little doubt that that’s going to be enough to finish melting the north pole in summer, cause some pretty profound changes in northern hemisphere weather, greatly increase droughts and downpours, etc.  Sea level is going to rise, and the rate of rise is going to accelerate.

So, coastal communities all over the world are going to have to look at what happened to New Orleans a few years back, or what just happened to Manhattan, and realize that the odds of those kinds of events are just going to get higher and higher as we steadily add more and more inches to the sea level and more degrees to the ocean surface temperature with the passing decades.  No responsible community can afford not to plan for that and put in place the levees and sea walls and pumps and plans that are implied.

Similarly, farmers and agricultural suppliers and financiers are going to have to adapt to a world in which the weather is wilder and thus crop yields in any given location are less certain and more work needs to be done to bring forth the necessary total harvest to feed the world’s growing population.  Some places are going to have to be abandoned, and others are going to have to be opened up to agriculture.

At the same time, it’s also very important to recognize that an end-of-the-century state of 2oC-and-stabilizing is going to be a completely different thing than 4oC-and-accelerating.  The former is going to be bad, but the latter is going to be well on the way to hell:

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Number of days annually over 100oF in the recent past, and under high emissions in 2080-2099 according to p90 of Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

So to say "we must adapt to some climate change" is not at all to imply "so we might as well give up the struggle".  There are still huge differences between the end states that are realistically available to us as a society.
It can be discouraging to think, "political change is infeasible right now and anyway will take decades to make much difference".  While it’s true that comprehensive political change is infeasible right now (at least in the US) I argue that it’s unlikely to stay true.  People may not be as quick as we’d like to respond to serious threats, but I don’t have so little faith in humanity as to think that they are capable of almost literally turning the planet into something closely approximating hell in the summer.  By the point – which is coming sometime this century – when we are having massive scorching droughts left and right and food prices are seriously volatile and keeping the body politic from rioting is a major pre-occupation – I’m confident that climate denial will be over and we’ll be making all serious efforts to control our carbon emissions and first stabilize the CO2 concentration and then actually lower it.  
So I don’t really have any doubt that we are eventually going to rein in our fossil fuel use.  The question is about when, not if.
Look at the problem from the other end: what is it going to take to get society to carbon neutral, whenever we finally achieve it?  Well, in a way it’s very simple: there are going to be a few billion households, and a few billion vehicles, and a few hundred million companies and organizations, and each one is individually going to have to be rendered carbon neutral.  So there’s a whole bunch of mostly rather boring infrastructure projects that have to be undertaken at the level of individual households and institutions to make this happen.  At the level of the individual household it’s about:
  • energy audits, insulation, limiting air infiltration, efficient windows.
  • buying commercial renewable power.
  • installing solar panels, or wind where applicable.
  • replacing fossil fuel powered heating systems and water heaters with minsplit or geothermal heat pumps. 

At the individual transportation level it’s about

  • buying and using an electric vehicle, or a hybrid/plugin as an intermediate step, and/or
  • locating in a place where it’s possible to walk/bike/public transport instead of driving

At the level of businesses it’s about

  • buying commercial renewable power
  • installing solar, etc, where applicable
  • making facilities as energy-efficient as possible
  • transitioning towards use of biofuels where there’s really no alternative to liquid fuels
  • transitioning towards use of vido-conferencing to limit use of air travel.
At the level of utilities it’s going to be about building a global grid to average out the volatility of renewable energy sources.
Some of these things will be greatly benefitted by technological improvements (eg I think there’s a lot of room to make video-conferencing cheaper/better and we clearly need to drive down the cost of electric cars and continue to lower the cost of solar/wind).  Better batteries and better utility storage options will be very helpful.  There’s an awful lot for inventors and entrepreneurs to be getting busy on.
However, there’s also an awful lot of low hanging fruit that is perfectly possible to do today.  
For example, it’s entirely possible for a sufficiently motivated homeowner with decent credit to become carbon neutral today along the above lines.  It doesn’t even have to cost that much – almost all the upfront costs can be financed via the cashflow savings in future fuel use.  There are a bunch of people who’ve done it already.  There are more of us (including me) who are in the middle of the process.  You, the reader, could be one of them if you so choose.
And this leads into my final point on motivation.  As individuals, we don’t have any control over how long society as a whole will take to transition to carbon neutrality.  What we do have control over is our personal moral culpability for the situation.  I believe that we’ll all be carbon neutral in the end, but we have the choice to be early adopters or late adopters: leaders, followers, or those finally dragged in by the police, kicking and screaming. This is true at the level of households, and it’s doubly true for business and organization leaders who have the potential to make decisions that influence far more carbon emissions.
And of course, for public intellectuals like Kevin, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done to lower the barrier to public action.  There are scientific papers and studies to be read and explained to the public, bad journalism to be authoritatively contradicted, action measures to be evaluated and promoted, green businesses to be invested in, laws and regulations to be commented on, pseudo-scandals to be denounced, coal plants to be opposed.  It’s true that there isn’t going to be some big sweeping cap-and-trade plan in the US this year or next.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hundreds of lesser measures that help or hinder – feed-in tariffs, on-bill recovery financing, fuel economy standards, renewable portfolio standards, blocking approvals for coal export terminals or tar-sands pipelines, the wind farm down the road.
There’s plenty of work to be done.  And to the extent that we can succeed in lowering the costs and increasing the penetration of alternatives, and in raising the costs of fossil fuels, we move forward the day when more comprehensive legislation is possible.  Again, make no error, since climate change is real and is very serious, that day is coming regardless.  But human choices can make it sooner or make it later, and we each are responsible for what we choose to do to that end.  We have no choice but to spend the rest of our lives in a warming climate.  We do individually have a choice how much we do about that fact.  And, collectively, we still have a choice about how much the climate will warm.

Tags: adaptation, climate change