A Few Things Ill Considered

A layman's take on the science of Global Warming featuring a guide on How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.

Monday, September 11, 2006

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A Perfect Storm of Character Flaws

Roger Pielke Jr. has an interesting post on setting policy for emissions reductions that target particular levels at which CO2 should be stabilised. This seems to be the preferred approach, both for policy makers and advocates of climate change mitigation. I find myself in the odious position of criticising this approach while having nothing much better to offer. Nevertheless, here are some expanded thoughts on this matter that I submitted as a comment on Roger's post.

Firstly, any good emissions policy also needs to consider ocean acidity. It is fine for GW if stabilized emissions balance natural sinks at some low risk temperature change, but as long as that means increasing the level of carbonic acid in the ocean, the global environment still faces a huge problem. This urgent issue remains remarkably out of sight in the public debate.

As for the best policy on reducing carbon emissions, it is unfortunate that "as much as possible as soon as possible" is not precise enough for policy makers, litigators and tax incentive schemes. It is equally unfortunate that public perceptions seem to mirror the fabled "Frog in the Pot of Boiling Water". How much worse is 380 than 378? How much worse is 382 than 380, and on it goes until we find ourselves asking "how much worse is 550 than 450?"

But perhaps the greatest challenge to both our political and economic ways of thinking is the temporal seperation between cause and effect that characterizes this issue. Few alive now will ever see the consequences of their choices, and none will ever know the long term effects that our current and recent-past lifestyle and technology choices have set in motion. Four, five or six year terms do not encourage today's leaders to place any priority on such long range planning. Markets have trouble looking beyond the next financial quarter. The IPCC scenarios may stop in 2100, but let's not forget that the world does not.

So what the Climate Change debate is faced with here is a perfect storm of societal character flaws and through these, incontrovertible proof of the immaturity human civilization. I am a big believer in the adage that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but that is what you say to yourself after you have survived. And while I am not worried that the species will not survived, I think there is abundant and clear evidence that our global society may not.



  • At September 11, 2006 3:06 PM, Blogger M.J. S. - (Wacki) said…

    And while I am not worried that the species will not survived, I think there is abundant and clear evidence that our global society may not.

    This is a powerful statement. It is also one I can't seem to say out loud without people looking at me like I'm completely loony. How exactly do you convince other people that this might happen?

  • At September 11, 2006 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Coby, I've never seen the difficulty of the climate change problem described better than it was in a recent Yale report, which called it the "perfect problem." You can read the relevant chunk here:


  • At September 11, 2006 5:53 PM, Blogger Hank Roberts said…

    Yep. This is the only argument I've found effective with at least a few people:
    -- Hank Roberts

  • At September 11, 2006 5:53 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Hi wacki,

    Yeah, it is a tough one to introduce to your average debate with a sceptic (kind of like suggesting that there is a motive beyond "they hate freedom" behind Al Qaeda). It is hard for people to imagine, for western nations at least, because we take all of the very basic needs of life completely for granted. We also treat the complex web of life all around us as basically indestructable when it is in fact extremely delicate to environmental conditions. It is remarkably resilient to the kinds of damage we more readily identify with, but subtle changes in rainfall patterns and dozens of things like that can destroy completely and forever entire ecosystems. Then people fail to make the connection between the biosphere and our own food and water needs.

    I don't claim to have a crystal ball and I don't think a global economic and social collapse is inevitable, but the worst case scenarios of climate change put the probabilities of such high enough that we had better take the prospect very seriously. IMO.

  • At September 11, 2006 10:14 PM, Blogger EliRabett said…

    Steve Hemphill has a piece of science illiteracy on Prometheus in response to your comment.

    "Let's try some math, eh? 100 ppm of 14.7 psi is 0.00147 lbs per square inch. One and a half miles of water weighs about 3500 psi. So, 0.00147/3500 = about 0.0000004. One in 2.5 million. "

    pH is a log scale. pH was ~8.2 before CO2 started increasing a century ago, it is now 8.1 That means that the concentration of hydronium (H3O+) in the ocean is 10 ^(-8.1) which is a lot less than one in 2.5 million (his math doesn't work anyhow, because the CO2 in the ocean is part of a buffered system.).

    I would appreciate if you pointed this out to him. Strongly.

  • At September 12, 2006 2:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    just to give a pointer to this editorial : http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=7884738

    The idea of reducing emissions seen as an "insurance policy" is probably the only way to reach the "wall street" sceptics.

  • At September 12, 2006 3:17 PM, Blogger coby said…

    I passed it on, Eli. I generally tune out anything Steve Hemphill has to say, especially if it requires effort... that has yet to prove worth it.

  • At September 12, 2006 7:20 PM, Blogger M.J. S. - (Wacki) said…

    Then people fail to make the connection between the biosphere and our own food and water needs.

    So basically you are saying that destruction of global society could fall from a collapsing food supply. Interesting theory I haven't given much thought to. Do you have any more information on this?

    Any other reasons why you think global society might fail due to climate change?

  • At September 12, 2006 10:35 PM, Blogger EliRabett said…

    Coby, always remember that blogs are written for lurkers. Thanks for the help

  • At September 13, 2006 6:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wacki, link to the Washington Post piece by Lester Brown: "Starving the World to Feed Our Cars" at:


    It does not require much imagination to determine where we smart monkeys are heading.

    John McCormick

  • At September 13, 2006 9:29 AM, Blogger coby said…


    Point taken. That was always foremost in my mind posting on usenet.


    It is hard for me to imagine the coming century without thinking about peak oil as well as global climate change. I think each would be a huge challenge without the other, together...wow. Ironically, the solutions to each are the same which is why hope springs etern^H^H for a while longer.

    Similarily, healthy ecosystems and stong populations of plants and animal species would stuggle but many would manage to survive and adapt to the rapid changes in the environment we are precipitating. But we have already decimated many species and ecosystems through over exploitation and other forms of pollution. This is a serious double whammy that I fear will prove fatal for a majority. Thus the worst case scenario for climate change becomes even worse.

    So human poplulations will find themselves without sufficient food and water resources. Specifically, loss of water resources will force the abandonment of massive amounts of infrastructure, all of it built on cheal oil. I also believe that the worst case scenario for sea level rise is several metres and sufficient to displace huge numbers of people and submerge many large cities. (Don't forget that it is not just cm of high tide levels to consider, it is also the resulting erosion and saltwater encroachment on water tables). With resources scarce all over I don't see a smooth transistion for these populations.

    Anyway, I would like to emphasize that these are all worst case scenarios, but in risk management and decision making you must give alot of weight to severely bad outcomes, even if the best case scenario is more likely. That is another key principal denialists like to simply forget.

  • At September 13, 2006 11:31 AM, Blogger Heiko said…

    As you see from my comment over on google groups, I think that a carbon tax of a few hundred Dollars per tonne of carbon dioxide would do the trick, ie we'd go carbon negative in about 30 years at a cost of about 5% of world GDP.

    I also think that we aren't doing it mainly because voters and decision makers aren't actually that gloomy.

  • At September 13, 2006 10:03 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Voters may not be as gloomy as I am, but I think politicians aren't doing anything because they are corrupt and lazy.

    Voters are ahead of the politicians on this one, I think that is fairly clear.

  • At September 14, 2006 3:39 AM, Blogger Wag the Dog said…

    A few months back, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of "Stumbling on Happiness," wrote an op-ed piece explaining our collective complacency concerning threats such as GW and peak oil. By the time we are motivated enough to do something really effective, it'll be too late to save most of the population.

  • At September 14, 2006 3:54 AM, Blogger Heiko said…

    I think politicians are doing roughly as much as the electorate is happy with. My rough estimate is that that equates to about 0.2% of GDP in Europe and about 0.1% of GDP in the US.


    You might say, "this is ridiculous, surely people are willing to spend more than a measly 0.1-0.2% of their income on climate change", but I think surveys of what people think and what they actually do in elections, run counter to that. And this isn't even a lifestyle question. I think we can go to 0 emissions in 30 years without anybody having to be poorer or doing a sinle mile less, or making do with so much as a cubic foot less space in their cars. This is indeed merely a matter of getting richer a little bit more slowly. Compared to BAU people would have to give up something, but that wouldn't even have to be energy related services (ie driving fewer miles in smaller cars), it could instead be say spare time.

  • At September 14, 2006 2:14 PM, Blogger Heiko said…

    Daniel Gilbert's article is interesting, there are some truths in there, but overall I think people aren't actually all that irrational in their perception of danger. Terrorists getting hold of a nuclear submarine with 60 nuclear warheads could be very bad indeed, even one nuclear bomb in a freight container passing under a bridge next to Manhattan would be. And, the US is not spending anything near what it did during Warld War II. US Armed Forces get about ten times less money as a fraction of GDP, and manpower is about 20 times lower as a fraction of the draftable population.

    I still think the extra spending of the War on Terror is too high and too focused on the military, but compared to the late 90's I think national security spend is only up by a percent or two (of GDP) and I believe it's less than at the height of the Cold War under Reagan.



    People do worry about petroleum dependence and high energy prices, and that's one reason petrol taxes are so high in Europe (and in spite of climate concerns, coal isn't exactly singled out for shut-downs).

    But people (as in voters and politicians in their collective decision making) are not expecting peak oil armageddon, and rightly so in my opinion:

    a) We don't need oil for heating and most gasoline use is entirely discretionary

    b) Oil can be replaced, in the transportation sector with synthetic fuels and more efficient cars and/or through electrification.

    c) Peak oil, based on geology will be a very slow event, leaving plenty of time for non-disruptive changes (and as said earlier, even a ban on cars for private use wouldn't exactly be the end of the world, and nobody is suggesting us having to reduce oil consumption quite that drastically overnight)

  • At September 14, 2006 7:31 PM, Blogger EliRabett said…

    All you have to do to convince people that civilization can fall is say Rome. You can also point to various Chinese dynasties.

  • At September 14, 2006 7:52 PM, Blogger coby said…

    There are plenty of examples of civilizations falling, sometimes quite quickly. The problem is now people think that science and technology will save us and we are oh-so-much smarter now.

  • At September 15, 2006 1:58 AM, Blogger Heiko said…

    Civilisation can certainly fail, but:

    1) There is a big break in history. We talked about Jared Diamond's work on neolithic farmers a while back and continuous progress. Well, in a number of key areas progress is of surprisingly recent origin.

    I am rather dubious about the value of comparing with Rome or ancient China. At the time 90% of people were illiterate subsistence farmers, and aggressive war pursued with the intent of taking land and enslaving people was quite normal. You may suspect ulterior motives for Iraq say, but these are of a wholly different order than they would have been for Rome. The US isn't going to enslave Iraqis and let them work on US plantations.

    In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Taleban (one of the worst regimes in recent years) were, in many ways, progressive, even when compared with the US founding fathers.

    2) I don't see climate change or peak oil as particularly good reasons for armaggedon (here defined as population reductions of 90% or similar coming about largely through increased death rates and lower life expectancy).

    Do you really believe people need cars and big mansions miles away from where they work?

    Are people gonna die from living in a small flat, so that they can live within walking distance of work?

    As far as I see, private car use could be banned overnight without death rates having to go up in the US. For that matter, a little bit more walking might do people's health some good.


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