If you are a regular reader of this blog you may be confused as to where I stand on climate change, the environment and conservation of resources. Perhaps I can clarify my thinking just a bit. This might be a little difficult because my normal state is confusion.
On conservation of resources, I am a hawk. One thing is certain. Many of the natural resources we depend on for daily living are from finite, non renewable sources. Many are already becoming harder to find and as a result expensive. Prime examples are petroleum products, many metals, water, and arable land. Another bloggers outlook.
Our stewardship of the environment requires our utmost diligence. Keeping our surroundings clean, healthy and pleasant is essential for our quality of life.This does not mean I am unwilling to accept change, whether natural or caused by human presence.
A more complicated issue is climate change, or more specifically, global warming. Do I believe global average temperatures are increasing? I definitely do, at least in the short-term (using thousands or millions of years as the terms of reference.) I do think the degree of warming is very small and still within the range of natural variation.
Do I believe human activity is the cause?
Well probably in part. Natural causes must be part of it, but our numbers are so great that the impact on our planet is profound. I think we have changed the climate profoundly on local and regional scales and probably a little globally.
A much bigger question is what the results of warming will be. Will it be harmful or beneficial. Can we effectively do something about it and do we want too.
A scientist can safely predict outcomes when they have past observations or positive experimental results for reference. For example it is pretty safe to say the world will end as a charred ball when our sun expands in a few billion years. An astronomer can look back over billions of years and see billions of examples of a star’s life cycle. Of course, the assumption still has to be made that no other catastrophe will happen in the meantime, and It really doesn’t matter if the prediction is wrong. What about the science.
Our climate is so complicated, and the earth so large that no laboratory experiment can have much relevance. Even computer models have little chance of true accuracy. There are too many assumptions in the data used and even tiny errors can make huge differences over long periods or large scenarios. I suspect that many predictions reflect the modelers bias.
The other problem, is that there is little past experience to draw from. We have no examples from the past of similar planets with over 7 billion people. In fact changes are happening so fast that we have little chance to analyze or even digest them. In my lifetime, earths population has increased from approximately 3 billion. There were many dire predictions for the future when I was a youth. Almost none have come to pass, although, a few still might..
The focus has been on carbon dioxide as as control knob for global temperatures. It has been largely blamed or any global temperature increases we may have seen since the beginning of the modern industrial age.
Recent research, however, seems to indicate that carbon dioxide may be far less effective at increasing temperatures than some would claim. This would throw the results of model runs into doubt and could explain the discrepancies between model results and observations to date.
I do not believe quick, effective, action can be taken by governments outside of encouraging less use of products with a large carbon footprint and helping industry to lessen emissions. Drastic action could have unforeseen effects and most certainly would be harmful to economies. I do think that markets can effect an answer if more people demand clean power and cleaner transportation. Alternatives are rapidly becoming less expensive.
A tax on carbon would supposedly encourage industry and people to use less carbon producing energy. I don’t think it would have any significant effect on climate. But it will increase the cost of of practically everything we consume and put more pressure on people living in poverty. The income of wealthier people simply seems to increase as the cost of living increases and their consumption is unlikely to decrease significantly.
Energy is already a huge cost to industry. Reducing cost increases profit. Profit is the reason for industry, so it follows that industry already has a big incentive to reduce energy usage. It seems that incentives to further reduce consumption would be more effective than taxes and be less damaging to economies.
Cap and trade policies could be a little more effective, but how do you apply them to the whole world? They only effect consumption by increasing the cost of energy. “Grandfathering the privilege to pollute would take money from low-income consumers and give it to the predominantly wealthy shareholders of energy companies.” This is a quote from a document advocating cap-and-trade. There are dangerous assumptions here. I don’t think low-income individuals are the biggest consumers, it is pretty obvious the wealthy are. Shareholders of energy companies are often pension plans and funds, the beneficiaries of which are usually lower or middle-income people. Of course this is by our standards. Low income to us is quite rich to much of the world. Once again, the key is to reduce the need and the desire for polluting products.
You may not be aware that large amounts of cash are given out as subsidies for the use of fossil fuel. Don’t blame the developed nations entirely here. It is emerging nations that give direct subsidies (about 480 billion,according to the IMF,) mainly so the poor can afford fuel.
Some seem to think that curtailing oil sands operations would be beneficial. It probably would only hasten the depletion of conventional oil and perhaps encourage the development of more harmful sources. Opposition to pipelines is another tack that some seem to take. Again this leads to far more dangerous and more carbon intensive forms of transport. The Bakken oil produced from North Dakota is seen as an alternative to Alberta oil sands. This actually may be more harmful. Much of the produced gas from this field is flared due to a lack of infrastructure to collect it. Burning it produces carbon emissions and any that escapes burning is primarily methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas. Alternatives are not always as benign as they seem.
This is an article in Forbes magazine about Bakken flaring which uses some identical arguments to many I have heard defending oil sands emissions.
The developed nations, with the USA and Canada leading the pack, use by far the most fossil fuels and produce the most carbon emissions per capita. That means we could have the most effect on an individual basis. I firmly believe that we should make every effort to reduce our personal use of energy. That goes further than just driving less or building more efficient homes. It means an overall reduction in our acquisition of consumer goods. This would also be damaging to economies. Perhaps that could be countered by more investment by governments, and industry, in alternative energy sources, and in carbon capture and storage..
Crude oil has largely been singled out as a villain in carbon emissions. The fact is that several other industries have huge impacts. Coal fired power plants seem to be often overlooked. Sad, since their emissions are more localized and more conducive to carbon sequestration or storage. Since this was written, governments have begun to target coal plants by mandated closures. Cement production is similarly a huge emitter. The real villain, though, is our own individual excessive use of energy.
In the words of the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau ” Overconsumption and overpopulation underlie every environmental problem we face today.” Well we are certainly the villains in over consumption and need to address it. Third world countries are where most of the population increases are coming from. Some, such as China are trying to address this problem..
Do I think there is effective action that can be taken by governments? In a word, no. That doesn’t mean that I think we should not continue trying to reduce our impact. It means that I think we would be well advised to prepare for changes that may happen. Build stronger houses that are more energy efficent. Gradually move human occupancy away from flood prone areas and away from coastlines at risk from rising sea levels. Use more renewable resources to replace non-renewable. Clean up our world through personal commitment. Plant trees. Plant a garden. And, most importantly, use and waste less of everything.
The beauty of this approach is that it does no harm. It is a personal choice that should not create enemies or even create discomfort for your neighbors. If the dire predictions turn out to be wrong, then no harm has been done and less valuable resources will be consumed. If enough people followed this route, carbon in our atmosphere may be reduced or at least increase at a slower pace.
Living with fewer toys or less possessions does not mean a lower standard of living.
Do I walk the walk? I am trying, but I know there is room for improvement. I only wish I had done more, sooner. I don’t buy tickets to see jet setting celebrities who use more than their share of resources to tell us what we are doing wrong. Many have increased their wealth by crying wolf.
If you agree with most of this article, please share it. If you disagree with any part, or have suggestions, please comment. I can still learn, even at my age.