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Coping with deep climate uncertainty


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There is a great post at the Council on Foreign Relations blog where by Michael Levi boils down global climate change in to two overarching unknowns: (1) extent of damage by an accumulation of greenhouse gases, and (2) an uncertainty around which policies, or set of policies, will succeed in reducing emissions. The danger, he writes, is that policies that make drastic, big bets face high risks of failure:

Focusing on particularly disruptive policies because they’re the only ones that have a chance to be “strong enough” to deal with an unexpectedly sensitive climate also raises the odds of political failure, and hence also increases the chances of ultimately being stuck with the status quo. Both of these tendencies tend to shift the distribution of likely climate outcomes toward the extremes: either things end up a lot better than they’re currently on course to turn out, or our prospects don’ [sic] improve much at.

I think this is one reason why we haven’t seen as much action from the Obama administration on climate change as many of thought back in the early months of his presidency. In addition to spending a lot of political capital on health care reform, there are big risks associated with climate change policies. Putting caps in place, or taxes on emissions, if properly designed (like in the case of NOx and SOx for acid rain) can be very effective. The flip side is that the policy could fail, or become largely ineffective (see this recent news article about the EU’s emission trading scheme).

Instead, we have seen international climate change talks evolve from a push for top down caps on emissions to letting individual countries and governments design their own reduction targets (see this previous post). The bets are smaller, but so are the risks (and chances for success, one could say).

P.S. I should make mention that the acid rain example is very different than global climate change. Acid rain is a regional issue stemming from NOx and SOx emissions from industrial plants, unlike global atmospheric carbon and greenhouse gas concentrations. Acid rain policies and impacts were largely regional, whereas climate change policies made domestically can have international effects (see this post for examples).

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. RSchmidt 11:23 pm 10/9/2012

    This is similar to the argument for why we will be destroyed my an asteroid, assuming nothing else gets us first. The cost of intercepting an asteroid and altering its course would be huge and would need to be done decades before the event were to take place. So if you succeeded there would be those that would argue that the asteroid was never in danger of hitting us in the first place, and you just wasted all that money. Just like many people argued that the Y2K scare was made up because nothing ended up happening. Even if you did succeed in averting catastrophe, it would happen on someone else’s watch so you wouldn’t get the benefit of re-election. Real world systems unfold at such a slow pace that our man made institutions are ill equipped to deal with them. It is always; wait until the next guy is in power before addressing the problem, and then when the next guy is in power; look at the mess I inherited, it is going to be almost impossible to fix this. It is sad because we can see the roots of eventual human extinction, but we seem powerless to prevent it.

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  2. 2. Shoshin 11:47 pm 10/9/2012

    But as the author stated, there is significant disagreement about the extent of damage. If damage is minimal to negative (ie, beneficial – noting that warm environments tend to be the most biologically active)then doing nothing is the best course of action.

    Unless, of course, you are Al Gore and the WWF who have a vested interest in stripping huge swaths of rainforest from SE Asia and turning a handsome profit from selling palm oil ointments to naive yuppies, while actually producing far more CO2 than Canada’s Oil sands. Then you need some political interference to help out your bottom line.

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 12:29 am 10/10/2012

    This article is based on what? It’s more ‘filler’ from some dude musing over his cup of coffee.

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  4. 4. blindboy 3:05 am 10/10/2012

    This article is probably an accurate reflection of political realities. Whatever humans are good at, it is not global consensus and this is a global problem. What we have is a situation in which it is in no nation’s interest to seriously address the issue as it would economically disadvantage them in a highly competitive world.
    The “answer” in so far as there is one will probably be to do very little about emissions until an easy (ie cheap) option appears, but to try and mitigate the effects of climate change. Self interest dictates it. The worst effects will not be suffered by those of us alive today, nor will the impacts in the developed world be as catastrophic as elsewhere. So pull up a deckchair, grab a beer and enjoy the view from first class as the ship sinks oh so slowly beneath us.

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  5. 5. Vincentrj 5:01 am 10/10/2012

    This is a very balanced opinion piece. The Climate Change issue is fascinating because it’s perhaps the ultimate test of humanity’s competence.

    I often ask myself, how can we hope to solve this problem (assuming it is a problem, which is not certain), when time and again we have demonstrated our incompetence in solving known and certain problems, such as building dwellings in flood plains then expressing surprise when the relatively predictable flood eventually comes along, or building frail, poorly designed dwellings in areas subject to hurricanes or cyclones, then expressing surprise when the house is eventually demolished by a cyclone, or building a Nuclear Power Plant near sea level in an area that is well-know to be subject to tsunamis, as occurred on the East coast of Japan recently.

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  6. 6. MadScientist72 9:22 am 10/10/2012

    As far as I can tell, there are 2 main reasons for the relative lack of action on the subject of climate change:

    (1) There are too many unknowns. While the alarmist faction would have everyone believe that all the science is settled & we’re barreling headlong into catastrophe, all we REALLY know is (a) the earth is warming and (b) human activity is contributing to it to some degree. We still DON’T have anything more than speculation on (c) how much of the warming is human-caused, (d) how warm it will really get if we continue as things are, (e) what the actual short- or long-term effects of this warming will be or (f) whether we can (or even should) do anything to stop it.

    and (2) People are generally selfish. For the most part, the benefits that are being touted for averting climate change are 50 years or more down the road, but the costs are all now. You’ll never be able to convice a majority of people to abandon their immediate self-interest to support something that they’ll probably not live long enough to reap the rewards from.

    Stop beating that horse – alive or dead, no one wants to ride it. Efforts should focus instead on convicing people that the other, more personally harmful by-products of burning fossil fuels – like smog, carbon monoxide, & carcinogens – warrant immdeiate action.

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  7. 7. Vincentrj 1:37 am 10/12/2012

    I agree, MadScientist72 (and I’m sure there are many more than 72 mad scientists in the world, so you have an exalted position at number 72).

    Focussing on more personally harmful products such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate carbon etc is something we’ve been doing in the West for a long time, and we can see the improvement in our cities within a relatively short period of time.

    If we feel the need to also tackle the consequences of increased quantities of clean CO2 in the atmosphere, a gas which is absolutely essential for life as we know it, then I would recommend spending money and effort on practices that will improve our lot in other respects, as well as reducing that very small percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere. In other words, kill two or more birds with one stone.

    Such pratices would include changing our farming methods which rely heavily upon regular tillage of the soil, which reduces the biodiverstity of the soil and in particular the carbon content of the soil, causing greater reliance on artificial fertiliser and causing loss of water retention of the soil, which in turn contributes to flooding problems during heavy rain.

    Returning all human sewage to the soil, after appropriate processing, which will reduce the reliance on artificial fertiliser, increase the carbon content of the soil, increase the general fertility of the soil, and increase food production.

    Work towards an international agreement to cease all clearing of natural forests, or at least make sure that all mature trees that are felled will be replaced by newly planted trees which will absorb more C02 as they grow, and eventually provide a replaced natural habitat to compensate for earlier losses to many species currently under stress, thus preserving biodiversity.

    Those three practices alone will reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, increase biodiversity, improve the general fertility of our soil, reduce the severity of floods, and increase our capacity for world food production.

    Problem solved!

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  8. 8. MadScientist72 12:06 pm 10/12/2012

    @Vincentrj – Your agriculture & forestry proposals sound good in theory, but in practice they’d run headlong into another major (but rarely mentioned) issue affecting our world – the ever-accelerating growth of the global human population. As long as the population keeps ballooning, we’re going to keep needing more and more open land for farming and living space, further shrinking the forests. it will also mean increasing reliance on intensive, high-yield methods of agriculture & the chemical fertilizers necessary to make them happen. Unfortunately, most of our world leaders won’t touch the topic of population reduction (things have already gone too far for “zero population growth” policies to be enough) with a mile-long pole – it would be political suicide for them. Until they (and their constituents) are willing to put long-term global well-being ahead of immediate self-interest, our problems are going to keep getting worse.

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  9. 9. Postman1 3:08 pm 10/12/2012

    MadScientist72 (Sheldon, is that you?)
    According to the UN, population growth will ease by the end of this century. We shall see:
    http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Other-Information/Press_Release_WPP2010.pdf

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  10. 10. Vincentrj 10:49 pm 10/12/2012

    MadScientist72 – I see different dimensions to this problem of feeding an increasing world population.

    The facts seem to indicate that for a number of years now we’ve been producing far more than enough food to provide a perfectly healthy diet for every man, woman and child on the planet. The problem is distribution of the food to those who can’t afford to buy it and who are malnourished.

    Basically, in very approximate terms, we have about 1/4th of the world population overeating to the point where people become unhealthily overweight and obese, requiring additional medical expenditure, and another quarter of the world population who are either starving due to a lack of calories, or unhealthy due to a lack of essential minerals and vitamins.

    In addition, we have truly massive wastage of food due to inadequate storage and handling, not only in the West but in all countries. I’ve seen reliable studies that put this figure at 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted per year. That’s billion, not million, or 13 hundred million tonnes. It’s been calculated that just one quarter of this amount of wasted food would be sufficient to provide adequate nutrition to all those who are currently malnourished.
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e00.pdf

    There is also another factor which could be considered as an additional wastage, and that is our current practice of feeding huge quantities of grain to cattle in order to produce prime beef for the wealthy, and our tendency in the West to eat more meat than is generally good for us.

    In short, rather than clear more forests to produce more food, it would be far more sensible to tackle our current wasteful practices, and improve our exisiting agricultural lands by sequestering carbon in the soil, including the return of processed sewage to the soil.

    The solutions exist. It’s just a matter of applying them.

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  11. 11. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 10:54 pm 10/14/2012

    @ Postman1: Frankly, mailman, you’re full of it.

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  12. 12. Quinn the Eskimo 9:02 pm 10/15/2012

    Either AGW is true, or this guy is makin’ stuff up.

    Both theories can not co-exist.

    Simple.

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  13. 13. Postman1 10:26 pm 10/15/2012

    Birdy – It is a UN paper. I thought you guys all liked the UN.

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  14. 14. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 8:01 am 10/16/2012

    The UN is flawed, just like everything else, mailman. Look at the Syrian mess; Assad should’ve been drone-striked into oblivion over a year ago. And I’m a pacifist, so I never say that.

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  15. 15. Postman1 2:57 pm 10/16/2012

    Bird, you are scaring me. I am forced to agree with you on Syria. LOL. I’m not a pacifist, more of a ‘live and let live’ sort, with a little bit of ‘if you mess with me you will regret it’ thrown in. But I have to agree with you. Remember, it only took one cruise missile in his tent to keep Khadaffi quiet for 25 years.

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  16. 16. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 5:01 pm 10/16/2012

    But Qaddaffi also slaughtered thousands of his own people while NATO was arguing with the UN over the intervention. The US isn’t the only important place in the world.

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  17. 17. Postman1 2:55 pm 10/18/2012

    Bird- We can also agree on your last sentence in comment #16, although the majority of US citizens don’t seem to understand that. Lousy geography is one of my pet peeves. It is astounding how many Americans think Europe is a country and Africa is a country of all jungle with lions and elephants and all black people speaking Swahili. When I remind one of them about the half that is desert, and of the Arab nations with millions of citizens, some just have a blank stare. Don’t even need to mention the hundreds of languages and different nations with even more tribes.
    It is a sad commentary on our education system.

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  18. 18. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 3:45 pm 10/18/2012

    True. I can remember watching that movie about Sarah Palin, where the foreign policy advisers come into the campaign office talking about how they want to grill her over on a post-Putin Russia, and spending their entire allotment of time with her telling her stuff like “This is Germany. They were the primary agressors in World War One and World War Two.”

    It was both funny and sobering at the same time.

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