Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tackling Global Warming in a More Sensible Manner?

Making rational decisions on global warming has become incredibly difficult. The discussion taking place has been warped by politics and complicated by a polarizing debate between those who believe the problem is real and those who believe it is not. That famous New York Yankee, Yogi Berra, once said, "you can observe a lot by watching." What I am observing is that attempts to cut carbon emissions by the international community as a solution to global warming simply are not working and most likely will not work. Promises in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to cut carbon emissions went unfulfilled. In Kyoto in 1997, world leaders promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2010. This target was missed by almost 25%. Many policymakers this past December in Copenhagen were calling for 80% cuts over current levels by 2050. As we all know, this was dropped and Copenhagen ultimately was a dismal failure. Clearly, little progress is being made by the international community in trying to cut carbon emissions to resolve the global warming problem!

It has been estimated by economists at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland that using carbon cuts to limit the increase in global temperature could reduce world GDP by almost 12.9% in 2100 and cost as much as $40 trillion annually. At the same time, the majority of economic models suggest that unconstrained global warming could cost rich nations approximately 2% of GDP and poor countries about 5% by 2100. It is not difficult to see that the equation is not balanced! Even if all industrialized nations could somehow succeed in meeting the drastic carbon emission cuts, it would come at a hugh sacrifice to prosperity. It would seem the solution appears to be far more costly than the problem. Or put in another way, perhaps the cure could actually be more painful than the illness!

The question that needs to be asked is whether there may be another, more sensible way to respond to climate change. Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center in Denmark, believes there is and what he is saying deserves consideration in my view. First, let me say that Dr. Lomborg believes global warming is a serious, man-made problem. However, before staggering sums are spent that will in his view do little to address the problem, he believes we should consider alternatives that could cost far less and achieve far more. Perhaps at the risk of over-simplification, I will attempt to paraphrase in more detail what Dr. Lomborg believes. It is my understanding he believes: (1) it is not necessary to drastically and at significant cost cut carbon emissions to achieve no more than a 2 degrees Celsius global temperature increase by 2100 - moreover, he does not even believe it is possible; (2) we should continue doing what can reasonably be done using much less expensive policies to reduce carbon emissions such as improving energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy sources; (3) we should directly address today the potential problems that may in the future be created by global warming; and (4) we need to dramatically increase funding for non-carbon energy R&D through international agreement and eventually the results of this research will allow us to shift away from carbon-heavy energy much faster.

One of the points I find most interesting is (3) above - addressing the potential impacts of global warming today as opposed to trying to prevent it in the future! Dr. Lomborg, for example, points to the possible extinction of the polar bear due to melting of the ice caps. His studies suggest that implementation of the Kyoto Protocol could save a few bears a year in the future; however, if the global community decides to stop hunting the bears (or limit the hunting), nearly 300 could be saved now. Furthermore, models suggest that global warming could put 3% more of the earth's population, principally in third world countries, at risk of catching malaria, for example, by the end of the century. When Dr. Lomborg looks at how much money would need to be spent by developed countries to save these lives in the distant future, he believes it will be much more effective and make much more economic sense to combat malaria, malnutrician, or communicable diseases today. For $3 billion today - 2% of the annual cost of the Kyoto Protocol - we could invest in mosquito nets and medicine and cut malaria by half within one decade. Dr. Lomborg also believes that tackling hunger through climate change policy is amazingly inefficient. On one hand, for $180 billion each year, Kyoto Protocol carbon emission cuts could reduce the number of hungry people globally by 2 million by the end of the century. However, according to Dr. Lomborg, $10 billion spent today on direct malnutrician-reduction could save 200 million people now! He uses the example that it is amoral to build a dam to avoid flooding in 100 years when people living there are starving today! Certainly, by helping communities become stronger today, they will be better able to prepare for global warming tomorrow. One interesting last point worth noting is that in Dr. Lomborg's view, the benefits of moderate fossil fuel use at this time vastly outweigh the costs. Fossil fuels provide low cost light, heat, food, communication and travel. For example, carbon has powered substantial growth in China and India, allowing millions to escape poverty.

The bottom line is that with limited resources, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether carbon cuts should be our top priority. Perhaps we might want to re-think the best approach to dealing with global warming and try to use more common sense. Perhaps we should not rush to solve the problem, particularly since the solution comes at extraordinary cost and risk and significant impact on world prosperity. Let us not forget too that there are still many reputable scientists who do not believe that reducing man-made greenhouse gases will really have any impact as the real culprit is mother nature. Perhaps it does make sense to address today the potential future impacts of global warming, while more effective approaches are supported or developed which should ultimately resolve the issue anyway. Let us not forget what Yogi Berra also said, "you've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."


steve_crowley said...

Thank you. This is the most sensable approach that I have heard to date. Hopefully, the message will catch on.

Rich G said...

Am I the only one who see's global warming as less of a priority? When we are faced with the coldest winter in decades and those fools in England messing with the data it is a little hard to get people to talk about saving polar bears. Recent polls show that global warming is one of the lowest priorities for the American people. As Bill Clinton said: It's the economy stupid!

People worry less about polar bears and more about their jobs, today. With US unemployment at 10% anything that hurts the economy is not going to be supported.

Most people would say, sorry about the polar bears before they would accept another 12.9% drop in GDP.

We better start listening to the people before we become toatally ignored!

Tony said...

Rich, I am not smart enough to know whether or not global warming is man-made and whether or not controlling carbon emissions is a viable strategy. What I do know is that if global warming is just an excuse to have the country increase its energy efficiency and reduce its dependency on foreign oil by shifting to renewables, that's good enough for me. As a commercial property owner and manager, I see everyday the amount of energy that is wasted operating buildings. It is significant, and reducing it not only is good for the country, but saves money and improves the NOI for the building owner!

Rich G said...

Tony, I agree with the idea that wasted energy is damaging our country. Believe me I know, I'm an energy auditor. But if we use false pretenses to do good then we lack integrity. Increasing NOI is definately about lowering a carbon footprint, and saving energy. But if we try and align ourselves with people who seem to have lost their way (i.e. the folks in England) then we loose our credibility.

I think honesty and integrity will do more improve our energy profile than anything else.

Christine said...

Interesting insight, but I think it's misleading to use the term "moderate fossil fuel use" when referring to the benefits of being able to "provide low cost light, heat, food communication & travel". We do NOT live in a world of "moderate" fossil fuel use. Some 3rd world countries may qualify to fit that description, but all of us reading your blog (chances are) do not fit into this category, so we shouldn't allow ourselves to even vaguely fathom that we might also fit this description and let ourselves off the hook, so to speak.
Also, do we really need to dwell on the fact that there may be a few scientists out there who are not 100% convinced that global warming is man-made? The overwhelming majority of the scientific community agrees that global warming is a man-made serious threat to our environment. Even if there are a few skeptics out there (whose motives and funding of their studies I would seriously question), why would we need any more reasons than are already apparent to us to reduce energy consumption and decrease our carbon footprint? We know that our current rates of extraction & consumption are not sustainable since we consume at least 25% more resources each year than our planety is able to produce. This should be enough of a reason to instigate change.
While I agree with the statement that we need to "dramatically increase funding for non-carbon energy R&D", I don't think we can afford to shift our focus too far away from reducing fossil fuel consumption, especially given the recent events in the Gulf of Mexico.