Practical Responses to Climate Change

This comment, “Climate is Changing. Now What?” by Marcelo Riensi on Global Economy Matters, discusses the types of actions available to deal with global warming: reducing emissions via conservation and improved energy efficiency; managing the costs and disruption as efficiently as possible; and finding replacement sources of energy:

[T]he IPCC report can be summarized thus: The energy infrastructure of the planet’s economy proves to carry big and growing costs (the ecological, societal, and economic impact of climate change).

As in any case when a technology or resource proves to have high attached costs, we have three (not mutually exclusive) ways to deal with this issue:

We can reduce our use of the technology, in this case by greater energy efficiency and lessened consumption….it’s important to note that this is problem mitigation, not a solution. Most energy used in a city -where most humans live- isn’t spent on what you might call “energy luxuries”, but on the very infrastructural and industrial processes that make it possible for us to live, in the mean, better than our grandparents did….By and large, “green” means “relatively not so bad as the usual,” not “sustainable in a way scalable to a multi-billion global society who doesn’t particularly want to go back to farming and occasional plagues as a way of life.”

An alternative is to learn to live with the associated costs in the most efficient way possible: preparing our infrastructure for more frequent extreme events, strengthening food production and distribution networks to smooth food supply variability, figuring out a way to deal with migratory and epidemiological patterns triggered by shifting climate patterns, etc….[I]t’s again problem mitigation, not solution. We don’t have the technology or the resources to deal with long-term climate disruption in a purely reactive way.

The third alternative, of course, is finding alternate sources of energy. Renewable sources like wind and solar energy are the most popular, although I’m not sure we can support existing -not to mention rising- energy demand using them; in the long term, probably something like widespread nuclear or fusion technology (once it’s available) will be necessary to take the torch from fossil fuels. In any case, shifting the global economy’s energy sources will, at best, be staggeringly costly and rather slow. There’s no choice but doing it, but it won’t happen overnight, it won’t be easy – and it won’t shield us from the backlash of our past and current technologies.

This framework, while useful, omits a fourth category: corrective or offsetting measures. Admittedly, many of them, like the ocean or land burial of greenhouse gases, are untested on a large scale, so the efficacy, costs (including possible yet unknown side effects) and participation are yet unknown. But they have the potential to have the greatest impact near-term, since they don’t require widespread infrastructure or lifestyle changes. The Sydney Morning Herald, in the story “Ocean Burial of Greenhouse Gas Approved,” summarizes the new international rules. It also points out that there is no fail safe against leaks, which would acidify the ocean, which in turn would make it hard for shrimps and mollusks to grow their shells. At current “price” levels (meaning current carbon trading prices versus cost of carbon burial), carbon disposal is not attractive. But a carbon tax could change that.

International rules allowing burial of greenhouse gases beneath the seabed came into force yesterday in what will be a step towards fighting global warming, if storage costs are cut and leaks can be averted.

The new rules will permit industrialists to capture heat-trapping gases from big emitters such as coal-fired power plants or steel mills and entomb them offshore – slowing warming while allowing continued use of fossil fuels.

“Storage of carbon dioxide under the seabed will be allowed from February 10, 2007 under amendments to an international agreement governing the dumping of wastes at sea,” the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) said in a statement….

The changes apply to oceans worldwide and could clear the way to more investment in future subsea carbon storage by governments and companies, despite criticism by environmentalists that there are few safeguards against leaks….

A 2005 UN report, however, warned that such storage would be widely applied only if the penalty for emitting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere was $US25-$US30 a tonne – far above current prices in a European Union market.

It said carbon burial could be one of the top contributors to slowing warming this century. And in Paris last week, top climate scientists warned that global warming could bring rising seas, more floods, storms and heatwaves by 2100….

On land, national laws generally govern burial of carbon dioxide.

Greenpeace, which has branded subsea storage as illegal dumping in the past, said the revisions were too hasty….Carbon dioxide is not toxic but can lead to acidification of sea water, making it hard for creatures from shrimp to oysters to build shells. In heavy concentrations above ground it can displace air and so asphyxiate animals and plants….

Statoil has injected about nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide in rocks far below its Sleipner gas field in the past decade, with no signs of leaks…. Following Sleipner, two other big carbon storage sites are in operation in Canada and Algeria and more are planned.

As an aside, it’s unfortunate that the discussion of greenhouse gases seems limited to carbon dioxide. Even though it is produced in great quantities in many industrial processes, the nastiest greenhouse gas is methane. That should be the prime candidate for burial.

I also recall reading once that mixing white reflective pigments into road surfaces (think sunblock for your highway) and flat rooftops would reflect enough light back into the atmosphere to offset global warming significantly (those of you who saw “An Inconvenient Truth” may recall that the loss of polar icecaps was a nasty downward spiral because the icecaps reflected solar heat and light, while the open ocean stored it well. So replacing the lost white surface of the icecaps with white surfaces elsewhere would be cheap and beneficial). The story even recommended one pigment for first world countries and a vastly cheaper but reasonably effective one for the third world. If any readers have seen this story and know how to find it, I’d VERY much appreciate it if you left a comment about it.

Riensi also mentioned taking what amount to prophylactic measures, like better disaster preparedness. Unfortunately, as Katrina and the high level of heat-related deaths in Europe last summer show, programs tend to be implemented after the problem is well established, and even then, the responses are (so far) pretty half hearted. No one is planning (in a serious way) for coastal flooding, even though the combination of rising sea levels and more extreme weather makes this appear inevitable. In fairness, however, the range and seriousness of outcomes of climate change is still uncertain, so it may make sense (up to a point) to see what adverse consequences surface first.

This failure to take prudent defensive steps may in part result from the political costs and benefits. As Riensi notes:

Symbolic conservation measures (like California’s amusingly named “How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb Act”) deliver a lot of the political benefits of a climate-conscious policy with few of the costs. Conservation by itself doesn’t work -and much less if it’s only implemented piecemeal- but, from the point of view of politicians, that’s not a big concern. Much like saving the pandas, it might not be realistically relevant policy, but it sure looks good.

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