Climate Change: From Denial to Lip Service?

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The third installment of this year’s series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out, this one focusing on the level of corrective measures needed to counteract climate change and their likely cost. As we reported earlier (“Third IPCC Report: Compromised on Arrival“), each successive report is more and more politicized. This one has been watered down considerably due to the strident opposition by China of anything that might suggest they need to slow their industrialization. They fought for blame to be pointed at the first world, when developing countries will produce an estimated 75% of C02 output over the next 25 years, and to keep the “neutral” emissions level (meaning the level at which climate change won’t worsen) at 550 parts per million (ppm), when more recent research suggests the target needs to be 450 ppm to forestall disruptive change. From the BBC:

The draft text of the technical report, which will be used by governments around the world as the basis for national climate policies, concludes that tackling climate change is both achievable and affordable.

But environmental groups say the findings need to be re-evaluated because it is based on the idea that global atmospheric CO2 levels can be stabilised at 550ppm without risking dangerous climate change.

“If governments decided to stabilise at 550ppm, I think we would see dramatic impacts around the world,” said Stephanie Tunmore, a Greenpeace spokeswoman.

“Hundreds of millions more people would be at risk from water shortages, and it looks – from recent evidence – as though we would start to lose the massive ice sheets at the poles, resulting in sea level rises.”

She added that scientists now warn a safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere is closer to 450ppm.

However, the authors of the economic report are technically unable to take the 450ppm into account because the data set on which they must base their findings uses the 550ppm figure.

Attempts to change the emphasis of the report to reflect the new figures have been angrily resisted by Chinese delegates at the conference.

They argue that any change in emphasis would be unsupported by any economic evidence, and would threaten to undermine the nation’s drive to tackle poverty.

Bizarrely, as the reports drill deeper and give dimension to the global warming problem and the possible solutions, the response, at least in America, seems to be more complacency rather than more urgency. The public is relegating it to the long list of Problems I Can’t Solve, like the Bush Administration, Darfur, Iraq, health care, loss of civil rights, etc.

My impression is completely unscientific, but it’s based on the level and prominence of press coverage this report has garnered, versus the first one, which got lots of first page and editorial coverage, and the seeming lack of interest among my contemporaries (the moderately well paid to very well paid professional class in Manhattan, who on the whole are liberal and one would think sympathetic). The headlines for this one have emphasized the reassuring part of the story (example: “Global Warming Fight is Affordable, Says New Report“). Few have mentioned that raising the price of carbon to the level commensurate with the targeted C02 reductions translates into gas prices 25 cents to $1.00 a gallon higher than today.

Global warming is the one big problem where a lot of individual actions would ameliorate the problem and also send a very important signal to government and business that consumers are willing and able to take a little lifestyle hit to combat global warming. In fact, the measures consumers can take, most importantly, improving the energy efficiency of their homes, are cost-effective investments (although if you look at them on a payback basis, it does take years to recoup the initial expense).

And despite the fact that the cost officially estimated is probably optimistic (.12% of GDP through 2030, which compounds to a 3% haircut over that period), the Bush Administration has already deemed the cost to be too high. World GDP will more than double over that period. 3% is a marginal difference. But these guys were never good at math.

And the reason the final figure is likely to be higher is that most countries need to pull together. The report assumes that everyone goes after the low-hanging fruit. If big players like the US and China drag their feet, more responsible countries will have to go after more costly C02 reductions (assuming they have the political will) to compensate.

Now in fairness, we did have the story today that new lighting standards are likely to be imposed that will phase out the very inefficient incandescent bulb in 10 years. What kind of nonsense is that? Canada is getting rid of them by 2012. Australia is banning them in three years. Why is the US taking so much longer? Are light bulb manufacturers important employers that need to be protected?

Here are more observations from Stormy at Angry Bear:

As reported in the Washington Post, scientists have calculated the cost of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.

The price tag for this exogenous variable just went up: $100 for every ton of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere, not exactly chump change.

The most ambitious option, aimed at stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels by 2030, would require measures that would add $100 to the costs associated with each ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.

And this is the price tag just to avoid the worst effects of global warming!

Of course, the U.S. and China, now #1 and #2—or is it #2 and #1—in emissions vehemently objected to the report.

China literally has bet the farm on its industrialization plans, as I pointed out in a prior thread: “China: Now to 2100”. And China is not about to call in its bets. Nor is the U.S. about to risk that kind of inflationary pressure. What would the Fed do? It is worried about wages being inflationary; now this?

You know, I have a hard time getting my head around what is going to happen. Clearly, we are quickly, more quickly than people would have guessed two years ago, approaching a crisis. We are going to have to make a choice, roll the dice, take a chance, hedge our bets…whatever.

Two years ago, everyone was fat and happy. Global warming was potentially a problem in 2100; even then, we would not see the seas rise that much. Plenty of time. Yet, every time we turn around, the situation seems worse.

Perhaps it is just that collectively we are beginning to grasp the full range of the effects of global warming: species extinction, droughts, storms, sea rise, glacial water sources disappearing, desertification…. Or maybe it’s that global warming is appearing sooner and faster than we thought, that indeed it is worse….

I keep thinking about Tyler Cowen’s remark at Marginal Revolution:

I have yet to see a real plan which recognizes three points: a) without continued economic growth the world will probably fall apart, b) the problem is real and significant, c) any good preventive solution would require an enormous amount of concerted action across both time and across nations.

While Tyler was comforted with the thought that global warming was sufficiently distant as to not be a problem, I think, nonetheless, he has expressed our present dilemma perfectly: Will the world fall apart without continued growth? Certainly, a carbon tax of that dimension would put a serious crimp in growth. Even then, it might not be enough. Secondly, does the world have to will to act collectively, especially when the two largest offenders are dragging their feet. And finally, is there enough time?

Remember when you worried about 2100. Well, now you have to worry about 2035. We seem to be running out of time.

Suggestion for those who are interested in following global warming news: Do a Google alert entitled: Effects Global Warming. In the past six months, country after country is starting to evaluate the future and present effects in its own backyard. Devastating future effects occur well before 2050. Present effects are already evident.

Today’s alert links to articles discussing:

* Kasmir’s wetlands having shrunk over 70% and forest cover too has drastically reduced.
* Spy agencies looking at the security implications.
* Birds and fish across Europe facing a struggle for food over the next fifty years as global warming wipes out millions of aquatic animals.

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