Is low-lying coastal property a bad investment? Will the polar bears be driven to extinction by the total melting of the Arctic Ice Cap? Will the climate of Alaska and Canada become more congenial for those who prefer warmer weather? Should we panic? Is disaster looming? Why these grand questions? It is time for yet another prestigious and apocalyptic climate trends research report.
The newly released Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report predicts major Arctic snow and ice melting over the next 100 years.
WASHINGTON—The Arctic is warming much more rapidly than previously known, at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the globe, and increasing greenhouse gases from human activities are projected to make it warmer still, according to an unprecedented four-year scientific study of the region conducted by an international team of 300 scientists.
At least half of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is projected to melt by the end of this century, along with a significant portion of the Greenland Ice Sheet, as the region is projected to warm an additional 7 to 13°F (4-7°C) by 2100. These changes will have major global impacts, such as contributing to global sea-level rise and intensifying global warming, according to the final report of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA).
The assessment was commissioned by the Arctic Council (a ministerial intergovernmental forum comprised of eight nations, including the United States, and six Indigenous Peoples organizations) and the International Arctic Science Committee (an international scientific organization appointed by 18 national academies of science).
• In Alaska, Western Canada, and Eastern Russia average winter temperatures have increased as much as 4 to 7°F (3-4°C) in the past 50 years, and are projected to rise 7-13°F (4-7°C) over the next 100 years.
• Arctic sea ice during the summer is projected to decline by at least 50 percent by the end of this century with some models showing near-complete disappearance of summer sea ice. This is very likely to have devastating consequences for some arctic animal species such as ice-living seals and for local people for whom these animals are a primary food source. At the same time, reduced sea ice extent is likely to increase marine access to some of the region’s resources.
• Warming over Greenland will lead to substantial melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, contributing to global sea-level rise at increasing rates. Over the long term, Greenland contains enough melt water to eventually raise sea level by about 23 feet (about 7 meters).
• In the United States, low-lying coastal states like Florida and Louisiana are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.
• Should the Arctic Ocean become ice-free in summer, it is likely that polar bears and some seal species would be driven toward extinction.
I'm not particularly worried about the flooding of Florida retirement communities. The retirees can all move onto cruise ships. The Love Boat TV show could be resurrected with spin-offs that are hybrids with Law And Order TV shows set on different ships. Instead CSI: Miami and CSI: Las Vegas there could be CSI: Norwegian Valkyrie and CSI: Princess Casino.
One aspect on which researchers are keeping their eye: the release of methane and carbon dioxide as permafrost thaws and tundra decomposes. Even if the advance of forests to higher latitudes soaks up some of this released CO2, this still leaves methane - a much more potent greenhouse gas - free to enter the atmosphere.
Ron Bailey, science writer for the libertarian Reason magazine says not so fast. Ron points to lots of contrary facts that argue for a less apocalyptic view of future climate history.
But University of Alabama at Huntsville climatologist John Christy, a climate expert on whom I have relied for years, makes some interesting observations about the Arctic Council's report. "If you look at the long term records, the Arctic has been as warm or warmer than it is today," says Christy. He cites temperature data from the Hadley Centre in the UK showing that from 70 degrees north latitude to the pole, the warmest years on record in the Arctic were 1937 and 1938. This area is just slightly above the Arctic Circle.
Furthermore, those same records show that the Arctic warmed twice as fast between 1917 and 1937 as it has in the past 20 years. After 1940, the Arctic saw a big cool-down and climatologists noted sea ice expanding in the northern Atlantic. Christy argues that what he calls the Great Climate Shift occurred in the late 1970s and caused another sudden warming in the Arctic. Since the late 1970s there has not been much additional warming in the region at all. In fact, on page 23, the Arctic Council Assessment offers very similar data for Arctic temperature trends from 60 degrees north latitude—the area that includes most of Alaska and essentially all of Greenland, most of Norway and Sweden, and the bulk of Russia.
Ron's article has lots more fun facts about what is going on with the climate. Check it out.
So should we be alarmed? Should we wait for the science to become more certain? What is the prudent position to take? Keep in mind that even if the more apocalyptic projections are closer to the truth any choice that uses resources to reduce CO2 emissions with current technology or technology that will be available in the short-to-medium term ends up incurring opportunity costs. Money spent to comply with a massive international regulatory scheme to reduce CO2 emissions would be money not spent on other activities that would cause economic growth. Economic growth gives us more wealth with which to solve problems more easily in the future.
An argument can be made that we should wait a couple of decades to respond to the green house gas build up in order to wait for a scientific understanding of the problem and also because better cheaper technologies for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will be available then. Money spent to use today's technologies will buy us less emissions reduction than money spent 20 or 30 years from now using the technologies available then. Also, slower economic growth would condemn large chunks of the populaitons of less developed countries to prolonged poverty. Given that most of the projected damage from green house warming comes in the last part of the 21st century waiting two or three decades does not cause that much harm (assuming of course that it even causes any harm at all).
However, there is yet another argument worth considering from climate scientist James Hansen of NASA. Hansen has put forward the rather persuasive argument that reduction in non-CO2 green house emission such as soot and methane would provide immediate human health benefits while simultaenously providing a greater cooling effect than the same number of dollars spent on reduction of CO2 emissions would provide. Hansen does not argue against reducing CO2 emssions (see Hansen's clarification of his position on CO2 emissions for more details). However, his basic insights are that not all emissions are equally costly to reduce and that some emissions reductions provide guaranteed improvement in ground air quality and hence benefits for human health. So why not go for reducing those types of emissions first? Makes sense to me.
There is another argument that I hear less often though my regular readers hear it often enough from me: Why not spend more money on research to develop less polluting technologies rather than spend far larger sums on a massive international CO2 emissions enforcement regime for the Kyoto Accords? Kyoto and other proposed regimes for CO2 emissions reduction have cost estimates that range from the tens of trillions of dollars to the hundreds of trillions of dollars . I mean, we are talking about mind-booglingly huge sums of money.
Isn't there an easier and less painful way to deal with a potential problem whose exact costs and benefits may not even be as bleak as the doom-sayers claim? Is it that international bureaucrats and left-liberal lovers of regulations like to make people suffer? Do they think that living in a modern industrial economy amounts to a form of original sin that has to be punished in order to save our ecological souls from damnation by the world Gaia spirit?
Well, instead of a regulatory regime with costs that range into the hundreds of trillions of dollars imagine research efforts that are aimed at developing energy technologies that are simultaneously cheaper and cleaner. Then market mechanisms would do the work of displacing polluting technologies with cleaner technologies.
A research approach would cost a few orders of magnitude less than the regulatory approach. A few orders of magnitude lower cost approach would translate into rather hefty numbers of dollars with a range of tens of billions or hundreds of billions of dollars. That would be plenty of money to fund a lot of research into photovoltaic materials, lighter weight lithium polymer batteries, fuel cells, superconducting materials, nuclear pebble bed modular reactors, and other energy technologies that hold out the possibility of energy sources that are cleaner and cheaper.
Update:Over at Marginal Revolution Fabio Rojas sums up a Daniel Ben-Ami essay about environmentalists and points out that a lot of environmentalists favor solutions to environmental problems that mandate a reduction in production.
He notes that since the Enlightenment people have thought that human progress comes from mastery over nature and from being more productive, but many environmentalists think that human well being is harmed by being more productive. It's an important point that leads to some real policy differences. If you think that we have too many green house gases, then you have two choices: stop manufacturing or learn to manufacture without as much pollution. Too many environmentalists opt for the first choice, which is bad because so much of the world's poor look to gain from industry.
Since so many environmentalists think this way they tend to have an outsized influence on framing how environmental issues get debated. The range of policy options that get debated too often tends to be short on more innovative solutions that avoid the need for decreases in economic products.
Is the influence of Enlightenment thinking on the decline? It seems to me that the Enlightenment view of nature is similar to the Christian view in that humans are held as being above nature and hence have a right to master it use it. Are we moving toward a more pagan age with a reduced embrace of both the Enlightenment view and the Christian views of nature?
Also see Daniel Ben-Ami's essay.
The discussion of global warming provides a striking example of how this works. Almost everyone accepts that climate change means that the world needs to cut back on emissions of greenhouse gases. Yet this would almost certainly mean holding back economic growth, meaning that a large part of the global population will remain poor. There is hardly any discussion of how to deal with global warming while generating substantial economic growth at the same time. Indeed it will be argued that economic growth, far from being the problem, is central to humanity's capacity to handle climate change.
There are two recurring themes running through the environmentalist approach to economics. First, an obsession with the need for limits. The environmentalist debate, in numerous different ways, assumes that strict limits must be put on economic activity. Such premises ignore or at least downplay the power of human creativity. Economic activity does indeed often throw up problems - such as pollution - but it also, it will be argued, provides the means to overcome them.
A particular hate figure for environmentalists is Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the earliest advocate of the notion that man should attempt to take control over nature. For Vandana Shiva, one of India's leading environmentalists, his views are akin to rape and torture. She argues that: 'His was not a "neutral", "objective", "scientific" method. Rather it was a peculiarly masculine mode of aggression and domination over women and non-Western cultures. The severe testing of hypotheses through controlled manipulations of nature, and the necessity of such manipulations if experiments are to be repeatable, were formulated by Bacon in clearly sexist metaphors. Both nature and the process of scientific enquiry appear conceptualized in ways modelled on rape and torture - on man's most violent and misogynous relationship with women.' (35)
Shiva isn't on the fringes of environmentalist thinking - in 2000 she gave a prestigious BBC Reith lecture as part of a series on 'respect for the earth' (36). Neither is she alone in castigating Bacon in such extreme terms. For instance, a collection edited by Herman Daly includes a 1947 essay in which the author CS Lewis compares Bacon to Marlowe's Faustus - selling his soul to the devil (37).
For environmentalists, there is no difference between control over nature and the destruction of the Earth. Mastery of nature is, in this view, synonymous with its obliteration. But for the supporters of the Enlightenment there is a fundamental difference between conquest and destruction. Human mastery of nature means controlling disease, averting natural disasters and above all overcoming scarcity. Conquest of nature is fundamental to human progress, and at the centre of the development of civilisation.
I'm all for mastering nature. Lets build giant reflectors in orbit in the year 2030 or 2040 (using a nanotech bean pole to bring up the construction materials into orbit) and reflect light toward or away from Earth as needed.
The Earth Institute at Columbia University, NYC--Researchers suggest that reductions of trace gases may allow stabilization of climate so that additional global warming would be less than 1° C, a level needed to maintain global coastlines. Although carbon dioxide emissions, an inherent product of fossil fuel use, must also be slowed, the required carbon dioxide reduction is much more feasible if trace gases decrease.
In the current edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Drs. James Hansen and Makiko Sato of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) at the Earth Institute at Columbia University suggest that avoidance of large climate change requires the global community to consider aggressive reductions in the emissions of both carbon dioxide and non-carbon dioxide gases called trace gases. Humans have already increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm. If the world continues on its current trajectory of increasing carbon dioxide, methane and ozone, the likely result will be large climate change, with sea level rise of a few meters or more.
Hansen and Sato point out that if methane and other trace gases are reduced, climate could be stabilized, with warming less than 1°C, at carbon dioxide levels of 520 ppm. However, if the trace gases continue to increase, carbon dioxide would have to be kept beneath 440 ppm. A cap of 440 ppm seems practically impossible to stay under due to existing energy infrastructure. However, Hansen and Sato suggest that, with the possibility of new technologies by mid-century, it is feasible to keep carbon dioxide levels from exceeding approximately 520 ppm.
The co-authors suggest that the non-CO2 gases could be addressed via a Montreal Protocol-like process, or by adding additional gases to the Montreal Protocol itself. The Montreal Protocol has been very effective in reducing emissions of gases that destroy stratospheric ozone. Developed and developing countries have worked together harmoniously in this process, with the World Bank providing support for participation of developing countries.
Cutting back on methane emissions would be pretty cheap to do and would provide health benefits for reasons unrelated to global warming.
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