Monday, June 29, 2009

Human progress and global climate change – are we good enough?

We are not what we were 20,000 years ago. We are not the people of 2,000 years past.

Hell, we’re not even the people I was born to.

We’re better than we were.

We’re better at damned near everything. I don’t know the how or why, but we’re still around 50 years post-fusion weapons. We got rid of Freon. We don’t routinely torture children in public schools. We have the ADA. We don’t smoke on airplanes. We have Obama. Gay unions, by whatever name, are inevitable. Religious fundamentalism in American is on the wane. We got rid of the torturers. Maybe this year, maybe ten years from now, America will guarantee good-enough health care to every American.

Progress happens. Lots of progress. Yeah, we go backwards, just like real estate, the Dow, and average July temperatures. Backwards – in the short term. Long term it’s one hell of a trend.

So I think that if the climate change riff on our smoldering Malthusian crisis had come along in 2060 that we’d be ok. Fifty more years of Singularity-free progress and we’d be ready to handle our CO2 problem.

Except it isn’t 2060, and we’re struggling big time. The US Congress has passed a bill that gets us about 5% of the distance, and the Senate is expected to suffocate it. To add injury to injury, those who argued against the bill were babbling gibberish.

I think we’ll still work something out. It’s the Obama effect; the boundaries of the impossible have moved. It’s going to take a lot of effort from the Rationalists however.

So I’ll start with an exercise. I’m going to try to invent a plausible argument against a Carbon Tax-equivalent like Cap and Trade.

For my first Denialist argument I’ll admit that the earth has been been growing warmer, on average, over the past 150 years. There’s no sense fighting on this point.

Then I’ll grant that CO2 might warm the earth, but I’ll say that particulates also cool the earth. Moreover, I’ll claim, we can’t trust simulation data so we  really don’t have good evidence that CO2 emissions are warming the globe. The effect may be solar in nature, and the historic relationship of global warming to CO2 rise is merely coincidence [1]. Therefore, I’ll argue, we need to do more research before acting on CO2 emissions.

That’s one. For my second argument I’ll grant that the earth is getting warmer and CO2 is the cause, but over the next 100 years it’s cheaper to adapt (build submerged homes) than it is to reduce CO2 output. Most likely, assuming we don’t vent the methane, we’ll only have a 3-4 degree Celsius warming by 2100 and that will only reduce GDP by 5%. By the time we get to 2060 we’ll be sucking yottawatts from parallel universes and we can dump the CO2 back into whatever cosmos we’ve depleted.

For my third argument I’ll grant the earth is getting warming, and that CO2 is the cause, and that we can’t “adapt” without risking human civilization and the lives of billions of people. In this case we should invest in terra-forming and climate engineering, such as CO2 sequestration or high altitude aerosol deposition, and forget about Carbon taxes.

So far I’ve come up with three semi-rational contrarian arguments all opposing a Carbon Tax (equivalent). I’ll call them “Solarian”, “Adaptionist”, and “GeoEngineering”. The three cover a spectrum from very weak (Solarian) to worthy of discussion (GeoEngineering).

The latter two are reasonable enough that most Rationalists would include aspects of them in a full-spectrum response. Personally I believe the “Adaptionist” argument makes unrealistic assumptions about the willingness of millions of humans to go gently in the night, and I think the GeoEngineering is astoundingly unlikely to work. Still, I think we’ll have to have some Adaptation (Leaving New Orleans…) and the GeoEngineering approaches do deserve study and testing.

Are there any quasi-Rational arguments against a Carbon Tax (or equivalent) that I’ve missed?

[1] An odd coincidence of course.

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