Saturday, July 04, 2009

Green shoots on climate change

The infamous green shoots of economic recovery are dust now, but I feel twinges of optimism about climate change.

A few weeks ago I wrote …

Gordon's Notes: 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….

…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

Even then I came down on the side of mild optimism. Since then I’ve actually become more optimistic.


Well, first, there is that bill. Sure the Senate may kill it, but it was an admission. It’s like the first Surgeon General’s report pointing out that smoking wasn’t really a healthy habit. The bill doesn’t change much, but it changes everything.

The second came from Grame Wood’s Atlantic article on geo-engineering (aka terraforming or climate engineering). There are two advantages to the geo-engineering track. One is that it gives nature hating Republicans a face saving way to admit there’s a CO2 problem. Face saving because they can acknowledge the problem while still offending tree huggers and continuing to pave paradise. That’s progress – of a sort. More importantly, however, is that geo-engineering is a low cost weapon of mass destruction …

..The scariest thing about geo-engineering, as it happens, is also the thing that makes it such a game-changer in the global-warming debate: it’s incredibly cheap. Many scientists, in fact, prefer not to mention just how cheap it is. Nearly everyone I spoke to agreed that the worst-case scenario would be the rise of what David Victor, a Stanford law professor, calls a “Greenfinger”—a rich madman, as obsessed with the environment as James Bond’s nemesis Auric Goldfinger was with gold. There are now 38 people in the world with $10 billion or more in private assets, according to the latest Forbes list; theoretically, one of these people could reverse climate change all alone. “I don’t think we really want to empower the Richard Bransons of the world to try solutions like this,” says Jay Michaelson, an environmental-law expert, who predicted many of these debates 10 years ago.

Even if Richard Branson behaves, a single rogue nation could have the resources to change the climate. Most of Bangladesh’s population lives in low-elevation coastal zones that would wash away if sea levels rose. For a fraction of its GDP, Bangladesh could refreeze the ice caps using sulfur aerosols (though, in a typical trade-off, this might affect its monsoons). If refreezing them would save the lives of millions of Bangladeshis, who could blame their government for acting? Such a scenario is unlikely; most countries would hesitate to violate international law and become a pariah. But it illustrates the political and regulatory complications that large-scale climate-changing schemes would trigger…

So all those island states and African nations that will be destroyed by a 11 degree F rise in temperature have a card to play. They can nuke the sun, so to speak.

Call me a cynic, but I believe climate weapons will concentrate minds more effectively than a hundred pleas for common humanity.

The third green shoot come from a recent post by James Fallows …


…The speakers were Thomas Lovejoy, a long-time biodiversity expert, and David Hayes, who has recently become the #2 official in the Department of Interior.

Lovejoy's presentation began with a reminder of all the bad things that are happening to wildlife, to biodiversity, to life in the ocean, etc as CO2 levels in the atmosphere go up, taking temperatures with them. But … he emphasized how huge a role the Earth's own natural processes and vegetations -- its forests, grasslands, wetlands, even deserts -- can play in absorbing much larger quantities of carbon from the atmosphere than they do now and thereby reducing the greenhouse effect…

… He tied this analysis to perhaps the most frequently-used chart in modern climate-change thinking -- one produced by McKinsey & Co and the McKinsey Global Institute comparing the relative costs of different measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere.

On the chart, the below-the-line items, on the left side, are GHG-reduction measures that save more money than they cost. Most of these are sheer efficiency measures (insulating buildings, switching to more efficient lights). The above-the-line escalating figures on the right are the rising costs of other abatement measures. The most expensive of them are high-tech "carbon capture and sequestration" systems, plus protecting forests in heavily-populated Asian countries.


Lovejoy's point was that a lot of "re-greening" steps are near the middle of the chart, either actually saving money or costing very little compared with a variety of clean-energy technologies…

… then Hayes stepped up with what was news to me. This was the announcement that the Department of Interior … is now quite serious about applying a "Re-greening" approach to the 20 percent of the US landmass under its control.

Hayes gave more details than I will recount here. They boiled down to a sequence of: trying to measure and understand the carbon-absorption properties of the various lands under its control; seeing how they can be improved, including with market-based offsets; telling the story to the public of why protecting and expanding forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc has an important climate-change component; making forest-preservation an important part of international climate negotiations (rather than talking only about clean-energy sources); and a lot more. (Including changes in U.S. agriculture, which are of course outside Interior's direct control, so that instead of being, incredibly, a net emitter of greenhouse gases, it has a positive effect. This is related to the Food, Inc. discussion of industrial agriculture mentioned here.)

.. it was surprising enough to hear from a senior DOI official and seemed politically and psychologically shrewd, in letting people think that there was some reaction to dire greenhouse gas projections other than holding their hands over their ears and wishing the whole problem would go away.

So we’ve got three green shoots. We’re painfully, slowly, moving to admit we have a very big problem. We’ve realized that poor nations in the path of the climate juggernaut have a (potentially lethal) card to play. And, lastly, a Rational President means we have a Rational Department of the Interior thinking about how humanity can win this one.

Today I’ll be optimistic … about climate change.

Health care? I still don’t see Americans coming to terms with the real options.

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