Matthew Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist and newly appointed member of the UK House of Lords, has written an essay (found here: Ridley-Lukewarmer-Ten-Tests) which has 10 tests he says must be passed before he will consider current climate policy to be fit for purpose, or even sane.
His tenth and final test is this:
“Finally, you might make the argument that even a very small probability of a very large and dangerous change in the climate justifies drastic action. But I would reply that a very small probability of a very large and dangerous effect from the adoption of large-scale renewable energy, reduced economic growth through carbon taxes or geo-engineering also justifies extreme caution. Pascal’s wager cuts both ways. At the moment, it seems highly likely that the cure is worse than disease. We are taking chemotherapy for a cold.”
My response to this is: Lord Ridley, I at least do not argue that a small probability of a large and dangerous change in the climate justifies drastic action.
Instead I argue that an easily foreseeable and preventable problem of medium scope will be stacked on top of the other challenges facing the planet, in large part because we refuse to take the ‘no regrets’ actions that would be beneficial to us even if the problem turned out not to exist.
Easily foreseeable? In 2075 there will be 9.1 billion people on the planet. Apart from the Bottom Billion, most will be striving to live a Western lifestyle and most will have the money to do so. The Western lifestyle is characterized by energy consumption–308 mbtus per person per year for Americans, 427 mbtus for Canadians, a more modest 250 mbtus for Germans. Pick your preferred trajectory and perform the multiplication.
If in 2075 we are in fact burning 3,000 quads annually, even at a very low sensitivity global warming due to human emissions of CO2 becomes a problem. Remember that we only consumed 523 quads worldwide in 2010.
We most likely won’t be blessed by ENSO neutral years and other cycles will be on the upswing by that time as well. A confluence of upward moving cycles could make one of the final decades of this century truly dramatic–even with low sensitivity and without overstepping the more modest predictions of potential warming that we Lukewarmers prefer to use.
Preventable? We could be safeguarding coast lines and flood plains now, using insurance as an incentive and vast armies of the unemployed in the U.S. as the workforce. How long will New York and New Jersey have to wait for a breakwater?
These are things we should be doing even in the complete absence of global warming.
We could be supporting energy efficiency and establishing benchmarks for buildings and factories–the amount of variation in energy efficiency in buildings with the highest LEEDS certification is huge. We’re not taking it seriously.
We will eventually wish to preserve remaining fossil fuels for specialty uses, with or without global warming. Energy efficiency saves money and gives us fuel to use for the future.
We could be supporting Rural Electrification Programs throughout the developing world, giving them solar power and saving them the huge cost of building a transmission grid.
Even without an iota of anthropogenic climate change, helping them cease to burn dung saves lives–giving them electricity brings them closer to us in all the right ways–avoiding the construction of a transmission grid preserves important parts of threatened ecosystems.
We could increase our investment in research on battery (5 x in 5 years is a good start) technology and storage.
We could write off failed projects like support for converting American corn into ethanol and help people eat and turn our attention to fourth generation biofuels–Get ADM off our backs and out of the fuel business.
There are a hundred things that we should do even if the planet is turning into an icebox. We could eliminate holdover no-fly zones established for World War II and the Cold War, saving millions of gallons of jet fuel. We could go to staged landing that reduces the millions of hours planes spend circling airports. We could mandate uprating of existing hydroelectric facilities. We could promote ground source heat pumps in northern lands instead of insisting that solar and wind will somehow work where in fact they will not.
We could actually start putting up nuclear power plants. France went nuclear over a period of 20 years, ending up with 85% of their power provided by nukes–and it happened to be the period of greatest prosperity the country has ever experienced.
What global warming threatens us with is not cancer and adaptation and mitigation efforts are not chemotherapy.
The more apt analogy is that we have been diagnosed as obese and are being asked to consider a sane regimen that avoids over-consumption, adopting a slightly different lifestyle that involves more exercise and healthier foods.
Being asked to put away the things of childhood–the endless procession of Big Macs and gallon-sized Slurpees–may not sound as romantic as fighting the Big C and heroically charting your own course.
But that’s what it comes down to.