Short Term Solutions For Long Term Problems

One of the difficulties with how we’ve managed climate change is that we’ve become obsessed with reaching a Grand Bargain, a complete solution.

Life doesn’t work  that way, usually, and there’s no real reason to think that climate change is any different.

The initial response to the newly discovered issue of global warming was to call for a global cap on emissions of CO2. The Kyoto Treaty was the consequent mechanism and it failed for want of a second. Cap and Trade at a national level failed to get passed in the U.S. and it was passed but failed to deliver in Europe.

As American budget makers are discovering, grand bargains are really tough. They are guaranteed to step on enough toes to make them difficult to enact and are even tougher in the implementation phase.

I heard once that suicide is a long term solution to a short term problem, something that makes sense to me. I think we should flip that and realize that things that generally work are short term solutions to long term problems.

Did you know that treating the symptoms, not the causes cures many diseases? It does–but it seems like a cop-out so we ignore it. It doesn’t ‘feel’ right.

This not ‘feeling’ right has caused principled opposition to many effective tactics to reduce emissions. Known as ‘no regrets’ policies, they don’t cure global warming–but they partially ameliorate it. Most energy efficiency projects, such as insulating houses and windows or installing ground source heat pumps, fall in this category. Small bore, tactical, worthy but not spectacular.

Others include efficiencies gained from modernizing air traffic control–letting planes fly closer to each other by putting iPhones with GPS in the hands of navigators, allowing staged descent to reduce wait times at landing, eliminating no fly zones that are leftovers of the Cold War. There are hundreds such.

Larger scale endeavors include things like Combined Heat and Power, something that currently supplies 9% of the world’s primary energy, but which never enters climate discussions. It’s really complex–you burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, just like everyone else does. But instead of wasting the 65% of the energy produced during the process, known by the technical term ‘heat,’ you pipe it where heat is needed.


Well, okay. Maybe it’s not that complex… Some northern countries get 40% of their energy that way and it reduces their emissions dramatically.

But we never talk about that in climate discussions because it isn’t pure–they are burning fossil fuels, damn them! The same is true for waste to energy plants, using heat from nuclear power plants, ad absurdium.

The need for a Grand Solution to climate change keeps legislators and lobbyists, bloggers and bloviators, con men and and cranks in business, muddying the waters and preventing effective action.

Those who have embraced the idea of a Grand Solution for climate change trivialize the contribution each human can make. This reduces the sense of accomplishment we can feel by conserving, changing fuels and participating at a community level. It also leaves the power and the glory to the Grand Solutionists. I somehow doubt that’s coincidental.

Fortunately, people have enough common sense to ignore them, and are busy installing solar panels on their roofs, solar water heaters throughout the world, buying more efficient cars and getting on with life in better insulated houses. At a minimum, they seem to understand something that the Grand Solutionists never will. Individual action may not change the climate–but it will change the politics, as those who answer to voters watch their individual actions and recognize they need to run in front of the parade so they can continue to pretend to lead it.

The same person who characterized suicide so succinctly also said one other thing that is quite appropriate for dealing with the issue of climate change–“You cannot do everything. You must do something.”


28 responses to “Short Term Solutions For Long Term Problems

  1. Although, Jevon’s paradox informs us that as we use things more efficiently, the more of it we will use. Basically, efficiency frees up money that is then used to buy more of the same resource. For instance, I know many people who have purchased Toyota Prius autos who drive nearly twice as much as they have before, consuming more fuel (not twice, but more) as they have before. I would hazard a guess that households who install supplemental “renewable” power systems end up buying more power from the grid than they have before, even though they are “saving” electricity with their systems.

    • During the past 40 years I have had vehicles which got between 26 and 42 mpg. During that time, everyone knows what gas prices did. Neither variable affected the total miles I drove. Why? I live well within my means and don’t joy ride. I ride my bike whenever I can not because I have to. The mileage I got and the price of gas merely affected my rate of savings. And once a part of time the countries collective rate of personal savings affected economic growth.

      • My example is anecdotal, yet illustrates what actually happens when efficiency is increased. Your personality drives your driving decisions, such as your desire to maximize overall savings, whereas most of the population and the economy in general, displays Jevon’s Paradox. I’m more like you in my personal usage decisions, so we are both in the minority.

    • Not true in my case. Our house has ground thermal heating system and the electricity bill is about 60% compared to having a direct electric heating. As long as temperature inside is comfortable (21-22 degrees C), I have no need to use more electricity. Living above 60 N, an efficient heating system and good insulation are a no-brainer. Good for everybody.

      • Are you saying your house is cooler or warmer after you made your modifications? In your case, Jevon’s paradox says you will heat your house to a higher temperature than you have before, because the cost of heat, in your case, has declined. Your example shows the process of substitution, as that occurs, our consumption of energy (heat, electricity, etc.) will continue to increase. There is nothing we can do to decrease humanity’s consumption of energy, we can only fiddle with the form of energy consumed. Some are “better” as per your example, but may have returns on investment that can be hard to swallow by average consumers.

      • Steve, how do you explain the fact that in America the past couple of years, with rising GDP, rising population and rising industrial production, still saw a decrease in energy consumption?

    • Well, y’all can be darn sure that people would drive more if gas were cheaper. That’s the same thing as saying they’d drive more if they double the efficiency of the vehicle. Much of America, at any rate, is today on a petrol-limited budget. There’s no doubt they’d take up some of the slack that increased efficiency would create.

      But not all forms of energy usage are subject to the same constraints. People can add alot of miles in a week. But they’re not likely to add nearly as many degrees to their living rooms and bedrooms. If you’re really cheap and keep your home at 65f (18C), you might push the thermostat up to 77f (25C) if your efficiency doubled. But highly unlikely you’d double your energy consumption, and even more unlikley you’d triple it if your efficiency tripled.

      Incidentally, I’ve noticed that auto makers have, in preparation for the new mileage standards, turned all of their vehicles into a shape resembling a narrow wedge. I suspect that a dramatic increase in engine efficiency would allow them to move back toward body designs that are useful instead of efficient. (I love the old box-shaped Land Crusiers, but alas these are no more; fortunately, the venerable Suburban survives in something close to a utilitarian shape).

  2. If I use more hot water so what? It all gets heated by solar power, I live in an area where getting rid of water is more of a problem than saving it, and if the hot water tap is left running, I just shut it off and wait for it to re-heat. It’s really nice to have the ability to be profligate with a resource, as well as being smug with regard to it’s environmental impact 🙂

  3. I actually sympathize with the catastrophists clinging to a grand solution. If you think AGW requires immediate replacement of fossil fuels, then anything less than a grand solution is ineffective. The problem is that they say this, and then write fake grand solutions that exempt China, underscoring that the group least serious about climate are the climate concerned.
    Personally, I think the reason they do this is two-fold: 1. the grand solution is nuclear and nobody wants to admit it and 2. there is partisan gold to be had in maintaining the status quo and blaming it on the other party.
    That said, by all means pick the low-hanging fruit and go with no regrets strategies. Make sure they really are no-regrets. I’ll bet the UK is, or will soon, be regretting the cash they poured into wind.

  4. Climate grand solutions are grand delusions. Windmills, in study after study, are being shown for the frauds that skeptics always claimed. Ethanol is destabilizing the world’s food supply. Solar, like fusion is the penny in the corner of a round room. CO2 sequestration? Pleeeeease. Meanwhile, the AGW obsessed are reduced to weather chasing, claiming that any weather event is *proof!* of the nigh on end times. And the climate-fear industry is jacking up insurance rates and screwing up perfectly good pipelines in order to ‘save the planet’. What a hoot this all comes down to.

  5. Tom,
    Your last two posts have been excellent because they raise attention to the driving force behind “managing” climate change. In short, it is entities with agendas far beyond simply addressing weather and climate. Sadly I think that in their zeal for a “solution” that also addresses their agenda, they may be over-reaching what is politically, technically and economically feasible. As a result it is possible that there will be a backlash against even common sense “no regrets” actions.

  6. Tom,
    Doing nothing different in regards to dealing with climate and its manifestation, weather, is still doing something. Quite a lot, actually.
    And frankly it is all that is needed.

  7. How many steps in a journey? Let the tribes agree on a first step, one that can be taken right away by a great number of people.

  8. I’d like to get rid of the term “no regrets” to describe the step by step approach to replacing fossil fuel. No regrets is what we say after a lovers’ break-up or after trying hard, but coming up short.

    • What would be a better term, in your opinion? So far, replacing fossil fuel with ethanol for transport and wind for coal is creating a lot of regrets. And those are ‘step-by-step’.

  9. The key issue is how much carbon gets used and how much gets left in the ground. The naysayer stance is “use all of it”. The activist stance is “leave as much as possible in the ground, or put it back in the ground somehow”.

    A fair reading of the science combined with an intent not to drastically alter conditions on earth implies a necessity to get to zero net emissions or even slightly negative net emissions as soon as is feasible. This is because of the very long atmospheric residency time of a CO2 perturbation.

    It seems to me that the “lukewarmist” stance, by avoiding this issue altogether, is not substantially different from the naysayer stance. If the science is correct, it matters very little whether the fossil fuel gets used up in one century or three. Slowing emissions down only delays the impacts; it does not avoid them. Furthermore, as new populations become mroe economically viable, demand for energy will increase, and impacts start to pile up quickly even at reduced carbon intensity. From the point of view of sustainability, if the science is roughly correct, slowing emissions is only valuable if it is part of a vigorous effort to get them to near or below zero.

    • A fair reading of the science today indicates a cliamte that is not really very sensitive to CO2, and certainly not in dangerous ways from the amounts of CO2 we are going to emit.
      Zero CO2 will eventually happen when the anti-nuclear power extremists stop forcing us to waste money on terrible things like ethanol, wind and solar and permit nuclear power development to proceed.

    • We’ve had this discussion before. We don’t need to leave all the carbon in the ground–we need to cut emissions significantly. Which is fortunate, as nobody anywhere thinks that we will go carbon free any time soon.

      If that makes lukewarmism similar to what you call naysayers and the rest of the world calls skeptics, well, that’s okay with me. If you need a convenient tag by which you can pigeonhole your opponents into one denialister hate box, now you’ve got it in front of you.

  10. “A necessity to get to zero net emissions or even slightly negative net emissions as soon as is feasible is agreed to by everyone from lukewarmer to existential threatist. And, many of the not concerned about climate would like to replace fossil for different reasons. The goal is known. The path is foggy and unmarked.So, let’s all hold hands and take a step together, one that can be taken right away by a great number of people..

  11. For a common goal with respect to energy use, to be agreed on by society, debate and discussion are needed.
    How has the communication strategy, chosen by the IPCC and friends, helped the public chose?
    I suspect the government activists, the UN and environmental groups are in for a very rough ride.
    Attempting to stampede the public,exaggerating the certainty and essentially choosing to treat the public as morons are not successful techniques.
    Now the warming has stalled in the face of rising CO2 emissions, the much vaunted computer models are rubbish and the cause revealed as severely over egged, does anyone think the general public is going to go along with the wishes of elitists who are so exposed.
    Very hard to sell, I was mistaken, after you insisted all who doubted you were fools, deniers and evil.
    Emissions are going up, respect for doom sayers and authority is going down.
    Short of a technological breakthrough emissions reduction is political suicide.

  12. It doesn’t matter is the steps taken are big or small. What matters is that they acheive their goal.
    Wind, solar and biofuels don’t acheive anything, no reduction in emissions. They are incapable of supplying a significant portion of our energy needs, and are a pure waste of resources, that have, besides, their own harmful side effects.
    The big “bargains” (treaties) sought, or the small bargains (voluntary “goals”) are meaningless as long as we don’t have a technically feasible, carbon free energy source.

    • Jacob we have had feasible very low net carbon sources of energy for over 50 years: Nuclear and hydro. Of the two, nuclear is much more flexible and practical, since it does not need large drops of large amounts of water and does not drown perfectly good river valleys.

      • That’s a really good point, Hunter, and one that isn’t really made often enough and simply enough–by which I mean that message alone, without attendant philosophizing and political point scoring.

  13. Steve said:
    “Are you saying your house is cooler or warmer after you made your modifications? In your case, Jevon’s paradox says you will heat your house to a higher temperature than you have before, because the cost of heat, in your case, has declined”

    It was not a modification. The house was built with ground thermal heat pump system.

    Why would I heat my house more? It gets uncomfortably hot. This is Finland, not Britain. We keep our houses at comfortable temps also in winter. 21-22 degrees C – that’s 69-71 F – is comfortable to me. This winter the temps outside dropped to -25 C and I turned up the heat. When the freeze ended our house got to 24-25 C and that is too warm for us.

    Jevons’ Paradox has limitations. There is this ” too much of a good thing” issue. If the price of food halves, you will not eat double the amount – I hope. Some people do, I know.

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