Consistency of Climate Argumentation–The Test of Time

I wrote this in 2010. There’s very little I’d change in it for today’s readers:

There’s a joke about the perennially polite British–typical protest outside Westminster: “What do we want? Moderate change! When do we want it? In due course…”

I find that I cannot agree with the analysis or course of action put forward by Al Gore, Joe Romm and the gang at Real Climate. I believe they claim too much certainty regarding the science and that their policy prescriptions would serve to make us feel good without lowering CO2 emissions, while at the same time doing active harm to the poor.

I find that I cannot agree with the analysis or course of action put forward by Senator James Inhofe, Marc Morano or Viscount Lord Monckton. The idea that humanity can triple its population and equip so many of them with cars, electricity, air conditioning, unlimited supplies of domestically grown meat and other high caloric foods without having an impact on our climate and other aspects of our environment seems absurd. I think for the most part that they have to consciously avoid looking at the planet and the work of the main body of science to maintain this point of view, and that their proposed course of action would serve to make us feel good without lowering CO2 emissions, while at the same time doing active harm to the poor.

Being in the middle of two extremes does not make me right. At best, it might allow me to see reason in some arguments at both ends without rejecting them just because of their provenance. And I do not choose my position because of where the extremes lie. I choose it because this is where my best thinking (poor as it may be–I am not a scientist) has led me.

I believe that global warming is real, and a moderate threat to our optimum course of development. I believe the first theory of global warming–that a doubling of concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to a slight warming of the planet’s mean temperatures–but not the second–that this will trigger positive feedback through the untrammeled growth of water vapor leading to much more drastic temperature rises.

I see this as a threat requiring a policy response because there really is no such thing as an average global temperature. What we are measuring is an increased level of heat in a system, and it will appear unevenly, striking certain areas with heavy impact while leaving others basically untouched.

But I see it as a threat that must be dealt with in the same context as many other threats to our continued development. I believe our first responsibility is to the poor of this world, and that brings an immediate conflict between our responsiblity to them and to remediation of global warming. The most important thing the poor need is access to cheap energy, which will serve to worsen CO2 emissions. But I have to say their need is so pressing that we should address it first.

The rest of it is just taxes and spending–which companies will win, which ones will lose, and how one section of society will work to make sure another section pays for what we decide to do. But the poor should not be forced to wait.

The natural tendency is for technology to make our energy sources and consumption less CO2 intensive, and we should work to encourage that tendency. The primary tool at our disposal right now is nuclear power, and we should be actively encouraging its increase. While candidate for president, Barack Obama put forward a sheaf of policy proposals regarding energy generation, consumption and distribution that I support whole heartedly. I believe that we need to put a price on carbon emissions to show that we recognise that those who generate and use fossil-fueled energy have a negative impact that carries a cost. I was originally supportive of Cap and Trade, and might be again if American legislation improves dramatically. If it does not, I would rather see a small, revenue neutral carbon tax that can be adjusted every ten years as circumstances warrant.

The UK DFID once did a study that showed that Africa could be electrified at a cost of £150 billion. That’s peanuts in the context of the figures thrown around in the global warming debate. Let’s do that first, and do similar good work in Asia and Latin America. Where possible, let’s use green energy sources. But when the poor have been dealt with, and only at that point, then we can focus our huge energies on energy purity.


9 responses to “Consistency of Climate Argumentation–The Test of Time

  1. Excellent post. The main problems in many countries are poor governance, corruption, crime, and ethnic or religious conflicts. If those problems aren’t solved first then most aid amounts to tossing resources in a black hole.

    Unfortunately the USA has a shoddy foreign policy which causes conflicts. anarchy, civil wars, and mass refugee flows (both major parties share the problem, historically the democrats were lousy at foreign policy but Bush was terrible).

    As far as I can see the world is headed in the wrong direction, and this obsession with global warming is making politicians drop the ball on more critical issues.

  2. Climate change is the universal solvent of government accountability for corrupt and stupid policies.

  3. Since you are not a scientist, on what basis do you conclude there is no water vapor feedback?

    Given that you are a lukewarmer, I also don’t see how you can support cap and trade or carbon tax, given the impact on temperatures, especially when you support higher emissions from the developing world. There is at best 40% of global emissions available to be reduced among USA, Europe, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and Australia. I suspect it is now closer to 30%. This does not lead to a 30% reduction in temperatures even if you actually eliminated all of it, which of course neither cap and trade or carbon tax will do.

    • Hi MikeN, I do support a carbon tax (preferred option) or a cap and trade (holding my nose). 4 of the top 5 emitters are working on the issue–China, the U.S., Japan, Russia, with India not in much of a position to help. But those 5 are expected to emit 60% of all greenhouse gases in 2040.

      So I don’t think it really needs to be global. I don’t really know why so many people insist that it does. I guess every little bit helps.

      • Tom,
        Why support what will not work, and will not work at great cost to the tax payer and injury to the poor?

      • Working on it? China is going to increase emissions with abandon until 2030, and then makes a pledge to stay level.
        That is half of the 60% right there. India will probably be up to 10%(of current emissions) by then.

      • Yes, your numbers are right–China will put out 30% of global emissions by then. I’m just thinking of which way the curve will bend afterwards.

    • Empirical data do you?

      Analysys of NASA NVAP satellite data by Humlum and Vonder Haar show no positive trend in atmospheric water vapour since ~1980, Solomon et al shows a decrease since ~2000.

      So no water vapour feedback.

      • There is probably some water vapor feedback. But, as so many enjoy pointing out, WV is not a stable player in the atmospheric mix, varying greatly from nearly absent, to ice to liquid, it is not likely to be a strong (and evidence implies this strongly) source of the required boogeyman to bring about climate Armageddon.

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