Recently GOP Presidential Candidate Scott Walker suggested he might be ready to begin war on his first day of office, presumably against Iran. Walker’s bellicose chest-beating is in response to the recent agreement the Obama administration brokered with Iran to limit its nuclear capabilities.
But Walker’s rhetoric also demonstrates a failure to understand what really threatens not only the United States but the entire globe. Climate change with its attendant predicated increase in hurricanes, droughts, and major vegetation changes is a far greater threat to the security of the United States than any rogue state or unaffiliated terrorists like the Islamic State.
Predictions of climate chaos poses all kinds of challenges to the United States as well as many other countries. At least some leaders recognize this threat.
For instance, Secretary of State John Kerry opined “When I think about the array of global climate – of global threats – think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them.”
And a report issued in 2014 by eleven retired three-star and four-star Admirals and Generals warned Climate Change would create political instability that would generate many new military threats to the United States.
The report was rejected out of hand by GOP Senator James “snowball” Inhofe.
Yet, climate change, along with population growth which exacerbates the factors contributing to climate change like the burning of fossil fuels, is not on most politicians radar screen except in the case of some like Walker and Inhole who use it to demonize environmentalists and anyone who believes it poses a significant threat to the American public.
Yet one massive storm like a Sandy or Katrina will do more damage and likely kill more people than any potential terrorist attacks, particularly attacks that could potentially be launched on American soil.
The fact remains that climate change is the defining issue of our time. Dithering while some decide whether it is even real, only makes it that much more difficult to address.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
72 Responses to It’s the Climate Stupid
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The word “dithering” is appropriate. Peterson also used dithering for the National Park Services approach to the wolf situation on Isle Royale.
The whole climate change issue is perplexing. One cannot argue the Keeling curve results, as CO2 levels have been increasing… My take on the issue is that this is a continuation of glacial retreat, natural…accerbated by mans use if fossil fuels, factory farming of livestock, and deforestation.
That said, mans footprint on the Earth, at least to the extent that “we” have made our presence felt, was made possible by glacial retreat over the past 5000+ years, which is continuing as we debate wether it’s occurring or not.
Man made or not, it is probably the single biggest issue on the plate of “must be dealt with”, or we are indeed dithering while the planet burns. You can bet your ass the military has contingency plans.
For those unfamiliar with the Keeling curve.
Immer that is interesting, it is hard to argue that co2 is not on the rise …or manmade.
The challenge we have is figuring out why climate change is effecting the wolves on Isle Royale but not the moose…Then a few hundred miles away climate change is effecting the moose but not the wolves. Same can be said out west….Don’t you find it funny how climate change is effecting the moose in the GYA but a couple hundred miles south in Colorado the moose … they are doing more than fine.
I personally think that those that are quick to point to CC as the reason for something, and it is clearly in their interest to do so, do the cause of controlling the real effects of Climate Change more harm than good.
Only claim of climate change affecting IR wolves that I have heard is the frequency/infrequency rate at which Lake Superior freezes over, which may alter ability for wolf movement toward or away from IR. Also, Superior has a moderating effect on IR temperatures, cooler than mainland in Summer, warmer in Winter. Lush aquatic summer habitat, and no competition for food certainly helps IR moose. Problem there is winter, when moose population increases put pressure on available browse.
In regard to RMNP moose, available and un-browsed habitat help explain their relatively rapid expansion, as well as until recently, no hunting, relatively few black bears, and yes, no wolves.
High country habitat can be fairly lush as long as there are ample winter snows. Also, with the time I have spent in the Rockies, it gets cool in the evening, which favors moose. Here in N MN high 70’s low 80’s during the day and 60’s at night help explain why this is the southern extreme of moose habitat.
The articles quote not mine….”The wolves, they say, are dying because of climate change” “they” referring to Peterson and Vucetich
Don’t read much, eh. Or perhaps just enough to make a vacant point. As I wrote above, and if “you” would have continued reading in the article,
“Though several factors have played a role in the Isle Royale wolves’ demise, Biologists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich assert that the most prominent cause of their plight is something far less direct.
The wolves, they say, are dying because of climate change.
Lake Superior average temperature has increased by 4 degrees in 25 years. With warming temperatures, the ice bridge that used to connect Isle Royale to Canada, and which allowed wolves to walk back and forth, has all but disappeared.”
According to this article “It’s the technology, stupid.” They say history does not agree with George……
I would like to add my favorite saying: “It’s the biosphere, stupid”. But any of these is pertinent. The problem is that not enough members of our species have the capacity to “get it” and that is one of the major issues of our time.
Thanks for the article, George, hope to catch you at the gig next month in West.
On Wattsupwiththat blog, which I follow on wordpress, but rarely read.
If he didn’t graduate or receive a degree then he was a weather anchor, not a meteorologist. The difference? A heaping load of math and science classes. Since Watt’s popular blog has been at least partially funded by Heartland Institute let’s take a peek at them.
What is it with climate change denial, which has somehow become entangled as a right wing political issue, and people representing themselves as scientists or someone with higher education when they did not earn a degree?
OFN, the more I learn about ecology the more perplexing, but interesting it becomes. It is a challenge to try and figure out what variables that may contribute or not contribute to some function in a system or to a species. And that is without questioning rate and intensity.
My question is how do you know the moose on IR have not been affected by climate chaos/change? From reading the IR wolf posts on the other thread it looks like there are multiple factors that have contributed to the IR wolves decline.
I agree that not every fire, flood or drought should be blamed on climate change. We probably should not be looking at single events, but at the complex of events and changes. The summer of 2011 was a stark example for me. We could not get a drop of rain in OK and TX. Most of OK was in either a D3 or D4 (most severe) drought and our temperatures of 100 + broke long standing records, yet in the midwest there were massive floods.
A few years back one of the climatologists at University of Oklahoma used the term ‘climate chaos’ and explained why(OU’s climate center and meteorology department is ranked in the top 3 of the nation). It makes sense.
I don’t have the answer on the IR moose or the wolves, but the scientific evidence supports that climate change/chaos is happening.
Oh, I misplaced my ending blockquote.
I think I fixed it, Yvette.
Thank you. That got on my nerves.
Good summary of source. While skepticism is always welcome, these “institutions” continually ignore what 97+% of science has to say and conveniently search for that minuscule support to “fit” their contentions.
Immer quoting Obama will more than likely get you into trouble and make me think you may not be “well read” (wink).
What bothers me most about the 97% thing is that the president would not divulge the list of scientist or source THEN a member of his cabinet(John Kerry) does the same darn thing. They do Climate Change a disservice if they want people to see the need to do something about it. I’m a 97%er BUT don’t believe that catastrophic weather is eminent.
My 97% has nothing to do with what Obama or for that matter Kerry said. It’s got everything to do with conservative think tanks, not science, throwing “shit” against the walls, hoping some of it sticks. Continue throwing that offal against the walls and the under educated masses begin to believe some if it.
Continue thinking, and when you read, please read the entire article prior to loading up.
My reality tells me not to follow like a little puppy. I’m sorry I don’t conform to your lap dog mentality because you have determined I’m under educated.
As I said above, in the example above where Watts shows the history of f3 to f5 tornados,(or the historical graph on hurricanes) I would like to see the rebuttal from the 97%rs and I will make of it what this “under educated” brain sees fit.
Immer, It does more damage than good to toss out the 97% number when people are eventually going to find out that that the other sides rebuttal is 97% of scientist is a number of scientist that have seen the evidence of studies like your Keeling curve and believe co2 has been increased by man. What turns them sour is when they find out that only 39% of the 97% think that there will be catastrophic events because of the slight increase. STOP tossing “shit” and show me that the bozo Kerry didn’t lie when he actually said 97% say catastrophic events will be the norm.
By the way, that 39% is from one of the articles above where they say they surveyed ~1,800 Meteorologist. What caught my eye is they did not give the number of responders to the survey that the 39 was based on OR the wording questions in the survey…..Like I said above, I’m not your lap dog or global warmings’ lap dog. I’m not backing down from the reality that saying those that quote 97% do more harm than good.
I was going to ask if you were familiar with the Yale Law studies on risk perception, but figured you were. This article didn’t mention ‘risk perception’ but that is what Dan Kahan and others there have been researching.
Nancy, I swear you are a walking bibliography. I love it.
” I’m sorry I don’t conform to your lap dog mentality because you have determined I’m under educated.”
Quit with the crocodile tears. I Never said you were under educated. I said you don’t read much, or when you do, you appear to stop when a point fits your schematic. Case in point:
“The challenge we have is figuring out why climate change is effecting the wolves on Isle Royale but not the moose…”
That is your statement.
I mentioned Lake Superior conditions and then you wrote
“The articles quote not mine….”The wolves, they say, are dying because of climate change” “they” referring to Peterson and Vucetich”
And it was obvious you did not read the entire article, short as it was, where he explained the effect on Lake Superior ice formation.
You came looking for a scrum without a full team, and that extended back to January. I could care less about the extant of your education as education in itself means little.
Plus my initial comment in the thread includes my own personal take on the climate issue:
“The whole climate change issue is perplexing. One cannot argue the Keeling curve results, as CO2 levels have been increasing… My take on the issue is that this is a continuation of glacial retreat, natural…accerbated by mans use if fossil fuels, factory farming of livestock, and deforestation.”
I see. As I said to Yvette, that statement was rhetorical making the point that the loose use of CC gives us the fact that we need to “figuring out why climate change is effecting the wolves on Isle Royale but not the moose…Then a few hundred miles away climate change is effecting the moose but not the wolves.”. IT has absolutely unequivocally NOTHING to do with what I believe or what is in the article and has everything to do with my point of using CC to loosely creates more cynic’s rightfully posting that the “CC fanatics” are trying to tell us that CC is hurting the wolves on IR but a few hundred miles away CC is hurting the moose ….but not the wolf.
Ihr derjenige , der den Kugel ins Gedrange geworfen
When you consider an attempt at making sense, I’ll consider continuing the conversation.
Je ne vous comprends pas.
The WSJ opinion piece is nothing more than political muck-slinging. The answer to the question they pose is simple– A 2008 survey of scientists (Doran, Peter T., and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman. “Examining the scientific consensus on climate change.” Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 90.3 (2009): 22-23.). The survey asked more than 3,000 earth scientists the following questions: 1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
They found that of those with the most knowledge (i.e., those who actively published climate research) 97.4% agreed with the second statement (82% of all respondents agreed with the statement).
If 8/10 doctors and 97/100 oncologists told you that you had cancer, you’d be a damn fool to deny it.
Yup, a damn fool. And probably even just as foolish if you bought your casket, a lot, hired a funeral director, when to confession and rewrote your will knowing that only 39% of those 97 oncologist think your cancer is terminal and on top of that only 5% of the 39% don’t think it’s treatable…… Then when you look at the 5% you find that one of them predicted the same outcome for Al Gores brother…..and three of the others are funeral directors on the side.
Thanks JB….. I think I see what the goal is here……
The truth is the goal here. Is, has been and always will be. Quit crying about your heavily weighted fossil fuel stock portfolio. Sell and re-invest in the planets welfare and your children’s future.
Really? Well, my goal was to provide the information you said you desired (the source of the statistic). My comment specifically said, “you’d be a damn fool to deny it.” Not, you’d be a damn fool to seek treatment; indeed, the idea that we should be treating the climate problem so that it isn’t “terminal” is kind of the point .
JB, And I agreed with you.
The discussion here still did not answer the question “to me at least” as to what the 97% of the scientist say. Do they say co2 has slightly risen or do they say catastrophic issues are eminent……they are not mutually inclusive. The climate deniers say that 97% of climate scientists DO NOT say catastrophic issues are eminent. They “deniers” say 97% say co2 has risen BUT certainly not all think catastrophic issues are eminent. When you use the 97% you run into people that have the knowledge of articles like this..
So if you’re really interested in helping the climate and understanding how we are affecting climate don’t pummel on me…… and my views. Understand that what John Kerry said can be and is interpreted as an outright lie.
I stand by my comment that those that use 97% do a disservice to the cause of climate change….and will go one step further….. those that quote John Kerry on climate change make it even worse.
It didn’t? I posted the two questions for the survey of climate scientists (above). To reiterate, 97% of climate scientists responded in ‘yes’ to the statement: “2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”
The article that you’ve linked to pretends to be an even-handed critique of the 97% rhetoric; however, the critique disingenuously (or ignorantly) cites the Cook article for the 97% claim (which tracked academic papers, not scientists), as opposed to the Doran article cited above.
The author also makes the claim: “Even if 97% of climate scientists agreed with this, and even if they were right, it in no way, shape, or form would imply that we should restrict fossil fuels–which are crucial to the livelihood of billions.”
This is also extremely disingenuous. We currently restrict the use of nuclear power, fertilizers, prescription drugs, and a wide variety of chemicals (such as pesticides) despite the fact that all have proven extremely useful to humankind. Fossil fuels are no different. Moreover, given what is at stake(the stability of the earth’s life support systems), use of the precautionary principle seems to be warranted, wouldn’t you agree?
BTW- I’ve listened to several academic presentations on climate communications in recent years. All of the presenters recommended use of the 97% statistic as it is easily understood, and one can make analogies (e.g. medical doctors or dentists) similar to the one I made above.
Just found one of the presentation files from Teresa Myers of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Communication. Her three recommendations regarding the 97% statistic:
“1. Repetition is the mother of learning
2.Adapt it, elaborate it, but no matter what, say it ‘early and often’
3. When possible, say it with words, visual images, and verbal images (i.e., metaphors)”
More info on the origin of the 97% statistic. It appears four different studies (using different methods) conclude 97% endorsement of anthropogenic climate change.
RE: Forbes/Epstein article referenced above.
Please forgive the intrusion into your conversation with JB. You might want to consider two things. First Forbes magazine is not exactly where one would expect to find an objective review of a controversial topic that steps on the toes of business. Second, the author of the piece you cite to is a self-admitted debater on the topic (pushing his recent book, and to my knowledge has not disclosed his academic training or experience to opine on the topic, though he did start a for profit think tank that consists of himself and one other researcher), again not an objective source of information. And, when an acclaimed scientist says, “that is not an accurate representation of my paper,” that should trigger a deeper query. In what way was the paper not an accurate representation. Could be a big issue, or could be a minor one. Your author doesn’t tell you in a short 2 page general interest piece that stakes out his own position, while pushing you to buy his book.
I think JB has the better of you to this point, dude, while supporting his views with more objective sources.
WM, that’s an interesting comment. Your assertion that JB has gotten the best of me with his masterful points and objective sources made me smile. I didn’t know we were on different sides of the CC issue. I thought we were discussing what 97% of the Climate scientists are actually saying and how DENIERS are saying the Kerry and Obama lied when they said 97%ers say Climate catastrophize issues are imminent. I’ve gone through every JB post TWICE to find the link that shows us that all those scientist feel catastrophizes issues are right around the corner. Please help me WM and point out what I’m missing.
I did see in his first post where they answered YES to “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures? “ The second post talks about damn fools….. After I tried to clarify that the DENIERS claim that 97% of scientist do not feel climate issues are imminent NOT that human activity is significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures ….JB came back with the YES to “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?“ once more as if that proves 97% of scientist do not feel climate issues are imminent. Then JB goes after the Forbes Article. The article where it gives the quote from Kerry “they agree that, if we continue to go down the same path that we are going down today, the world as we know it will change—and it will change dramatically for the worse.” YUP, that’s the Kerry quote saying 97% of climate scientist claim climate issues are imminent
THEN after smacking the Forbes article he is back to his Dorin study where the 97% say Yes to “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures? “ BUT NOTHING on if climate issues are imminent…..
Then he starts to get warmer to what I’m looking for and discusses Teresa Myers strategy for using the 97%…… one thing that is missing from her list is to make great leaps and misrepresentation of what the 97% actually said and feel. Then, just when I thought I might have hit the Jackpot and look over FOUR different NASA studies on the 97%er it leads to big dead end……
Now let’s be clear, I do see the evidence that 97% of Climate Scientist “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?“ I can even make the leap that 97% of scientists believe co2 levels have increased….You and JB don’t have to beat that dead horse any more….. THAT is not what I’m looking for….. I’m looking to rebutt the Deniers claim that 97% DO NOT agree that climate issues are imminent as Kerry said. WHY….because if you really care about an issue making quotes and representing the facts that are true can be nullified by a big lie…..what Kerry said is a lie!
I made a very narrow point. I’ll stick by the comment, notwithstanding your attempt to make it broader, and something else.
WM , I think this is the “deeper query” you are looking for.
Unfortunately, the link says the document doesn’t exist there.
Yvette, Thanks for putting that together. I’m sorry if you took my rhetorical statement literally. I personally don’t think climate change has been a significant factor affecting moose or wolf on IR or MN.
I stand by my statement:
“I personally think that those that are quick to point to CC as the reason for something, and it is clearly in their interest to do so, do the cause of controlling the real effects of Climate Change more harm than good”
Yvette, one or two more things. Thanks for putting together your summary on Watts and Bast. I would be more interested in the rebuttal of the climate change expert of Watts summary and historic trends of f3 to f5 tornado’s something a chief meteorologist is more than qualified to put together and present.
Watts quote of Roger Pielke….is a bigger part of the article then Bast…
“Pielke has been labeled a “skeptic” and “denier” of climate change, though Pielke strongly objects to those labels. His views on climate change have been widely criticized by scientists, including US presidential science adviser John Holdren. Pielke rejected Holdren’s criticisms, saying “the facts are on my side”  and several publications defended Pielke.[18″
I have what I call truth projects….my current one is on beaver and almost complete. A prior truth project on the wolf was a great success and my grand kids feel I should publish it. It’s well researched…… I think my next “truth project” will be in the area of CC & wildlife.
A truth project on wolves – wow! That should be interesting.
“A truth project on wolves” — That sparked my memory of some guy that published a book, fairly recently, on the “truth about wolves”. Made me curious and I found it. The book, “The Real Wolf” written by Ted B. Lyon, a personal injury lawyer and former TX State representative, and grew up on a ranch. I can only guess what his ‘real wolf’ is like.
Wolves are as controversial as climate change. Everybody is an expert and has the real truth. Climate change and wolves.
My truth projects are a legacy that my grand children are more interested in than the kids. I have been doing them since high school and only lately have turned to projects on wildlife, wolves, and beavers,
One of my early truth projects on abortion is also one I’m proud of. The publicity of Planned Parenthood selling baby body parts for profit will put it back in front of the eye of the public. Controversy….that one takes the cake.
I protest that people who would argue with you will not, because you are criminally off topic.
Yes I am…… sorry.
I agree with ODFN’s twice stated thought about not attributing specific single weather events to climate change, and Katrina would be near the top of the list of those things.
Indeed, this is a form of the ecological fallacy.
The 97%. Has nothing to do with Obama or Kerry. God forbid if “W” were still president, or the even more worrisome “Jebster” gets in, or if the likes of Reagan returns from the grave, it’s still 97%+
To put things in perspective.
Questions and answers.
Excellent site reference Immer. Thanks.
Certainly a lot of information to gather and images to view at the site. Thanks,Immer.
Well, I think i have replied and posted a couple responses on your page before. Not sure if you ever posted them. Not sure if this one will be either. But, as always, I will try to speak. Especially when it comes to the one i feel is one of the most disastrous people to the wolves as I have been speaking since 2011 and well before. I came out in public in 2011 because of this man, -_-. Mr Walker may not have his college degree in his hand but he is very dangerous. Just this past 7 months anyone who supported the “down listing” of the wolves was caught up in a clever scheme brought up by ALEC laws that Mr Walker and ALEC are very proudly displaying across the USA right now. Read up on it. The people of Wisconsin have been trying to expose this with the destruction of our Water, Wolves, Woods, just about every thing we hold value to. The animals, our education, our health, The Great Lakes. Well, look at all I personally have posted on wolves and it speaks volumes. peace
Svante Arrhenius. A hundred years prior to Obama, Kerry, and for that matter, Gore.
I’m leaning towards 7, Immer. A prediction much closer than a 100 years ago, given what the human species has artificially pumped, in huge amounts (in the way of chemicals, exhaust/fossil fuel fumes, etc.) into “our bubble” over the last half century.
“Stephen Hawking once noted that Earth is a “fragile planet,” and if humanity does not find an alternative place to live — somewhere in space — we could be doomed”
# 7 sounds like a Big Bang Theory episode (still no TV, just check them out from the library). 🙂
I lean toward #2.
Would probably have better luck at the local video store than the library, Immer.
#6 is certainly worth keeping in mind:
I’d pick a combination of 1, 2 and 3. The usual stuff, cooked up a little with climate change.
Immer, Thanks for the article ….. interesting. I did try to take your advice and read to the end. Here is one tidbit I found along the way. “Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased much more quickly than he expected, but the Earth hasn’t warmed as much as he thought it would”
Growing up we had Global Cooling:
and Ozone depletion scares
and more recently Gore and his advisers making predictions that did not come close to being true.
One of the issues we have today is that the environmental community has called wolf in the past. If we want the majority to believe in the climate change cause and we ourselves to be more committed we must speak the truth and be able to back it up.
“If we want the majority to believe in the climate change cause and we ourselves to be more committed we must speak the truth and be able to back it up.”
The majority of evidence shows it is real and it is happening; the majority of scientist already “believe”; and the majority of people already “believe”.
And sometimes you are just wrong.
Half of Columbia River Sockeye Dying Due to Hot Water
Rivers catch fire-
The air is just another fluid into which we pump waste, but we reside in this fluid.
One thing I don’t understand about the extractive industries: oil; coal; natural gas, is why they are not heavily invested in renewables. After all, they are in the energy business. The above three fuel sources will be used for years ahead, but there will come a time.
Slight diversion, consider Monsanto, a chemical giant investing in food. People gotta eat, no matter how much hollering is done about GMO’s.
+1 exactly why are they not invested but I suppose that would take some integrity with an eye toward long term solutions instead of the rape and pillage mindset of corporations whose ceos and directors pull in millions each year
few excerpts from David Archer’s „The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing The Next 100 000 Years of Earth’s Climate”
We will conclude by considering the awesome potential energy impacts of a gallon of gasoline on earth. When it is burned, it yields about 2500 kilocalories of energy, but this is just the beginning. Its carbon is released as CO2 to the atmosphere, trapping Earth’s radiant energy by absorbing infrared radiation. About three-quarters of the CO2 will go away in a few centuries, but the rest will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.
If we add up the total amount of energy trapped by the CO2 from the gallon of gas over its atmospheric lifetime, we find that our gallon of gasoline ultimately traps one hundred billion (100 000 000 000) kilocalories of useless and unwanted greenhouse heat. The bad energy from burning that gallon ultimately outweighs the good energy by a factor of about 40 million.
The enormous world-altering potential of that gallon of gasoline has taken the reins of Earth’s climate away from its natural stabilizing feedback systems, and given them to us. May we use our newfound powers wisely.
Economies are driven by technological progress, predictions of which are usually laughable in hindsight. But for what it’s worth, economic projections of the costs of avoiding dangerous climate change are typically a few percent of global economic production per year. … But economies tend to grow. Let’s say that the cost of developing and using only clean energy amounts to 3% of GDP every year. Let’s also say that the economy is growing at a rate of 3% per year. Wait a year, and the GDP will grow to the size of the dirty-energy economy, just one year later. If the rate of growth were 1.5% per year, the clean economy would lag two years behind the dirty one.
The costs of beginning to lower CO2 emissions are generally not too high. According to the Mitigation report of the IPCC, the building sector of the economy, in particular, could cut emissions substantially at net negative cost (that is, saving money by saving energy). If emission cuts are inevitable, it makes economic sense to be ahead of the curve, developing efficient technologies now to sell to others, rather than indulging in delay, ceding this business opportunity to others (like European wind mill manufacturers and Japanese makers of efficient automobiles). Delaying CO2 cuts would mean that the eventual cuts would have to be deeper in order to reach the same stabilized atmospheric CO2 concentration. For this reason also, if cuts are inevitable, it would be cheaper to start now rather than to dither.
The free market has a blind spot, apropos to the problem of CO2 emissions, called the tragedy of the commons. As we’ve discussed earlier, the situation arises when many people share the benefits of a common resource. The classical example is a common field for grazing livestock, but the chemistry of the atmosphere is another example of a shared commons. Benefits can be extracted from the commons by individuals, either for feeding sheep or for dumping CO2, but the costs of using the commons are paid by everyone. Economists call the degradation of the commons an external cost, because it is external to the budgets of the individual decision-makers. The end result is that the common resource gets over-exploited, because it is in the interest of each individual to grab as much as he or she can.
In the language of economics, the way to avoid distorting the market (that is, doing everyone harm) is to internalize the cost of climate change (that is, make the person buying the gasoline pay for the climate change). Some form of regulation is required, either a form of tax to internalize the cost, or a restriction on emissions, to avoid the tragedy of the commons.
Economics has the property of being rather myopic over the course of time. The cause of the short-sightedness is the interest rate. When money is invested, it grows by accruing interest. $100 invested today will grow to, say, $103 at the end of the year, and $2000 in a century, if the interest rate is 3%. Imagine an economist faced with a cost in the future, and a way to fix the problem by paying now. Should she pay now, or pay later? If she pays later, she can invest a smaller sum of money now, and it will grow to meet the obligation later. After 100 years, a cost of $100 shrinks to just $5 today. It’s much cheaper to pay later. An interest rate of 3% tends to limit our perceptions to a time horizon of about 30 years. The tool of economics is simply not programmed to pay attention to things that are too far in the future.
Economics is more than just a set of tools, however. It is a description of the way that money, the lifeblood of our economic system, really flows, analogous to the statement that water flows downhill. Money flows toward short-term gain, and toward over-exploitation of unregulated common resources. These tendencies are like the invisible hand of fate, guiding the hero in a Greek tragedy toward his inevitable doom. Our understanding of economics tells us that the free hand of the market, also known as business-as-usual, will not cope gracefully with the threat of global warming.
Ultimately the question may come down to ethics, rather than economics. Slavery, only abolished a little over a century ago in the United States, was an ethical issue. Ultimately it didn’t matter whether it was economically beneficial or costly to give up. It was simply wrong.
The costs and benefits of fossil fuel use are not shared fairly. At the present day, the benefits of the fossil fuel economy accrue mostly to the industrialized nations in the temperate latitudes, while the IPCC Working Group II Scientific Assessment Report on Impacts of Climate Change finds that the costs of climate change will be paid most dearly in the tropics. More people are killed when any sort of natural disaster strikes in the developing world than in an industrialized nation, where emergency services are better equipped. Low-latitude countries tend to have a higher proportion of subsistence farmers, and therefore greater immediate vulnerability to changes in the weather. In the industrialized world, energy-intensive farming methods are producing food faster than we can eat it. Food production is also more globalized in the developed world, insulating people somewhat from dependence on local agricultural conditions.
There is also a divide in time between the winners and the losers. The benefits to using fossil fuels accrue now and into the coming century until the fuel runs out, while the costs will last for millennia. Most of the people impacted by global warming, numerically, are people in the future. Earthlings a century from now do not even have an economic vote in how we conduct our affairs; their right to vote has been discounted to nothing by the economic interest rate.
Ethics and fairness are a lot to ask of the political process, especially when most of the people affected by the decision, people of the distant future, do not have a voice in the decision.
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