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Declaring victory and moving on?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:34 AM GMT on February 14, 2011

Declaring victory and moving on?

In 2006 I started teaching climate change to all comers. It was my first year at Michigan, and I was approached by a set of three students to start a course on climate change. None of these students were physical scientists. It is a fact of universities that professors often start courses so that the professor can learn a subject. I was recruited to Michigan to help develop a focus on climate and climate change, but I was not really a climate scientist. I entered this course with a lot to learn. With the help of the students I structured a course that looked at the intersection of climate change with economics, policy, and business (class link). I think I had 12 guest lecturers the first year.

During the first couple of years there were some truths that became self evident. One of first of those truths was that in the popular discourse of 2006, the arguments around the U.S. not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol was a red herring. Namely, there was this idea that if the U.S. had signed the Kyoto Protocol, then we would have dealt with the climate change problem. It was evident by 2006 that this was not the case; the Kyoto Protocol could not effectively address climate change. In 2006 the students in the class talked about the symbolic meaning of the U.S. as a member of the global community, by 2007 the students arrived at the conclusion that the protocol was, practically, irrelevant.

Several other self-evident truths emerged. People often talk about wanting to look at the evidence themselves and come to their own conclusions. That’s not an easy thing to do in your spare time, and, for climate change, I had the benefit of it being my job. After going through reports and papers and thinking about how to communicate climate-change science to all comers, you realize this massive body of knowledge supports the fact that the surface of the Earth is warming. The evidence is what I called, at the time, coherent and convergent. (In fact, my third blog, a better blog) The correlated information from many measures of the Earth’s climate, the measurements of the feedbacks that follow from the warming, and the stunning amount of evidence from ecosystems form a body of work that, using the word of IPCC 2007, is “unequivocal.”

When we place ourselves in the middle of the climate and its importance to us, the responses to surface warming appear complex. It is easy to conclude that the average temperature of the surface of the Earth will increase, ice will melt, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. We can also say that the changes will be larger in some regions than the other, and that the changes will be disruptive. It is we, the people, that make this more than an academic problem.

More study, more information, and a few outstanding student projects and other truths emerge. One is that there really are not reliable, safe ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere(Reliability of the Forest). Related to this, we conclude that a carbon market cannot be an effective policy vehicle. There are no choices, and markets need choices. There needs to be, at a marginal cost, choices of reduced-carbon energy sources and choices of reliable, safe ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. All we really have working for us right now is energy efficiency, and we cast efficiency more as a moral value than a monetary value. If we want to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with a market, then we are going to have to use technology and biotechnology to develop those market choices. Without market choices, we are not going to reduce our emissions, because we are not going to give up the standard of living that comes from the use of energy.

Today, right now, our ability to mitigate climate change by reduction of emissions is severely limited. We can design strategies that could make a difference; people teaching classes like mine anchor themselves in Pacala and Socolow, who describe a portfolio of technologically feasible solution paths to reduce emissions. But are we going to build a meaningful number of nuclear power plants in the next 10 years? Most large solar and wind projects are challenged for a variety of environmental consequences – ending or delaying them. Each year of delay is a few more parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have no algorithm for trading off a large area of desert for invisible tons of carbon dioxide. Our environmental consciousness has no way to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide except by appealing to efficiency. And with that appeal, to argue that we need no new energy infrastructure, or we can personalize our energy generation. How can we reconcile this with the need for an energy-based economy to grow 2-3% every year to make enough jobs for a growing population? How do we put invisible carbon dioxide emissions in balance with perceived unemployment?

No consensus-based international policy is going to emerge in the next decade that will lead to near-term reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. My takeaway message from Copenhagen 2009 was that if there had ever been a European, Japanese, and U.S. opportunity to set the standard for carbon dioxide reduction it was lost. Emerging economies like China, Brazil, India, and South Africa have lots of emissions and plans to grow. They are spending a lot of money on the development of alternative energy; they are spending a lot of money on the development and use of fossil fuels. They spend enough on alternative energy to claim an environmental high ground, and to develop new technologies, new industries, and new standards. We use enough fossil fuels that even with these new sources of energy, carbon dioxide emissions increase at or above historic rates. Our only measure of success is to point to how high the emissions would be without these new developments.

We have to plan for an Earth with a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The synthesis provided by the recent National Research Council document, Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia put the stamp of authority and certification on the fact that once fossil-fuel carbon dioxide is placed in the Earth’s atmosphere, it stays there for a very long time. If we held our accumulated carbon dioxide to a trillion tons, then the carbon dioxide would stabilize at about 440 parts per million. That would be a stunning accomplishment. Far more likely, we will emit two or three trillion tons of carbon dioxide, and we will be living with values at double or more compared with pre-industrial levels; we are looking at 600 parts per million.

What is my intent? If you look at the issues raised above, many of them are where we have maintained and will maintain ongoing public arguments. These arguments attract attention, take our time, and take our minds. We align behind ideas like cap and trade and Kyoto, but by the time they might, maybe, possibly be made politically viable, they do little for addressing climate change. They take on the spirit that if we support them, then they are a symbolic first step. We align behind ideas of alternative energy and advocating efficiency, but the implementation of these ideas is met with opposition and challenges. Climate change is from the invisible gas, and the consequences are in the future; we relegate it to an issue of the common good. The urgency to address climate change is lost again and again; it is easily derailed by convenient political arguments and philosophical beliefs. The short-term always trumps the long-term. Our continued use of fossil fuels confirms that we want our energy; our resistance to a comprehensive energy policy relegates attention to climate change as secondary.

The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society has a special issue on world at four degrees warmer. In the Introduction by Mark New and colleagues many of the ideas addressed above are addressed more elegantly and more completely - new ideas emerge. The rate of warming matters a lot. The projected rate of population growth and our current warming trajectory work to maximize stress at the same time. With warming approaching four degrees, stress on resources and human systems related to climate change become comparable to those from population stress.

The acceptance that, with even our best efforts, we are moving to a world that is much warmer removes the incapacitating anxiety of argument. It gets us past the idea that we are going to avoid dangerous warming. We can get to work. I believe that the climate change projections provide us opportunity. I want my students to learn to exploit these opportunities. I believe that trying to exploit these opportunities will make the problem real to many more people, and that their talking about their opportunities, their solutions, will beget more of the same. They will gain, ultimately, advantage.

It is disingenuous to continue to teach my course in the same way. I will talk about the ways we can reduce emissions. I can talk about the need to keep our average warming below two degrees centigrade, our convenient definition of “dangerous climate change.” I can and will talk about policy options, but the truth is, our population and economic imperatives in combination with our lack of real alternatives and policy opportunity leave us with very little wiggle room. Describing that warm world and developing adaptation strategies will make the climate change problem more concrete. It will make the costs far more real. It will bring the problem home to cities, communities, and people. It will motivate technology, solutions.

Here, I advocate we do something different, because what we are doing is not working. I heard arguments for more than a decade that talking about adaptation would keep us from addressing mitigation. Now if we talk about geo-engineering we will fall into the false security that we can manage the climate. It is not rational that by avoiding these subjects that we will somehow change our energy system and reduce our emissions. It is not rational that our denying and ignoring the possibilities, while others take advantage of the information, somehow contributes to a productive dialogue to development of abstract policy solutions to seemingly distant problems. I assert that by addressing these real problems of adaptation, we will identify risk in a meaningful way, and we will make real the need for mitigation.


Figure 1. Cover of Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.