Business as Usual

Economics and Global Warming
Some people (including persons in high office) like to point to the uncertainty surrounding the implications of global warming to explain why action would be premature. However, as concerns manmade global warming, it has been with us for at least 20 years or so, and there is nothing uncertain about that fact. It is true that no one knows what exactly lies in store for the next hundred years. The results of computations are still quite uncertain, for several reasons, and, above all, the physics of cloud formation and the effects of cloud on climate are still in a rather unsatisfactory stage. Also, the response of the ocean circulation to rapid warming in high latitudes is poorly understood. However, these uncertainties are no excuse for inaction.

In a sense, it is not necessary to understand the physics of climate. When today we see trees topple and houses sink into the melting permafrost in Alaska, when Arctic sea ice shrinks as never before observed, and when tropical glaciers in the Andes melt for the first time in 10,000 years, we must assume that changes are afoot. How did we get there? Arguably, the rapid expansion of the human population is the single most important phenomenon of the past century. In addition, the unprecedented economic expansion and creation of wealth in the past century resulted from the marriage of industrial development and cheap, largely carbon-based energy from coal, oil, and gas.

This increasing use of cheap energy by a burgeoning population has come at a price: that of changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. On average, every inhabitant of the planet contributes one ton of carbon to the atmosphere, every year, as carbon dioxide. Something like 40 percent of this is taken up by the ocean. The rest stays aloft. The result of continuing emissions is a continuing increase of carbon dioxide (augmented by methane) well beyond any values reconstructed for the last million years or so. The consequence, unavoidably, is &global warming.

Politics and Global Warming
The response to global warming, predicted for a hundred years and recognized for the last ten, is "business as usual," on the whole. Why should this be so? The problem of inaction does not rest with the power to act, but with the political will. In the United States we have vast regions of real estate that provides for a wide-ranging mix of responses to global warming. We are a mobile society. If one region fails to satisfy we move to another. Also, we have the know-how and the technology to adapt. If one crop doesn't grow so well, we try another. In fact, in Canada (and in Siberia) warming may actually improve conditions for growing crops. It is perhaps difficult to evolve a sense of urgency under these conditions. By contrast, in Europe countries are relatively small. If the climate changes markedly, an entire country is affected in a similar way. Adapting by moving means leaving your country and going to another, where you might not understand the language. In China and India, people are poor, and for a hundred years they have used but a small fraction of the energy, per capita, of the rich countries. Their highest priority is economic growth, and if it takes carbon to get there, so be it.

From these considerations, we might expect the strongest support for action (that is, for reduction of emissions) from rich countries in Europe (which can deal with the energy shortfall using better technology) and from smaller poorer countries (with low energy use, which would not be reduced in an agreement anyway). Thus, the politics of climate change are not so difficult to understand, if we keep in mind the various national interests that arise from the particular national situations. What is well to remember is that climate change itself proceeds independently from what we say about it, and global warming is here to stay and will continue. In addition, the continued rise in the number of people on the planet will make it ever more difficult to reconcile their aspirations for a better life with the necessity to cut back on carbon use.