Monday, April 27, 2009

The political anticlimax of climatic change

Our planet is warming up. Scientists agree that global average temperature is about 0.6oC higher than it was a century ago and that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen by about 30 percent over the past 200 years, mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels. Although the causal link between the increase in greenhouse gases and global warming cannot be unequivocally established, there is widespread consensus amongst scientists that global warming is man-made. There are data that contradict this consensus; for example, satellite measurements of the upper atmosphere where temperatures have remained virtually unchanged and deep ocean temperature measurements which indicate that oceans are in fact cooling. Other factors may be attributing to global warming too, such as atmospheric soot, land-use change, and solar variations, as well as natural processes which we do not understand yet. Scientists, in trying to understand disparate data and thus explain global warming, build so-called models, which are mathematical simulations of measured facts and logical hypotheses. These models are run on powerful computers and their efficacy is tested by means of their predictability. Current climate models are quite sophisticated and most of them predict a rise in global temperatures of around 10C in the next 50 to 100 years.
It is important to understand that although few disagree that global warming is real, the interplay between anthropogenic climate forcings and natural processes is a difficult one to establish. Our planet is an extremely complex system of natural feedback systems in constant interplay and, therefore, in unremitting change. For example, the history of climate on Earth, as revealed by science, shows that 500 million years ago temperatures were 80C higher than today; and levels of carbon dioxide many times higher too. Antarctica glaciated around 30 million years ago, probably due to plate tectonics that caused a restriction in the flow of ocean currents. Temperatures started falling below today’s average around 3 million years ago and the world entered into alternating ice-age cycles, the last one ending 10,000 years ago. Since then we live in what has been called “the long summer”, and it is no coincidence that farming and civilization arose around the same time.

Faced with undoubted scientific facts as well as scientific uncertainties, pressured from environmental groups who see their day, overwhelmed by media hype that feeds upon the theme of climatic apocalypse, western political thinkers have devised policies to avert climate change. The main premise of such policies is to “fix” future climate by reducing the burning of fossil fuels today. The argument for such policies is economic; climate change according to certain economic analyses will be devastating and, therefore, action should be taken today to avert future consequences.

Both the premise and the argument are debatable. Earth’s climate is always changing and the world can only accept change, embrace it and prepare for it. “Fixing” is an engineering term that assumes a deterministic understanding of the system to be fixed; something which does not apply to Earth’s climate. We are simply too ignorant, and too arrogant, to want to fix Earth’s climate by twiddling concentrations of carbon dioxide over the ensuing decades. Suggestions for “positive Geo-engineering” (altering Earth’s climate towards a “preferred” state by disrupting natural processes) reflect the logical extend of such a misled, potentially dangerous, and much criticized, approach.

Although there is widespread scientific consensus on the anthropogenic causes of climate change, economic analyses on the future impact of climate change are very disparate. For example, the Stern Report to the UK government, which estimated the cost of carbon dioxide at 86$ per ton, has been challenged as too overblown; most economists estimate it between 2 and 12$. Other economists argue that funds spent to fix climate will be withheld from other, more crucial and more urgent causes such as world poverty, tropical diseases or the spread of AIDS.

Proposed climate policies are also under scrutiny. “Market-based” greenhouse gas reduction schemes, such as cap-and-trade, promote the development of a carbon cartel seeking to exploit the system to make profits. Political considerations affect carbon markets and carbon lobbyists are having a field day. The carbon markets can never be truly open, and therefore market forces will be perennially superseded by politics and political corruption. “Green tax” schemes, although more effective, will be extremely unpopular to enforce, not only in the US but also in the EU where petrol prices are already heavily taxed by governments. It is no coincidence that, despite big talk from European leaders, Kyoto targets have not been met by the majority of EU members. Everyone knows that reducing the burning of fossil fuels, or increasing fuel taxes, will adversely affect economic growth and jobs in developed countries, particularly in times of economic downturn and recession; it will also put in peril economic advancement of the energy-hungry developing world. It is a dismal sign of our media-weary times that not one western politician seems brave enough to contradict global groupthink.

And yet the world ought not to remain inactive. Dependence on fossil fuels is politically and economically precarious for the West, as the case of Iran, the deliria of Chavez and the conflict in Georgia amply demonstrate. Continuing global economic development and prosperity needs vast amounts of environmentally-benign energy that must be found and made available to all, without the threat of blackmail by cartels and dictators. The long-term solution will have to come from massive public and private investment in research on renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar, as well as safer nuclear. Climate change is an unavoidable part of living on a planet with an atmosphere. Future generations will be better prepared to face it - and better off - if we, instead of alluding to ineffective policies, we tap humanity’s greatest asset: our inner world of ideas.
This article was commissioned for the Athens News

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