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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Climate mitigation and adaptation

Twitter and the blogosphere are aflutter with references to David Robert’s post, “Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent“.  I read the post with the mindset that David was trying to continue recent climate-related public themes.  With that in mind, I wanted to respond to some points.

Climate hawks are familiar with the framing of climate policy credited to White House science advisor John Holdren, to wit: We will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix. […] It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.

I’ll start by noting my disagreement that Holdren’s framing establishes equitable fungibility.  That’s not the way I interpret it, anyway.  For me, it boils down to this: we have a finite amount of resources to devote to climate action.  What we spend them on remains undecided.  I don’t think of one unit of mitigation equaling one unit of adaptation.  Such a frame strikes me as silly, to be quite frank.  Many factors will go into deciding where to spend resources.  I think local and state US governments are choosing adaptation because they’ve correctly assessed that mitigation is costlier.  Governments have responsibilities to their constituencies – not far-off populations that are admittedly more at risk from climate change than ours.  That’s one of the Big Pillar Problems: climate change effects impact people with little responsibility to the problem disproportionately.  It is psychologically sound to muster less action for “others” than “selves” – for better or worse, altruism isn’t rewarded in our society.  Unfortunately, that’s the reality we live and operate in.  Wishes aren’t going to change that.

Communities and organizations could break up resources to mitigate potential dirty energy projects and make them clean in foreign countries where it is relatively cheaper to do so while simultaneously allocating remaining resources to address perceived threats locally.  That’s a harder thing to do than what I describe above – only adapt locally – but it’s also cheaper than mitigating locally (for now).

Say I pay $10 to reduce carbon by a ton. I bear the full cost, but because all of humanity benefits, I receive only one seven-billionth of the value of my investment (give or take).

David contradicts what he said prior to this with this statement.  The poorest and most vulnerable benefit more than he does.  But note the fundamental, critical point here: can anyone benefit by $10/7,000,000,000?  What can I do with 1.43*10^-9 dollars?  Absolutely nothing.  And neither can the primary benefitees, who have to share most of that calculable but meaningless number.  The second point which follows quickly on the heels of the first is that any mitigation investment requires multiple billions before anyone sees one dollar’s value and multiple trillions before anyone sees something meaningful.  Where does that money come from and how do we convince people to make the required investment with the aforementioned psychological barriers to doing so?

One obvious implication of this difference is that, to the extent spending favors adaptation over mitigation, it will replicate and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. The benefits will accrue to those with the money to pay for them.

I’ll look at this differently to help understand it better: will additional mitigation spending reduce wealth and power inequalities?  Is David arguing that developing countries will be equally wealthy and powerful if climate spending is directed towards mitigation and not adaptation?  That’s probably a logical extreme.  Will we reduce inequalities between developing and developed countries to a greater extent due to mitigation or adaptation is one potential question we can address.  I haven’t seen anything that convinces me of one argument or the other.  I haven’t seen anything that addresses quantitatively either argument, to be frank.

It becomes more expensive to mitigate to an arbitrarily chosen threshold if the date by which to do so remains unchanged.  That is, if you accept <2C warming by 2100 as a goal (though I’ve detailed many times why such a goal is unfeasible), then mitigation costs are lower if we begin mitigation today instead of 20 years from now.  But why do we accept unnecessary firm boundaries on the problem?  If, as I’ve postulated, <2C warming by 2100 isn’t technologically or politically feasible, then one or both boundaries must change.  The further out in time we set the goal, the likelier it is that technologies will exist to more cheaply attain the goal.  The higher the temperature goal is, the likelier we are to achieve it.  And just like in the rest of our lives, the easier the goal is to attain, the likelier we are to do so.  And once done, the easier it becomes to attain subsequent along-the-road goals.

What’s left out of these goals is developed nation-level energy generation in developing nations – in other words keeping poor people poor indefinitely.  Mitigation alone won’t reduce wealth inequality.  If David wants to reduce wealth inequality, the best way to do so is to post-industrialize developing nations as quickly as possible.  With reduced inequality comes increased power.  The side benefits?  Developed nations actually work on mitigation (again, saving costs by mitigating where it’s cheaper) they can concentrate on adapting to climate effects along the way.

I recognize David’s valid point that skeptics are likely to latch onto the “we need to adapt” frame as a way to continue avoiding “we need to mitigate” concept.  But skeptics are going to continue avoiding the problem so long as we don’t switch how we talk with them.

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Language surrounding ozone depletion

As a physical scientist who has also studied social aspects of science and technology, language – specifically word choice – is important.  That is why when “ozone hole healing” jumped out from my Twitter feed today, it disappointed me.  Why?

Is the ozone layer alive?  Is it currently wounded?  Can it heal?

I know environmental activists like to use the frame of Earth as a living thing.  It’s not.  It is a celestial body with multiple interacting physical systems.  The Earth neither grows nor reproduces within its environment.  There are things that are alive (obviously) on Earth.  Phenomena occur within Earth systems, but that doesn’t qualify as life.  Thus it cannot heal because it is not diseased or injured.

There is ozone depletion in the stratosphere that is exclusively caused by on life form on the planet – people.  In news today, ozone depletion has for the first time since being discovered in the 1980s slowed and even reversed.  That is very good news, as ozone depletion impacted some of Earth’s physical systems as well as actual life on the planet.

Metaphors are powerful tools in our language.  We must take care to use them appropriately.  There is nothing wrong with using scientific language to describe scientific processes.  We can make explanations as simple as necessary, which should promote wider understanding of complex phenomena.


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The Wrong Lesson From Increasing GHG Emissions

I saw two seemingly separate items today that I think more people should draw together.

The first from BBC news: Greenhouse gas levels rising at fastest rate since 1984

This isn’t news to anyone that reads this blog regularly: concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a record level in 2013.  News flash: they hit a new record in 2014.  And they’ll do it again in 2015, 2016, 2017, …, and on until we innovate and deploy technologies that remove the gas from the atmosphere.

The article also includes what I consider to be a fairly realistic assessment of upcoming climate negotiations:

While stressing the need for that agreement to be “legally binding”, Mr Davey explained that actual targets for emissions reductions may not be covered by that term.

“We do believe that the foundations of the agreement have to be legally binding, so what that might be? That might be the rules. That might include the measurements, the monitoring and the verification and those sorts of things.

“We would prefer the targets to be legally binding, we already have legally binding targets in the UK and we are trying to argue for more ambitious legally binding targets for the EU, but we recognise that other countries find that a little bit more challenging.

The agreement in question is the follow-up to the failed Copenhagen climate conference.  Countries since then have talked a lot about what they want to accomplish in terms of emissions reductions, but nobody has put together anything concrete.  As Mr Davey said, the UK has “legally binding targets”.  As with anything, the devil is in the details.  The UK isn’t going to meet their “legally binding” reductions (see below).  And what will happen when they finally acknowledge that they won’t?  Who knows – it will be the first time such a thing happens.  I think a safe bet is almost nothing will happen.  And therein lies the problem.  With no penalty, there is little incentive to actually make and enforce policies that will achieve stated goals.

The second article is one with which I disagree on many points, though its presence is good for discussion: Sorry policy-makers, the two-degrees warming policy is likely a road to disaster.

First, the obligatory admonishment: more disaster talk.  Really?  Really?  Quick to the chase: it turns people off from whatever else you have to say.  Starting your article with it is the worst strategy.  I’ve worked my way through climate disaster porn for over a decade now, so I continue.

The article tries to move the goal posts – the wrong way.  Alexander White, for the Guardian, argues that while a 2°C limit on global warming is the commonly used target for climate negotiations, the limit should be reduced to a 1.5°C.  After noting that national pledges aim only for 3°C and the real world is actually on track for 4°C.  Now I ask: what possible motivation would countries have to aim for 1.5°C when current policies lead to 4°C+?  Will moving the goal posts to 1.5°C somehow convince climate negotiators to go at it a bit harder?  No, of course not.

White makes several arguments for the 1.5°C target, based on moral points which I agree with.  However, neither he nor I can will the world to 1.5°C policies just because we want to.  Real people have to argue for real policies – mostly in democracies in Western nations.  Mr Davey had it correct: the first step is measurements, monitoring, and verification.  Countries should have implemented those rules 25 years ago.  They didn’t and we’re well on our way to 4°C.

Pricewaterhouse Cooper has the following in their summary:

In the Index’s G20 analysis, an unexpected champion surpassed the annual target – Australia –  recording a decarbonisation rate of 7.2% over 2013, putting it top of the table for the second year in a row. Three other countries – the UK, Italy and China – achieved a decarbonisation rate of between 4% and 5%. Five countries, however, increased their carbon intensity over 2013 – France, the US, India, Germany and Brazil.

The UK achieved a one-time decarbonization rate of between 4% and 5%.  What do they need to achieve their legally binding targets?  Between 7% and 9% every year until 2020.  And beyond too.  Those decarbonization rates have never been achieved in history.  To achieve them requires beyond Chinese-level investments in clean energy research and deployment by every country for the next 100 years.  Until we come close to achieving that, arguing over a 1.5°C target versus a 2°C or 4°C target is peeing into the wind.  It doesn’t accomplish much of anything useful.  On a related note, Chinese 2013 fossil fuel deployment far exceeded every clean energy deployment worldwide during the same year.  We need to spend our time establishing, implementing, and improving novel climate and energy policies.  What we’re really arguing over isn’t 1.5°C vs. 2°C, it’s 3.9°C vs. 4.2°C – which is not much of a difference, is it?

White finishes with:

A challenge for us all leading up to the New York summit is that the 2°C target rhetoric is likely sabotaging policy negotiations that would meaningfully tackle global warming.

I disagree.  This is the result of a fundamental misinterpretation of what policy negotiations failed to tackle historically.  Developed nations will continue to fail if the focus remains on abstract targets such as 2°C or 1.5°C – neither of which is achievable anyway.