Sep 24 2019

Climate Change Is Accelerating

Have you ever traveled with a large group of friends? When a group gets beyond a certain “critical mass” it becomes geometrically more difficult to make decisions. Even going to a restaurant or a movie become laborious. Decision making seems to break down in large groups, especially if there isn’t an established hierarchy or process in place. That’s why the “by committee” cliche exists – group decision making can be a highly flawed and problematic process.

I can’t escape the nagging sensation that the world is having this problem. We seem to be politically frozen and unable to take decisive timely action. We are metaphorically driving toward a cliff, and we can’t even take our foot off the accelerator, let alone apply the brakes.

I am talking, of course, about climate change. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) compiled data in preparation for a UN summit on climate change in New York (which the US will not, ironically, be attending). They found:

  • 2014-2019 are the hottest 5 years on record
  • Global temperature have risen by 1.1 C since 1850, but  0.2 C between 2011-2015.
  • CO2 release between 2014-2019 was 20% higher than the previous 5 years
  • Sea level rise has been 3.2 mm per year on average since 1993, but is 5mm per year averaged over the last five years.
  • Ice loss is accelerating. For example – “The amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold, from 40 Gt per year in 1979-1990 to 252 Gt per year in 2009-2017.”
  • Heatwaves, wild fires, and extreme weather events are increasing and causing increasing damage and costs.

There is a decisive scientific consensus that these facts are basically accurate, that human activity is causing warming, and that the results are not going to be good. There is a growing consensus among economists that the costs of global warming will be huge, in the billions for the US alone. Even if there is still a little uncertainty, there is enough data and enough consensus to act. So what’s holding us back?

One barrier is pragmatic. Even if everyone agrees we should do something, there is disagreement over what the best something is. Some people want to see an action movie, while others want to see a drama. Unfortunately for the global warming controversy – there is only one planet. We have to watch this same movie together no matter what. But this is not the main limiting factor. There are some obvious steps we all know we should take. Stop building coal-fired plants. Invest in zero-carbon energy. Stop subsidizing fossil fuel, and instead subsidize renewable energy. Improve the mileage of cars, and start switching to hybrids and electric vehicles. Prioritize energy efficiency. Plant trees.

None of these steps require huge sacrifices. They are good for the world in any case, and for countries and individuals. We’ll have a cleaner environment and save billions on health care costs alone. Like with any transition there will be some investment up front, but we will save money in the long run. It’s like buying LED bulbs, they are more expensive but save many times their cost over their lifetime.

Where things get controversial is when we start drilling down to the details. We can’t decide if we want to see the 3D version of the movie or the IMax version, and we risk missing both start times. There is some genuine controversy over how effective carbon cap and trade schemes are, for example. People disagree about the role of nuclear energy (we should absolutely invest in nuclear). Which grid storage option will be best? How much should be invest in carbon capture?

But none of these genuine controversies are deal-killers. We should hedge our bets and essentially do everything, and track how they work out. And the big obvious things, like phasing out fossil fuels, will have the biggest impact.

The biggest obstacle to dealing with the obviously urgent issue of climate change is political. There are legitimate political controversies, such as telling developing nations they cannot bootstrap themselves into the industrial age through the same path everyone else took, because we already ate up the world’s carbon budget (sorry). But the climate doesn’t care where carbon was released, it affects the whole planet. So we need to come together and just be reasonable and fair (I know, easier said than done). While there are some legitimately thorny issues here, all are solvable. We can help chart paths to industrialization through zero carbon energy rather than relying on a 17th century technology (burning coal).

Perhaps the biggest limiting factor, however, is that there are some intellectually dishonest actors in the mix. It’s as if some members of the group secretly don’t want to see any movie, and so they are sabotaging the decision-making process deliberately, causing paralysis until the whole movie idea has to be abandoned.

There are multiple reasons for this. Some are ideological – people fear big government solutions, so they deny the problem. I think they should just acknowledge the science, and explore free-market solutions. But there are also ulterior motives at work. The fossil fuel industry has spent millions poisoning the debate, sowing doubt and confusion, propping up fringe scientists, and donating to friendly politicians. They have managed to muddy the waters enough that we are politically paralyzed. They have essentially been successful in their ultimate goal.

This is the “heckler’s veto.” One small group with vested interests has been able to distort our political process until one major political party doubts established science and a major segment of the public strongly believes a manufactured set of lies and distortions, or they just don’t know what to believe but fear taking any action. And now we’re never going to be able to see that movie. Maybe we can still get there late, but we’ll miss the previews and the first 10 minutes of the movie, but it’s better than nothing. Then, of course, those who don’t want to see the movie at all will argue that it’s not worth it.

We may need to reform our political process before we can tackle big issues like global warming. But of course, we lack the political process to fix our political process. Perhaps that’s why teenagers are marching in the streets in a desperate attempt to improve their future.

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