Oct 29 2021

What Kind of Problem is Global Warming

Framing is important, and often exists below our conscious awareness. If we are not even aware that we are framing an issue in a certain way, and that other framings are possible, this will influence our thinking in ways that we cannot anticipate or correct for. Sometimes a particular framing is deliberate, a strategy for propaganda and rhetorical advantage. This is often done in order to win a debate before it even begins, by rigging the intellectual venue. It’s therefore critical to keep on the alert for how you and others frame particular issues.

Framing has come up quite a bit in the recent comment discussions on global warming, so I would like to address the framing issue directly. The question is – what kind of a problem is global warming, from the perspective of how we can solve it. One framing, of course, is that it is not a problem, that it’s some kind of hoax, but I will simply reject that framing outright. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is happening and is already causing problems, with big problems likely ahead. The question we should focus on now is, how should we mitigate AGW?

I have encountered four different ways to approach this question: scientific, economic, political, and social. If we ask, is AGW primarily a scientific, economic, political, or social problem, the answer is, “Yes”. It’s all of them at the same time, and there is interaction among these different factors. Human psychology, however, tends to favor oversimplification and moral purity, so there is a tendency to frame the issue from only one perspective. There is also a tendency to then stake out that framing as the one “correct” view, and then criticize the other perspectives by making straw men out of them, partly by pointing at their most fringe elements as if they were mainstream. But let’s take a more thorough and nuanced approach.

Scientific Problem

AGW is a scientific problem in that it is created by our technology and new technology will ultimately solve the problem. AGW is mostly a consequence of burning fossil fuels, but there are also significant industrial sources of CO2 such as in the cement industry. Therefore, we simply need to replace older fossil fuel technology with new carbon neutral technology. If that were the only issue, then the problem is largely solved. We have battery-powered EVs to replace gasoline vehicles, we can make biofuel for those applications that need the energy density of gasoline, we have solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear fission technology to replace fossil fuel energy production, and we have various methods of grid storage.

So – problem solved? Not quite, for the very reason that we cannot look at AGW entirely from one perspective. Even though we have the technology to replace fossil fuel use, that doesn’t mean we have the incentives to actually do so, and to do it fast enough to avoid seriously bad outcomes from AGW. Timing is actually the critical issue here. I have little doubt that in 2100 the world will be running on cheap and clean renewable energy, maybe with some fusion thrown in if that all works out. But if we burn up all the fossil fuel before we get there, it won’t matter much.

From the scientific framing perspective, one could argue that the only investments worth making are in research, to speed up advances in technology and the adoption of clean technologies. This is a good argument for investment in R&D, but does not mean other factors are not important.

Economic Problem

If we already have the technology we need, and it will inevitably only get better, but timing is the critical issue, then (some conclude) the real issue is economic. What we really need is for clean technologies to become cheaper. You cannot force people to make bad economic decisions. If the environmentally friendly decision is also the cheapest, then people will do it. This is trivially true, and is a good argument for the effectiveness of cheap clean energy.

The question is – how do we make the environmental choices cheaper? And again, this will happen on its own as technology advances, but will it happen quickly enough?

We can also look at the economics of AGW from a national and global perspective, rather than individual choice perspective. What will AGW cost nations over the next century? Could investments we make now reduce that cost? This is a complex analysis, but economists crunching the numbers estimate that AGW will cost the world tens of trillions of dollars over the next 50 years. The healthcare costs alone are 100 million dollars per year for the US itself, and in the billions every year for the world.

Alright, so the technology is here and getting better, and economics favors investment in green technologies, so what’s the problem? Some argue there is no problem, just sit back and relax and let the technology and economic issues sort themselves out. I certainly hope this is true, but I’m not willing to gamble that it may not be true. Again, the critical issue is timing. That everything will work out eventually is not good enough when the clock is ticking fast on our carbon budget. Therefore, one might argue, the real question is how do we accelerate these already existing trends?

Political Problem

This leads us to the political framing. What, if any, government policies should we favor to speed up phasing out of fossil fuels and adoption of clean technologies? This is where most of the debate is, because these are actual decisions we can make. We can use politics to push certain technologies, and alter the economic calculus. Regulations are the only things we can change instantly, with the stroke of a pen (at least theoretically). In fact, we already have a ton of regulations that are affecting the AGW equation. The “do nothing” approach is a tacit acceptance of all current regulations and policies. For those who think we need to do something about AGW politically, it’s mostly a matter of reviewing current policies and changing them so that they favor acceleration of phasing out fossil fuels.

Some argue that politics has failed, and that is largely true. Or they argue that there are lots of bad ideas coming from politicians, and that is also true. Neither of these are arguments for doing nothing, or against specific policies that may be helpful. I am not a policy or energy expert, so I don’t know how best to address AGW politically. But it is not hard to find specific recommendations from experts that at least sound reasonable and stand up well to critical analysis. This is exactly where the debate should be focused – on the nitty gritty details of policy. Here are some examples:

  • Rethink fossil fuel subsidies. If we want green energy to be much cheaper that carbon-intensive energy, then we should not be subsidizing fossil fuel. Instead, use the money saved to mitigate resulting increased economic costs for the lower and middle classes.
  • Tax carbon so that producers are not allowed to externalize the health and environmental costs of their products. Again, us the revenue to offset costs to those with lower incomes.
  • Invest in infrastructure, especially the grid and recharging stations for EVs.
  • Invest in research to accelerate technological advancement
  • Rethink fission energy regulations to make sure they are not unnecessarily onerous, costly, and delaying.
  • Invest in retraining workers from existing fossil fuel jobs. Incentivize non-fossil fuel industries to locate in regions currently dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
  • Examine patent law to see if green technologies can be made for available, or simply subsidize green technologies to make them cheaper and more widely available.

We don’t need to do anything crazy, most just infrastructure investment and rebalancing market incentives. The only heavy-handed policy I think makes sense is doing whatever it takes to end coal as soon as possible. Coal is responsible for most of our CO2. This is the lowest hanging fruit, and getting rid of it quickly will buy us time for the more gentle nudges to have their effect. It’s cheaper in the long run for governments to just buy out coal mines, subsidize and retrain displaced workers, and do whatever it takes to just end coal. Replace coal plants with natural gas quickly, and nuclear as soon as possible. This will give us the decades necessary to build out a renewable energy infrastructure, and switch over to EVs.

Social Problem

Unfortunately, we do not live in a rational world, and one can argue that our political infrastructure is dysfunctional. We have a hard time taking even basic common sense measures, when vested interests oppose them or ideology intervenes. Therefore, some argue, the ultimate solution is social. Not only do we need to reduce our own personal carbon footprint (which I would argue has a negligible effect overall), but we need to use social pressure to achieve what current politics cannot. This means, for example, divesting from the fossil fuel industry. It means demanding rational action from our politicians. We can vote with our dollars and our actual votes.

All four of these factors are obviously intertwined. Saying that AGW is entirely one type of problem cannot cover the reality. But if we ask – what can we do? For most people that’s using social pressure to affect political action to facilitate the economic and scientific factors affecting AGW.

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