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A bit of philosophy

Filed under: — eric @ 16 May 2007

Eric Steig and Gavin Schmidt

The two of us participated last week in an interesting meeting at the University of Washington on Ethics and Climate Change. Other scientists in attendance included Dennis Hartmann, who gave an overview of the current state of the science, and sometime RealClimate contributor Cecilia Bitz. Organized by Associate Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner, the conference was dedicated to the particular ethical and moral issues raised by the spectre of anthropogenic climate change. Since we aren’t philosophers by training, and since it would probably stray too far from RealClimate’s focus on science, we won’t comment in great detail. However, we thought it worth making our readers aware that there is a very interesting and growing literature on the subject. Based on their remarks at the conference, we heartily recommend checking out the papers and commentaries written by the various philosphers, scientists, and political theorists who attended. You can get abstracts of their talks on the conference web page. Below, we simply wish to note several issues raised at the conference that we found particularly interesting.

Stephen Gardiner presented an articulate argument on the moral ramifications of geoengineering (in particular the proposal by Paul Crutzen to add sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere to increase the planetary albedo) about we have expressed some doubts previously, chiefly on scientific grounds). Among the cogent statements made by Gardiner was that while one may argue that research on geoengineering acts as a kind of insurance policy,

… there are many such policies; and there is a real concern that the narrow one of “Geoengineering Research Only” gains prominence among them only because it is the one that seems most congenial to us, the present generation.

If you are interesting in reading more, you can get the entire text of Stephen’s paper, here.

Another very interesting talk was that by Jeff Kiehl, a climate modeler at NCAR, who raised a series of ethical issues regarding how climate models are constructed and the ethical decisions that climate modelers face in conveying model results to the public. This talk prompted a lively discussion about the role of peer review, with the conclusion that the system probably works pretty well. It is imperfect, but it does act as a reasonable first filter to catch most egregious misuses of science.

Steve Schneider and one of us (Gavin) discussed the roles of public scientists and of scientists reaching out to the public and some of the pitfalls to be avoided there (see Steve’s site or this post for the kind of thing we were talking about).

Henry Shue, an Oxford philosopher well known for his work on such issues as the moral implications of torture and pre-emptive war, made the argument that the moral implications of not dealing with climate change should be thought of not only in terms of harm, but in terms of potential harm. Unfortunately for those of us that would like to keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate, Shue argues that uncertainty — the possibility that harm caused to future generations from anthropogenic climate change will be relatively small — does not get us out of our moral obligation to change our behavior. That is, one need only recognize that business as usual will increase the risk of significant harm – a point that almost nobody debates – for it to be clear that business as usual may be unethical.

Paul Baer, whose influential book “Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming” (with co-author Tom Athanasiou) discussed ethical issues in how one should allocate global warming permits across the world, discussed some interesting new twists to their work. The principal objection to the idea that everyone has the right to emit an equal portion of GHGs, is that today’s mean value is below that of China’s per capita emissions, and thus a straightforward cap and trade at that level is politically impossible. The new twist in his work relates to the need to balance the current emission problem with the right of poor countries to develop that “should not be impeded by the requirement to reduce GHG emissions, and that the presumably steep burden of mitigation costs must be shared on the basis of responsibility and capacity”. This of course, shifts more of the burden onto the developed countries who have already benefited from their use of fossil fuels. It will be interesting to see how that is received at the climate negotiations.

Finally, there was one idea that was raised that we take issue with, and which we think worth commenting on because it comes up frequently. For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the Easterbrook Fallacy, after Gregg Easterbrook, the author of the book A Moment on the Earth: The coming age of environmental optimism. In that book, Easterbrook makes the repeated claim that environmentalists are off the mark in their warnings to society, because things are actually getting better. For example, he notes that the Clean Air Act has substantially improved air quality in the United States, and somehow turns this into an argument that we needn’t be concerned about clean air. He completely ignores the obvious fact the Clean Air Act exists only due to such concerns being expressed by scientists and other that Easterbrook dismisses as “pessimists”.* In a similar vein, one of the commentators at the conference made the argument that it was an open question whether we had any moral obligation towards future generations for our impact on the climate, since that impact could in principle be averted (for example through carbon dioxide removal via ocean iron fertilization). This is equivalent to saying that we will not have to address the issue of climate change if we address it, an argument that has no bearing whatsoever on whether we have a moral obligation. We were a bit surprised to hear it from a philosopher since it is a tautology (usually anathema to philosophers).


*Note that Easterbrook now says that the science is in and he takes “global warming” seriously. That doesn’t change the logical fallacy in his earlier arguments.


261 Responses to “A bit of philosophy”

  1. 101
    Terry Miesle says:

    Re: 93

    Your argument supports the taxation of energy distribution, not generation. Money to build and operate plants, operate railroads to transport coal etc. not to mention military operations to secure supplies are all taxpayer-subsidized. Tax breaks for exploration, refining, and the like are also subsidies.

    A decent beginners guide is here:
    http://www.earthtrack.net/earthtrack/index.asp

    I’m not saying all subsidies are bad, it’s just that they hide the true costs.

  2. 102
    Nick Riley says:

    Thanks for this report:

    I was involved in a transatlantic dialogue link up between Europe and the USA two weeks ago. I think the ethical issue is fundamental. Katrina has demonstrated that even in developed countries climate related events hit the poor, the young, the sick and the old hardest. How much more will this be the case in undeveloped and developing countries. I see the AGW issue as an issue of human justice as well as preventing loss of biodiversity etc. This is a key message I now bring out in all my public speaking and broadcast events.

  3. 103
    cat black says:

    #75 [acceptance] Folks, if you didn’t read this one by Craig very carefully, you should. Read it and pay close attention. I’ll wager that there are more people reading here that identify with that sentiment than are even willing to admit it.

    I have recurrent dreams, from which I wake with dread born of growing certainty, where the near future world is burdened with a crushing sense of hopelessness and failure. Failure to see. Failure to recognize. Failure to act. Failure, of everything; of our systems, of our efforts, of our governments and schools and religions and of ourselves. Where the dream that countless people have shared of a world free of pain, free of fear, is simply swept away for a thousand years on a tide of unmeasureable human suffering that rolls over the surface of these lands like a slow motion disaster.

    The scope of the problem now is simply unimaginable, and it will grow worse with time and we will never get ahead of it, ever, until it has literally burnt itself out. I don’t know how we’re going to manage. I am all but certain we cannot and will not manage well. I hope we emerge whole, I suspect 90% of those currently alive and soon to be born will perish outright and never know the reason for it.

    I dreamt recently of Buddhist monks sitting on the steps of their temple, all spiritual accomplishment drained from them. No path to enlightenment, no journey to a higher state, nothing to attain. They were struck senseless by the extent of the failure around them, and had given up on a thousand years of the pursuit of something greater than mere existance.

    They were us, in my dream, and I don’t know how to help them, now or in that future.

  4. 104
    Serinde says:

    Re 100
    Margaret Thatcher went to Somerville, Oxford, graduating with a degree in chemistry, special interest crystallography. I haven’t been able to find reference to a doctorate earned as opposed to those given as honorary degrees. However, you are correct: a scientist and had accepted the possibility of climate change by 1988, although she also believed that economic growth was at the heart of dealing with environmental problems because growth provided money to pay for the protection. Mostly she feared environmentalists as wolves in green clothing. See her book “Statecraft” (2002). At the time she was the only scientifically-educated head of state.

  5. 105
    stuart says:

    For example if reducing automobile pollution by mandating an increase in MPGs saves 10,000 lives that must be measured against any lives that it might cost (perhaps due to cars being lighter and thus fairing worse in crashes.)

    Ceteris paribus lighter cars fair better in crashes. Heavier cars are just better at killing other people, they are no better at saving yourself.

  6. 106
    bjc says:

    #100
    Read 1972 Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow’s little book: Social Choice and Individual Values. Then take a look at the prescriptions in most of the posts above. Then ask “who chooses?” I think Arrow (or Hayek)would have had a field day at the Ethics and Climate Change seminar! Some of the rest of us simply don’t think it is fair to tell someone to double or triple their commuting time by relying on public transportation, when those doing the telling have a minimal commuting time.

  7. 107
    Marion_Delgado says:

    re 106: I suspect John Kenneth Gailbraith and Duncan Black (he of Public Choice Theory) would have their own kind of fun showing the gaping holes in both Hayek’s and Arrow’s work. And bringing up the unscientific “Nobel” in Economics has virtually nothing to do with climate amelioration.

  8. 108
    Hank Roberts says:

    > fair

    This our problem is physics and chemistry; “it’s not fair” is no excuse.
    Those who made choices fifty years ago, whose riches and debts we inherited, didn’t know any better. We do.

    “As all men allow the measure, and differ only in their opinion of the time, let us, in order to remove mistakes, take a general survey of things, and endeavor, if possible, to find out the very time. But we need not to go far, the inquiry ceases at once, for, the time has found us.”

    — Tom Paine

    http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/paine/p13.htm

  9. 109
    Elizabeth says:

    to bjc #106 – I do triple my commute by relying on public transportation. I live 5 miles from my office and it takes me a minimum of 50 minutes by bus. Sometimes I walk – then it only takes me 90 minutes. So, don’t talk to me about minimal commuting time.

    But you are absolutely right – the US has built its communities around the car and this severely limits the options for many many people. So, from this point forward, let’s make choices about development that are smarter. If we start now, we’ll be in a lot better shape by 2050. In the meantime, what’s wrong with the short term fix of fuel efficient cars?

    We are faced with many obstacles – but we have a large menu of choices for overcoming those obstacles. Taking a bus isn’t an option for you – then carpool. If that’s not an option either – then buy an energy efficient car. What about telecommuting? None of those options work for you, well, then focus on making your home more energy efficient. Sheesh. No one is telling you have to take a bus. Or do any of these other things.

    Personally, I’d like to see a carbon tax but a carbon cap would work, too. Neither of those would force you to make a single change in your life – it would just make certain choices more expensive.

  10. 110
    James says:

    Re #106: [Some of the rest of us simply don’t think it is fair to tell someone to double or triple their commuting time by relying on public transportation, when those doing the telling have a minimal commuting time.]

    Who’s telling you to do that? I think what people are saying is that all of us should look at alternatives, instead of being trapped in a “gotta drive my SUV to work” mindset. Suppose for instance that using public transportation actually takes less time than driving (as it did for me when I lived in Switzerland): doesn’t it make sense to take it? If you add up driving time, looking for parking space time, and exercise time, maybe riding a bike to work makes sense (as it did for me when I rode 16 miles each way to a job). Maybe telecommuting works for you, as it does for me now.

    Even if none of these happen to work for you personally, they might for other people. That benefits you, because the roads you drive will be less crowded, so doesn’t it make sense to encourage people to use the alternatives?

  11. 111
    Mark A. York says:

    Boy Howdy, on Esterbrook. So often those who point out the negative are perceived as “being” negative. This is yet another example of killing the messenger. Why? They don’t like the msseage. Can that. It will always be the case and that’s much more predictable than the weather. The climate, as we here know, is another matter, and in fact easier to predict because the scientific community has tools and knowledge to do so. That’s a wonderful thing and not negative at all. It’s real.

  12. 112
    Rod B. says:

    George’s (#8) ethical/philosophical solution is rather straight-forward: just throw into prison anyone who benefited from CO2 emissions, argued against the current view, or even thought about it. I suppose, with a stretch, that is an “ethical/philosophical” position, albeit blunt, crude, and pretty unsophisticated. Though the “benefitted from” bit pretty much covers the world’s population; I don’t know how to implement that one!

  13. 113
    Robin Johnson says:

    I find the whole “geo-engineering is evil” debate kind of strange. We have ALREADY totally geo-engineered the planet. Farms, roads, lights, buildings, dams, levees, canals, tunnels. We’ve cut down forests, eliminated fauna we didn’t like, moved plant and animal species across the world in the blink of geological time. Half the people on the planet would die within two years of starvation if all food had to be produced with organic fertilizer – artificial fertilizer allowed the world’s population to balloon to where it is now.

    In a dispassionate, purely scientific point of view, its all effing amazing.

    Geo-engineering cannot be inherently evil – it is the very DEFINITION of modern human civilization. It might be the death of us. But we’re all gonna die anyway.

    Anyway, if say, we could deploy N square meters of mirrors to reduce the albedo enough to avoid melting Greenland and West Antarctica – I’m all for it. I suspect the number of square meters of mirrors required, the need to keep them clean and locating the albedo in the right place would make it impractical. I object to the ocean fertilization and aerosol schemes simply because they either won’t work or would cause more harm than fleeting good.

    Personally, I think we should do all we can to slow down the increase – but I’m not very hopeful that we can avoid a nasty rise in sea level. Greenland and Antarctica seemed destined to melt if ask me. Sooner rather than later.

    Then we’ll see how moral we really think we are. Will we let 100 million starve to death? You bet we will. Will we prevent millions of environmental refugees from flooding our lands (we being the rich Western nations)? You bet we will. Is it moral? It is the darkest of moral choices. Do we punish those who have overpopulated, underdeveloped and chosen to live in the wrong place? If not for China and India, we could probably decrease the CO2 load and maybe, just maybe avoid catastrophe. So is it THEIR fault for wanting to live better by emulating what we have done? Sort of an environmental pyramid scheme or bubble depending on how you want to look at it.

    Excuse me, I have rambled too long and I need to go research the best survival skills my children will need in the coming decades ;)

  14. 114
    Hank Roberts says:

    That’s why letting the philosophers make the rules is problematic.

  15. 115

    This is somewhat OT in this post, but regarding fossil fuel, there are those who argue that since we already have reachead, or soon will reach, “Peak Oil” (or “Peak Coal” or whatever), consumtion will eventually cease, and hence future global warming will not be that large a problem.

    For Swedish readers, see today’s Dagens Nyheter (big newspaper here), where Kjell Aleklett argues exactly that: http://www.dn.se/DNet/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=572&a=651149
    He also states that IPCC models and scenarios do not take Peak Oil into account.

    I think this has been dealt with here earlier, and that the caveat is, that even if emissions of fossil fuel do cease, the GHG already emitted still pose a serious threat when accumulated in the atmosphere, but could someone please point me to a relevant post?

  16. 116
    Fergus Brown says:

    Re: #95: Yes. There is a conflict of interest between individual human rights (of liberty) and utilitarian principles. This need not entail violation. The ‘greater good of all’ includes the individual, who may wish to take an alternative path, even if it is not in his/her own interest.

    I don’t believe we are dealing with the ‘precautionary principle’ here any longer; this presumes a degree of uncertainty about the consequences of an action. That degree of uncertainty has been reduced to almost zero, thanks to the hard work of climate scientists, amongst others. If we are pretty clear on what the consequences of inaction are going to be, not just for the climate, but also the environment, then by deciding to act, we are not saying ‘just in case…’, but ‘because’.

    Therefore, your argument that we are collectively ‘innocent’ is not valid. The verdict is in; we have, are and will be changing the environment and the climate by our actions, specifically, emissions. But framing this in terms of ‘guilt’ is deceptive; it isn’t your fault, or any individual’s fault, that we live in our current world. The curtailment of certain individual choices is not a ‘punishment’, nor is it based on the assumption that individual rights do not matter, but does imply that, under certain circumstances, it is in our best interest to put aside what we want as individuals for the sake of the greater good of all, including ourselves. As to whether such actions should be imposed upon those who choose not to act is another moral question. Michael Tobis, and Jeffrey Sachs, in the recent Reith Lectures, both put a case for arguing that thinking in separatist, exclusive, or competitive terms is a recipe for disaster.

    This is a complex subject and deserves more discussion; sorry that it is stuck low down on a blog in RC, and that time prevents, for the time being, more discussion.

  17. 117

    [[As has been pointed out by a famous denier, even the true believing cheerleaders for AGW are unable to abandon their power-sucking mansions & SUVs.]]

    I live in a Pittsburgh row house and I do not own an SUV. I have a ’99 Pontiac Grand Am. I keep the house insulated and the car tuned up and with inflated tires.

    [[ Nuclear Power has the big advantage in that it is a solution to the world’s demand for power consumption as it actually is.]]

    So is wind.

    [[It is a fairly dependable economic principle that alternative power sources will not be used until they are cheaper. Are there any alternative carbon-nuetral power sources that have the potential of being a cheaper alternative on the necessary scale to oil & coal before it is too late? ]]

    Wind. Solar, too. The high price of solar cells is largely because they aren’t being mass-produced on a large scale. If the federal government made a billion-dollar purchase of solar cells (the way DoD purchased electronics in the ’60s), plants to mass-produce them would be set up and the price would drop. The “renewables have to get cheaper!” line ignores how markets work and how fast technology can change when new technologies are subsidized by a government. Compare US shipbuilding in 1938 and 1943.

  18. 118
    Terry Miesle says:

    Re:117
    Indeed. One only needs to look to Germany to see a government-sponsored effort to move heavily toward solar. Is it the only energy source? No. But they’re on track to beat their initial goals. It’s part of a mix, and one which can help alleviate peak demands. You can look to other European nations for wind and wave power examples. We, as Americans, have apparently decided to let Europe take the lead. We’d rather spend our money on fossil fuels.

  19. 119
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #6, Valuethinker, you might be interested in the film KEEPING THE EARTH: RELIGIOUS AND SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVES ON THE ENVIRONMENT (1996, Union of Concerned Scientists – http://www.ucsusa.org/publications) — not specifically addressing GW, but environmental problems in general.

    I was moved to tears, esp when the animals came down the aisle of the cathedral.

    One thing I learned was that God’s first commandment — well before the 10 commandments — was to Adam & Eve to keep the garden.

    Another thing they spoke of was how causing species to go extinct was like tearing pages out of the Bible.

    In this “web of creation” ethics needs to encompass all earth’s biota, not just people or what’s good for people.

  20. 120
    pete best says:

    Re 119, Be nice to think that but corporations only tend to pay lip service to environmental concerns and if climate change was not heppenning to make life difficult for us then I doubt that corporations would be falling over themselves to be green.

    Environmentalism is not just about combating climate change but an entire raft of objectives to make the world a better place for us and nature as a whole. Let us take the destruction of rain forests, here in the UK 5000 odd years ago we were covered by the caladonian forest which we have subsequently cleared over time almost completely and now we cannot let other countries do the same, however each year vast amounts of rain forest is cleared becuase we can hardly moralise can we considering our history.

  21. 121
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #115: Par Johanson — Peak Oil makes little difference, at least as I read Dr. James Hansen’s remarks. What counts seriously against the climate, both now and into the future, is burning coal.

    The known stocks of coal, if all burnt, would release at least 10 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as humans have already done in the past 250 years.

  22. 122
    john says:

    Re #26: “I think it’s worth noting that this kind of intergenerational argument is found nowhere else in policy-making. Nobody thinks Churchill was a dope because he fought the Nazi’s in 1939, instead of leaving them for us fight them in 1999, by which time the UK’s GDP would have nearly quadrupled!”

    I think its worth pointing out how false an analogy this is. AGW is unique in terms of its policy ramifications because the time when we would invest to prevent it (say, now) is temporally removed from the time when we would receive most of the benefits from investing in it (say, 50 or 100 or 200 years from now). The time when Churchill would pay to defeat the Nazis (1939-1945) is, in constrast, roughly the same time that the English would most benefit from paying to defeat the Nazis. Global Warming really does require a new kind of thinking about intergenerational responsibilities.

  23. 123
    Dave Blair says:

    warmer earth = more life

  24. 124
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #123: Dave Blair — That statement is debatable. For example, Dr. Jose Marengo, who leads studies of the Amazon rain forest, predicts that almost the entire Amazon basin will become a dry and warm savannah as global warming continues. For another, the great biological productivity of the Southern Ocean is considered to be linked to its being cold…

  25. 125
    Dave Blair says:

    Mr. David B. Benson, I don’t know about those places but from the farm I grew up on and everywhere else I have been a warmer earth will mean more life – lex parsimoniae.

  26. 126
    Figen Mekik says:

    Yes, marine diatoms generally like it cold (like Southern Ocean cold), and they are a large part of the biota serving as “the base of the food chain.” Also it is the upwelled, colder, nutrient- rich waters that sustain life in equatorial seas. So it really comes down to what kind of life likes it warm, and what kind of life you want. There is more bacterial and viral disease in warmer climate too.

  27. 127
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #125: Dave Blair — Alas, you are applying Ockham’s razor too sharply. As a counter, read

    Mark V. Lomolino
    Biogeography

    which, as it is a bit expensive, you might prefer to borrow from a lending library…

  28. 128
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Re 125: “from the farm I grew up on and everywhere else I’ve been, warmer means more life.” I don’t know where your farm is and what those places are, but you’re flat wrong. I have lived in Texas, Maryland and Washington State; I have crossed the 48 contiguous US East to West. Before that, I lived in Europe, Africa and in the south Pacific. The richest (from an ecological point of view) places I’ve seen were: African equatorial forests, Pacific Northwest forests, Pacific Ocean coral reefs. The poorest were: Sahara desert, temperate mountaineous areas above 10 to 12000 ft, parts of the Arizona desert. On land, abundance and diversity of life depends on the availability of liquid water more than any other factor. In the water, it depends a lot on oxygen content. I’m sure the text referred above will make that plain.

    Just so you know, the bulk of this traveling was done long before the corresponding carbon release came to my attention.

    Let me summarize this nicely for you: the hottest place in the US happens to be called Death Valley.

  29. 129
    Chris says:

    “Cecilia” that’s a great name. “Cecelia” that’s a weird name.

  30. 130

    Geo-Engineering happens. By 1751, The ‘Founding Fathers’ had changed our as yet unfounded nation’s balance of solar energy, in Ben Franklin’s words :

    “By clearing America of woods and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light”

    http://adamant.typepad.com/seitz/2007/05/the_brimstone_r.html

  31. 131

    [[warmer earth = more life ]]

    more droughts in continental interiors + more violent weather along coastlines = probably not more life

  32. 132
    bjc says:

    Elizabeth (#
    The question posed was

    I am very interested as to _why_ climate change scepticism/denial/whatever seems to be a thing of the free-market libetarian right. This is clearly more so in the US, but is also,to a much lesser degree, is true of the UK. So why?”

    I believe my comment was (a) responsive, (b) not a rant and (c) demonstrated as reasonable by responses #107, #108, #109 and #110.

    P.S. Elizabeth, Being older I place a great value on my time.
    P.P.S. Since I live in a rural area with highly intermittent bus and train service; I do telecommute when possible; have stewardship of, live in, preserve, restore an architectural landmark that excludes insulation as an option; have a carbon footprint that is dramatically in the black; keep my car tuned and tires pumped; am neurotic about switching off lights and avoiding waste in general; keep the thermostat at 67 degrees in our long cold winters and have no air conditioning – I find most of the suggestions condescending, tendentious, somewhat silly and vaguely dictatorial. (“They can have any color, so long as it is black.” – Henry Ford)
    P.P.P.S. My primary question remains: “Who chooses?” Or in the immortal and profound words of Tonto to the Lone Ranger “who is we, kemosabe?”
    P.P.P.P.S. Not everyone is as familiar with Arrow as you are – scientific or not a Nobel Prize in Economics generally indicates that the winner has something worth listening to, even if after listening you take issue with their viewpoint.
    P.P.P.P.P.S. If the economies of scale are so pronounced for Solar Energy, you do not need the government, venture capitalists will be more than willing to underwrite your enterprise. Put a business plan together, raise the money and make the world a better place.

  33. 133
    Elizabeth says:

    bjc – OK. I get it that you find me “condescending, tendentious, somewhat silly and vaguely dictatorial”. I usually get accused of being pedantic and boring and, so, I’m feeling pretty good about this. Though I admit that I hate the idea that I might be condescending. On the other hand, I kind of like the idea of being vaguely dictatorial. (Please – no need to psychoanalyze that statement!) And, as for being silly – well that’s pretty much inevitable in life.
    P. S. Not that age has anything to do with the value one places on time but, since you brought the issue up, I’m 52.

  34. 134
    FurryCatHerder says:

    I guess we’re not going to get an open thread to talk about off-topic stuff :)

    I’m one of those “we’re not going to boil the oceans because we’ll go broke first” people.

    I don’t think energy is going to be any more of a problem for the underclass in the future than it is today. Just that the heirs of Bill Gates and Sam Walton will be fighting for the last few gallons of dino-gasoline if we keep going this way.

    Solar power is not cheap. Neither is building a coal fired power plant, or a nuclear reactor. It’s not the absolute cost that matters, it’s the difference between the two, and right now, solar is competitive. An adjacent municipality is starting to build their own solar utility. Various wind projects have been started and are being expanded in this state.

    We have electric deregulation (just passed a few years ago), and as soon as I get some free time I’m going to switch to a renewable utility so the money I pay for utilities is put to work building more renewable power and less of the not-so-renewable stuff. That’s something we can all do. Assuming you live in a state with that option. If you don’t live in a state with that choice, you can buy Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to make up the difference. The profit from the sale of those will go to build more renewable power. We don’t need venture capitalists or government intervention — we need to buy up every single last bit of renewable power out there so the people who build the stuff can build more, and the power companies who are losing business will be incented to build some. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, and all that.

  35. 135
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. #123 Dave Blair, see also here and here.

  36. 136
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. 106

    Some of the rest of us simply don’t think it is fair to tell someone to double or triple their commuting time by relying on public transportation, when those doing the telling have a minimal commuting time.

    Sounds like you have a lousy public transport system where you live. Have you written to your Mayor or Senator and asked them what they’re going to do to fix that?

  37. 137
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. #101

    I’m not saying all subsidies are bad, it’s just that they hide the true costs.

    Not always. Some subsidies compensate for market failings. For example a lot of infrastructure is not sufficiently valued by the market to be built privately, and yet generates great wealth.

  38. 138
    James says:

    Re 125: […from the farm I grew up on and everywhere else I have been a warmer earth will mean more life…]

    I don’t know where your farm was, but I grew up surrounded by farms, and worked on them quite a bit in my younger days. I’m also quite an avid gardener. My experience is different to yours: most plants, including many crops, seem to do most of their growing in the cooler spring and early summer. Once it gets really hot – midsummer in the northeast, as early as May or June in central California – many plants slow down their growth rate, or even stop entirely.

    This is particularly true of annuals, which include most bulk food crops and many vegetables. You plant in the spring when the weather becomes warm enough, the plants take about X number of days to grow, and you’re done. So you don’t gain that much from warmer temperatures, and those gains are likely to be more than canceled out by droughts.

  39. 139
    Michael Mazilu says:

    How many people stop smoking because they might get ill in the future?

    We, the polluters, are addicted to consumerism. So what are the chances of successfully acting against GW?

  40. 140
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #106, my commuting time is 5 minutes, BECAUSE I MADE IT A POINT TO BUY A HOUSE CLOSE TO WORK!!! and have done so ever since the energy crunch of the 70s, after learning about entropy and peak oil.

    Why do I get this funny feeling that the world has fallen asleep at the steering wheel?

  41. 141
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #135, for all those living in Texas, the cost of Green Mountain Energy’s 100% wind electricity is 2% lower than dirty-generated electricity. And (to correct misconceptions that people have), the power doesn’t shut off when the wind isn’t blowing. They buy from wind farms around the state, and it’s fed into the grid. So we take it from the grid, just like everyone else, but we are paying for our portion to be wind-generated…AND IT’S CHEAPER !! :)

    So this is the ethical choice: save money while saving the earth v. waste money while wasting the earth.

  42. 142
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    Re: Geo-engineering

    I have concerns about Crutzen’s proposal which didn’t occur to me when it was first discussed on RealClimate – and I would really appreciate some feedback as to whether I’m off the mark:

    Crutzen speaks of injecting huge amounts of SO2 into the atmosphere to produce a cooling ‘global dimming’ effect. My understanding (and I may be wrong – I haven’t studied chemistry) is that SO2 reacts with hydroxil. David Archer previously wrote here about the crucial role which hydroxil plays in the methane cycle: The amount of hydroxil available to react with methane determines the life-time of methane in the atmosphere. If less hydroxil was available for that, then methane would remain in the atmosphere for longer and, even if total methane emissions remained stable, methane concentrations in the atmosphere would be rising, in which case the planet could warm much faster than with ‘business as usual’.

    I have some scary vision of somebody trying out Paul Crutzen’s scheme and methane concentrations going through the roof, bringing about the catastrophic acceleration in global warming which Crutzen wants to avoid at any cost, but much faster. Is this theoretically possible?

  43. 143
    pete best says:

    Re #139, That is why we have Governments, it is called being managed and they act in our best interests and yes growing the economy is one such interest but not at the expense of everything else and that includes where we recycle all of our waste and where our energy comes from and how we use it. Otherwise one day we will run our of viable sources and places for it all.

    All nations can have a golden period of large scale growth under the banner of free market economics, however it is not possible indefinitely to drive trucks and cars that do 10 mpg and less endlessly is it. The laws of physics, conservation of energy and momentum etc do not allow it.

    All we have to do it move away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources in a very short space of time. This all conincides rather ominously with the possibility of Oil and Gas costing to much due to limits of supply and increasing global demand. Coal we have plenty of but surely we can overcome this limitation even if climate change was not happenning we would surely find oil and gas costing to much come 2020 to 2040. At the present time we do not have the ability to run alternative energy sources over the current infrastucture and continue as we are and hence emergy conservation measures are probably also required to meet our future global energy requirements.

    Interesting times.

  44. 144
    Onar Åm says:

    Re #116:

    I don’t think the uncertainty has been reduced to almost zero. The total uncertainty range is a factor of 100 or more. In other words, it’s quite possible that the damage from climate change is overestimated by >10000%. That’s a whole lot of uncertainty!

    You say that the verdict is in. In which court? If you are about to strip away the rights of individuals this is an actual case for the Law. In other words, the Kyoto-protocol should be tried in case. People really *should* be on trial and assumed innocent until proven guilty. Would the Kyoto-protocol survive a criminal court? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

    [Response: Setting aside what is actually being proposed which need to evaluted on their own merits, this is a civil case. Therefore “balance of evidence” is the appropriate scale, and on that metric, the case for curtailing emissions is easily won. – gavin]

  45. 145

    The high price of solar cells is largely because they aren’t being mass-produced on a large scale.

    So you haven’t actually researched for yourself how solar cells are manufactured, and what their raw materials streams consist of, as I had previously suggested, have you.

  46. 146
    Marian says:

    For daily updated news on biofuels, ethanol and climate, please visit:

    http://www.ethanol-news.de

  47. 147
    ray ladbury says:

    Re: 144, Onar Am, Where do you think the uncertainty lies:

    Do you think the planet is not warming? If so, you are sufficiently deluded that I cannot help you.

    Do you think that anthropogenic causation is in question? If so, then all I can suggest is that you actually look at the science. Although there are uncertainties, it is extremely unlikely that any of them would call into question the role of humans and specifically of fossil fuel consumption in the current epoch of climate change.

    Do you question the range of predicted temperature increases? Again, there are uncertainties, but they are asymmetrical and much more likely to underpredict rather than overpredict the effects. Moreover, there are lots of possible effects that have barely been assessed.

    This is real; it is a serious threat; and it needs to be addressed.

  48. 148
    Michael Mazilu says:

    Re: #143

    Governments are equivalent to the brain in humans. Having one does not warrant a healthy life i.e. without any addiction.

    I like your “All we have to do now” statement and hope you mean it ironically. I do not think it will be all that easy. Its not a physical limit (like energy-momentum conservation) that we are up against but human nature.

    Interesting times indeed.

  49. 149
    James says:

    Re #141: [And (to correct misconceptions that people have), the power doesn’t shut off when the wind isn’t blowing. They buy from wind farms around the state, and it’s fed into the grid.]

    Except it’s really working on a net basis: you use X KWh of electricity per month; each month Green Mountain Energy generates X KWh of wind power that you pay them for. But you aren’t using the same X KWh that they generate: you might use most of yours in the morning when winds are calm, so the power is actually being generated by some coal, nuclear, or hydro plant somewhere. Then in the afternoon when winds pick up, someone else uses the wind power while the coal plant gets throttled down. So the net result is that everyone gets electricity when they want it, and generates a bit less CO2 in the process.

    Isn’t it clear that this all depends on having some sort of controllable reserve generation on the grid to provide electricity during those periods when you’re not getting enough from wind & solar? Then consider economics. Anyone investing in power generation, regardless of technology, expects to make money by selling electricity, no? Which means running that generating plant as much as they can.

    So you have a bunch of technologies with different constraints: wind & solar produce power when mother natures says they can, geothermal runs 24/7, fossil fuel (& biomass) can run whenever, but incur significant fuel costs and create CO2. Of actual production technologies, I can think of only two, nuclear and hydro, where the output is easily controlled. Hydro is pretty well maxxed out (and has major environmental constraints), which leaves nuclear as the only proven, non-CO2 producing way to handle most of the base load of the grid.

  50. 150
    Steve Reynolds says:

    gavin comment on 144: “Therefore “balance of evidence” is the appropriate scale, and on that metric, the case for curtailing emissions is easily won.”
    and answering Ray’s 147.

    It is likely true that the case for AGW being real is easily won, with a balance of evidence that climate sensitivity is at least 2.5C.

    But that is only the climate science part. To justify curtailing emissions, you need to show that the benefits exceed the costs.

    According to the apparent consenus of peer reviewed economists, benefits do not exceed costs beyond about $14/ton carbon (which is roughly the current US tax on gasoline). Maybe an equivilent tax on coal could be justified, but not Kyoto on the evidence so far.

    As I quoted earlier, even the IPCC has doubts about cost/benefit of mitigation:

    “Limited and early analytical results from integrated analyses of the costs and benefits of mitigation indicate that these are broadly comparable in magnitude, but do not as yet permit an unambiguous determination of an emissions pathway or stabilization level where benefits exceed costs [3.5].” (from SPM3)


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