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Resisting Climate Reality

Cool It

a film directed by Ondi Timoner
mckibben_1-040711.jpg
Rowland Mathiasson/Roadside Attractions
Bjørn Lomborg in Greenland, 2009; from Ondi Timoner’s film Cool It

1.

We are at a dramatic moment in the story of global warming. We’ve known, as a society, about the climate change crisis for just over twenty years, from the day in June 1988 when the NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that the planet was heating up because we were burning so much fossil fuel and hence emitting so much carbon dioxide.

By 2010—the warmest year on record, according to most of the planet’s record-keepers—the earth was getting a taste of what global warming feels like in its early stages. Nineteen nations set new all-time temperature records, itself a record; in early summer Pakistan set the new all-time high for Asia at 128 degrees. That warmth accelerated the already rapid melt of the Greenland ice sheet; in some areas the melt season lasted fifty days longer than average. Meanwhile, record heat in central Russia triggered wildfires and drought, spooking the Kremlin enough that it suspended all grain exports to the rest of the world, which helped push the price of wheat sharply higher.

Most ominously, the pace of record-breaking deluge and flood surged. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cold (the atmosphere is about 4 percent moister than forty years ago), scientists have warned that we’re increasing the possibility of greater downpours; country after country found itself on the wrong side of those odds in 2010, Pakistan most desperately. (Six months after the summer flooding there, the Red Cross reported in January that four million people were still homeless.)

It’s a trend that’s continued into the new year, despite cold snaps in parts of North America and Western Europe: Jeff Masters, the meteorologist whose WunderBlog is the Internet’s go-to site for weather data, reported that the first three weeks of 2011 saw “an entire [typical] year’s worth of mega-floods,” with remarkable events in the Australian states of Queensland and Victoria, the Rio de Janeiro region of Brazil, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and South Africa. Oscillations in Pacific Ocean temperatures drive some of the flooding, but it’s the combination with the extra atmospheric moisture provided by global warming that leads to what Masters calls a “much increased chance of unprecedented floods.”

Notably, these effects are occurring with a temperature increase of slightly less than one degree Celsius, and with atmospheric CO2 concentrations of only 390 parts per million; researchers say that without dramatic action to move our economy off fossil fuels, those numbers will reach four degrees or more, and 550 parts per million or higher, by century’s end.

2.

Meanwhile, 2010 also saw the end of the first wave of attempts to deal politically with climate change. A two-decade effort with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 as its high point, it relied on mobilizing elite opinion, and focused on so-called “cap-and-trade” solutions to climate change. These measures would have placed limits on carbon and allowed businesses to trade the amounts they were allowed to emit; it was an effort to deal with the problem at minimal cost, and with only slight disruption to business as usual. But scientists pointed out that the limits were not strict enough; policy analysts showed that the complicated schemes would likely be gamed by various companies; and most of the fossil fuel industry fought them vigorously as a threat to its business model.

Industry leaders funded—as The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer and others have demonstrated—a powerful campaign to deny the clear facts of climate science, which reduced public demand for action. All these forces meant that during the last fourteen months the cap-and-trade effort foundered, probably for good. In December 2009 the UN’s climate conference in Copenhagen—meant to negotiate the next iteration of the expiring Kyoto Protocol—imploded when neither Chinese nor American leaders were willing to take bold action.

Six months later, in the summer of 2010, the US Senate refused to even take a vote on a very moderate version of the cap-and-trade law, yielding to pressure from fossil fuel interests. And of course in the autumn of 2010 the GOP carried midterm elections, on a platform that embraced denial of the climate crisis. The power of the coal and oil lobby was clear—even one of the few new Democrats elected to the Senate, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, filmed a campaign commercial that showed him shooting a copy of the cap-and-trade bill with his deer rifle.

This is the climate, as it were, into which Bjørn Lomborg publishes his latest venture. His earlier effort, The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001), downplayed the danger of climate change, ranking it near the bottom of problems facing the world and recommending spending money on other issues. It was beloved of those working to defeat cap-and-trade-type legislation, and less beloved of scholars in the field. Yale University Press published a volume, The Lomborg Deception (2010), that checked every one of his footnotes and found them regularly misleading. In his new book, Lomborg attempts to resuscitate his reputation, declaring that climate change is indeed at least a somewhat serious problem, and offering to show what course of action might best tackle it.

In this pursuit he serves as editor, not writer: he has assembled a team of academics to describe eight possible solutions to climate change, from focusing on soot or methane to planting more trees; and also a hand-picked group of five economists to assess the findings and rank the “best” solutions. For this task he needs to be able to weigh the costs and benefits of various approaches, and so the papers are largely attempts to demonstrate the high expense and low utility of the major approaches the rest of the world has tried to adopt. In particular, Lomborg wants to show that “mitigation”—running up the price of fossil fuel so we use less of it—is a bad idea because its costs will be high, much higher than the costs of global warming.

Indeed, in several of the projections his team relies on, global warming supplies more economic benefits than costs for decades to come. Richard Tol, one of his economic gurus, points out that most of the planet’s economy is in temperate zones “where warming reduces heating costs and cold-related health problems,” and hence is a net benefit for now. “Gains for the high-income areas of the world exceed losses in the low-income areas.” There is a Marie Antoinette tone to this argument.

You get occasional glimpses of the weakness of the economic modeling sprinkled in footnotes and asides throughout the volume—for instance, people fleeing from one country to another to escape rising seas or spreading deserts are “assumed to assimilate immediately and completely with the respective host population.” (Try running that argument by, say, the Indians, currently building a containment wall along their border with Bangladesh.) Or Russian agriculture is seen as benefiting from warmer temperatures, a prediction very worth revisiting after last summer’s epic heatwave.

In fact, buried in the middle of the book under the title “Market- and Policy-Driven Adaptation, Alternate Perspective,” there’s an eight-page article by Frank Jotzo, a climate economist at the Australian National University, that, to Lomborg’s credit, eviscerates the entire enterprise. “The economic analysis—and, in particular, aggregate economic modeling, of climate change impacts and adaptation—is in many respects a long way from being directly useful for the formulation of policy decisions,” he writes, going on to explain in great detail the manifold weaknesses of the kind of models formed by his fellow contributors.

Sometimes you can almost hear a suppressed giggle: writing about the models’ assumption of “a strong degree of substitutability in both production and consumption structures,” he shows that “physical factors, such as the need to produce and consume a certain amount of food per person, are often inadequately represented, or not at all.” His critique goes entirely unanswered by anyone else in the volume, and all the experts proceed to their task as if he had not spoken at all; it’s really quite astonishing.

What’s even more astonishing is that all the economic modeling studiously ignores what is becoming one of the scariest parts of the climate scenario: abrupt and extreme changes that cause huge and irreversible damage. As the experience of 2010 demonstrates, however, we’re already seeing precisely those kinds of changes start to take place: three years of rapid melt have put Arctic sea ice in a “death spiral,” according to the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Mark Serreze. “It’s not going to recover,” he said. Meanwhile, the Amazon has just suffered through its second “100-year drought” in the past five years, with dried-up rivers, dying trees, and a resulting flood of carbon into the atmosphere. Rosie Fisher, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said of the Amazon:

I’m genuinely quite alarmed by this. In some ways it kind of reminds me of when they figured out that the Greenland ice sheet was melting much faster than the climate models predicted it would.

The Arctic and the Amazon are two of the largest physical features on our planet, though not as big as the oceans, which are growing steadily more acidic as they absorb carbon from the atmosphere; pretty much every large system you can think of is already out of kilter.

Against this background, Lomborg’s sober exercise of expert panels and careful charts is in fact grotesque—for the most part, the numbers he’s relying on bear so little relation to what’s actually happening now, or to what scientists insist will happen soon, that the enterprise turns farcical. He’s standing amid a fire murmuring “theater.” As a result, sensible decision-making becomes impossible.

Yes, there’s no question that very rapid reductions in carbon emissions would, as he claims, be expensive and difficult, though a variety of other economists have produced scenarios showing it far less costly than the ones he has chosen. But regardless of the cost, the planet’s scientists, and now the planet itself, seem to be suggesting we better do it and fast. In December, in a special edition of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, a number of researchers presented evidence that we may see globally averaged temperature increases of 4 degrees Celsius—more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit—as early as the 2060s, i.e., when children born today will be at the height of their careers. If one degree melts the Arctic, how much do you want to spend to avert four degrees?

Lomborg’s panel says not very much. I’m more inclined to go with Lonnie Thompson, the great glaciologist, who, speaking of his fellow climatologists, said recently, “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”

3.

Still, the book does end up developing one idea that really is worth understanding: the part that technological research and development could play in helping make this century merely miserable and not impossible. Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green are climate change economists at McGill University in Montreal, and their essay is lively indeed. It begins by making the case that the transition from fossil fuels will be tough—and here, I think, they and Lomborg are on very solid ground. Say you wanted to cut emissions 50 percent by 2050—which is actually considerably less than scientists say is necessary to have any hope of achieving climatic stability. You’d need to cut the carbon intensity of the economy more than 4 percent a year, or roughly three times as fast as we’re going at present. That is a Herculean task—in the past it’s taken many decades to move from, say, wood to coal, and that in a world that used far less energy. We won’t be able to just pull the internal combustion engine out of the great economic machine, toss in a windmill, and then carry on as before.

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