April 26, 2009


Liberals can be skeptics too

Climate change has become so politicized that it's almost impossible to state one's position simply--but I will try and do so here. Climate change catastrophists classify those who disagree with their position as 'deniers,' Republicans in bed with big oil, etc. Well, there's at least one exception. Here's what I believe regarding climate change:

1. The greenhouse effect is real.

2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Doubling CO2 from 280 to 560 parts per million will, in isolation, tend to raise the Earth's temperature by between 1 and 1.5 degrees C.

3. Some scientists postulate that increased CO2 will initiate a positive feedback cycle (radiative forcing) that will amplify the effect by causing, for example, water vapour, to retain more heat.

These scientists fear that the amplification will cause the 1-1.5 degree increase to be more like 4-7 degrees.

5. Evidence found so far seems to suggest that this hypothesis may not be true.

We used to burn wood. Then charcoal. Now we're on oil and natural gas. Each of these steps has involved burning less carbon. Each step has been less polluting--and has emitted less greenhouse gases. Each step has caused an advance in living conditions as well, being more efficient, less labor intensive, less damaging to human health.

But each of these steps has left a large proportion of humanity out. There are too many people still burning wood for fuel. Too many using carbonised wood and primitive charcoal. We still use too much coal.

We are now embarked on a race to adopt carbon free generating technology for the advanced countries. As usual, this mad race is actually putting the cart before the horse. We would benefit more from helping the world's poor catch up with where we are now.

Now, I am not advocating that we do nothing with regards to solar, wind, nuclear and the seemingly ignored OTEC and Space Based Power Satellites that tickle my fancy. Far from it. But we could do more good for the planet and more good for its people (and possibly more for our consciences) by hooking the poorest of the poor up to any grid at all, no matter how it was powered. Yes, even coal.

There are 2 billion people without access to electricity. They burn wood, very inefficiently and animal dung, very unhealthily, killing more people than malaria. To get the wood they deforest the area around their homes. Deforestation is estimated to cause 20-25% of human greenhouse gas emissions. It may also have a greater effect on climate than CO2, according to Roger Pielke Sr. They have to burn more wood than any other fuel they would use, because it is inefficient.

Bringing these people into the 19th Century would do more for the planet than pushing ourselves into the 21st.

But we could do both.

We have been 'decarbonizing' at a rate of between 0.4% and 0.5% per year since the industrial revolution. We have also been increasing the energy efficiency of our devices at between 1% and 2% per year--for just as long. We are actually solving this problem. But there's no reason to leave it to our grandchildren to finish the job. We could take major steps now.

Carbon credits and emission offsets right now are not really credible--phantom forest planting in many cases and well meaning projects that would never survive a cost benefit analysis in others. But I would let a coal plant operate full bore--if they would open one in areas where the poor have no electricity at all.

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