ecostory 33/2006
"The heat is on"
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Sep 7th 2006 From The Economist print edition
[Copyright notice and ecoglobe comments...]

The uncertainty surrounding climate change argues for action, not inaction. America should lead the way


FOR most of the Earth's history, the planet has been either very cold, by our standards, or very hot. Fifty million years ago there was no ice on the poles and crocodiles lived in Wyoming. Eighteen thousand years ago there was ice two miles thick in Scotland and, because of the size of the ice sheets, the sea level was 130m lower. Ice-core studies show that in some places dramatic changes happened remarkably swiftly: temperatures rose by as much as 20°C in a decade. Then, 10,000 years ago, the wild fluctuations stopped, and the climate settled down to the balmy, stable state that the world has enjoyed since then. At about that time, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, mankind started to progress.

Man-made greenhouse gases now threaten this stability. Climate change is complicated and uncertain, but, as our survey this week explains, the underlying calculation is fairly straightforward. The global average temperature is expected to increase by between 1.4°C and 5.8°C this century. The bottom end of the range would make life a little more comfortable for northern areas and a little less pleasant for southern ones. Anything much higher than that could lead to catastrophic rises in sea levels, increases in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding and drought, falling agricultural production and, perhaps, famine and mass population movement.

The heat is on

Sep 7th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Global warming, it now seems, is for real. Emma Duncan (interviewed here) examines the nature of the problem, and possible solutions

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THE world's climate has barely changed since the industrial revolution. The temperature was stable in the 19th century, rose very slightly during the first half of the 20th, fell back in the 1950s-70s, then started rising again. Over the past 100 years, it has gone up by about 0.6°C (1.1°F).

So what's the fuss about? Not so much the rise in temperature as the reason for it. Previous changes in the world's climate have been set off by variations either in the angle of the Earth's rotation or in its distance from the sun. This time there is another factor involved: man-made “greenhouse gases”.

When the sun's energy hits the Earth, most of it bounces back into space. But carbon dioxide and around 30 other greenhouse gases, such as methane, help create a layer that traps some of the heat from the sun, thus warming the planet. And, because of the burning of fossil fuels, which contain the CO2 that the original plants breathed in from the atmosphere, levels of CO2 have increased from around 280 parts per million (ppm) before the industrial revolution to around 380ppm now. Studies of ice cores show that concentrations have not been so high for nearly half a million years. At the current rate of increase, they will have reached 800ppm by the end of this century. Given that CO2 being emitted now stays in the atmosphere for up to 200 years, getting those concentrations down will take a long time.

The first person to spot the connection between temperature and human activity was a 19th-century scientist called Svante Arrhenius. He speculated that emissions from industry could double CO2 levels in 3,000 years, thus warming the planet. Being a Swede, he thought that was just fine. In 1938 a British engineer called Guy Callendar gave a talk to the Royal Meteorological Society in which he claimed to have established that the world was warming, but he was regarded as an eccentric. The idea of global warming seemed bound for the intellectual dustbin.

Chill out

If interest in climate change was lukewarm in the first half of the 20th century, it went distinctly chilly in the second half, for the good reason that the world was getting cooler. In 1975 Newsweek magazine ran a cover story entitled “The Cooling World” that gave warning of a “drastic decline in food production—with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth”—a prediction repeated with understandable glee by those who suspect the current worry is just another such scare.

The mid-20th-century blip turns out to have been the consequence of another by-product of human activity: sulphur and other airborne particles that bounce back sunlight before it can hit the Earth, thus offsetting the greenhouse effect. By the late 20th century, efforts to control that sort of pollution were having an effect. The particulate content of the atmosphere was falling, and the world began to heat up once more. The idea of global warming was retrieved from the bin and turned into one of the biggest arguments of our time.

The debate involves scientists, economists, politicians and anybody interested in the future of the planet. It is charged by the belief on one side that life as we know it is under threat, and by the conviction on the other that scientists and socialists are conspiring to spend taxpayers' money on a bogey. It is sharpened by a moral angle—the sense, deep at the heart of the environmental movement, that the consequence of individual selfishness will be collective doom: the invisible hand is a fist, and original sin an SUV.

The argument is peopled by big characters: James Lovelock, a British scientist who believes that mankind has fatefully unbalanced the delicate mechanisms of a world he calls Gaia; Bjorn Lomborg, a hyperactive Danish statistician who believes that scientists are twisting figures to scare people; Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, whose mission is to terminate climate change; and James Inhofe, chairman of the environment and public works committee in America's Senate, who says it is all nonsense.

Unfortunately, the argument is also fuelled by ignorance, because nobody knows for sure what is happening to the climate. At a macro level, modelling what is one of the world's most complex mechanisms (see article) and projecting 100 years ahead is tricky. At a micro level, individual pieces of data contradict each other. One shrinking glacier can be countered by another that is growing; one area of diminishing precipitation can be answered by another where it is rising.

Ignorance and fear have spawned an industry. Governments, international bureaucracies and universities are employing many thousands of clever people to work out what is going on. Foundations are pouring money into research. Big corporations now all have high-level climate-change advisers with teams of clever young things scurrying around to find out what the scientists are thinking and what the politicians are planning to do.

The establishment of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change under the auspices of the UN was designed to silence the arguments and give policymakers an agreed line on what the future holds. But given how little is known about either the climate's sensitivity to greenhouse-gas emissions or about future emissions levels, that proved difficult. Not surprisingly, the IPCC's latest report, published in 2001, offers a wide range of predicted temperature rises, from 1.4°C to 5.8°C by the end of this century.

This huge range limits the usefulness of the IPCC's findings to policymakers. Nor has the panel's existence quietened the debate. Scepticism about its science and especially its economics has led a number of people to disagree with its findings. Some challenge the evidence that climate change is happening; others accept that it is happening, but argue that it isn't worth trying to do anything about it.

Since that IPCC report five years ago, the science has tended to confirm the idea that something serious is happening. In the 1990s, satellite data seemed to contradict the terrestrial data that showed temperatures rising. The disparity puzzled scientists and fuelled scepticism. The satellite data, it turned out, were wrong: having been put right, they now agree with terrestrial data that things are hotting up. Observations about what is happening to the climate have tended to confirm, or run ahead of, what the models predicted would happen. Arctic sea ice, for instance, is melting unexpectedly fast, at 9% a decade. Glaciers are melting surprisingly swiftly. And a range of phenomena, such as hurricane activity, that were previously thought to be unconnected to climate change are now increasingly linked to it.

This survey will argue that although the science remains uncertain, the chances of serious consequences are high enough to make it worth spending the (not exorbitant) sums needed to try to mitigate climate change. It will suggest that, even though America, the world's biggest CO2 emitter, turned its back on the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the chances are that it will eventually take steps to control its emissions. And if America does, there is a reasonable prospect that the other big producers of CO2 will do the same.

But first, to the science, and some of the recent findings that have sharpened people's worries.

This survey, which generated about 118 tonnes of carbon dioxide from flights, car journeys, paper production, printing and distribution, has been carbon-neutralised through the Carbon Neutral Company. The cost was £590; the money was spent on capturing methane from an American mine.

Copyright notice: We have reproduced this article since the internet is volatile and because it's a necessary reference to our comments in between the lines of the interview below and also further down. [top]
SURVEY: CLIMATE CHANGE Author interview Sep 7th 2006 From Economist.com
A discussion with Emma Duncan, Deputy Editor of The Economist
We need to think about climate change maybe as individuals think about insuring their houses: you spend maybe 1% of your annual income insuring your house not because you think it's going to burn down, but because if by any chance it did burn down, the consequences for you would be disastrous.
Listen to the audio interview (6:12 mins | 5.96MB): transcript:


Jessica: Hello, and welcome to economist dot com.

Today we are speaking with Emma Duncan, Deputy Editor of The Economist, regarding her survey on climate change. I'm Jessica Harbor for Economist dot com.
Emma, there seems to be a lot of doubt about the effects of climate change. First of all, is it something that people should be worried about right now? And if so, what are the worst potential consequences of climate change.

Emma: I think it is probably something that people should probably be worried about. Not because of what has happened so far. The climate has changed very little actually - only 0.6 degree increase in temperature globally over the past century. But I think what people need to worry about is firstly why that temperature increase has happened and secondly what is likely to happen in the future. And the consequences going ahead do look potentially worrying though people are very uncertain about the time scales. I mean just to point to two possible areas - one is the Gulf Stream which keeps Northern Europe warm and there are growing concerns about whether that will persist in the same form in the future. And the second one looking even further into the future is sea level and the increasing rates of melting glaciers in Greenland and possibly in West Antarctica and what that will do if we see the sea level rise which has already started accelerating.

[ecoglobe: This represents biased or unscientific reporting, because: (1) How can Mrs Duncan judge whether 0.6 degrees is very little? The effects point at effects that are already now very worrying, like the melting of the glaciers in the European alps. Other consequences than the ones she mentions are much more worrying and already happening, namely climate change in the form of weather extremes, causing droughts and floods with immediate and dramatic consequences for large populations, not only in the southern part of the world; (2) the consequences do NOT look "potentially" worrying - the ARE worrying. The word "potentially" is one of the many euphemisms, softeners and doubt-casters that The Economists uses systematically in virtually all their reporting on environmental issues, possibly for one reason only: clearity is bad for business; (3) the "why" is asked correctly but then duefully forgotten to be dealt with. Climate change is happening because we humans are hyperactive. We burns fossil fuels that took 200 milion years to be formed whtin a time of 300 years, thus creating an unprecedented rapid increase of greenhous gases in the atmosphere.]

Jessica: Now given that the science of climate change is very uncertain as you cover in your survey and trying to stop climate change from happening is going to cost money, is it really worth it?

[ecoglobe:The science of climate change is by no means uncertain. If that is the gist of the Economist's survey, it is simply wrong, as explained furhter down.]

Emma: Well that's the question which a lot of economists have been asking. And some people say no because the uncertainties are so great. We're so uncertain about what damage is going to be done that the benefits from trying to stop climate change must also be very uncertain. And if that's the case we do better to invest our money on things where we're sure of the return for instance ducation for people in the developing world, which we know increases economic growth.
I think the counter argument to that would be that potential downsides from letting climate change happen really are very serious, possibly not for our generation, possibly for our children, possibly thereafter. But with for instance rising sea levels - if Greenland started to melt, if it seriously started to melt, we couldn't stop it. And we would see a seven meter sea level rise if all of Greenland melted. Now the consequences of that sort of a sea level rise - for the rich world as well as the poor world - would be pretty catastrophic. And so we need to think about climate change maybe as individuals insuring their houses. You spend maybe one percent of your income insuring your house, not because you think it's going to burn down, but if by any chance it did burn down the consequences for you would be disastrous. And I think perhaps the world should be thinking about spending money on trying to prevent climate change in those terms.

[ecoglobe: Firstly climate change IS happening right now and secondly it CANNOT be stopped, neither by technology (investement of money) nor by so-called mitigation (again technology). All we can and MUST do is restructure our economic structures in such a way that we deal in the best thinkable way with the effect of weather extremes, which will be tremendously worsened - within a few decades by the end of fossil fuels. Any technology uses more resources and produces in turn more greehouse gases and thus increases climate change. On top of that it must be stated clearly that there do not exist technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sequestration and filtering and other proposals are dreams only. And even if emissions are reduced, this will only help to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Virtually all climatologists, except for those linked to some right-wing think tanks, argue that a 60 to 80 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is required to stabilise levels. Such a goal can only be achieved by a dramatic contraction of our economy. Virtually eliminating all unnecessary transportation by relocalising preoduction and consumption, slowing down, scaling down a multifold of utterly wasteful activities (car racing, smoking, etc.) and by increasing the durability of our goods, for example.]

Jessica: A lot of people are looking to see what the US will do in terms of climate change - given that there's a real debate in the US right now over climate change. What do you think is going to happen, what kind of role is America going to take?

Emma: Well, that really is, as you suggest the great big question. America's refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol insured that the big polluters in the developing world, China and India, would not take the thing too seriously. I suspect that America will end up with some sort of federal system for controlling emissions. And I think that I guess for two reasons, one because well there's quite a lot of support for this among the democrats. Republicans have been much more dubious about the whole thing. But you're seeing an interesting allience built up on the right in America between some security hawks who want to wean America off Middle Eastern oil, evangelical who're increasingly feel that they have been given the stewardship of the Earth by God and that they must look after it properly, hunters and shooters who are worried about what's happening to the environment and therefore to their sport, and the green lobby and also farwers increasingly who see in wind power and the in ethanol possible new sources of revenue. So you see some quite surprising alliences building up on the right, which I think may be shifting American politics more towards taking action on this this. And at the same time I think that in the business community you're seeing that there's a great deal more preparedness even enthousiasm for federal action on this because I think there're a lot of companies, GE for instance which sees all sorts of new markets out there, in greenery and so business I think has moved from being largely resistent to federal action to quite open to the idea. And if you look at the two people who are currently sort of possible the strongest contenders for the presidency next time round, John MacCain and Hillary Clinton, both of those would go for some federal scheme for controlling emissions. So I on balance suspect that America will go in that direction.

[ecoglobe:A lot of wishful thinking without any discussion of the real technical possibilites and the urgency of the issue.]

Jessica: This is Economist dot com. You've been listening to a conversation with Emma Duncan, Deputy Editor of the Econiomist regarding her survey on Climate change. The survey can be read in its entirety along with other surveys at www dot economist dot com slash surveys. I'd like to thank Emma to take the time to speak with us and to thank you for listening.
A spontaneous online feedback, given to Mrs Duncan at the Economist on 23 September 2006 [top][interview]

Hello,

I would respectfully submit that the singular focus on costs and benefits in monetary units is actually bypassing the core of the problem and thus leading people astray.

The basic problem is overconsumption (overshoot) of non-renewable resources and the ensuing pollution.

The doubts that you are still casting are maybe proper for a journal whose primary focus is the promotion of the economy as you see it. But those doubts are not warranted. Facts, recognised by climatologists, except for the few that could be on the pay-roll of the American Enterprise Institute, admit since many years that:
1. climate change is man-made
2. it is unstoppable
3. we need GHG emissions reduction by up to 80 per cent

I would add that the mechanisms that are currently being discussed for so-called "mitigation" can't work for technical reasons. Sequestration, The Kyoto Protocoll with its Clean Development Mechanisms, Emissions Trading, Joint Implementation won't work.

Thus the time and money spent on debating those "solutions" is wasted and only helps preventing to take the needed measures.

In your interview you say that green solution, abatement of climate change may create economic growth.
I would put it to you that economic growth is the CORE mechanism that destroys our planet. Economists believe we can start living on immaterially produced croissants. But I can't. Every Pound Sterling of economic growth represents one more unit of non-renewable resources irretrievably depleted.

The era of Peak oil is very close and after that our economy will automatically retract to a much needed lower level of materials hroughput.

I fear however that we will not see a smooth transition to localised and low energy and low speed economic structures.

I believe we will face an increase of resource wars like the Bush-Blair war on Iraq.

Should you ever come to Geneva, please let me know and I'll be pleased to explain things in detail. Meanwhile you could consult, for instance, ecoglobe.ch/overshoot

For me the Economist has a singular propensity for denial of facts. Years ago I put one of your journal's articles on my site at www.ecoglobe.org/nz/sustain/econ1010.htm. The ecologist is your biggest foe. Your journal is bit more subtle today. But remains the capital sin of counting everything in monetary units and believing in technological fixes that a serious scientist must denounce as illusionary.

With kind regards ... Helmut Lubbers
14 Carl-Vogt Geneva
+41-22-3212320
helmut at ecoglobe dot ch
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