Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Accept failure and move on

This past weekend Wendy and I took a trip to Wolfe Island near Kingston to visit The French Couple.  We had some great discussions though I must say that sometimes the language barrier made things challenging - which I should take credit for since I was the only one of the group who has no second language to speak of.  One of the greatest points of contention was how we should approach climate change from a global standpoint.  The Frenchman's argument went as follows:

1.  The current trends of CO2 emissions are going to raise world temperature and cause climatic changes.

2.  The ocean will increasingly become acidic and eventually will turn from being a CO2 sink into a CO2 source at approximately 3 C above current temperatures.  This will cause a further acceleration of the process.

3.  We must therefore concentrate our energies on reducing greenhouse gases such that this threshold is never reached.  All plans must revolve around this goal.

I can't argue with the first point since it is clearly true.  The Frenchman is a scientific researcher working specifically with large bodies of water so I am pretty confident his estimate about oceans is right.  However, I think we simply can't leap to the third point from there.  The primary difference between us is that I simply don't accept that such adjustments are even remotely possible and so I think we should focus on what to do about the problem when it arrives rather than assume we can prevent it.

Despite various agreements made among developed countries to curb CO2 emissions is it clear that there simply does not exist the political will to make really impactful changes.  Note that the changes required to not hit the 3 C benchmark are often estimated at a 5% reduction per year worldwide starting *now*.  Canada made commitments and it will fail to deliver on any of them.  This is not atypical as pretty much the entire world is in the same boat.  Some countries (notably the US of course) would not even sign up for the completely inadequate Kyoto Protocol so how are we to expect anyone to sign on to reduce emissions by 5% a year starting *instantly* and have it really work?  Developing countries aren't going to tell their people to continue to live as subsistence farmers so that rich countries can continue their way of life and rich countries are in no way willing to dramatically reduce their consumption of goods and energy.

Imagine if the government tried to actually sell people on these kinds of reductions.  "Hey, everybody, you need to completely discontinue flying airplanes.  Also, we are going to double all taxation and no services will increase as the money will be used to buy solar panels."  Even that wouldn't be enough but selling that to the populace is impossible.  The will to make those tremendous sacrifices won't materialize until people really start to see catastrophe unfolding (maybe not even then) and by that point it is certainly too late.  People turn off their lights, they buy more fuel efficient cars and they ask the politicians to DO SOMETHING but they will not make the sacrifices required for that something to work.

So what do we do?  Well, focus on spending what money we can afford on things that will help like high efficiency gas plants and research into thorium power.  Make sure that developing countries have a sufficiently advanced economy and enough wealth to deal with the catastrophes that will follow.  We should reduce emissions where we can find cheap, effective solutions and acknowledge that barring some kind of technological 'magic wand' (which thorium could possibly be) we are going to have to deal with a warmer world.


  1. doubling of taxes is rediculous. That would be WAY more money than we would ever need to revolutionize our energy production. Think about how much we spend on education and medical care alone.
    I've seen academic work placing this energy revolution at 5% of GDP (now if only I could find it again....)

  2. Keep in mind that I am not suggesting that developed nations need to cut emissions by 5% instantly. Developing nations are going to continue to ramp up emissions substantially so countries like Canada probably need to cut emissions by 10-15% or more per year. The cost for that is astronomical - we would need to rebuild multiple sectors of our economy in a matter of just a few years. Obviously once get emissions down to 10% of current the carrying cost of that adjustment is much less but getting there with the speed we need to to avoid the 3 C scenario is *ludicrously* costly. Keep in mind too that a large part of Canada's exports are in raw materials that probably have drastically reduced value in this sort of scenario (oil) or which can no longer be reasonably shipped across the world due to energy restrictions (lumber, etc.) and that cost has to be factored in.

    If you want to talk about the cost of gradually reducing the increase in emissions per year and starting to actually decrease emissions in say 5 years then we are in the realm of possibility. The government could feasibly make that happen. However, even if that were implemented in every developed nation global emissions would still be rocketing upwards due to population and emissions increases in other nations and the disaster scenario would still be coming on strong. We have the science to get emissions down rapidly enough but we don't have the desire.