Climate Policy Lectures 1-3

It's all gone but the mountains.

It's all gone but the mountains.

Three weeks ago, I started attending a weekly lecture series on climate policy. Since all of the speakers have been very informative, and because I form strong opinions easily, I have a lot to say about each of the talks so far. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until today that I can and should record my thoughts about these talks here, on my blog. So now I’ll attempt to recap the first three lectures in this post, and then add new posts every week on the subsequent lectures. I think for now I’ll leave the names of the speakers out of the posts for the sake of Google anonymity, but I haven’t really thought about it too much and might be willing to reconsider.

Lecture 1 was delivered by a professor with a joint appointment in Environmental Engineering and in Business, who advocated strongly for biofuels (especially algal biofuels), as a source of fuel for automobiles. For years I’ve been really opposed to biofuels since I don’t like any fuel source that emits carbon when burned, and the sudden burst of support for biofuels in 2005 seemed to be more a product of congressional politics than scientific reasoning. Now biofuels (particularly ethanol) have fallen somewhat out of favor since they caused a food crisis in 2007 and have been shown to be “anything but carbon neutral”.

After the talk, I am still extremely skeptical. The speaker’s point seemed to be that, among alternative fuel sources, biofuels are particularly wonderful because they have as complicated a supply chain as petroleum, so there is lots of room for innovation in producing biofuels and the industry could eventually grow as large and powerful as today’s oil companies. And algal biofuels are simpler and have less of an environmental impact than land-based biofuels like corn or soy. Plus there is the aforementioned political support for biofuels in America because they can be easily co-opted by existing oil companies and, depending on the specific biofuel, easily produced in agricultural states with powerful lobbyists.

These arguments don’t move me at all. Upon reflection, my opposition boils down to a complete distrust of the motives of these people. In my view, Exxon Mobil is fundamentally a bad actor with respect to global climate change, and so their $600 million investment in algal biofuels research only makes me warier of the technology. While I suppose it’s technically possible, as the speaker argued, for biofuels to become carbon-neutral, it requires careful environmental stewardship of the entire supply chain which leads to increases in fuel costs; I cannot imagine this commitment coming from Exxon Mobil or the other major biofuels investors. Also, the speaker’s talk focused almost entirely on the business opportunities inherent in biofuels (not even mentioning carbon neutrality until it came up in the question-and-answer period) which further strengthened my suspicion that this stuff is just driven by corporate greed and sloth, instead of a serious attempt to produce a sustainable fuel source. So I think biofuels are a cute idea, but I’ll stick with electric cars, thanks.

The second lecture came from one of the working group directors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) report, detailing many of the possible negative health impacts of climate change. It was a pretty dire picture, and highlighted many effects I hadn’t considered before. There are of course rises in sea level, more intense storms and hurricanes, longer, more intense, and more frequent heatwaves, and increases in both droughts and flooding (simultaneously – really!). But there are also second-order effects like shifts in habitable zones (e.g., agriculture moves out of some countries, and tropical diseases move in) and increased wildfire frequency (bad news for Melbourne and Los Angeles). These second-order effects aren’t considered in the IPCC report, but their impacts can be even worse than the first-order effects. So the IPCC top-line predictions of climate change causing 0.3% of all deaths and costing 1% of global GDP per year – predictions that are already scientifically obsolete! – were significant underestimates of the total impact of climate change even before the new feedback loops cropped up. And of course these numbers seem much worse when effects are local: for example, Hurricane Katrina caused less than a 0.5% drop in US GDP in 2005. So 1% GDP is sort of like the US facing two Hurricane Katrinas a year, plus other equivalent disasters for everyone else, if you want to think of it that way.

Finally, there is another huge effect of runaway carbon emission the second speaker didn’t mention much: ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide dissolves in ocean water to form carbonic acid, and this effect could render most ocean life extinct in the next few decades. This is huge, and it’s particularly relevant to the third lecture.

This lecture focused on geo-engineering, which is the set of solutions available to mitigate the effects of climate change without reducing carbon emissions. The idea is to accept that the upcoming Copenhagen talks, even in the unlikely event that the world agrees to reduce emissions, aren’t going to result in carbon reductions. And since the climate has 50-100 years of inertia in response to carbon forcings, this means humanity should accept that we’re going to face all the terrible effects outlined in lecture #2, and focus on trying to mitigate the damage instead of worrying about reducing carbon dioxide and saving the people of the future. I find this outlook awfully depressing, but I have to admit the argument is strong.

That said, most geoengineering proposals are terrible. Ideas like orbiting a solar shade, filling the atmosphere with reflective dust particles, or pumping carbon underground or underwater are full of horrifying unintended consequences and really should never ever be tried. But the speaker’s favored idea was intriguing. He proposed pumping sulfates into the atmosphere in the Arctic during clear summertime days, which would reduce the amount of sunlight absorbed there without severe environmental side effects. If this program were adopted within ten years, then it might save the Arctic from complete melting and mass extinction, and I came away from the lecture believing this program is worth a shot.

The downside is that geoengineering doesn’t remove carbon dioxide from the oceans, so ocean acidification continues apace, and this is about as dangerous for humanity as climate change. The only way to fight ocean acidification is to remove carbon from the atmosphere, which has the happy side effect of also solving climate change. Thus, the first priority should still be carbon reductions, not geoengineering.


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