Global warming is a controversial issue and I would like to take as dispassionate a look at it as I possibly can. First, I will summarize what I consider to be the main evidence for global warming and then discuss what this means for public policy.
Ocean heat content has been building steadily in recent years. Warmer water means more evaporation into the atmosphere which means more precipitation around the world.
The extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic has gradually been receding.
A big chunk of sea ice (the size of Delaware) has just broken off the Antarctic Peninsula and is floating in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The sea level is rising at the rate of one-eighth of an inch per year which is equivalent to one foot per century. Globally, eight of the world’s ten largest cities are near a coast.
In the U.S. Spring is arriving earlier each year on average, especially in the Southeast.
Some of these phenomena may be beneficial such as more rainfall around the world and longer growing seasons. Less ice in the Arctic Ocean allows more summer navigation. But rising sea levels will become catastrophic in low-lying coastal areas.
Conclusion. The above observational evidence for global warming is well established and hopefully non-controversial. The sources are scientific agencies whose integrity should be beyond reproach. Once we accept the fact that global warming is for real and is caused by human activity, the question is what we should do about it. This will be the topic of my next post.
One of my favorite economics journalists, Eduardo Porter, has a column which appears each Wednesday in The New York Times. His column this week, “Imagining a World Without Growth,” shows that economic growth took off consistently around the world only about 200 years ago and that two things powered it: innovation and lots of carbon-based energy from fossil fuels. The United Nations climate conference, meeting this week in Paris, is asking all countries to greatly cut back on their use of fossil fuels. Mr. Porter, in an earlier column, described what severe cutbacks in fossil-fuel energy could look like:
In order to meet the consensus goal of keeping the earth’s atmospheric temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C from preindustrial times (and we’re half way there already), CO2 emissions will have to fall to at most 1.6 tons per year for every person on earth by 2050. This is less than 1/10 of the present U.S. average and less than 1/3 of the present world average.
Within about 15 years every car sold in the U.S. will have to be electric. By midcentury more than half of the U.S. economy will run on electricity. Up to 60% of power will have to come from nuclear sources.
To meet these ambitious goals the U.S. will have to decarbonize its energy supply at an average pace of 4% per year for the next 40 years. This is 10 times faster than the Energy Information Administration’s current plan.
This is not achievable by going after low-hanging fruit such as replacing coal with natural gas in power plants. Rather, for example, carbon capture and storage will have to become widely available starting within about 10 years.
Meeting the goal of limiting the average world-wide temperature increase to 2 degrees C will thus require a severe regimen of regulatory actions which will have negative economic consequences. In fact it is difficult to image how such a strict regimen could ever be put in place or enforced without much public dissatisfaction.
We thus have two options for dealing with global warming. We can ignore it at our peril or we can introduce a market mechanism to change people’s fundamental behavior and attitude about energy use. What market mechanism? A (revenue neutral) carbon tax, of course! How else?
My last post, “Why We Badly Need a Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax” makes the case for combatting global warming with a sensible free market mechanism such as a carbon tax rather than a hodge-podge of arbitrary national and state regulatory actions. Since many of the Facebook responders to this post deny the reality of global warming in the first place, I have decided to present the overwhelming evidence for its existence.
When ninety-seven percent of climate scientists worldwide agree that climate change is real and they have assembled a massive amount of measurement data to back up this claim, I think we have to take them seriously. For example:
The Global Surface Temperature is Rising. Global average temperature has risen 1.4 F since the early 20th century as shown in the chart just below which also shows the close correlation with carbon-dioxide concentration.
The Sea Level is Rising. It has risen at an average rate of 1.7 mm/year over the last 100 years and at the rate of 3.5 mm/year since 1993 which is equivalent to one inch every seven years.
Global Upper Ocean Heat Content is Rising. The top 700 meters have warmed by .3F since 1969. Thermal expansion of the ocean water as it warms contributes to the sea level rise.
Glacier Volume is Shrinking Worldwide. Just Greenland and Antartica alone have lost at 150 cubic kilometers of ice annually in recent years.
Declining Artic Sea Ice. Both the extent and thickness of artic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades (see chart below). I accept the reality of the scientific evidence for global warming but I am certainly no “alarmist” in terms of what our response should be towards addressing it. It will be many, many years before renewable energy sources like wind and solar are able to make a substantial dent in worldwide energy needs.
The best thing to do in the meantime is to attempt to decrease carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels through carbon capture and storage. A carbon tax would create a huge economic incentive for the coal and oil industry to solve this problem. If and when they figure it out, it is likely that the technology involved would rapidly spread around the world.
This would represent a real solution to a very serious problem.
A large and steadily growing majority of Americans believe that global warming, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is a serious problem which must be addressed. What remains is to figure out how to do this with the least possible amount of economic damage to ourselves and others. Consider that:
Energy consumption will increase 56% worldwide by 2040, overwhelmingly with the use of fossil fuels. Biofuels are a very inefficient source of energy and wind energy isn’t much better. Solar energy is dropping in price but is still much more expensive than natural gas.
The Environmental Protection Agency has just issued its Final Rule for a Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emission levels in 2030 by 32% below 2005 levels.
California is now considering drastic legislation requiring a 50% reduction in petroleum use by 2030 which is likely to do much damage to the California economy.
In 2008 the Canadian province British Columbia introduced a revenue neutral carbon tax which has succeeded in reducing carbon emissions without damaging the BC economy.
The advocacy group, Washington Carbon, is trying to put a carbon tax on the Washington State 2016 ballot. Initiative Measure 732 would institute a tax on fossil fuels of $25 per ton of carbon dioxide. According to the Seattle Times many environmentalists are opposed to this initiative because it would be revenue neutral!
Conclusion: humanity is faced with the very serious problem of global warming and the response so far is chaotic and totally inadequate. The developing world is rapidly increasing its use of fossil fuels while the EPA is trying to put the brakes on our own use. Meanwhile states (and Canadian provinces) are establishing their own individual energy policies.
Isn’t it clear that what is needed is a conceptually simple unified approach to create incentives for all of us to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions? Isn’t it also clear that the best way to do this is with a national carbon tax?
It is up to the U.S. and other developed countries to take the lead in doing this. Once we are clearly doing what is needed, then and only then can we begin to lean on less developed countries to follow our example.
I have been reporting for several days on a fascinating new book, “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper” by Robert Bryce and, in particular, what it means for climate change. Here are some key points:
As Mr. Bryce says, “It’s time to focus our inquiry on the key question: if we agree that too much carbon dioxide is bad for the Earth’s atmosphere – what are we going to do? What’s the best “no regrets” climate policy as we move forward?” Here’s how to proceed:
We will need much more energy in the decades ahead in order to raise the living standards of the more than two billion people who are still living in energy poverty.
Hydrocarbons now provide 87% of the world’s total energy needs. There are still no affordable, scalable substitutes for the vast quantity of hydrocarbons that we use today.
People in the industrialized countries cannot and should not hinder the efforts of the world’s poor to gain access to cheap, reliable sources of energy.
We must give a very high priority to adapting and hardening our cities, networks and structures so they can better survive severe weather events.
N2N (natural gas to nuclear) provides the best no-regrets energy policy because those fuels can provide significant environmental benefits with relatively low economic costs.
The combination of natural gas and nuclear energy has reduced America’s carbon footprint by 54 billion tons over the last six decades. By comparison, wind, solar and geothermal sources reduced emissions by just 1.5 billion tons over the same period.
In other words, we need to be practical about the new sources of energy which will be needed to meet growing world demand. Renewable energy sources cannot nearly provide what is needed. Exploiting the current abundance of natural gas while further developing nuclear energy is the best way to proceed.
I look at a lot of books and every once in a while I find one that I really like. Such is the case for “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper” by Robert Bryce, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute.
The book starts out: “We are besieged by bad news. Climate change, pollution, famine, water shortages, war and terrorism, the mess at Fukushima, political gridlock, and the ongoing debt problems and economic malaise in Europe and the United States are dominating the headlines.” This leads some people to embrace “collapse anxiety,” the feeling that our problems are so great that our prosperous Western lifestyle cannot be sustained and soon may crash. “This pessimistic worldview ignores an undeniable truth: more people are living longer, healthier, more peaceful, lives than at any time in human history. Amid all of the hand wringing over climate change, etc. the plain reality is that things are getting better, a lot better, for tens of millions of people around the world.”
“Dozens of factors can be cited for the improving conditions of humankind. But the simplest explanation is that innovation is allowing us to do more with less. We are continually making things Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.” Computers are becoming smaller and faster. Nearly everything we use is getting lighter. Our engines and farms are getting denser. Innovators are driving down costs and making goods and services cheaper.
For example, how does the SFLDC perspective apply to energy use?
In July 2012 blackouts hit northern India leaving 600 million people without electricity, even though India’s coal use doubled between 2002 and 2012. India relies on coal for 2/3 of its electricity production and has enough coal reserves to last a century. In India and worldwide, coal use will almost surely continue to increase.
Consider the following power densities (footprints) of various forms of energy:
i) biofuels: .3 watts per square meter
ii) wind energy: 1 watt per square meter
iii) solar photovoltaic panels: 6 watts per square meter
iv) oil well: 27 watts per square meter
v) natural gas: 28 watts per square meter iv) nuclear plant: 50 watts per square meter
Conclusion: From a power density point of view biofuels are a very inefficient source of energy and wind energy isn’t a whole lot better.
What is the best energy policy going forward? Stay tuned!
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just issued it’s latest and most definitive assessment about the extent of global warming. The earth’s average temperature has increased by .85 degrees centigrade since 1880 and is on track to increase to 2 degrees centigrade in a relatively short time span. Such a major climate change will have severe repercussions for human life. There is much evidence for the IPCC’s gloomy prognosis. Most convincing for me is that the extent of the summer artic ice cap is steadily shrinking, as demonstrated in the above chart.
The Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to decrease carbon emissions by regulation but there is a limit to what can be accomplished in this way:
The EPA’s goal is a 30% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. But the only way that this can possibly be achieved is by substituting the use of natural gas for coal, which reduces carbon emissions by 50%
The current low cost of natural gas is making nuclear power less economically viable even though nuclear power has no carbon footprint at all.
In addition to creating such constraints, this approach also has led the EPA to set complicated and arbitrary goals on carbon emissions for each state individually.
In other words, by employing onerous regulations the EPA will only, at best, be able to achieve a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. Of course, this is better than nothing but it is not nearly enough to significantly slow down global warming. Even if European countries succeed in meeting similar targets as the ones set for the U.S., this leaves out the largest carbon emitter of all, namely China, as well as the rest of the developing world. Since it is impractical to eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether, or even come close to doing so, the emphasis should be on limiting carbon emissions. In other words, we should create incentives for carbon “sequestration,” i.e. the capture and storage of carbon when burning fossil fuels. The way to do this is with a tax on the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Such a carbon tax would provide a huge incentive for energy and power companies to develop the best possible sequestration techniques. With an economic incentive to do so, U.S. technological ingenuity will quickly develop effective methods for carbon sequestration. Once discovered and perfected, their use would rapidly spread around the world. Climate change is real and we need an effective way to address it. A carbon tax is the best way to get the job done.
My last post, “The Latest Scientific Report on Climate Change,” summarizes a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It makes a very strong case that global warming is real and that it will badly disrupt human civilization before the end of the twenty-first century if not substantially mitigated.
What are we doing about it? The Environmental Protection Agency reports on its many actions as follows: “What EPA is doing about Climate Change”
Inventorying of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks has been tracking all GHG emissions since 1990.
Developing “Common Sense” Regulatory Initiatives. For example, EPA’s vehicle greenhouse gas rules will eliminate 6 billion metric tons of GHG pollution by 2025. EPA is developing carbon pollution standards for the power sector which will cut carbon emissions 30% below 2005 levels.
Partnering with the Private Sector. EPAs partners reduced over 345 million metric tons of GHG in 2010 alone.
Advancing the Science. EPA works with the IPCC to understand the environmental and health impacts of climate change.
Here is how the Washington Post describes another EPA activity, the recently announced Clean Power Plan. “The rule provides every state with a target carbon-emissions intensity for its power plants, with preliminary standards kicking in by 2020 and full goals to be achieved by 2030. As the map (below) shows, the rule generally asks the least from the states with the worst carbon-intensity at present – those that are very dependent on coal generation, such as West Virginia, Kentucky and North Dakota. While cross-state variations in the intensity of pollution controls are a standard feature of regulation under the Clean Air Act, they usually have a compelling justification: the negative effects of emissions are local, and so areas suffering from pollution problems must be more stringent. But greenhouse gas concentrations are uniform globally, making it somewhat awkward to subject identical emitters to divergent standards simply because their home states’ power mix is more or less carbon-intensive.” The purpose of this whole discussion is to illustrate how complicated it already is and will continue to be to achieve a significant reduction in GHG carbon emissions by regulation alone, even the relatively modest 30% reduction which the EPA is trying to accomplish.
Fortunately there is a better way of achieving an even bigger reduction in carbon emissions. Stay tuned for my next post!
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just issued its Fifth Assessment Report summarizing the best scientific information about global warming that is available in 2014. Key findings are:
It is extremely likely that humans are the dominant cause of warming since the mid-20th century.
Each of the past three decades has been successively warmer than the preceding decades since 1850.
Oceans absorb more than 90% of the heat.
Land temperatures remain at historic highs while ocean temperatures continue to climb.
Oceans will continue to warm during the 21st century.
Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century.
It is very likely that the Artic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin as global mean surface temperature rises.
Some of the changes in extreme weather and climate events observed since about 1950 have been linked to human influence.
The globally averaged temperature shows a warming of .85 degrees centigrade over the period 1880 – 2012. And 65% of the carbon budget compatible with limiting future temperature to an overall 2 degrees C increase has already been used.
Energy production remains the primary driver of greenhouse gas emissions.
Measures exist to achieve the substantial emissions reductions required to limit likely warming to 2 degrees C.
Delaying mitigation will substantially increase the challenges associated with limiting warming to 2 degrees C.
I consider the above information from the IPCC report to be noncontroversial and providing overwhelmingly strong evidence that global warming is taking place. Next question: What do we do about it? This will be the subject of my next post!
“Risk is like fire: If controlled it will help you; if uncontrolled it will rise up and destroy you.” Theodore Roosevelt, 1858 – 1919
Just a few days ago I featured an Op Ed column in the New York Times “The Coming Climate Crash” by Henry Paulson, the former Secretary of the Treasury. He discusses global warming as an economic issue. The increasing number of severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising sea levels it will cause will wreak tremendous economic damage on our country and the whole world as well. A new report, “Risky Business” produced by the Risky Business Project, elaborates much further on this theme. “The American economy is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. These impacts will likely grow materially over the next 5 to 25 years and affect the future performance of today’s business and investment decisions in the following areas: coastal property and infrastructure (damaged by storm surges and higher sea levels); agriculture (disrupted by higher temperatures); energy (costs will go up to provide more cooling).”
In addition to the large scale economic effects referred to above, global warming will affect each of us in a very direct way. For example, in Omaha NE where I live, in just a few short years the current average of about 10 days per summer with a temperature over 95 degrees F, will increase to about 25 such summer days.
All of these effects are assuming that we continue on our present course of rapidly increasing CO2 build up in the atmosphere. We do have a choice in this matter. We can cut back but it will take a big effort to accomplish this. The whole world needs to cut back and it is up to the U.S. to lead the way.
Republicans need to step forward on global warming. It is highly irresponsible to say that any anti-carbon measures we take will just hurt our economy and ignore all of the harmful effects of proceeding on our present course. It is also irresponsible to say that we can’t act unless everyone else does too. If we are exceptional, and I agree that we are, then it is up to us to set an example for the whole world.
We need fiscal conservatives in office to address our very serious deficit and debt problems. But fiscal conservative have to win the trust of a wider group of voters to show that they are deserving of broader support.