Thursday, February 01, 2007

Climate Change Report

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is working on their occasional (every 5 or 6 years) assessment of the nature and impact of climate change on the world. This year, they have adopted very strong language, according to an AP report. The official version of the report is still being finalized, so I can't link to it yet. All I've got so far is the news report from the AP.

That news report has some very fascinating quotes. Here's what stood out to me:

now that world has begun to warm, hotter temperatures and rises in sea level "would continue for centuries" no matter how much humans control their pollution.

Then, later in the article, a quote from Riibeta Abeta, a delegate from Kiribati:

I hope that policymakers will be quite convinced by this message," said Riibeta Abeta, a delegate whose island nation Kiribati is threatened by rising seas. "The purpose is to get them moving."
I might be missing something here... but if the sea level is going to rise for centuries no matter what we do, then what exactly is the motivation for us to "get ... moving", and what exactly are we moving toward? What will be the impact of lowering our emissions, even in the many-centuries-out perspective (as if we could even presume to predict that far)? How far must we lower our emissions to make a difference?

These questions are important, because harmful emissions are not immoral. That might be a weird way of putting it, but I think it's important. Emissions that harm our environment might not be a good idea, and we might want to limit them, but such limits have to be balanced against many other factors. Such balancing considerations are never easy... and when we beginning talking about uncertain gains that will appear at best centuries away, I start to wonder how much we should be willing to sacrifice for such nebulous goals.

Such was roughly the opinion of the Copenhagen Consensus last year, a meeting of economists who took it upon themselves to rank the 10 most pressing global problems by how much benefit would come from expending limited resources toward their resolution. Their conclusion was that, as far as comparative benefit from financial investment goes, global warming was at the bottom of the list. From what I can see, this report from the scientific angle would bear out that conclusion.

However, that conclusion is obviously not what the authors of the report intended to communicate, based on their quotes. What are your thoughts?

I have one other observation, but it's about the AP article itself, not the report. I found this sentence rather amusing:
The panel, created by the United Nations in 1988, releases its assessments every five or six years — although scientists have been observing aspects of climate change since as far back as the 1960s.
Yes, it is true that scientists have been observing "climate change" back that far. It's just that for the first couple decades, they were sounding the alarm about global cooling and the coming ice age, not global warming. I'm pretty young, but I remember having my elementary school teachers impress on us how important it was to stop using aerosol cans because they were going to block out the sun's heat and we were going to be overrun by glaciers.

Considering that nowadays the terms "climate change" and "global warming" are used synonymously, the AP could have been a bit more clear on that point. :)


[UPDATE: The Volokh Conspiracy blog mentions the report, with more links and some interesting discussion in the comments. It also points to two other blogs, which take issue with the particular wording of the report regarding climate change's affect on hurricanes, and how the media has been reporting that angle to the public. Interesting stuff.]


Anonymous said...

You make some good points Mark! I'm in agreement with those who have concluded that the global warming "crisis" is simply another political tool of the left to rally individuals to their support.

MarkC said...


There are some, I'm sure, who have the nefarious and dishonest motives that you cite. However, I am loathe to write off such vast groups of people as "the left" with unsubstantiated character slurs. It's an easy way to make one feel good about one's own opinion, but not a good way at all to foster discussion or open oneself to differing opinions. Besides, it's insulting and unfair.

In the future, please avoid saying derogatory things about generalized groups like "the left" which cannot possibly be substantiated with evidence. It is unnecessary, unhelpful, and unwelcome in this community. Thanks.

Back to the topic...

It seems highly likely to me at this point that human activity is to some discernible degree impacting the earth's temperature. Projections of the future impact of those changes are (in my opinion) unreliable, and sometimes politically or ideologically skewed, but at the same time should not be ignored. We need to get past the current state of two sides yelling insults at each other, and start making substantive proposals.

On the one hand we have Kyoto-type proposals, which (it seems to me) are economically-stifling to the developed world, not sustainable, and not effective in the long term. The results so far from the nations that are attempting a solution along those lines are not promising.

On the other hand, we have... nothing that I can tell. We have lots of people saying that we don't really know that global warming is going on, so we shouldn't bankrupt ourselves trying to solve it. I agree... but is there something we could do short of bankrupting ourselves that might help in the likely-but-not-certain situation that we are warming our planet dangerously? Is there any counter-proposal to the Kyoto-style solutions other than denial and avoidance?

The one that I think holds real promise is nuclear power. Unfortunately, and for reasons that aren't completely clear to me, nobody of prominence is advocating this solution. I hope that situation will change soon.


MarkC said...

The current Newsweek has a major section devoted to the environment in general, and global warming in particular. As part of that section, they included an editorial by Richard S. Lindzen, a research professor of meteorology at MIT.

I'm encouraged to see that he, who knows far more about this topic than I do, seems to agree with my perspective. I'll take all the positive reinforcement I can get. :)

Here's a link to the article.