Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

August 5, 2008

Global Warming: Act Now or Wait?

Category: Big Things,Climate Change,Companies,Editorial,Observations,Political – Tom Harrison – 5:16 pm

Here’s a case for action, now for those people who may be skeptical about global warming, or whether it’s caused by humans, or whether there’s anything we can do about it.

First, I think we need to agree on at least one point, to wit: there is a valid, if unresolved, theory being investigated by many scientists relating to global warming. By “valid”, I mean that it’s not a conspiracy or hoax, it’s not some horrible manifestation of group-think, and there are at least some scientists with reasonable methods and credentials who either have done studies, or have reviewed those of others.

If we cannot agree on this point, then I would certainly be interested in seeing any indications that this is not true. Without agreement, though, there’s no need to read further.

Still with me? Then here goes:

Science is equivocal by nature. There’s always a debate. I won’t characterize that debate here; you can read my previous post.

Some reasonable number of climate scientists believe, based on their studies or reviews of others’:

  1. that global warming is real,
  2. it is being exacerbated by large increase emissions in “greenhouse gasses”,
  3. that human activity, notably burning carbon-based fuels caused much of the increase,
  4. if we do not act right away, several of a number of catastrophic outcomes may ensue; if we do act, we may be able to avert some of them.

You do not have to agree with these conclusions. And that word, “catastrophic” carries some baggage — in this case, I mean that there will be catastrophes (major floods, fires, storms, etc) that significantly disrupt the way people live across the planet.

I believe there is satisfactory evidence for a skeptic to agree that some (reasonable) scientists support some, many, or all of these points. You may agree with none of them or believe there is some ambiguity about enough of them to be a skeptic.

If you are skeptical, you might think we should wait for more information, or do nothing, or perhaps continue to take incremental, market driven steps — the status quo.

If you’re still with me, then consider a couple scenarios.

Scientists Are Wrong so We Take No Action on Global Warming

The first scenario: So what if the scientists are wrong about global warming on all points, or even just the last point?

In this case, I suppose we would work mostly on winning the Iraq war, dealing with our oil and gas prices, going after as much oil as we can, work on making resources we do have, like coal and shale, more useful.

Maybe there are other problems we would address, but mostly they seem temporal, like instability in financial and lending markets, slow growth, immigration and so on.

I have to admit, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about this scenario. It’s probable that what we would do is different than what I suggest.

Taking the course of the first scenario, we could solve real problems without being distracted by the alarmist rhetoric of global warming, and get down to business. In other words, in this scenario, we would be focusing our efforts where they actually matter. Perhaps you might argue that we’re already responding to global warming through market forces.

Scientists Are Right, yet We Take No Action on Global Warming

In the second scenario, it turns out some time from now that scientists were right after all. But we haven’t taken any extra-ordinary steps to mitigate the causes of global warming. What happens in this case?

It really depends on what parts are correct. Some projections are pretty grim, some might result in changes we can keep up with. Or maybe it’s not so bad for us — to be nationalist for a moment, many impacts will affect other parts of the world more than the US so maybe it matters less?

But most of the predictions, while necessarily vague in some ways, are consistent in the degree to which they view the outcomes as dire.

When thinking about how global warming might impact us, we naturally thinks about weather: hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, heat waves all become more frequent and severe. It’s kind of abstract since we have been surviving these problems for all of humanity.

But there are many more insidious indirect effects of global warming, and many of them affect our food supply. Small changes in temperature affect our ecosystem — bugs that do good or bad things to our crops go, or come. This affects birds who control insects. Insect-borne disease patterns change. Lots of things change.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, most of these things (and many more) are happening now and have been observed in the last few years; the report recommends we take various defensive actions. This is a report that was issued in May of this year. By the USDA.

And when food supply is affected, people start doing bad things. Witness the genocide in Darfur, which has been attributed to droughts and crop failures causing food shortages.

More “civilized” “conflicts” may arise as land, energy, and nationalism/protectionism isolate countries, and the benefits of globalization start to dwindle. At the very least, there’s a growing economic impact, likely occurring today, at some level.

If (if) the scientists are right, it will not be getting better.

And many, many other things. Even the idea that additional CO2 will act as a kind of fertilizer, making the earth even greener are not supportable by facts.

How Would You Bet?

So if we don’t know whether the scientists are right or wrong, we are, in effect taking a bet. It’s a big bet, as is anything related to the world economic and political scene.

The “scientists and alarmists are wrong” scenario results in the status quo.

We will probably figure out how to solve our current energy and economic issues. Situation normal, in fact perhaps an economic advantage over countries wasting their time on a problem that is not real.

The “uh oh, they were right” scenario creates an increasing probability of dramatic geopolitical instability: war, famine, drought, disease, and the like.

In the best case we’re faced with severe economic stress. In the middle, we face what might be termed “extended global crisis”. In the worst, we face some rather dramatic changes in humanity.

Here’s a simple game of chance. You have the chance to win, say a 20% increase in your income for your lifetime. Or, you could take what’s behind Door Number 2.

Your choice presumably depends on the odds of the outcome and your expectations of how badly it would affect you. This ain’t no game show.

What Are The Odds Global Warming, Etc. Is Real

In 1995, the IPCC assessed the current state of science on the topic and concluded it was “likely”. In 2007, the updated assessment said it was “very likely” (90% likely).

(This is a vast simplification of what the IPCC concluded, and the science behind it)

You may choose not to believe the results of these reports. But if you accepted my 20% salary increase if they are wrong, do you accept a “very likely” downside risk if they are right?

I wouldn’t. And I don’t think others should be willing to accept that risk, either.

Whether your grounds are moral, economic, political, or just your beliefs, I have seen no indication that there’s really anyone claiming that the impact of global warming, if left unchecked, will be “mild”.

Why Is Acting on Global Warming Urgent?

It is urgent to act on global warming mitigation now because even conservative scenarios (or the above referenced USDA report) show a compounding effect, even if the increase of concentration of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) is just linear.

Most GHGs occur naturally, and the earth has a capacity for “processing” these gasses. Imagine holding your hand over a candle flame. If your hand is far enough away from the flame, or the flame is small enough that you could hold it indefinitely with no pain.

But researchers concur that we’re significantly past that capacity and 1) we’re still adding more GHGs every year than the year before, at an increasing rate, and 2) deforestation and other factors are reducing the earth’s capacity. How quickly that is happening matters: conservative predictions suggest a linear increase.

A linear model would say that if you hold your hand at a point that you can tolerate pain for a while, it will eventually get to be too much to bear. Other models suggest a geometric increase in GHGs — in this scenario you move your hand towards the flame steadily. Still others suggest an exponential increase — your hand moves towards the flame faster and faster. All result in pain; they differ only in speed and degree.

I may not have the capacity to understand correctly, but I believe one scientific debate relates to what the rate of temperature increase has been. Steve McIntyre, who publishes has questioned several of the methods used by scientists who claim the exponential model is the best fit to the data. McIntyre suggests that the data was not evaluated correctly and that the increase in much less, perhaps just linear. I may be reading this wrong, but I think this is just a debate about “how bad”.

In any model, it’s bad and getting worse.

The problem was already urgent some years ago. Today we’re mostly looking to reduce the currently progressing impacts as quickly as possible.

(Just in case you thought I forgot, you still don’t have to be convinced any of this is true; you just have to believe that there’s some chance that it is).

But Who Says The Current Solutions Are Any Good?

I am very glad to see that you made it here. Because it suggests you are willing to entertain the possibility that global warming is real, its outcomes are bad, and we have to act now.

Many solutions are proposed, but the most widely accepted, politically and economically reasonable solution is Cap and Trade. Cap and Trade is a longer term solution that basically puts a cost on GHGs, making alternative ways of making energy more cost-effective, and carbon-based energy less cost-effective. The idea is simple; the implementation will result in winners and losers, and that’s where most of the friction is. McCain and Obama both support Cap and Trade; the difference is in how aggressively it is implemented.

Al Gore recently proposed a plan to upgrade our electricity carrying grid and invest a lot in alternative energy improvements, which are imminently feasible.

T Boone Pickens recently announced a plan to tap wind resources and then solar resources.

All plans, and many others benefit from Cap and Trade, and kick-start its benefits. Fred Krupp enumerates many, many enterprises and technical options, in his book, Earth, The Sequel.

And almost everybody agrees that conservation and better use of the energy we do have is the most immediate and effective thing we can do now.

All of these solutions can co-exist.

Are these measures enough? Will they happen fast enough?

Probably not. So we really have to accept that we will need a lot of different solutions; some will happen sooner than others. There will be winners and losers in the short term.

The Opportunity of Global Warming

No doubt the outcome of global warming is a bad thing (if it actually does exist, of course). There will be economic winners and losers.

However, there’s also a huge economic opportunity in global warming solutions because there is a huge need for many different elements. Isn’t America uniquely equipped to respond to such opportunity?

Heck, even if global warming doesn’t exist, more and more people believe it do, and are willing to endure costs and make change. Many companies are realizing the extent of the opportunity (or at least the costs of doing nothing). In economics, just believing a thing is so can be enough!

Some companies are seem not to realize the extent of the opportunity, and it is hard for me to understand why. From a purely economic standpoint entrepreneurs, business people, and existing companies would not seize this opportunity. The only answer I can see is that they can only see their quarterly profits, no horizon further than that. These companies are the ones who will be losers. And they are huge companies, and have huge numbers of employees that will be affected.

Wal*Mart, a corporate villain for many years has embraced change by focusing on sustainable practices. Ford, if it survives, seems poised to emerge reinvented as a leader in electric vehicles. GM seems still to be dithering (as usual).

ExxonMobil says they are putting a huge sum into alternative energy … yet only the tiniest percentage of their revenues into alternative energy research, according to this ABC report (actually, a link to the ABC story on another site), ExxonMobil invests only about 1% of their profits in alternative energy. Yep, that’s profits, not even revenue. Ok, they are not an alternative energy company. I guess we have found one loser.


In the end, if doesn’t matter if you believe all, or even some of the data about global warming. If you accept the possibility that the assertions of cause and effect may be plausible, then it is reasonable to consider the possible solutions. If you do, perhaps you’ll be able to find opportunity and be a winner. And if you do and it turns out that global warming doesn’t turn out as expected, you’ll be amongst very good company.

So, even if you don’t believe all, much, or most of the statements about global warming, failing to at least hedge your bet is looking ever more risky and foolish.

A Request For Comment

I have tried to present this argument fairly, and avoid making assumptions, or asserting facts that are not true. This is an argument aimed at people who are not sure, or perhaps even those quite certain that global warming is a lot of hoo-ha.

I greatly respect the opinions of anyone willing to think through a problem and arrive at a sound conclusion. I especially welcome the opinions and ideas of those who can find errors or fault in my argument. I am pretty sure I am right on this one; please, show me how I am wrong.


  1. I found a great video that makes a shorter, more convincing argument — check it out here…

    Pingback by Global Warming: Act Now or Wait (take 2) | Five Percent: Conserve a Little Energy — August 15, 2008 @ 10:08 am

  2. After a drought warning was issued last month, New Yorkers cut the city’s water consumption by 30 million gallons a day. Oil

    Comment by Oil — August 30, 2008 @ 11:04 am

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