Tag: Climate sensitivity

More Time on the Climate

I thought I would put this in my own post rather than respond to Alex’s because it crosses af few points that have been bobbing around my head for a while. And since we’re having an AGW fight anyway…

The President released his climate plan today. It is a lot less ambitious than his previous plans. No cap-and-trade or anything. It does quite a bit by executive order. I expect legal challenges but Congress punted much of its regulatory and law-making ability on the environment to the EPA long ago and the Courts have, so far, not reined that power in.

However, even this plan, flawed as it is, is a huge pullback from the President’s earlier promises for “decisive action”. The pullback is partially a result of the GOP opposing his climate plans. But it is also a recognition that the political landscape has changed. Over the last few years we have seen:

  • A slower rate of warming than the previous 20-30 years (which I’ll address in more detail below).
  • A rolling disaster in Europe where climate change policies have resulted in higher energy bills, outsourcing and little to no reduction in CO2 emissions.
  • A huge drop in American CO2 emissions thanks to better efficiency and fracking.
  • As Alex noted, the Obama plan includes heavier regulation of existing power plants. This is probably DOA but it isn’t entirely a bad idea. The oldest plants are the most polluting — not just in terms of greenhouse gases but in terms of everything. Replacing them with cleaner plants isn’t the worst idea to come out of the Administration but one could choose a more economically strong time to do it.

    But the plan includes two steps that I think are in the right direction:

    The White House is hammering out an agreement with China and other countries to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas used in everything from soda machines to many car air conditioners. The administration will also develop a plan for curbing methane emissions from natural-gas production.

    I’ve talked about this before. Methane and HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases that don’t have to be emitted. They are a result of waste, outdated technology and poor maintenance. Curbing those emissions wouldn’t hurt the economy; it would benefit it. George W. Bush pursued agreement on these pollutants with almost no recognition from the supposed greens. Maybe they’ll acknowledge it now that their hero has embraced the policy.

    There’s also this:

    The White House also plans to help state and local agencies prepare for the impacts of climate change that are lurking in the near future, such as sea-level rise or flooding or extreme weather. An example: All federally-funded rebuilding after superstorm Sandy now has to take the risks of future flooding into account.

    Bjorn Lomborg has been on the adaptation crusade for years. The idea is that even if we stopped emitting CO2 today, temperatures would continue to rise. We’re going to have to adapt to a warmer world no matter what. Acknowledging that and doing something about it may be much smarter than ham-fisted caps on carbon. In fact, much of our infrastructure isn’t up to the challenge even without global warming. Sandy was an event that could happen even in a cooling world and one for which much of the East Coast was unprepared.

    Now to return to one subject. The fact that global warming has slowed for the last decade is moderately interesting. It doesn’t “disprove” global warming any more than a stock market crash disproves capitalism or an 0-4 disproves Miguel Cabrera’s ability to punish baseballs. If you look at the temperature record, you’ll see times when global warming has slowed, times when it has gone faster. Complex systems never behave monotonically. But the 100-year trend is toward warmer temperatures and every piece of information we have indicates that rise should continue.

    However, it is true that the last 10-20 years have seen temperatures rise at a slower rate than the previous 30 and the rise has been toward the lower end of climate model predictions. And the last year has come out with a number of studies that may show exactly why:

    A major new study published in Nature Geoscience reports that future global warming is likely to be significantly less than many climate model projections have suggested. The authors cannot be characterized by opponents as climate change “deniers.” Using recent data from the continued slowdown in global temperature increases, the researchers estimated new equilibrium climate sensitivity and transient climate response numbers.

    Their calculations hint that, on the current course, the 21st century should see a warming of 1-2 degrees celsius, rather than the 3-4.5 degrees the IPCC predicted in their last report (and rumors are that the next IPCC report will also lower their predictions). That seemingly minor change is important: most climatologist believe that two degrees would not be a gigantic problem. And they’re known to be pessimistic.

    Now I should stress that these analyses may be missing low on climate sensitivity just as the old ones missed high. But similar results have been showing up in the literature all over the place. Moreover, the data are showing that the climate sensitivity may have been overestimated. If these lower estimates of climate sensitivity are accurate and if the slower warming of the last decade is more indicative of the true climate sensitivity that the rapid warming of the 80’s and 90’s, it means we have a lot more time than anticipated to solve the problem; decades longer.

    What this supports is what I’ve said before: governments need to abandon the idea of hamstringing the economy and pouring subsidies into marginal technology like electric cars. The problem of global warming can not and should not be solved today. Instead, we should be investing in basic research to discover new technologies. When these technologies are developed, the only mandate we will need is for people to form an orderly queue to buy and use them.

    Think about where we were fifty years ago, technologically. No internet. Television was coming into its own. Computers were confined to major universities and businesses. There were still epidemics of measles, mumps and rubella. Not small epidemics from idiot parents but massive ones. The typical car got about 10 miles per gallon.

    In fifty years, we might have nuclear fusion.

    The slowdown of global warming buys us time. It extends the point at which warming would potentially become dangerous decades into the future. And the parts of the Obama climate plan that aren’t stupid also extend the time baseline. Cutting down on HFC’s and methane emissions would buy more time at no economic cost. Adapting cities to rising ocean levels buys more time (and is a good idea anyway). Putting in better flood building codes buys more time. All of this buys us the critical time that is needed to develop real alternatives to fossil fuels.

    Obama’s climate change plan shows a faint sliver of reality. At this rate, he might actually propose a sensible climate policy sometimes around 2145.