The Copenhagen conference on climate change: what are we learning?

NYT-Google-topic-global-warmingThis week’s announcement of the Google Living Stories Project (NY Times: Google Unveils News-by-Topic Service) presents the opportunity for us to use the tool to track the Copenhagen conference on climate change and discuss it here.

I’m not a global warming skeptic but the “smug groupthink” evident in some of the recently hacked emails of a small network of climatologists is disturbing.

180 thoughts on “The Copenhagen conference on climate change: what are we learning?”

  1. Griff, Bright et al.: we can resume discussion of this if people are willing to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that human greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change. Virtually every peer-reviewed scientific article and report on the subject finds the evidence conclusive. If you don’t accept what 98 percent of climate scientists are saying, then there is no point in reviving this site.

    What has happened since March 2010?
    1) the cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate. Obama was not willing to risk another bruising and uncertain fight after health care. I don’t think he could have gotten enough Democratic votes to pass it, even though at one point he seemed to have 5 GOP votes. Anyway, it is dead.
    2) in the 2010 mid-term elections the Tea Party and Republican right made opposition to any climate bill (especially “cap-and-tax”) a litmus test for election. That is even more true in this presidential election cycle. Ironically, past support of it is one of the things dragging Newt down now. Anyway, among the GOP candidates, only Jon Huntsman has clearly accepted the scientific evidence.
    3) Both 2010 and 2011 have seen huge number of extreme weather events. Although individual events cannot be attributed to global warming with any causal certainty, the international scientific community is beginning to link weather patterns with climate change. See
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/19/science/earth/un-panel-finds-climate-change-behind-some-extreme-weather-events.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/science/earth/record-jump-in-emissions-in-2010-study-finds.html.
    There is lots more on this subject.
    4) The climate change conference in Durban, SA in Dec. kept the hope for a treaty with limits after 2020 alive, but just barely. Almost all of the additional CO2 is now coming from China, India, and other rapidly developing countries, and they won’t agree to any caps unless we do. So we are stuck in a deadly game of chicken.
    5) Congress is at its most dysfunctional now. The GOP is trying to tie approval of the Keystone pipeline to extension of tax cuts–forcing Obama to either veto it (in which case they will hammer him as a job-killer) or let it go through (in which case the environmentalists will go ballistic).
    Do we really want to discuss this???

  2. Norm, I think we can resume this discussion even if people don’t believe global warming is human made because the fixes to that and to cleaning up the environment have many things in common.

    1. That is true, Bright. The most important thing the Obama admin. has done for both pollution control and reducing GHG emissions is raising auto/light truck fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Other controls on old, dirty coal-fired power plants such as the mercury regs announced yesterday will also force closing of some of the worst GHG emitters. And since public concern about global warming has fallen so much since 2008, attacking it via other environmental values (“clean air”) is probably the best approach right now. Unfortunately the House is trying to block all of these regs as well.

      1. Phil, yes there is. In fact several aspects. One is that if climate change reached a tipping point that really put it out of control, the costs could be astronomical. Short of that, the UN predicts as many as 50 million climate refugees moving to the North by 2020 as a result of climate disasters such as droughts. Beyond that, we are way too dependent on oil from the Middle East still–who knows what is going to happen in Iraq and Iran, for example? And finally, if we bail out and let the Chinese capture the world markets in wind and solar energy, electric cars, etc., we will lose out economically. So there is a lot at stake here.

      2. Norm- According to this chart, there is a trend in the US oil imports away from OPEC nations. The last year, 2009, we imported 1594 million bbls. of oil from OPEC. We imported 1713 million bbls from non-OPEC nations. It is in this chart on this link here-
        http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0932.pdf
        That is only about a 7% difference, but if you look at the trend from 2004, both sources have decreased. I don’t think this is a reduction in usage so much as an increase in domestic production, as indicated in this chart-
        http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_crd_crpdn_adc_mbblpd_a.htm
        The problem I have with the MPG standards being proposed by the government is that they are an average of fuel efficiency over the whole fleet, not necessarily an increase on a per vehicle model basis. As long as we consumers continue to buy large vehicles powered by large engines, then the vehicles on the road are still going to emit a lot of polutants. For the last 60 years, we have become a more mobile populace, and that is a trend that is going to be hard to break.

        On the electrical production side, we can see the conflict going on in Dakota county between animal preservationists and the renewable energy industry just to erect some windmills. I don’t see how all the money spent on research and litigation can ever be recouped in the lifespan of a wind farm. As Pogo once said, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” As long as we continue with the mindset of the many conforming to the desires of the few, and that is on both sides, then I don’t think we will come up with a solution before our demise.

  3. John,
    Good to hear from you again. I looked at the charts and see that domestic oil production fell in 2008, so that wouldn’t account for lower imports. Fuel consumption fell sharply in 2009 due to the recession (US CO2 emissions fell 7%), which probably accounts for the import decline in that year. In any case, there is a gradual trend toward “decarbonization” in this country (going back through the Bush years even) when all energy sources are included.
    I agree that lower fleet-average mileage standards aren’t foolproof, but auto makers will have to sell a lot more small, fuel-efficient and electric cars to offset continuing sales of pickups, etc.(and even pickups are becoming a lot more fuel-efficient). So that is a big step in the right direction.
    Yes, there are a lot of siting conflicts over wind generators (NIMBY), and some animal/bird lovers are making a fuss–but I suspect these arguments are being blown up by those that just don’t want windmills. Most enviros would vote for wind any day.
    The big fights, as I see it, are going to be over the Keystone XL pipeline and over gas fracking. The huge increase in natural gas production and conversion from coal and oil to gas are a good thing, but we don’t really know yet how much groundwater pollution fracking will cause. I wonder if those opponents of wind generators would be against gas drilling on their property if they were offered a lot more money?
    You have a point in arguing that the few can’t force the majority to accept change–though that is the way it always happens. I do think a carbon tax would be accepted pretty quickly, just as higher gasoline prices have become the “new normal.” Ignoring scientific evidence is not the way to go.

    1. Norm- Yes, the internal combustion engine is becoming much more effecient. Constant computer control of fuel/air mixture, ignition and valve timing has done wonders for them. They produce more power with less fuel and “cleaner” exhaust. If I correctly understand the fleet fuel consumption standards, the auto manufascturers only have to have a certain effeciency over their whole model line, not necessarily the delivered vehicles. That is why I question how much good that approach will actually have as far as reducing fuel consumption. Although it has a bad taste in my mouth, an increase in the tax on fuel will probably be the most effective way to curb consumption. It would most likely put the greatest hardship on low income people, though. They can’t afford a nice new fuel efficient car to begin with, so they will most likely be driving older, higher poluting vehicles. Then, to have an added tax burden placed upon them might possibly put them under. Those people who can afford new cars usually buy them for esthetic reasons, not ecological reasons, and they can afford the higher taxed fuel. It will do something to curb consumption, but I’m not sure it would be enough. In all these attempts to change our behavior, I think we need to recognize that is hard to legislate personal behavior. If speed laws were really effective at controling speed, then we wouldn’t have to drive 80 mph in the slow lane on I35. The intent of the law is good. Peoples’ conformity to the law is the weak link.

      The question I still have about a carbon tax is the ability for high income people to “buy” carbon credits to reduce their “footprint” rather than cut back consumption. A good example of this is Al Gore and his mega-estate. It has the appearance of whitewashing the actual problem.

      1. John,

        Higher energy taxes need not impose a special bottom-line burden on the poor, let alone “put them under”. Energy or carbon taxes could be rebated in some form (perhaps directly, perhaps through reducing other taxes) on a progressive basis. Money is fungible.

        As you say, a carbon tax won’t reduce everyone’s carbon footprint equally, if at all, and will certainly effect no moral transformation of the rich, whom we will always have with us, to twist a phrase. At best it could better dun disproportionate users (Al Gore may be among them) for their disproportionate use. (As a frequent air traveler I’m in no position to preen, BTW, or to escape carbon taxes myself.)

        In any event, the same properties apply to all taxes: they discourage, rather than prevent, any behavior or activity under taxation. To prevent something you have to outlaw it — an alternative neither liberals nor conservatives generally care for.

      2. Paul Z.- If outlawing behaviors would prevent them, then we wouldn’t have speeders, pedophiles, murderers, etc. (I think you get the picture). I think the best we can expect is to suppress the wasting of energy. Making three trips across town to Menards is probably more a problem of poor planning. I think there could be some consideration of this with our society of convenience and instant gratification. We are at a place in this country where we need energy. Economizing the use of that energy is the road we need to take.

  4. John,

    On the matter of fleet-average mileage standards: Yes, focusing on the average of anything doesn’t (and can’t, mathematically) prevent bad behavior at the margin. But I see no alternative (e.g., G-men seizing low-mileage vehicles) that would be either practical or politically palatable, even to me — let alone to the government-dissers. So I’d keep gas guzzlers legal, but tax the b*j*s*s out of them, whether directly or through higher fuel prices.

    IMO the feds should focus on big-picture goals, like average fuel economy and total carbon emissions, and leave it mainly to other entities to innovate and cope creatively with broad policies. A carbon tax would be an excellent start.

    1. Paul Z.- I like the mental image of G-men seizing old rust buckets. The Cash for Clunkers program was a step in that direction. The problem it created was the removal of a supply, and thus raising the price of, good used vehicles for those of limited funds to purchase one. Even stepping up from an ’80’s car to a mid ’90’s car got a person into a more fuel effecient car. The result of this program was to force many people to have to keep their aging gas guzzling ’80’s cars and continue poluting the air. There are so many laws that have such good intentions but produce limited results. My wife deals with them every day in her career.

    2. G-men grabbing old vehicles? In one of my classes during the 70’s we discussed cost-benefit analysis. The professor claimed that there was an analysis that showed that the cheapest way for California to achieve Federal standards for air pollution would be to send tractor-trailers full of new vehicles out, pull over old junkers and offer a trade. New vehicles for old, no other money need change hands. He did point out that this was an example of a cost-effective plan that had no possibility of being viable (politically).

      1. Interesting … if true. Any idea whether the plan was indeed cost effective?

        The larger point, that otherwise effective policies can fail for political reasons, while ineffective ones get supported, seems all too true.

      2. We tried a variant of this with the “cash for clunkers” program in 2009. I doubt that it was cost-effective since the criteria were too loose, but it was very good for car dealers at a time they needed a boost.

      3. Norm- The unfortunate thing about this “boost” is that it was not sustainable. It was the artificial influx of tax money that made it lucrative, but it din’t support a change of the auto industry.

    1. Phil,
      I watched Scott Denning’s talk and I liked it, to wit:
      1) today is Friday
      2) CO2 produces heat
      3) heating up the atmosphere produces climate change
      4) physics doesn’t care what people think
      5) the projected increase in carbon emissions (400% this century) will lead to enormous change compared to the past
      6) the political Right has been AWOL in coming up with solutions.
      I was less impressed with his conclusion that only the “free market” can/will find solutions. While I will admit that many government policies are less than effective (yes, Solyndra was a flop), the reason we are where we are is because free markets do not deal with externalities like the carbon buildup. There are no property rights to be bought and sold in the global atmospheric commons. Could someone please tell me how the free market is going to solve this problem (absent carbon taxes or some other externally imposed incentives)?
      I do recomment that folks watch this video, and we can take it from there.

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