Monday, November 30, 2015

Climate Change Update: The Fundamental Things Still Apply, and Honest Cost-Benefit Analyses Are Dangerously Flawed

It has been hard to find a good reason to post an update on climate change, although superficially there is a lot of relatively good news.  Climate change is now an acceptable part of TV “nature” documentaries, to which so many are addicted; for the first time, China has committed to less coal use and has delivered in a measurable fashion; there is the outline of a global plan for carbon-emission reduction as we head into the latest climate-change summit; and even the rhetoric of the Republican party has allowed for a candidate (Kasich) who admits that serious climate change is happening and something needs to be done about it.  And then there is Pres. Obama, who is the first major political figure afaik who has admitted that we not only need to cut back on carbon emissions but also keep a large chunk of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground indefinitely.

The Fundamental Bad News Still Applies

So why do I feel that these are not significant enough to discuss in detail?  For this simple reason:  as far as we can tell, the rise in atmospheric carbon continues not just in a straight (rising) line, but in a slow acceleration.  To put it another way, if atmospheric carbon simply kept increasing at its present rate of about 2.5 ppm per year, by 2100 it would reach about 625 ppm, corresponding to (as per Hansen) to a 4.4 degrees C or 7.6 degrees F global temperature rise.  If, however, it continues to accelerate at its present rate, according to one estimate it will reach 920 ppm by 2100, baking in a whopping 7.5 degrees C or almost 14 degrees F increase.  When I say “baked in”, I mean that we may not see that amount of temperature increase in 2100, but in the 30-50 years after 2100, much of that temperature increase will show up.
Meanwhile, the climate change this year is unfortunately proceeding as seemed likely 5 years ago.  The El Nino that causes temperature spikes was delayed, but as a result is now almost certain to be the strongest on record, causing an inevitable huge new high in global land temperatures (last year was the previous record) of about 2/3 of a degree F above the old record.  Moreover, it now seems that the El Nino will continue for quite a few months next year, almost guaranteeing a 2016 global land temperature significantly above 2015. It would not be surprising if 2015 plus 2016 totaled a full 1 degree F jump. 
And finally, the “strange” rebound in Arctic sea ice volume after 2012 is clearly over, and our best prognostication suggests that 2016 volume at minimum will be in second place after 2012 – suggesting that at least a linear reduction in volume over the last 40 years continues.  As a result, Greenland’s glaciers continue collapsing and should contribute several feet to sea level rise this century.  Some forecasts even contemplate a 26-foot rise from all sources (Greenland and Antarctica, primarily) by 2100, although more sober analyses still suggest somewhere between 6 and 16 feet.
In other words, the fundamentals of human-caused climate change continue to apply, however we may delude ourselves that our measures up to now have had a significant impact.  Like Alice in The Looking Glass, we will probably have to run twice as fast to get anywhere, and then four times, and then ...

Honest Cost-Benefit Analysis Continues to be Flawed

To my mind, the only really good news, if good news there be, is that I am beginning to see honest cost-benefit analyses – the analyses that potentially really try to face the costs and benefits of the mitigation required to do something significant about climate change.  For example, one blog post noted that most analyses failed to reflect people’s difficulties in moving when climate change or climate change mitigation requires it (meaning that a few do).  It has been absurd, watching commentators assuming that loss of 50-90% of present arable land and the necessary water translate easily into new but temporary growing spots, with the costs of moving to those locations vanishing by the magic of the so-called free market.
However, an analysis published in MIT’s Technology Review identified one barrier that, in the author’s mind, doomed any near-term conversion to solar energy:  Faced with utilities’ resistance to meshing the existing electrical grid with individual solar installations, homeowners are faced with a large installation cost that make solar uncompetitive in the home in the near to medium term.
I don’t think the author’s cost-benefit analysis – for that is what it boiled down to – is obviously flawed.  But I do believe that it suffers from several key flaws specific to climate change:
1.       It assumes a certain infrastructure (the existing grid) without considering the ways in which that grid will become comparatively more and more costly, despite temporary fixes, as changes in climate make some locations so hot that air conditioning costs shoot through the roof, some locations underwater or damaged by storms, and some locations with a different mix of heat and cooling that the grid was designed for.  A solar arrangement is not affected as much by this, because it is necessarily more distributed, can de-novo provide better architecture-based earth-derived heating and cooling, and involves less sunk-cost coal/oil/gas storage for heating.

2.       It fails to handle the “disaster scenario” in which the benefits of present cheaper energy fail to outweigh the future costs of disaster caused by everyone coming to the same don’t-change conclusion.  In other words, each decision analyzed is not a one-off nor is it isolated – most if not all people will come to the same conclusion and act the same way, and that is the situation that must be modeled.  If we all conclude that sea-level property will be fine for 40 years and can be sold thereafter to a greater fool, in a global context we quickly run out of fools, and then we can sell to nobody.

3.       It assumes governments will be able to act as the backstop/insurer of last resort.  To put it another way, in the typical situation, if businesses fail, governments are expected to handle a portion of the costs of bankruptcies (or to backstop those who do, as in the case of AIG), to provide unemployment benefits so that a pool of labor remains, and to support repair of “common” infrastructure such as roads and heating/cooling when businesses can’t.  However, when the effects are close to simultaneous and truly global, most governments are hard put to come up with the necessary support.  This, in turn, creates chaos that makes the next (and greater) crisis harder to handle.  Effectively, there is a point beyond which all countries are under such stress that despite reallocation of business investment, economies start shrinking and the ability to handle the next stress becomes less and less.  Some estimates put that point as early as the 2060s, if we continue as we are going.  So the cost of each individual decision that affects carbon pollution mitigation should be factored into a cost-benefit analysis, as well.

Recommendation:  Face The Facts

In this situation, I am reminded by an episode in fantasy author Stephen Donaldson’s first series.  He posited a leper placed into a world in which an evil, powerful character seeks to turn a wonderfully healthy world into a reflection of the leper’s symptoms:  rotting, smelling, causing numbness – and a prophecy says that only the leper can save this world.  The leper befriends a “High Lord” dedicated to fighting the evil character, and says, essentially, “Look, you’re trying you’re best but you’re failing.  Face facts!”  The High Lord, hearing this from the one person who can save his world, says, very carefully, “You have a great respect for facts.”  “I hate facts,” was the passionate response, “They’re all I’ve got.”
The point, as I see it, is not to look a grim outlook in the face and give up.  It is, rather, in everything done about climate change to understand how a particular effort falls short and how even grimmer forecasts should be factored into the next effort.  It is understanding that even as we fail to avoid the consequences of the first 4 degrees C of global warming, we redouble our efforts to avoid the next 4 degrees.  It is cutting away the non-essentials of curbing population growth and of dealing with immediate crises such as the Paris bombings, and seeing that in part these are manifestations of stresses in society that global warming is exacerbating, and therefore the primary focus should be solar now now now, or a reasonable equivalent.  And it is performing, individually and collectively, the kinds of honest cost-benefit analyses that will confront us with facts that we might not want to face, but which will lead us as quickly as possible in the right direction.
I hate climate change facts.  They’re the closest thing to hope I have.  Season’s greetings.

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