In case you were stuck in a line at Best Buy or Walmart, the fourth National Climate Assessment was released on Black Friday.
Let’s first acknowledge the delicious irony of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, State, the Interior, and Transportation, plus the Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Agency for International Development issuing a report that pretty much contradicts everything the president appears to believe.
That “feel good” moment behind us, what’s to be done? I’m struck by some troubling realities:
- The political party that created the National Park System and established the EPA has become allergic to sensible environmental policy. Is this the “Al Gore” effect (“If Al Gore and friends are for it, I’m against it”)?
- The most ardent supporters of climate policy seem obsessed with the issue of human agency, seemingly requiring an admission of sin as a precondition for action. This feeds back into the point above, stiffening opposition to policy action.
- A majority of voters are themselves insulated from the most probable effects either because 2050 is outside their planning horizon (“I’ll be gone or doddering”) or are in regions that are protected from obvious changes like ocean level rise, e.g. Rochester. Sacrifice is never popular—did Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweaters encourage the nation to turn down thermostats in the dead of winter?
- Nearly every sober assessment finds that plausible policy implementation will fail to achieve the goal of keeping the average temperature gain to under 2 degrees Celsius, leading skeptics to grumble, “If it won’t help, why bother?
The climate policy nightmare
Political scientist David Victor, in his book “Global Warming Gridlock,” paints a complex and frankly bleak picture of the policy challenge posed by climate change.
Climate change is a public policy nightmare.
• The complex scientific models rely on a mountain of assumptions and data that don’t always agree—in Victor’s words, “The climate system is a coupling of chaotic and imperfectly understood systems.” Policy wonks ask the impossible of scientists: What concentration of CO2 will trigger what temperature change? When? What will warming mean for the climate? We can’t expect precise weather outcomes decades hence from uncertain changes in CO2 concentrations. And the many assumptions and inconsistent data leave the warming consensus itself open to noisy debate among the disputatious.
• The benefits of carbon controls go to future populations, but the bill gets paid in the present. If intergenerational planning isn’t hard enough, the timing reinforces a division of the world community by income. Planning for the future is a privilege of the rich—the poor struggle to survive today and tomorrow.
• The impacts fall unequally on the world community. The Kyoto Treaty, for example, was negotiated in an island nation threatened by sea-level rise with minimal domestic fossil fuel reserves. Of major nations, Japan has the most to gain and the least to lose from cutting emissions. Russia, by contrast, could do with a bit of warming and lives off the sale of its oil and gas reserves. A more navigable Northwest Passage (from melting Arctic ice) is also good for Russia.
This principle also applies domestically. Thinking again of Rochester, the Climate Assessment’s review of the impact of climate change on the Northeast focuses most of its attention on coastal cities such as New York. The report’s comments on inland impacts rely on vague forecasts of changing seasonality, shifting agricultural zones and the potential for more extreme weather events. These are consequences that have less political potency than California wildfires or more frequent and more severe hurricanes.
Victor notes that the “edge” of the problem is concentrated in a few emerging economies, whom he dubbed “reluctant” participants in emission control. One-fifth of 2010 CO2 emissions came from China, with India and Brazil contributing another tenth. The nations that are the most enthusiastic about controlling emissions—the European Union and Japan—were responsible for less than 20 percent, slightly more than the U.S.’s 17 percent. Yet nearly all growth in emissions will come from those reluctant nations. Offsetting their increases by reductions elsewhere would require implausibly draconian policy change.
One welcome change in the international dialogue since Victor’s 2014 book has been the attitude of China—while this might be simply a politically shrewd reaction to the change in U.S. policy under Donald Trump, China has been assuming the role of climate defender.
He concludes that the international treaty process can’t address this challenge. The contrast between the prescriptive Kyoto Protocols and the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which relies much more heavily on “voluntary” targets, captures this problem. The recent Global Climate Action Summit was crippled by policy conflict within the world’s largest economy.
‘Get over that carbon tax’
What does Victor suggest? He begins by popping one of my cherished balloons. After demonstrating that a carbon tax is the most efficient and effective means of control (yes!), he notes that this imposes visible costs on well-organized interest groups—e.g. energy companies and energy-intensive businesses, like manufacturing.
Good policy, dreadful politics. Instead of relying on efficient market forces, Victor believes that the only viable approach is old-style “command and control” regulation that “channels benefits to well-organized groups and away from the pockets of the unsuspecting.” Mandated subsidies to new energy technology, paid by electric ratepayers, has this characteristic. The “systems-benefit charge” in New York is one example. The Trump administration’s trashing of the Obama Clean Power Plan and its retreat from other regulation puts Victor’s plan in the same hole as my carbon tax, however.
Victor suggests that “clubs” of interested nations hold more promise than U.N.-sponsored global summits—Japan and the EU could establish a cooperative program with China, India and Brazil, for example. Given the challenge, however, he concludes that policy can only achieve so much. “It is much sexier to imagine bold schemes that stop global warming rather than the millions of initiatives that will be needed to cope with new climates. Yet the unsexy need to brace for change is unavoidable.” Victor admits that his research into new policy directions have led him “to a much darker place” than he began.
Unwelcome guests at the climate control party
Unlikely to earn Victor the applause of the environmental community, he also urges “readying some emergency plans. Those will include intervening directly in the climate to offset of some of the effects of climate change, which is also known as ‘geoengineering.’”
Scientists interested in such research point to the temporary cooling effect of volcanic eruptions. The release of airborne particulates into the upper atmosphere reduces heat gain and might be imitated to offset CO2 emissions.
This approach runs afoul of environmental activists’ ideological convictions, however. The original sin of climate change is based in technology—looking to technology for a solution violates deeply held values. The renunciation of sin is the first step toward salvation.
Nuclear power is placed in the same box—never mind the remarkable safety record of nuclear power plants based on technology refined half a century ago. Only the purity of clean, renewable energy can satisfy the vengeful climate gods. (But put that wind farm in someone else’s viewshed, would you?)
There has never been a problem like climate change. Global in scope, it requires unprecedented action by national and multinational actors, each with a vastly different stake in the outcome. The complexity of climate science lends uncertainty to the timing and degree of impacts. The most likely outcome is an untidy mixture of muddled policies and technological dreams.
Why should this this matter to Rochester? We’re in the great inland Northeast where predicted changes are likely to be gradual, not abrupt; disruptive, not transformative. Skiing at Bristol Mountain may be less certain or end altogether. But even if we might be disposed to be disengaged, our federal tax dollars will be tapped to protect Miami.
A threat to New York City’s financial district would ripple through the state. Friends and family living in Puerto Rico or Houston or Japan will remind us of the consequences. So we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. Let’s support practical, effective policies to address a problem we ignore at our peril.