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Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportant?

This week the world’s countries – including Australia – meet in Montreal to discuss where we go next on climate change. Although Australia will be excluded from many of the meetings because has not ratified Kyoto, it (as the USA) is a full signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which requires it to do whatever is necessary to avoid dangerous climate change – and as was well discussed at Greenhouse 2005 in Melbourne, that means doing everything in the Kyoto protocol and then some.

Today a 'for' and 'against'. First J Bradford Delong devotes his most recent commentary in Project Syndicate’s Anatomy of the Global Economy series to the question of where we go next. J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a former Assistant US Treasury Secretary. His piece is followed by commentry by Bjørn Lomborg from Project Syndicate’s Science and Society series. Bjørn Lomborg is organiser of Copenhagen Consensus, adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and the author of Global Crises, Global Solutions and The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Eyes wide shut on global warming

by J. Bradford DeLong

J Bradford DeLong

The Kyoto Treaty on controlling climate change was, as Harvard professor Rob Stavins puts it, "too little, too fast." On one hand, because it covered only those countries projected to emit roughly half of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions by mid-century, it was not an effective long-run safeguard against the dangers of global warming. On the other hand, because it required significant and expensive short-run cuts in emissions by industrial countries, it threatened to impose large immediate costs on the American, European, and Japanese economies. In short, the Kyoto agreement meant lots of short-term pain for little long-run gain.

The European Union and American economists in the Clinton administration argued for passage of the Kyoto Treaty only by creating models for something that wasn't the Kyoto Treaty. They projected that developing countries would enter the Kyoto framework at some point, and would trade their rights to emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the United States and Europe in return for development aid.

But, all these years later, I have yet to meet anyone who knows what they are talking about who is prepared to defend Kyoto as a substantive global public policy. "It was a way of getting the ball rolling," on climate change, say some. "It was a way of waking up the world to the seriousness of the problem," say others.

Under neither of these interpretations can those who negotiated and signed the Kyoto Treaty be said to have served the world well. Of course, the world has been served a lot worse since. President George W. Bush sided with his vice president, Dick Cheney, in denying that a global-warming problem even exists (his treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, and his administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Whitman, disagreed). This has probably cost the world a decade of wasted time in developing a policy to deal with the problem, particularly given that intentional inaction is likely to continue until Bush's term is finished.

But the political cards will be reshuffled, and there will be a new deal on global warming, when America next elects a president in November 2008. By 2009, the US may have a State Department willing to speak up again. Unless we are extraordinarily fortunate and learn that climatologists have overlooked some enormously important channels of carbon sequestration, the models predicting global warming will still be grimly accurate in 2009.

When the time comes to revisit international policies on global warming, two things should happen. First, the world's industrial core must create incentives for the developing world to industrialize along an environmentally-friendly, C02- and CH4-light, path. Slow growth of greenhouse-gas emissions in rapidly-growing economies must be accompanied by credible promises to deliver massive amounts of assistance in the mighty tasks of industrialization, education, and urbanization that China, India, Mexico, Brazil, and many other developing countries face.

Second, the world's industrial core must create incentives for its energy industries to undertake the investments in new technologies that will move us by mid-century to an economic structure that is light on carbon emissions and heavy on carbon sequestration. Providing the proper incentives for effective research and development will not be easy. Public programs work less well when the best route to the goal - in this case, the most promising post-carbon energy technologies - is uncertain. Private R&D is difficult to encourage when investors suspect that success would lead the fruits of their work to be taken by some form of eminent domain and used throughout the world with little compensation.

The world could continue to close its eyes to global warming and hope for the best: a slightly warmer climate that produces as many winners (on the Siberian, Northern European, and Canadian prairies) as losers (in already-hot regions that become hotter and dryer), and that the Gulf Stream continues warming Europe, the monsoons are not disrupted, and that the Ganges delta is not drowned by stronger typhoons. Or perhaps we are hoping that the "we" whose interests are taken into account when important decisions are made will not be the "we" who are among the big losers. Perhaps we will continue to close our eyes.

But our chances of ensuring a more sustainable world would be higher if we had not allowed ourselves to be blinded for the past decade by the combination of the public-relations stunt known as the Kyoto Treaty and the idiocy-as-usual known as the Bush administration.

The Relative Unimportance of Global Warming

By Bjørn Lomborg

Bjørn Lomborg

Global warming has become the preeminent concern of our time. Many governments and most campaigners meeting in Montreal now through December 9 tell us that dealing with global warming should be our first priority. Negotiating a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, they argue, requires that we seek even deeper cuts in the pollution that causes global warming.

But they are wrong about our priorities, and they are advocating an inefficient remedy. As a result, we risk losing sight of tackling the world's most important problems first, as well as missing the best long-term approach to global warming.

To be sure, global warming is real, and it is caused by CO2. The trouble is that today's best climate models show that immediate action will do little good. The Kyoto Protocol will cut CO2 emissions from industrialized countries by 30% below what it would have been in 2010 and by 50% in 2050. Yet, even if everyone (including the United States) lived up to the protocol's rules, and stuck to it throughout the century, the change would be almost immeasurable, postponing warming for just six years in 2100.

Likewise, the economic models tell us that the cost would be substantial - at least $150 billion a year. In comparison, the United Nations estimates that half that amount could permanently solve all of the world's major problems: it could ensure clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education for every single person in the world, now.

Global warming will mainly harm developing countries, because they are poorer and therefore more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, even the most pessimistic forecasts from the UN project that by 2100 the average person in developing countries will be richer than the average person in developed countries is now.

So early action on global warming is basically a costly way of doing very little for much richer people far in the future. We need to ask ourselves if this should, in fact, be our first priority.

Of course, in the best of all worlds, we would not need to prioritize. We could do all good things. We would have enough resources to win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water, broaden educational access, and halt climate change. But we don't. So we have to ask the hard question: if we can't do it all, what should we do first?

Some of the world's top economists - including four Nobel laureates - answered this question at the Copenhagen Consensus in 2004, listing all major policies for improving the world according to priority. They found that dealing with HIV/AIDS, hunger, free trade, and malaria were the world's top priorities. This was where we could do the most good for our money.

On the other hand, the experts rated immediate responses to climate change at the bottom of the world's priorities. Indeed, the panel called these ventures - including the Kyoto Protocol - "bad projects," simply because they cost more than the good that they do.

The Copenhagen Consensus gives us great hope because it shows us that there are so many good things that we can do. For $27 billion, we could prevent 28 million people from getting HIV. For $12 billion we could cut malaria cases by more than a billion a year. Instead of helping richer people inefficiently far into the future, we can do immense good right now.

This does not mean losing sight of the need to tackle climate change. But the Kyoto approach focuses on early cuts, which are expensive and do little good. Instead, we should be concentrating on investments in making energy without CO2 emissions viable for our descendants. This would be much cheaper and ultimately much more effective in dealing with global warming. The US and Britain have begun to tout this message.

The parties in Montreal should rule out more Kyoto-style immediate cuts, which would be prohibitively expensive, do little good, and cause many nations to abandon the entire process. Rather, they should suggest a treaty binding every nation to spend, say, 0.1% of GDP on research and development of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies.

This approach would be five times cheaper than Kyoto and many more times cheaper than a Kyoto II. It would involve all nations, with richer nations naturally paying the larger share, and perhaps developing nations being phased in. It would let each country focus on its own future vision of energy needs, whether that means concentrating on renewable sources, nuclear energy, fusion, carbon storage, or searching for new and more exotic opportunities.

Such a massive global research effort would also have potentially huge innovation spin-offs. In the long run, such actions are likely to make a much greater impact on global warming than Kyoto-style responses.

In a world with limited resources, where we struggle to solve just some of the challenges that we face, caring more about some issues means caring less about others. We have a moral obligation to do the most good that we possibly can with what we spend, so we must focus our resources where we can accomplish the most first.

By this standard, global warming doesn't come close. Rather than investing hundreds of billions of dollars in short-term, ineffective cuts in CO2 emissions, we should be investing tens of billions in research, leaving our children and grandchildren with cheaper and cleaner energy.


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re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

A brief note on Lombok's piece: $150Bn isn't a lot (but on the other hand it's a serious underestimate) - the world could spend that money to relieve poverty tomorrow and hardly notice it. It is a furphy to suggest that any expenditure on climate change is a choice that stops that one happening as well.

Meantime the costs of not doing anything mount higher - far higher than the piddling amounts the Copenhagen travesty wasted time on. What's going to be the cost of moving most of the world's population and almost all its major cities above the new sea level, Bjørn?

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

A Mills: "The question is, is it as a result of man's actions or is it occurring naturally?", which begs another question. How long can we wait to find out before man-made warming, if that is the determined cause, has irretrievably damaged the planet?

Lomborg's point on competing priorities is well made, but ignores another looming problem: the carrying capacity of the planet. If we were to spend the $12 billion and eradicate malaria (and of course, from a purely humanitarian perspective, this relief of suffering would be most desirable), we also have to feed and clothe those extra billion (times how many years?) people and their future progeny who might have died from malaria. Surely the consequences of this, emission-wise and otherwise, have to be considered along with the humanitarian issue.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of some sort of evolutionary 'survival of the fittest' scenario where the consequences of increasing human civilisation and industrialisation will reduce the planetary population to a sustainable level?

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

The climate appears more erratic. The question is, is it as a result of man's actions or is it occurring naturally?

I would recommend Aubrey Manning to anyone on this topic. The man seems objective and has some very interesting things to say about the Carbon Cycle and the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the earth's history.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

In yesterday's The Daily Briefing, item 3 noted the report in the Washington Post on the climate change meeting and listed two articles from The Independent including one by Nobel prize winning economist Joseph E Stiglitz on PNG's and Costa Rica's offer to 'pay us to save the world'.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

A Mills, Raglar, Aubrey Manning is not a climate scientist, he's a natural historian. He is therefore no more qualified to question the carbon record than John Howard is. This is probably why he is flat wrong and Raglar was right. Here's the latest from last Friday's New Scientist, Record ice core reveals Earth's ancient atmosphere:

The longest ice-core record of climate history ever obtained has hugely extended the detailed history of Earth's atmosphere, and shows that levels of greenhouse gases really do march in lockstep with changes in temperature.

The frozen record of the Earth's atmosphere is 3270 metres long and covers the last 650,000 years – 50% longer than before. It was obtained from the tiny air bubbles trapped in a deep ice core from Antarctica.

The tight coupling between temperatures and the greenhouse gas levels revealed by the core matches the predictions from climate models used to forecast future global warming. It also bears some good news: the warm interglacial periods between ice ages can last a long time, contrary to the view that we may already be due for the onset of the next ice age.

The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) team has spent years drilling the ice core in Antarctica's Ice Dome Concordia. They had previously analysed its record of global temperatures, but have just completed the detailed analysis of the trapped air. The bubbles record how the planet’s atmosphere changed over six ice ages and the warmer periods in between. But during all that time, the atmosphere has never had anywhere near the levels of greenhouse gases seen today.

Original reference and (much) more detail in Science (subscription needed).

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

Raglar, take a look at Manning and you'll soon realise that what you read about CO2 is garbage.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

I remember in the 1970's some scientists saying that we had reached the point of no return and if nothing was done then, nothing we did further down the track would change anything, just make the effects less drastic. Those same scientists said that drastic changes would start occurring in the first decade of the 21st century, causing wide spread devastation.

I have also read in the last week or so of the new ice core sample from the antarctic that showed climate back to about 250000 years ago. It showed that we have a much higher concentration of Co2 now, than at any time since.

Where I live at the bottom of Tas, we can really see changes. Our climate has really changed in the last 5 years. I spend a lot of time at and around the sea and we are experiencing very weird sea patterns and tidal changes, the old fishermen say they have never seen anything like it.

So it would be right to say that this may be nature about to rid itself of the majority of the disease that is trying to kill it, humans. Not a nice thought, but a logical one considering the depletion of rational within societies worldwide, something seem to be pushing us over the brink. Maybe this living planet that we inhabit, has more brains and control over us that we have over ourselves, after all don't we humans destroy anything that is inferior to us, if it annoys us.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

... and joining in the "is it man-made" ...

The evidence for it being man-made is completely overwhelming. Ruddiman suggests that the only reason we aren't in an ice-age now is because we started altering the climate about 8,000 years ago.

But actually it doesn't matter that much if it is natural. It has been known since the century before last that the greenhouse gases add to global warming. If the underlying trend is up anyway, then the pressure is on us even more to try not to add to that trend, because the potential impacts are so huge. It won't be any consolation to the poor flooded out of Bangladesh or those starving now in the Sahel because the warming of the Indian Ocean has stopped their monsoons to tell them that we did nothing because hey, it was going to happen anyway - still less so to tell them we spent the money on other things (such as wars) instead.

To return to Lombok's ludicruous worries about $150Bn. The world is going to spend some trillions of dollars on energy infrastructure over the next few decades anyway: we could spend it on oil refineries and coal-fired power stations, or we could spend some of it on more sensible things - including Making Poverty History as well as on efforts to reduce our impact on the planet.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

David Roffey, correct about Manning, he is as you say. He is also equiped (as are most school children) to obtain the figures on the the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and demonstrated (going back 750 million years) that the leve of CO2 in the atmosphere is the lowest now that it has ever been.

You miss the point. Manning does not have an agenda like most of those who speak about this issue. The real benefit of Manning is his description of the carbon cycle and how it all works. Once you understand the carbon cycle and the ice-age cycle you'll sleep a little better about man's actions and sleep a little less when you understand what we will go through over the next 1 - 2 thousand years.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

DeLong and Lomberg continue to fret with the limited view of the technical economists obsession with inputs and outputs. They both are listening to the siren song of the rationalist economist, with some more facts we will be able to know, we can then do some nifty analysis and hey presto here is a workable solution. Both researchers are correct but wrong, they do not care to understand that when you count all the inputs and outputs (As a GPI measurement not a GDP measurement does) then you arrive at a very different outcome. They are both correct in saying that climate change is real, they are wrong about managability, this would have to be the ultimate piece of folly of our current mindset.

The science is in, it's not just carbon, it's not just warming, it's those factors plus loss of habitat, loss of species, pollution and the demands we make as a biomass on the earths resources. This is a very slow moving but quite deadly drama we are caught in the midst of. Sixth extinction seems a very apt description.

Raglar, the GPI shows that by every measure we have been eating into our environmental, social and resource capital at a rate equal to about the rate of GDP over the past twenty to thirty years, the cross over occured about 1975, so the doomsayers were correct we have been on a downward trajectory with our current industrial economic models.

I agree with you about your local observations. I have noted the same thing in Northern Australia where ever I have gone or been, declining rainfall, changing weather patterns and weird meterology. As a professional aviator I pay particular attention to the weather, like a seaman I make my living in it. Frankly anyone who reckons this is all part of natural cycle is talking crap. I am now back in NSW same pattern of unusual weather continues.

I do not believe we can change the weather, we can change the variables that help make the weather, but it is the Canute Problem, we can only adapt. How well we adapt is not particular promising given our past behaviour (on a historical basis).

If we were prepared to look hard and long at the past you find example after example where societies and civilisations have failed because they buggered their environment or the climate changed. We probably are doing the former and experiencing the latter. There are going to be some big losers and some small winners, but as a biological earth bound species we cannot avoid the impact of the immense change climate change underway and the immense impact we have had on the world, it is a global problem now.

The big clue from GPI analsis is that just when we finally get the message and look in the cupboard, the cupboard will be bare.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

I don't know much about Manning, didn't he say that the earth was indestructible and can sustain us at our present rate for eons.

A. Mills, “the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and demonstrated (going back 750 million years) that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is the lowest now that it has ever been.” Could you point me in the right direction for verification of your statement. Presently I would accept the evidence of the current climate changes, the coming results of antarctic ice core analysis down to 650000 years to either verify or discount that we have 27% more Co2 now than in the previous 250,000 years.

I would also accept the scientific findings that Co2 levels in the deep oceans of the world have increased over the last few years. I can understand how those with either vested interests, denial or fear would blinker themselves to the growing reality that is surrounding us. We that work with the sea, are seeing the same things as Mike Hart sees as he works within the skies. When you live in an area that has had constant tidal patterns for more than 150 years, and in the last 3 years has seen tides that don't go out, tides that don't rise, tides that come and go within hours. One tide in a day then many tides a day. It is not constant, nor has a pattern, but the swells now tend to come from many directions instead of the normal south, southwesterly and some times from different directions at the same time..

But I don't see any sign of officialdom doing anything in the foreseeable future. So I would say that anyone that has any sense will be making plans to get through the infrastructure collapses that will and are occurring with our growing violent weather. Jupiter has storms that last for years, therefore it is not beyond the realms of probability to feel that our climate changes may bring storms that last for weeks or months. Think about it when the power goes of in your city, we have seen an example in the US of what may be to coming to a place near you, especially for our east coast.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

A. Mills: "...the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is the lowest now that it has ever been."


"When William Shakespeare took a breath, 280 molecules out of every million entering his lungs were carbon dioxide. Each time you draw breath today, 380 molecules per million are carbon dioxide. That portion climbs about two molecules every year." - Scientific American, July 2005, page 39.

And, using the term "CO2 levels, atmosphere" in a Google search, I easily found the following, all in the first 10 search results:

"Examination of the annual CO2 concentrations show a long-term average increase of 1.44 ppm (or parts per million) per year." (see here).

"The graph shows a 17% increase in carbon dioxide concentrations from 1959 (about 316 parts per million by volume) to 2000 (about 369 ppmv)." (a href="http://www.exploratorium.edu/climate/atmosphere/data3.html">see here).

According to David Hofmann, director of the NOAA Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Centre in the US (hardly an incompetent or ideologically biased source), the long-term average rate of increase in the levels atmospheric CO2 is "...about 1.5 ppm per year..." (see here).

"The longest ice core record comes from East Antarctica, where ice has been sampled to an age of 650,000 years before the present. During this time, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has varied between 180–210 µL/L during ice ages, increasing to 280–300 µL/L during warmer interglacials." (See also accompanying graph.)

"Although contemporary CO2 concentrations were exceeded during earlier geological epochs, present carbon dioxide levels are likely higher now than at any time during the past 20 million years." see here).

Most "school children" could have easily found and understood this information.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

S Kirby, go here for a quick rundown.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

Editor, thanks for converting the plain text format web addresses I provided into active hyperlinks. It is not the first time you have indulged me so, and with not one jot of complaint. I must and will learn how to do it myself for next time, as per Webdiary discussion guidelines.

Given the increasing numbers of new internet users, perhaps it might also be worth highlighting this particular issue more prominently in the sidebar. (No excuse for not reading and following Webdiary discussion guidelines, I know, but...)

At the risk of pushing my luck, and because it is now out of my hands, I think one address didn't convert properly:

"The graph shows a 17% increase in carbon dioxide concentrations from 1959 (about 316 parts per million by volume) to 2000 (about 369 ppmv)." See see here.

Apologies and Thanks.

Margo: Hi SK. It will be easy to do links on the permanent site.

re: Climate change: blindingly obvious or relatively unimportan

Dee Bayliss, thanks for the link.

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