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Climate change - why is this time different?

Jeanne Boyarsky
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With the latest report, climate change is in the news a lot. I think this is good. It's been in the news before and then quietly drifts away.

Reading that bit action is required *now* gets me wondering. We haven't been good at small change. What hope do we have for being able to do big change?

I feel like things are set up to make change difficult to impossible. We rebuild risky structures in areas that had the problems in the first place full well knowing it will happen again. But then, all areas have problems - earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, etc.

I also feel like it is responding to emergencies. For example, my office building turns off some lights in the summer to save power when Con Edison asks them to. I jokingly refer to this as the power that is wasted the rest of the year. Everything is fine with the lower level of consumption. Same for drought warnings. We waste water on the grass most of the time and it is only considered a problem on rare occasions.


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fred rosenberger
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  16

I think we are very good at ignoring anything that will impact us later, rather than now. Climate change, the deficit, saving for retirement...

We don't want to fix anything that will be a HUGE problem later if it causes a minor inconvenience now. Especially if you are a politician. The people who will suffer in 20 or 50 or 100 years aren't the ones voting for you TODAY. But to fix those problems, you DO have to impose a burden on the people who are voting today.


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Winston Gutkowski
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  22

Jeanne Boyarsky wrote:I feel like things are set up to make change difficult to impossible.

I'm not sure that "set up" is the right term, but I totally agree with you. I also think it's doubly difficult in:
(a) a modern democracy.
(b) a capitalist environment.
because, as fred says, neither politicians nor business are particularly interested in things that don't have an immediate impact.

I find it interesting that many of the "economic miracles" of postwar Europe (c.1945-70) - France and Italy in particular - would be generally considered political "basket-cases". Personally, I reckon that one of the reasons is that when you change governments every twelve months, the actual day-to-day running of the country is left to the pros - ie, the civil service. Contrast that with Britain's performance in the same period, when supposedly "stable" governments with large majorities were the order of the day. Trouble is: Britain went through 4 major "changes of direction" in that time.

I also find it intriguing that some of the most successful "policies" (whether you agree with them or not) appear to be the result of bi-partisan approval and consistent, long-term investment - France's (and now Germany's) TGV system, which generate huge export revenue; France's nuclear programme, which now supplies 75% of the nation's electricity; Japan's heavy and electronics industry, which turned "made in Japan" from cheap and cheerful to mid-priced and well-engineered; and Germany's economy, built on the back of immigrant labour, and lessons learned from the hyperinflation of 1921-24.

The fact is that "eco-" and "green" may be nice buzzwords; but the actual implementation is far from sexy, and involve costs and commitment that are simply not natural for politicians or businesses; and I wonder if China, which I don't think any of us would regard as a paragon of human rights, might not be the model for "most successful eco-nation" because they can (and do) enforce it.

From this article:
"According to the Paris-based agency’s World Energy Outlook, China will add more electricity generating capacity from renewable sources by 2035 than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined."

So, perhaps the answer is totalitarianism. I bloody hope not.

Winston

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Ulf Dittmer
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  64
Jeanne Boyarsky wrote:We haven't been good at small change.

I think some clarification is in order who "we" is. If it refers to the US specifically, then I'd agree because US Congress basically has been getting done just about nothing but stopgap measures for the last few years. If "we" refers to humanity in general, I'd disagree - for example, parliaments in Europe have passed measures that would likely stop global warming before reaching disastrous levels if adopted across the planet (a big if, not just because of the stance of US Congress, but also because big industrialising nations such as India and China are not on board, either).

I feel like things are set up to make change difficult to impossible.

If this refers to the US political system as it currently works, yes. Since a return to long-term thinking and bipartisanship seems unlikely, maybe it's time to start the Frank Underwood in 2016 campaign - he gets things done :-)

... and it is only considered a problem on rare occasions.

True, it's a mindset as well. Conserving resources (energy and others) starts with everyone, though, so even if nothing happens at the national political level, it's not like nothing can be done at all.


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Jeanne Boyarsky
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Ulf,
I was thinking of "we the world." I agree that Europe has done better, but that isn't worldwide as you noticed.
Ulf Dittmer
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  64
A timely report: The full report of the National Climate Assessment provides an in-depth look at climate change impacts on the U.S. It details the multitude of ways climate change is already affecting and will increasingly affect the lives of Americans. While focusing on just one country, a lot of global warming's consequences will affect people elsewhere as well. Education will have to be part of any effort to tackle those consequences; hopefully official reports like this one help with that.
Jeanne Boyarsky
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Nice. And it is good that it focuses on the US. As Ulf noted, Europe already recognizes the importance of this topic. They don't need to be focused on!
Campbell Ritchie
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  28
Jeanne Boyarsky wrote: . . . They don't need to be focused on!
You're the incurable optimist, aren't you, Jeanne. We might know about global warming on this side of the Pond, but I don't think we are doing enough about it.
Jeanne Boyarsky
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Campbell Ritchie wrote:
Jeanne Boyarsky wrote: . . . They don't need to be focused on!
You're the incurable optimist, aren't you, Jeanne. We might know about global warming on this side of the Pond, but I don't think we are doing enough about it.

You're doing more than us...
Jeanne Boyarsky
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Thomas Friedman of the NYtimes was on Colbert tonight. He said it nicely - we have to act as if there is exactly enough time statring now
Campbell Ritchie
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  28
But this sort of thing hardly helps.
Martin Vajsar
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  60

Ulf Dittmer wrote:parliaments in Europe have passed measures that would likely stop global warming before reaching disastrous levels if adopted across the planet

Ulf, could you please provide some examples of such measures?
Jelle Klap
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    7

I think any sort of measures enacted - even globally - will be dwarfed by the effects of unsustainable human population growth. That's the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed, if it's not too late already. It won't be, though.


Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.
Ulf Dittmer
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  64
Martin Vajsar wrote:
parliaments in Europe have passed measures that would likely stop global warming before reaching disastrous levels if adopted across the planet

Ulf, could you please provide some examples of such measures?

The main goal is to limit global warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrialisation levels. The G8 and the EU have signed up to that. Binding EU legislation has been enacted for intermediate goals towards this by 2020, and this is currently being updated for goals to be reached by 2030. How individual countries have (and will) enact it will vary by country.

Jelle Klap wrote:I think any sort of measures enacted - even globally - will be dwarfed by the effects of unsustainable human population growth. That's the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed, if it's not too late already.

Is it unsustainable? There are various projections out there, but the consensus seems to be that growth has slowed already, and population is expected to peak (roughly around 2050, give or take) at somewhere between 9 and 10 billion. While I'm no expert on agriculture, I've seen reports -which I believe to be credible- that this many people can be fed in a sustainable way (although it's not clear that the political will to do this currently exists everywhere where it is needed).
Bert Bates
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    5
Jelle Klap wrote:I think any sort of measures enacted - even globally - will be dwarfed by the effects of unsustainable human population growth. That's the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed, if it's not too late already. It won't be, though.


I agree - a fundamental issue. I think the best way to tackle this problem is to improve education for not-first-world women. Of course better education for all would help, but I think in the not-first-world, we have to stress women's ed. because it tends to get the cultural short end of the stick.


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Chan Ag
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  15
I wonder if the GDP calculation considers the natural resources conserves' indicators ( I guess those would show negative numbers ) while calculating GDP. Otherwise I believe the GDP calculation should never be accurate.
Martin Vajsar
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  60

Ulf Dittmer wrote:
Martin Vajsar wrote:
parliaments in Europe have passed measures that would likely stop global warming before reaching disastrous levels if adopted across the planet

Ulf, could you please provide some examples of such measures?

The main goal is to limit global warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrialisation levels. The G8 and the EU have signed up to that. Binding EU legislation has been enacted for intermediate goals towards this by 2020, and this is currently being updated for goals to be reached by 2030. How individual countries have (and will) enact it will vary by country.

First of all, thanks for these links. I've investigated a bit more into the issue and it seems that EU in general is more successful on this that I've thought before, especially Finland, Sweden and Belgium. I'll try to look more into what exactly these countries did.

I'm still afraid that there are several "buts", though.

1) At least some of the emission reduction happened thanks to some countries (especially new EU members) closing down their heavy industries. Firstly, that didn't happen because of national policies, but despite national policies, which would actually prefer to keep those jobs. What is more important, this just means that these emissions were simply moved to another country that took over the production (mostly China, I'd say). As China goes increasingly nuclear in energy generation, it might (might - I haven't tried to look it up) help a tiny bit in the long run, but that's not definitely a policy which could help achieve the stated goals globally. Europe just happens to look better in the statistics.

Statistics that would capture the CO2 emissions during manufacture and transportation of consumed goods would be much more telling in this regard, but they're probably impossible to collect.

2) The CO2 emissions statistics don't cover the production of other greenhouse gases. EU has adopted policy to heavily support biofuels (to the extent of affecting global food prices, which unfortunately hurt the poor people in the third world as well), and some studies say the net effect even increases the greenhouse effect through the N2O (a 300 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) produced by growing plants for biofuels. Although these studies are disputed, I recall reading somewhere that even the EU commission admitted biofuels are not helping as much as was expected (see also this). If it's true that biofuels help to reduce CO2 emissions, but increase production of other greenhouse gases, the EU wide statistics will again look better than the real state of affairs.

On the other hand, there probably aren't other significant areas where this would be a concern, so the real effect is probably limited. It might still mean that the money invested into biofuels could be utilized better.

3) I strongly believe that the EU energy policy is flawed, in putting its accent on massive subsidies into various renewables and at the same time trying to phase out nuclear energy. Despite massive investments, Germany - the pioneer of renewables - is currently increasing its CO2 emissions, due to the closures of nuclear power plants. I'm not sure whether it is widely known that Germany has built several new lignite power plants, and is building many others, to replace nuclears. The US, on the other hand, without any planning or policy, managed to cut their CO2 emissions significantly just by switching from coal to gas power plants, thanks to the cheap fracking gas. In Europe, the distorted energy market makes even newly built gas power plants uncompetitive and they are being mothballed after construction (I know this happened in my country and in Germany too).

What would be really needed to fully utilize the potential of renewables is massive investments into energy storage technologies. Pumped storage hydro plants are proven and efficient technology (and they would be economically viable, not needing any subsidy at all), but are massive engineering projects and as such face strong opposition from environmental groups. And while there are some promising alternative technologies, they are all still many years away from real applications.

4) Even though the EU has achieved real success, as a whole, in recent years in cutting down carbon emissions, I'm not entirely sure the trend is sustainable (technically, not politically) over the next 20 years. If we happened to start from the lowest hanging fruit, the trend might easily slow down over the course of the years.

While it is true that the EU is the leader in the fight against climate change, I think the current EU policies can't be fully adopted globally, that those parts that could probably wouldn't be enough, and some of the policies adopted by some European countries (namely phasing out nuclear energy) would actually make things worse.
Stephan van Hulst
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  17

I always think this is a difficult topic. I have a bit of a nihilistic point of view on the matter. I was led to believe that climate change was a naturally recurring phenomenon (with on one end high carbon dioxide content and tropical climate, and on the other end high oxygen content and ice ages).

Now, I don't know how much we as a human species affect (positively or negatively) or can affect the cycle, but if my understanding thus far is correct, and if I assume that our actions are insignificant in the long run, then does it even matter?

If it *really is* a periodic occurrence, then there's going to be some point where humanity is, well, screwed. At what point do we stop caring about the future generations? Probably not for our children and grandchildren and maybe great grandchildren. I don't expect many people to form a strong bond with their great great great great grandchildren though.
Ulf Dittmer
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  64
New studies indicate that in some parts of Antarctica, the melting of glaciers is irreversible, resulting in a further rise of sea levels of up to 4 feet over the next 100/200 to 1000 years: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=83672. Those are geological processes that will not be influenced by whatever mankind otherwise does to battle global warming.
Jeanne Boyarsky
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Stephan van Hulst wrote:and if I assume that our actions are insignificant in the long run, then does it even matter?

I agree that in the long run (say a million years), our humanity will be extinct. By that logic, you'll be dead in 100 years. Why do anything? Why wear a seat belt? Or eat vegetables? You'll die eventually after all.

Stephan van Hulst wrote:If it *really is* a periodic occurrence, then there's going to be some point where humanity is, well, screwed. At what point do we stop caring about the future generations? Probably not for our children and grandchildren and maybe great grandchildren. I don't expect many people to form a strong bond with their great great great great grandchildren though.

But it does affect our grandchildren (or children for that matter). Suppose the sea level increases 10 inches instead of 2 inches in the next 100 years. That's our grandchildren's lifetime. And the effects of storms is even sooner.
Jeanne Boyarsky
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Ulf Dittmer wrote:resulting in a further rise of sea levels of up to 4 feet over the next 100/200 to 1000 years:

That's quite the range! Which I think is part of the problem. We have trouble dealing with the concept of 100 years. How do we think about 1000?
Stephan van Hulst
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  17

That's why I think this is a difficult topic. I can't really consolidate my feelings with my thoughts.
Paul Clapham
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If I have it right (it's my son who is one of the experts in this topic, not me), the last time the Earth's temperature rose this rapidly, 95% of the species in the oceans went extinct and there was basically nothing but green slime there for the next 500,000 years. All I can say is, I'm rather embarrassed to be part of this process. However there seems to be little I can do about it.
Ulf Dittmer
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  64
It seems the EPA has sharpened its teeth: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/06/climate-policy. It's sad that, with legislative action on this issue apparently not within reach for a long time- executive action is the only available avenue.
Ulf Dittmer
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  64
And some perspective about industry resistance to the Clean Air Act back in 1970: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/06/industry-and-carbon-limits

Some choice quote:
t is difficult to decide what tone to adopt when speaking of organisations that spew foulness for a living, and then employ their free-speech rights to advocate for their interest in spewing more of it.


... when considering the industry response to stronger greenhouse gas limits, one should keep in perspective that in the past they have been laughably wrong, and that the positions they have advocated would have led to the deaths of millions.
 
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