Monday, April 23, 2007


A recent poll suggests that many Americans still aren't sure about whether there is a link between human activity and climate change. As Joel Makower states in his blog today:

"a poll conducted by market research company Vizu Corp. and Green Home found that people are convinced the global warming phenomenon exists (70%) and is important (74%). However, the public remains unsure of the cause of global warming and is debating whether the culprit is human behavior (26%), natural climate cycles (26%), or some combination of the two (25%)."

A colleague wrote me over the weekend asking about what I thought established this link. Evidently, as the poll reveals, this person is not alone in asking this question! Here is part of my response:

"I think there is good evidence of a link between human activity and global warming, but I am less sure that that means there are compelling reasons to make it the TOP priority for global economic policy (or even environmental policy). Those are different questions and that seems to get glossed over these days.

Here are two summaries of the science from what I believe are objective groups.
First, the Pew Center: and then the National Academies of Science, which issued a joint statement, stating in part: "It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities."

Bjorn Lomborg, who has been a critic of much of the environmental movement's doom and gloom has stated that climate change is caused in part by human activity. He questions, however, if it is the most important challenge facing the earth and how accurate the predictions are for future disaster. This project, enlisting many Nobel prize winners, is called the Copenhagen Consensus. He recently testified to Congress in March, and you can download his testimony at the site: Of course, he has been criticized. But I would say that reading Pew, NAS and Copenhagen would give you a pretty good view of the thinking on this linkage."

So, is climate change the world's biggest problem? I'd say I am closer to Lomborg than Gore on this question.

My first concern is that carbon emissions are not the only environmental problem facing us, and that there are many other sources of environmental pollution for which we have the technology to fix them. Fortunately, many of these solutions also reduce carbon. But I question whether our environmental policy should be carbon monogamous. For example, with Envirofit, our retrofit cleans up a number of nasty emissions: particulates, hydrocarbons, NOx and CO/CO2. CO/CO2 are probably the least harmful of 2-stroke emissions for the people living in these cities... but under Kyoto, we only get "paid" for carbon reductions. That is OK, and will help us clean up these other pollutants as well. But it isn't the carbon that is causing respiratory disease in Asia. So pursuing a more polygamous emissions strategy makes sense to me, and when we get to the strategies like carbon sequestration, I am less sure that they make sense (compared to other investments to reduce pollution or improve global health).

Another concern is that the climate change models don't seem to me to properly model the liklihood of technological solutions, and I am not sure they can. While I don't want to be a "naively optimistic" about this, if you look at the pace of technology change for the past 100 years, I see no reason it is going to decelerate. How could we have predicted what we have in 2007 back in 1907? This doesn't mean we shouldn't start acting on reducing carbon, but that the justification should not be all the "disaster" scenarios that are being postulated for a hundred years from now.

I'd like to see the US take some policy approaches to carbon emissions mitigation, because I think that we need to slow the pace of emissions growth. So, for example, carbon cap and trade, or perhaps a carbon tax. It just seems sensible to not keep dumping more into the atmosphere, since we aren't really sure what it is going to do. We do know that it persists for decades, so as a recent article said, the carbon from Model T's is still up in our atmosphere.

Much of the growth in emissions will be from China and India, and it seems that in order to put some pressure on them, the US needs to get on board. In addition, I think coming up with a carbon reduction policy will get the US to innovate in this area... which will drive more technologies that can reduce carbon emissions and be cleaner, more cost effective sources of energy.

So, yes, climate change is an important issue. Is it the TOP issue? I don't think so. Part of an economy is having scarce resources, and as a society, we need to figure out where to invest/allocate these limited resources. I see Climate Change as a top 10 challenge, but feel that not all of the "answers" being proposed are as cost effective as say, malaria nets, clean water, vaccines, etc. So, if I were King of the World, I would be spending resources in multiple areas, where I saw best chances for payback (in lives saved, nature preserved, etc.). Climate change is not in my top 3... but I am happy it is some people's top 1. That is the basis of policy debate... people with different ideas on what society needs to do.

Lastly, I think many in the environmental movement have an aversion to discussing "mitigation strategies" and that this is a mistake. They would rather send out missives about relocating millions of people from flooding, than talk about sea walls, etc. Beyond the simple stuff, like changing light bulbs and more efficient cars, they seem to think that the only answer is wind and solar and doing with less. I don't buy it. That's why I like Lovins, McDonough, etc. and the view that done right, and designed right, there are many solutions that will in the end be better solutions. They will reduce waste, reduce pollution, and likely reduce carbon emissions. But they are going to come from the innovators, not the environmentalists (though I think there are lots of people who are both!).

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