The Climate Controversy

A few years ago, former Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize for his film An Inconvenient Truth. The film brought wide public awareness to the idea that (a) the average temperature of the world is rising, that (b) rising temperature will generate imminent and potentially catastrophic changes in the global climate, that (c) the increasing temperature is due to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, and (d) that the increased GHG concentrations are due to human activity, especially the combustion of fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal.

Of course, scientific evidence of global warming was brought to the attention of the world’s political leaders well before Al Gore’s film galvanized public attention. Political involvement led to a number of political actions, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which led to the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement), European Union regulations and, in the U.S., California State laws and at least two regional agreements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has undertaken to regulate GHGs as harmful pollutants. All of these are intended to significantly curtail the generation and release of GHGs. Regulations to inhibit GHG emissions primarily affect transportation, electric power generation and industry.

In most cases, compulsory reductions in GHG emissions are viewed as immediate costs to specific parties, incurred in expectation of future benefits to the entire global population. Moreover, the scientific evidence upon which the chain of reasoning outlined above is predicated is just that – evidence, which different people might accept, reject or interpret differently.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center[i] provides insight into the wide differences of views on this matter in the U.S., hence the enormous difficulties with taking political actions to regulate GHGs.

Figure 1 indicates that ~60% to ~80% of those responding in each of the last six years regarded global warming as either “very serious” or “somewhat serious”. However, in none of the survey years did more than 45% respond that global warming was a “very serious” problem. The most recent figures (2011) are “very serious”, 38%; “somewhat serious”, 27%.

The blue line in Figure 2 indicates that ~60% to ~80% of those surveyed in each of the last six years indicated that “solid evidence exists that the Earth is warming”. However, as the red line indicates, only ~34% to ~47% indicated that “solid evidence exists that the Earth is warming because of human activity”. The latest (2011) figures are “solid evidence that the Earth is warming, 63%; “…warming due to human activity, 38%.

To summarize: in none of the years reported (2006 – 2011) did a majority of those surveyed respond that global warming is a “very serious” problem. Likewise, in none of the years reported did a majority of those surveyed respond that “solid evidence exists that the Earth is warming due to human activity”.

The Pew Survey goes on to segment responses in many ways, including by age, by gender, by educational level, by family income and so on). To me, the most interesting segmentation is by political affiliation. A significantly higher percentage of Democrats responded that “solid evidence of global warming exists” and that “global warming is a serious problem” then did Independents, with Republican responses lower yet. The latest “solid evidence exists” figures (2011) were: Democrats – 77% / Independents – 63% / Republicans – 43%. When the data are further segmented, a clear and consistent pattern emerges: the further to the right one’s political leanings, the lower the average response; responses increase uniformly as political views move to the left.

So, except in heavily Democratic U.S. jurisdictions, there is little political support for GHG regulation. However, the business case is considerably different from the political.

I mentioned that “reductions in GHG emissions are viewed as immediate costs to specific parties”. It is increasing clear that GHG emissions reductions are not “immediate costs”, even though they are so viewed. Rather, GHG emissions reductions have been shown to be a route to significant profit enhancement. This is because GHG emissions reductions generally correspond to reduced fuel consumption, hence reduced costs (electrical power prices are driven be the utility’s fuel cost).

In the end, it pays to reduce GHG emissions, regulation or no regulation. The immediate advantage to those who do believe that GHG emissions cause climate change lies in the sense of urgency that view generates. That sense of urgency moves GHG emissions reductions to “Urgent and Important” priority – greatly increasing the probability that action will be taken.

Thoughtful comments are always appreciated. You may need to click on the title of this post to open the comments section.

…  Chuck

  Learn more on GHG emissions reductions through energy utilization improvements in previous posts to this blog, and on the Jera website,

[i] Modest Rise in Number Saying There is “Solid Evidence” of Global Warning, Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, 1 December 2011. Download results and methodology at