A Pragmatic Approach to Climate Change


31 October 2013

IPCC Report

Climate change and its attendant effects remain a core issue — if not the core issue — in the zoomed out view of Sustainability. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a Summary for Policy Makers,[1] which reports on research to date and projects future effects on our planet. Further, the Summary attaches levels of confidence to its projections. The effects as projected would have obvious and dire consequences for humanity, especially in the mid- and latter years of this century.

The Summary is not an ordinary scientific report, in as much as it is intended to convince policy makers globally of an immediate necessity for substantial reductions in certain atmospheric emissions, especially carbon dioxide (CO2). “To convince policy makers globally” is no simple matter, since “globally” implies coordinated responses from governments in some 200 nations with very different situations and priorities, and since “policy makers”, at least in democracies, require the consent of the governed.

The problem of coordinated response is made even more difficult by several circumstances:

The IPCC impaired its own credibility several years ago when internal e-mails were leaked that suggested that data were being manipulated, in an un-scientific manner. Further, several specific projections made in earlier IPCC reports failed to materialize.

Much has been made in the press of a high level of consensus among climate scientists, as evidenced by the large majority of peer reviewed articles that support, rather than deny, human induced climate change. However, a recent article in The Economist [2] challenges the significance of consensus among scientists as evidenced in peer reviewed publications. The article maintains that only about 14% of articles accepted for publication in scientific journals generally report negative results.

The Summary acknowledges the inconvenient fact that earth’s mean surface temperature has not increased in this century to date.

In the U.S., and perhaps elsewhere, attitudes towards climate change have become politically polarized. Credible surveys indicate that individuals who associate themselves with the political left tend to regard climate change is a scientifically demonstrated reality; while those on the political right tend to regard climate change as fantasy at best, outright fraud at worst.

The Butterfly Effect

So, on the one hand, there is a substantial body of scientific research that supports the concept of human – induced climate change. On the other hand, there are bases for what Nate Silver called “healthy skepticism”.[3]  Neither view is crazy or even irrational. “Healthy skepticism” applies especially to specific projections into the future. It needs be remembered that the global climate is a vast and complex system. Causal relationships within such a system are dynamic and interactive. Corresponding effects may be non-linear. The so-called Butterfly Effect may not be quite as far-fetched as it sounds.

Dreamstime - Butterfly
“It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world” – The Butterfly Effect [4]

Importance and Urgency

Dr. Covey [5] taught a multitude of us that urgency trumps importance in determining what actually gets done. The scientific research behind human induced climate change stresses the importance of taking actions to dramatically reduce emissions to the atmosphere (especially CO2 emissions). It appears to me that policy makers will find it easier to convince their constituents of the importance of climate change than of an urgent need for an immediate and expensive globally coordinated program of emissions reductions.

In the event that the globally coordinated program of emissions reductions turns out to be a muddle (imagine that), there is an alternative based in pragmatism and self-interest. Any large scale reduction in global CO2 emissions will require a corresponding reduction in power generation from fossil fuels. In this country, and even more so in Europe, significant reductions are already in evidence.

For the U.S., a recent report from the Energy Information Agency [6] provides these graphs:

EIA - CO2 Emissions Graph

The upper graph indicates that energy-related CO2 emissions are down about 12% from their peak in 2007, and the rate of decline appears to be accelerating. The 2012 emissions are about the same as those in 1994.

EIA Carbon Intensity Graph

The lower graph, which shows reduction in energy intensity — the amount of energy consumed to produce a dollar of GDP — is even more dramatic. Energy intensity has been declining for decades. However, the 6.5% reduction in 2012 is a record

It appears to me that technology (nudged by government [7]) plus pragmatism — saving money — is working, and that the pace of doing so is increasing. And it appears to me that the pace of innovation is also increasing. Perhaps the world’s policy makers will actually arrive at a viable emissions reduction program. Personally, I doubt it. In any case the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire [8] provides a rational and pragmatic blueprint for drastic emissions reductions, applicable in this country and abroad.

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington

: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published on Wednesday evenings.

Butterfly image via www.dreamstime.com

[1] IPCC’s Summary for Policy Makers is available for download at: http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WGIAR5-SPM_Approved27Sep2013.pdf

[2] “How Science Goes Wrong”, The Economist, October 19th – 25th 2013 issue, page 13

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, Penguin Press (2012), page 370f

The quotation is from the beginning of the movie The Butterfly Effect. The quotation owes precedence to the light – hearted title of a scientific paper by Edward Lorenz, one of the pioneers in Chaos Theory.

Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press (2004)

U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions 2012, Energy Information Agency (U.S. Department of Energy), released October 2013. Available for download at: http://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/

 “nudged by government” refers to actions such as automobile fuel efficiency standards, household appliance energy efficiency standards and power plant emissions standards, among others.

Amory Lovins and the RMI staff, Reinventing Fire, Chelsea Green publishing (2011)