I know that I promised a post on the continuing debate between Judith Curry and Gavin Schmidt, but I am travelling, and away from base. All being well, that post will appear at the end of the week. Today I am offering a glimpse at a current article in the Wall Street Journal about ‘climate change’ which you can read in full here. Its title is ‘The Climate Change Agenda Needs to Adapt to Reality’, it was written by Edward P. Lazear, and the reality it refers to is embodied in the title of my post: mitigation is not working, and is not going to work, and human societies need to take adaptation to extreme weather events quite seriously. Since I have been saying the same for some years I feel somewhat chuffed.
I ought to make clear the the WSJ, unlike the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (that city possesses 97 other newspapers in many languages), is not a diehard supporter of the orthodoxy in climate science, and it has been ticked off by the orthodox leaders for publishing ‘error-filled’ and ‘misleading’ material. Some say that it has this attitude because Rupert Murdoch owns it. Maybe that’s the reason. Maybe it sees the billions going out to combat climate change as deleterious to good business practice.
Anyway, I liked a big chunk of this article, which seems common sense to me. The author is talking about the various options for mitigation, and how ineffective they are. You can replace American examples with Australian — the point is the same.
Feel-good actions won’t make a dent. For example, it is fashionable to favor locally grown produce in part to reduce the carbon from transport. But transport from producer to retailer is a trivial part—less than 5%—of energy used in the life cycle of produce. Almost all of the emitted carbon is associated with production, which means that growing a tomato bound for Chicago in an Illinois winter hothouse rather than outdoors in Florida is not a carbon-saving strategy.
How about using public transportation, driving carbon-friendly vehicles, living closer to work, or biking instead of driving? Suppose that the U.S. completely eliminated carbon emissions from transportation over the next four years. The IEA data show that world emissions would still rise because the reduction from the U.S. would not cover the increase in carbon emitted by the rest of the world. Without world-wide changes, there is limited gain, even from dramatic action by the world’s second-largest emitter.
The economics also work against a major transformation in the technology of producing power, either mobile or stationary. Coal is cheap. Natural gas is becoming even cheaper, but its carbon emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, are still half those of coal and three-quarters those of gasoline per unit of energy produced. Although a switch to natural gas for many power uses would help, and accounts for recent drops in U.S. emissions, it cannot change the carbon arithmetic enough to prevent the world from exceeding “safe” levels.
Unless an economical low-carbon source of power generation becomes available, it is unrealistic to expect that countries, especially developing ones, will accede to any demand to produce power in a higher-cost manner merely to emit less carbon.
Very high carbon taxes or severely restrictive cap-and-trade policies might provide substantial motivation to conserve. These could reduce carbon-intensive consumption and motivate a switch to lower carbon power sources like nuclear. But these actions are undesirable because of their adverse effects on the economy. Australia instituted a $22 per ton carbon-dioxide tax in 2012. It repealed the highly unpopular measure this July, mainly because of its economic costs and perceived ineffectiveness. Research and development are worthwhile. But they can be wasteful and ineffective—recall Solyndra [a US company making solar panels that received half a billion dollars form the Obama administration in the form of a government-backed loan, and then went bankrupt — DA] and if R&D is to be government sponsored, all developed countries should participate in funding.
Given these limitations on mitigating carbon emissions, it is important to study how to adapt to climate change. There are myriad possibilities for adaptation, including the obvious, like building dikes in low-lying areas, and planting heat-tolerant crops and trees in cities. Some adaptation will occur naturally. For example, economic incentives will induce people who are setting up new households, businesses and farms to move to areas that are less severely harmed by warming temperatures.
Organizations like the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have pushed adaptation as a complementary strategy to mitigation. Still, adaptation has received little attention by the Obama administration and is hardly mentioned in public discussion. Proponents of strong anti-carbon measures seem to believe that even considering an alternative to mitigation will weaken the public’s willingness to bear the costs of mitigation.
Who wrote this? Here is the footer describing him: Mr. Lazear, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (2006-09) and head of the White House committee on the economics of climate change (2007-08), is a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and a Hoover Institution fellow. The President referred to here is of course Mr Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.