Fun with Global Warming

UPDATE: Moved to the top of the page because I didn”t want it pushed down too far before my two readers get a chance to see it amongst the flurry of posting I seem to be motivated to do.

Martin Wolf discusses global warming in the Financial Times though it”s behind the subscription wall so I can”t link it and makes some interesting observations with some interesting questions (props: Mark Thoma over at Economist”s View though he probably has a different take on global warming than I do. However, you should be able to reach the article from there, I had it up but apparently it”s a one time deal).

First of all, Wolf shows evidence that global warming is in fact happening. Great. Most people when shown the evidence will agree that the global temperature is rising, most likely attributable to increased C02 gas emissions among other causes. Of course, most of the quoted results are on the tail end of the possibility spectrum but bear with me for a minute. Let”s take things at face value and assume that Wolf at least has the data right and the world”s temperature is going up. Wolf then says the following:

    I have no intellectual difficulty with this argument, since it is grounded in scientific reasoning. Nevertheless, it raises several further questions. First, how certain are we of the magnitudes of potential warming? Second, how far is the warming itself a “bad thing”? Third, is there any chance that we will, in practice, find a workable way of dealing with it? Finally, what can and should we do about it, while taking into account both the benefits and the costs of any actions?

I too have no intellectual difficulty with the fact that the world”s temperature is going up. I have the same types of questions related to the topic. Let”s look at Wolf”s answer to each in turn.

    The answer to the first of these questions is that there remain substantial uncertainties in long-run climate forecasts, as can be seen from the ranges I have given. … But the forecast direction of change at least seems plausible…

So uncertanties remain. Yup, I”m ok with that. Though I think there”s a little sleight-of-hand going on here with that whole “ranges I have given” party. Everything he quotes is on the upper extreme of temperature increases when he gets down to the nitty gritty. But laying that aside, we”re still all on the same page. We don”t really have an answer to question #1. What can we say about question #2 then? Wolf says this:

    The answer to the second question is trickier… It is, after all, not obvious why a warmer world would be such a bad thing. … There would certainly be beneficiaries of global warming, perhaps very many of them. But sudden changes impose huge costs of adjustment that would include the disappearance of habitats. Life would survive this… But the adjustment would surely prove disruptive, with an overwhelming probability that the poor would suffer most…

Is it really trickier? Or is it just still uncertain? Seems to me that if it”s not obvious that a warmer world would be bad, we must still harbor some uncertainties. Both questions are either tricky or they aren”t depending on how you view uncertainties. Me, I”m ok with them but Wolf, I”m not so sure.

Regardless he again uses the negative extreme to illustrate how bad global warming could be even though he admits we don”t really know. Hell, we can”t accurately forecast the weather in 10 days in Dallas, how can we be so sure global warming in 50 years is going to mean “huge costs of adjustment that would include the disappearance of habitats”? The real answer is that if we don”t know the answer to the first question, we certainly can”t possibly predict the answer to the second. (As an aside, bringing up the poor in this whole deal is disingenuous. The poor suffer most in almost every situation and claiming that doing something about global warming will implicitly help the poor is silly. We could fix Social Security and that would help the poor far more than making policy decisions based on global warming. But that”s just me talking out loud again.)

So in the end, we don”t have answers to either question and Wolf says as much. But still we plug on, dutiful and resilient to the end. Wolf then says:

    Now we come to the hard questions – what will, can and should be done? The answer to the first is already quite clear: next to nothing.

Actually, the second and third questions there are tangentially related while the first is quite different and is in fact dependant on the answers to the last two. That”s because the first question is based on what actually will happen, something that is in fact measurable in scientific terms. His assumed answer to the first actually is no answer at all, at least not to that question. His answer actually is for the question “What ARE we doing?” (Welcome to Double Jeopardy where the points double and the scores can REALLY change!) which isn”t particularly helpful if you ask me.

His answer to the “what will we do” question should in fact be tied closely to the answers to the “what can and what should we do?” and yet he answers them completely out of turn. This is rather odd. I find the answers to these latter questions related to the very first two in this whole mess way back in the beginning in some senses and completely devoid of meaning in others.

If we can”t say that we are very certain that the global warming we are measuring is way outside the bounds of normal temperature fluctuations and if we can”t say that a warmer little globe would definitely be a bad thing, then how can we possibly, honestly with any certainty at all say we should definitely do something about global warming?

This is the problem I have with most doomsayers and glib comments on global warming. The truth of the matter is we don”t know and we won”t for quite some time. In the meantime, because I”m all about not leaving you, my dear 2 readers, completely hanging, here”s what I think we SHOULD be doing: extending tax incentives to all buyers of hybrid vehicles, not just the first 60K per manufacturer (don”t even get me started on Congress screwing that up, online gambling is enough of a rant for one night); incentivizing the market to come up with more efficient forms of transportation; implementing a sizable (say $10,000) chartered plane tax (your average charter burns enough gas on a one way trip from LA to Washington to power a Hummer H2 for a year); tax bottled water (people forget that it takes oil to produce plastic not to mention all the gas used by trucks delivering water, a resource that comes out of ever tap on most days – I always giggle when I see someone spouting off about global warming with a bottle of water nearby. Ok it happened once, but still, I giggled); and kill subsidies on ethanol and switch them all en masse to switchgrass. These things reduce emissions which most all of us can agree is A GOOD THING because at the very least, it will increase air quality unrelated to its effects on global warming.
Those are just the ones I thought up in 2 minutes. I”m guessing Wolf may have other, more regulatory ideas but I think almost any attempt to head global warming off at the pass before we even know it”s a problem are silly.

That”s my 30 minute global warming sermon. Discuss.