A few recent stories have highlighted the next great climate change controversy: what to do about global warming. Some of this comes from a pair of National Academy reports released recently. The fact stories are turning more this way is encouraging but reveals a new set of challenges. There are at least three corners to this battle (with, as usual, some in between extremes): do nothing until we know certainly what will happen, work on mitigation but not reducing emissions, or reduce emissions but do nothing for mitigation.
The do-nothing crowd is increasingly being labeled as “climate deniers,” and while that may seem extreme, they are a significant component of the political circus these days and can choose to align with others on particular actions. Basically this is the group that feels that until we “settle the science” we shouldn’t be spending money on doing anything. (Of course, in society we often spend money on things we aren’t sure will happen, like insurance on a house burning down or building codes to protect against earthquakes–it is all about balancing risks and costs. That is a separate argument).
Mitigation folks are basically suggesting that it might well be cheaper and easier to do something to fix the effects of climate change in some way than to shift our whole energy infrastructure. The mitigation crowd is increasingly looking like an escape valve for Republicans and coal-state Democrats to “do something” about climate change: you don’t have to worry about why the climate is changing, just say yes, it is, and we’ll now do carbon sequestration or pump sulfates into the air or put solar shields in orbit or build big seawalls and A/C units. The mantra here is, we don’t have to suffer wholesale change to our economy for this.
The reduce emissions folks are saying, look, we are the ones throwing the climate system out of balance, the most intelligent thing to do is to stop doing what we’ve been doing that is causing this, which is burning fossil fuels. This has generally been the view of most in the climate science community. You don’t fix a broken clutch on a car by staying in first gear and driving on all the back roads, you undo the damage to the clutch. But there is a tone of self-flagellation to some reduce emissions advocates: we should suffer a lower standard of living because we are living in sin today; seeking an easy out is cheating us of the punishment we deserve.
How do these all fit together?
What is interesting is the response of some to the National Academy report (which, by the ways, says that emissions reduction is best strategy, that carbon sequestration might be implemented but looks highly unlikely economically and that albedo changes–like sulfates in the air–looks to be very risky and would require considerable study): the response is “no way do we allow for considering any mitigation.” Doing so, in this view, sends the message that no effort should be made to reduce emissions and so of course nothing will be done. This is misguided, as it then makes allies of the do-nothing crowd with the geoengineering crowd to blockade emissions reduction while making allies of the do-nothing and reduce-emissions crowd to block geoengineering. The only winner would be the do-nothing crowd, arguably the worst of all options.
There is a simple way out of this mess, which presumably means there is no chance of realizing it: Carbon tax and carbon credits, with a small tax break for geoengineering research. A real carbon tax is the way to get the most carbon production offline at the cheapest cost. Carbon credits are the only way to jump-start any realistic carbon capture technology: without a positive incentive, pilot projects have no real future. The main objections to carbon sequestration right now are twofold: cost and long-term efficiency. Both can be addressed with carbon credits. If, as the National Academy estimates, it will cost more to make fossil fuels + capture the carbon from them than it costs to bring renewable power online, then the marketplace will bring renewables online. Credits can be accounted to include any long term loss from reservoirs. If, by some technological innovation, carbon capture becomes breathtakingly cheap and efficient, the market will invest in that. Totally foreclosing on carbon capture is probably unwise given, for instance, the sudden ability to derive gas and oil at economic prices from shale deposits previously considered inaccessible; we don’t know if some breakthrough is out there waiting for the economics to work for it. Because true geoengineering would have to be subject to international treaty and government approval, we can’t give it carte blanche the same way as carbon capture, so the mot thrown to that crowd would have to be some encouragement to at least explore that route. And, if the carbon taxes and credits fail, we will be stuck looking at those options, so forbidding exploration of them would be unwise.
Now you don’t want any geoengineering credits to be too generous (after all, the oil and coal companies are the ones who benefit from such research, and they have the profits and income to support such research on their own) and politically you probably have to break in carbon taxes gradually (though the past 6 months would have been a perfect time to have dropped them in at full force). But such a proposal would unite the reduce emissions and geoengineering crowds, which at least would get us moving forward. Of course, it is this kind of bipartisan compromise that we haven’t seen in a long long time.
Is this becoming a Prisoner’s Dilemma kind of situation, where the good solution is impossible to achieve because each side suspects the other will sell them out? Let’s hope not.