Thoughts on Climate Change

Since the brouhaha over Secretary Kerry’s remarks about climate change is continuing, viz. here, I thought I’d repeat my views on the subject.

First, I think there are pressing geopolitical reasons for the United States to reduce its oil consumption. I have thought that for more than 30 years and the reasons for it today are, if anything, more pressing than they were decades ago. Even if all of the other reasons we might want to reduce our carbon emissions turned out to be balloon juice, those geopolitical reasons would constitute enough reason for us to consume less oil. A good place to start might be to trim our subsidies for oil consumption. I’m not a big fan of carbon trading schemes—too much opportunity for gaming the system which, presumably, is why they’re so highly favored in some political circles. After trimming subsidies a good, stiff tax on gasoline consumption would be my second alternative.

The earth as we know it has been around for, what, a billion years or so? (I know that the age of the planet is about 4.5 billion years; it wasn’t much like the earth we know then.) The climate has been changing all of that time and it will continue to change regardless of what we do.

Climate change, regardless of its cause, presents a problem for us. It’s not just the dire conditions under which the planet becomes inhospitable to human life that we need to worry about. 10,000 years ago when the climate changed, people just picked up and moved. That’s a lot harder than it used to be. There are a lot more of us, just about every place already has people in it, and over the last millennium or so we’ve developed something called “robust property rights” that makes it even harder to pick up and move than it was ten or twenty thousand years ago.

Robust property rights are Good Things. They’ve produced more prosperity, happiness, and well-being than just about anything else I can think of. They’re worth preserving. So, climate change, preserving the lives of millions (or billions) of people, robust property rights. You can’t have all three.

My preference for coping with climate change (whatever its cause) would be technological solutions. I’ve posted on any number of them over the years. For one thing, you don’t need every other country in the world’s cooperation to put them into effect.

I don’t think the models of climate change due to human-produced emission of greenhouse gases are robust enough to make detailed predictions of the sort that warmist alarmists are trying to make. See the linked op-ed above for more on that. And, as Glenn Reynolds has pointed out any number of times, it would be a lot easier to take their predictions seriously if they were behaving as though their predictions were true.

The notion that every country and every place in every country should have exactly the same energy needs, ways, and means is baffling to me.

I think that the failure to build more nuclear generators to produce power, a decision made 40 years ago, was an enormous error. I thought so then, too. I have great hopes for very small scale nuclear power generation, especially small scale power generation using thorium as fuel. Note that most of the electrical power that I use was generated by a nuclear power plant. California, however, is a lousy place for nuclear power plants. California is a lousy place for a large population but that’s a completely different subject.

I’m a lot more worried about ocean acidification than I am about climate change.

I’ve rambled on long enough. That should be something to chew on.

23 comments… add one

  • jan

    The most ironically stated part of that WSJ article was the following:

    But who are the Flat Earthers, and who is ignoring the scientific facts? In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief. We are among today’s scientists who are skeptical about the so-called consensus on climate change. Does that make us modern-day Flat Earthers, as Mr. Kerry suggests, or are we among those who defy the prevailing wisdom to declare that the world is round?

    This relates back to those with unweavering mind sets who exude that climate change is such a ‘settled’ science. Back in the day, it would have been the Michael Reynold’s supporting the flat earth consensus, simple because that was the majority opinion of the day.

    Like I said, some time ago, I used to think the democratic party was the one who challenged authority and mainstream ideas. If that was ever true, it’s no longer the case. They have simply become blue prints of whatever their leadership tells them to do.

  • PD Shaw

    A few weeks ago, the gentlemen that designed the _capless_ emissions trading system for leaded gasoline in the early 80s made an appearance in a Marginal Revolution thread to complain that caps create the means by which the environmental and economic benefits of trading systems are eaten up by rent-seekers. That’s something I’ve been trying to get my head around, but its true that the SO2 emissions trading system proposed by Bush I was capless as well. (Its hard to believe back then when the Democrats controlled only one House in Congress that they had the audacity to obstruct the Will of the People)

  • caps create the means by which the environmental and economic benefits of trading systems are eaten up by rent-seekers

    which is why “cap and trade” is so popular in Washington while a carbon tax, the approach favored by most economists, can’t gain any traction. That and that the word “tax” is taboo despite the reality that “cap and trade” can easily be demonstrated to be equivalent to a tax.

  • michael reynolds

    I agree that:

    1) we should cut oil consumption for geopolitical reasons if for no other.

    2) Also agree re: nuke plants, and I should point out that we do have one here in CA, right next to the water which, um, should totally not make anyone think of Fukushima. It’s capable of withstanding a 7.5 in theory. Of course an 8 will crack it open like Humpty Dumpty. Having built a lucrative book series around Diablo Canyon I’m glad it’s there. And somewhat relieved that prevailing winds do not blow south to north.

    3) We should be working hard on tech solutions to climate change on the grounds that even if the 99.99999% of people who actually study the phenomenon using their brains are wrong while Jan, Drew and Sean Hannity turn out to be far-seeing geniuses capable of understanding complex scientific phenomena based on secret messages drawn from their nether orifices, it’s great tech to have. An asteroid smacking the earth, or Yellowstone blowing up, would also have some climactic climatic effects and it would be cool to be able to turn on the big orbiting vacuum cleaner.

  • Zachriel

    McNider & Christy: But who are the Flat Earthers, and who is ignoring the scientific facts? In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief.

    “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” — Carl Sagan

  • It’s capable of withstanding a 7.5 in theory.

    As Yogi Berra once said “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” We’ll know when a 7.5 strikes the area, I guess.

    BTW, Yogi Berra was a St. Louisan. Grew up on The Hill, just a few blocks from where I went to high school. His nephews attended high school with me and I was acquainted with his brother.

  • PD Shaw

    “why “cap and trade” is so popular in Washington”

    I’m wondering why environmentalists, who have been skeptical of “cap and trade” approaches, are so eagerly embracing it here. It could be a political calculation, but I suspect the fundamental problem is that nobody knows what to do. Environmental standards are pretty easy when a casual observer can see that the exhaust flue is damaged or the filter isn’t getting changed regularly.

    The “market” element here is really about feasible technology discovery. If we knew what widget to attach to fix the problem, we would require it and worry about how to pay for it.

    I think much of the “discovery” from the Acid Rain emissions trading program, was that most, if not two-thirds of necessary reductions could be obtained by switching to low sulfur coal, just brought on the national market by low transportation costs, plus improved scrubber technology initiated in the 70s. We also discovered that an artificial market in practice is more expensive than in theory.

  • I’m wondering why environmentalists, who have been skeptical of “cap and trade” approaches, are so eagerly embracing it here.

    The environmental movement in the U. S. isn’t what it is elsewhere. Some environmentalists are poseurs. Some are strategic environmentalists—they figure that environmental reform makes a good attack vehicle against Republicans. Some just want to overthrow the present order of things, not caring much what replaces it. Some, as noted above, already have their cabins in the woods.

  • PD Shaw

    . . . also natural gas . . .

  • PD Shaw

    What I fear about the environmentalist is that they think if they slowly crush the collective windpipe of America, a new technology will emerge. Highly optimistic about the ability of capitalism and technology to solve problems, and there has been reason to be so in the past. But what if the problem is more difficult this time?

  • When I was in college there were two distinct organizations of environmentalists. One, the one to which I belonged, was entirely composed of scientists and engineers. We were actually working on ways to improve things.

    The other group was in to demonstrations, organizing, petitions, and agitation. They didn’t know what they wanted but they wanted it now. I think the second group won.

  • PD Shaw

    The big carbon-sequestration project in Central Illinois seems to be proceeding at glacial speed. One billion dollars in federal stimulus to pump air into the ground.

  • For anyone interested there’s a pretty good article on the sequestration project here. I’m a bit skeptical of the project since sandstone doesn’t sound to me like the best substrate for the purpose. I would think that you would want a substrate that would bind chemically with the sequestered carbon dioxide to “fix” it better.

  • PD Shaw

    @Dave, the distinction used to be between conservationists and preservationists. Conservationism emerged from the scientific surveys of the West and its resources, and developed designs to solve problems of water scarcity and responsible forestry, and were aligned with the early Progressive movement in their rational-optimism. Preservationist were skeptical of the benefits progress and the abilities of rationalism, and felt nature was the great designer. These branches merge into the environmentalist movement in 1970.

    But I really think the environmental movement has become too political. Too much about drawing attention to issues and exaggerating them to raise funding. Too much focused on regulation and litigation. Too comfortable wearing the special interest mantle, meaning that they don’t feel obligated to offer practical solutions (that might send their donors to a rival group) and taking the tough stance. (Something the tea party imitates)

  • TastyBits

    The ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round and had fairly accurately calculated the circumference.

    Nobody wanted to sail with Columbus because his calculations were wrong. They knew the Earth was round, but he estimated the circumference much too short. He was running out of supplies when he found the New World.

    Sailing east to west on the open ocean is scary because there is no way to locate your position.

  • steve

    1) Stuff like this is irritating because it is so ignorant.

    “In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, ”

    It was not a scientific consensus as it was not based upon any science.

    2) I had thought cap and trade popular as it was seen as being politically acceptable by both parties.

    3) I suspect energy prices will need to get a lot higher before you can solve the NIMBY problem.

    Steve

  • Red Barchetta

    I’m a bit skeptical of the project since sandstone doesn’t sound to me like the best substrate for the purpose. I would think that you would want a substrate that would bind chemically with the sequestered carbon dioxide to “fix” it better.

    The only two materially relevant CO2 “fixing” techniques I know of are solution into water, which is where about half of atmospheric CO2 goes, and chemical combination with alkalines (Ca and Mg) to form carbonates. People ought to think about that 50% figure and the amount of CO2 emitted by the transportation sector.

  • I’ve read some papers and, I have a vague recollection, written about it but IIRC there are certain forms of basalt, occurring naturally under the ocean floor off the east coast of the U. S., that the carbon dioxide would react with, converting some of the basalt to something approximating limestone.

  • PD Shaw

    The sequestration project Dave linked to is different than the one I alluded to. The FutureGen project, now near Jacksonville, IL is supposed to demonstrate injecting CO2 into saline rock formations. I can’t speak to the science, but the policymakers seem to run hot and cold on it, and cost overruns.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FutureGen

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: The ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round and had fairly accurately calculated the circumference.

    The Relativity of Wrong
    http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

  • TastyBits

    The Greeks were limited by their math. Geometry will only get you so far. Newton’s greatest legacy is calculus. This is what made modern science possible.

    Speaking of the Greeks, we may be able to get @Icepick to explain to us why everything we think we know was demolished some time back. Our settled Euclidean world was turned upside down and inside out.

    You cannot trust those damned mathematicians.

  • ...

    It wasn’t demolished, it was expanded. No one liked Euclid’s “parallel postulate” for his geometry so they keep trying to prove it using the other postulates. Eventually, in the 19th Century, some mathematicians figured out that the parallel postulate was indeed necessary for Euclid’s geometry, but that other postulates could lead to other, non-Euclidean, geometries.

    Thus mathematicians realized that they didn’t really need to be limited to this world at all*, and could imagine all kinds of realities. It’s why being a mathematician is much more fun than being a physicist**, as they’re basically stuck with reality.

    * Not strictly true, as hyperbolic and elliptic geometries do have real-world applications, but it gets the flavor of things across.

    ** Well, the physicists DO get to blow up a lot of shit, and so far hold all the records for human made explosions. Must give them credit for that.

    NOTE: Ignoring all kinds of arguments about syntax and all that crap. I don’t even find that stuff interesting anymore, though I once did.

  • Andy

    Coming from a Western (as in the inter-mountain west) tradition, I am closest to the old-line conservationists. Precious few left.

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