It’s a dirty secret in the blog world that occasionally bloggers will recommend that their readers read something that they themselves have not read. (Gasp.) But not this blog! At least, not any more! Or rather, at least not this time!
Yesterday I was going to recommend "Bringing Society Back into the Climate Debate" (PDF), a new paper by Roger Pielke Jr. and Daniel Sarewitz (found via their excellent Prometheus science blog). But then I realized that it’s a PDF, it’s wonky, it’s written in dry academic language, and y’all would never read it. And really, how could I expect you to if I hadn’t? So last night, I read it.
My initial reaction: They make an extremely good point. Enviros need to reconsider their monomaniacal focus on cutting CO2 emissions.
Go beneath the fold for a brief summary.
A common argument for cutting CO2 emissions is that human-driven climate change will have adverse effects on human societies, through increased natural disasters and concomitant diseases, famines, etc.
But is cutting CO2 emissions the best way to reduce those impacts? According to Pielke and Sarewitz, the research overwhelmingly indicates that the answer is No. The dominant factor in climatological effects on society are societal, not climatological.
… two well documented aspects of the climate-society relationship are largely absent from the climate debate: (1) the awareness that, over time, societal changes–demographic, social, economic, and other changes in the characteristics of human populations–are primary factors in climatic impacts on humans and human impacts on the environment; and (2) viable strategies for responding to such changes lie predominantly in the area of societal governance, not in efforts to control the future behavior of climate.
Enviros typically use the impact of climate on society as a rhetorical tool to argue for their preferred policy prescription: reducing CO2 emissions. But what if, instead, we approached it from the other end? Start with the problem: Damage done to human society by climate is immense, and indeed has been increasing throughout the century. The rise of such damage, measured in dollars or human lives, has risen at a rate vastly greater than warming of the atmosphere. So perhaps slowing — not even stopping, but slowing — the rate of warming is not the best way to address those damages. In fact, given that action we take now will have effects decades in the future, if at all, it is an extraordinarily inapt means of addressing the problem. The root of the problem lies in demographics, land use, economic development and disparities, etc.
Consider the following example, from Indur M. Goklany, of the Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, in the journal Science. He was addressing Brit science advisor David King, who was arguing — as greens frequently do — that global warming would hasten the spread of, and worsen the effects of, diseases like malaria. Wrote Goklany:
. . . the population at risk of malaria (PAR-M) in the absence of climate change is projected to double between 1990 and the 2080s, to 8,820 million. However, unmitigated climate change would, by the 2080s, further increase PAR-M by another 257- 323 million. Thus, by the 2080s, halting further climate change would, at best, reduce total PAR-M by 3.5% [=100 Â· 323/ (323 + 8,820)]. On the other hand, reducing carbon dioxide emissions with the goal of eventually stabilizing carbon dioxide at 550 ppm would reduce total PAR-M by 2.8% at a cost to developed nations, according to King, of 1% of GDP in 2050, or about $280 billion in today’s terms. But malaria’s current annual death toll of about 1 million could be halved at an annual cost of $1.25 billion or less, according to the World Health Organization, through a combination of measures such as residual home spraying with insecticides, insecticide-treated bednets, improved case management, and more comprehensive antenatal care.
In other words, if your concern is malaria, there are far more effective approaches to preparation and amelioration than reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. The same could be said of concerns about famine, dislocation, poverty, flooding, hurricanes, etc. etc. There are relatively cheap measures available that would drastically reduce the damage wrought by these phenomena — and reducing CO2 just isn’t one of them.
It follows, then, that some of the enormous quantities of research money devoted to long-term study of climate should be diverted to sussing out and recommending more short-term, efficacious policy shifts.
Before readers blow a gasket: This is not meant to be an argument against good energy policy. As the authors say,
this does not preclude other sensible reasons for energy policy action related to climate (e.g., abrupt climate change) and energy policy action independent of climate change (such as national security, air pollution reduction and energy efficiency). It does suggest that reduction of human impacts related to weather and climate are not primary among those reasons, and arguments and advocacy to the contrary are not in concert with research in this area.
Greens should really think about this. It’s politically tempting to use global warming as a kind of trump card, a way of pushing our issues and our agenda to the front of the line. But we should consider whether it would be in our long-term interest — and the long-term interest of humanity generally — if we dialed it down a bit and threw our support behind some measures designed to relieve the great suffering taking place in the here and now, measures related to “land use, insurance, engineering, warnings and forecasts, risk assessments, and so on,” as the authors put it.
These measures would, in the end, help our agenda anyway. I’ll write more about that soon.
Get Grist in your inbox