Thursday, May 20, 2010

Climate Change Solutions and Non-Solutions

The climate change debate in the United States seems to perpetually focus on the wrong questions. Some deny that climate change even exists, while others claim climate change may reach a “tipping point” which would permanently cause a drastic shift in the earth’s climate. The economic aspects of the debate are usually drowned out entirely, but they are important to consider when formulating public policy. How much will it cost to fight climate change? Will our efforts to combat climate change actually be effective? And would it be better to simply wait a few years for better technology?

Climate change is, of course, a real danger to our planet, but our ability to reduce our impact at the present time is very limited. First, there is the economic problem. Even if the developed world unilaterally limited its carbon emissions, the developing world almost certainly would not follow suit, thus negating any carbon reductions in the West. From the perspective of developing nations, the economic imperatives of developing as quickly as possible simply outweigh the environmental risks of global warming. China and India have successfully lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through economic development; it is highly unlikely that they will be willing to acquiesce to Western demands to limit their carbon emissions (and thus limit their economic growth). With such a strong economic incentive to continue polluting, finding the political will to limit emissions will be almost impossible for these nations.

Second, there is the technological problem. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 70 years. If the entire world suddenly reverted to the amount of carbon emissions they produced in 1990, the net impact on our climate would be almost negligible by the end of the 21st century. Programs like cap-and-trade are doomed to failure, due to both the political difficulty of implementing them and their lack of effectiveness at actually halting climate change. Therefore, any feasible solution must come from technology, not politics.

We need not accept the punishment Mother Nature will dole out for our meddling with the environment. On the contrary, I am optimistic about technological solutions on the horizon. Solar energy is following a Moore’s Law-like trajectory, with the cost falling by half every 2-3 years. Within 10 to 15 years, solar energy will be cheaper than oil. Switching from fossil fuels to clean energy will be the single biggest way to end our carbon pollution.

Additionally, many geoengineering solutions have been proposed to scrub the existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of the most feasible ideas is called iron fertilization, in which we would seed the oceans with small flakes of iron to encourage plankton to grow, which would in turn “eat” carbon dioxide. Geoengineering solutions like this could be implemented today, and are very cheap. However, they carry environmental dangers of their own, and it remains to be seen if the good would outweigh the bad. Environmental scientists are studying the side effects of these solutions, and it should be clearer within a few years if the consequences of these solutions will be acceptable.

In the very near future, it is likely that we will have some cost-effective, feasible solutions for effectively limiting our carbon pollution, without the economic downsides of cap-and-trade or international treaties. However, they are not available quite yet, and we should not pretend that they are by wasting money on anti-global warming initiatives instead of spending the money on something that can actually help the world today. While I realize this suggestion does not fulfill our emotional need to pretend that we are doing something to solve the problem, doing nothing is the only rational course of action...for now.

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