The reality of global warming (or more broadly, climate change) and society’s response to it represent two different, frequently convoluted topics. It is important to separate these issues so that a reasoned approach—one that avoids hype, fear, and misunderstanding—may be formulated, especially with regard to climate policy. Whether advocating or opposing climate change policy, using politics, poor science, or sensationalism to push one’s agenda only results in greater polarization, distrust, and distraction from the real problems.1 For example, our society often focuses attention on carbon policy, particularly as it affects energy production and use, even though carbon policy is not the same thing as climate policy.
Looking Beyond CO2
Roger Pielke Jr.,2 a political scientist specializing in climate guidelines, summarized the problem into three broad categories:
- Too often, climate policies flow against public opinion.
- Economic growth is often pitted against climate policy.
- Current technology is not sufficient to meet confirmed climate targets.
Moreover, while researchers have made much progress in developing our understanding of the climate, certainty does not seem to be forthcoming.
Global climate models (GCMs) are used extensively to make projections about future climate conditions. While these models are helpful for predicting trends and exploring how environmental parameters affect the climate system, biases and errors in the results often become apparent. These errors are sometimes compounded by regional climate models (RCMs), which are generally down-scaled from the GCMs. So far, RCMs have not provided sufficient predictive power with regard to regional climates, particularly when tested against historical data.3 Thus, the use of RCMs for regional-scale climate mitigation seems premature.
An additional problem with climate policy seems to be that too much is made of CO2 as the driver of climate change. Without a doubt, CO2 is an important greenhouse gas and does produce a clear warming effect, making the reduction of manmade CO2 emissions desirable. However, stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 does not stop climate change.
Numerous research papers suggest that significant manmade influences are not limited to CO2 and include other green house gases such as water vapor, ozone, methane, and nitrous oxides. Carbon soot, sulfates, nitrates and other aerosols, along with land use and land cover effects don’t always receive proper attention. In addition, significant natural climate change has occurred in the past and will occur in the future with or without human influence. All of these factors contribute to the uncertainties in our understanding of the climate system. These shortcomings do not suggest a mandate for no action, but they do suggest that responses should be formulated methodically and reasonably.
The Environment and the Economy
Perhaps greater progress could be made on climate policy if we avoided pitting the environment against the economy. For example, some advocates for carbon-emission reduction have gone so far as to argue for planned economic recession.4 Yet clearly such an approach, which puts nations at potential economic disadvantage, is unlikely to be the best or most popular solution.
Much about the current view toward climate policy seems to stem from air pollution controls set in place in the 1970s and later. Pollution control programs have had significant success in reducing unhealthy pollutants—such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and other toxins—from the atmosphere. These measures succeeded largely because they did not require a considerable economic sacrifice to achieve the desired results. In addition, many of those affected by the pollutants soon enjoyed the obvious health benefits resulting from the programs. However, with climate change, the perceived benefits are not immediate and the sacrifice to economic productivity is potentially large. Society will sacrifice for environmental benefits but only to the point that such sacrifices do not significantly affect economic benefits. Pielke calls this the “Iron Law of Climate Policy.”5
The economy vs. environment metric implies that current climate policy sometimes produces unrealistic requirements. Unattainable goals may result in either the rejection of the established guidelines or in the appearance of compliance without actually doing anything. The climate bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009 and then failed in the U.S. Senate, set goals of reducing carbon emission levels by 20 percent between 2005 and 2020—and then 83 percent by 2050 (Senate version). To accomplish the 20 percent-reduction goals, Pielke6 has determined that to meet the 33 quadrillion BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy needed for consumption in the United States by 2020, the construction of about 342 nuclear power plants (750-Megawatt) or 200,000 wind turbines (2.5-Megawatt) or 110,000 solar power plants (10-Megawatt) would need to occur. Although it is likely beneficial to promote the construction of any combination of power plants that use non-carbon sources of energy, at present, the number required seems far beyond what could be realistically constructed within the given time frame.
Removing carbon directly from the atmosphere may also be problematic. The estimated costs for removal exceed 1 trillion dollars per 1 part per million (ppm) of CO2 removed from the global atmosphere. However, some semi-realistic approaches to slow annual global CO2 increases seem to be developing, such as CO2 snow deposition and wind farms in Antarctica.7 Returning CO2 levels to 350 ppm (a goal advocated by some climate policy advocates) could potentially approach 50 trillion dollars, a value not substantially smaller than that of the global economy. Furthermore, the global economy would have to stop emitting CO2 at levels that increase emissions. At present, CO2 emissions typically rise by about 2 ppm per year, where the total CO2 concentration is about 394 ppm. Even the aforementioned Antarctic removal of CO2 via CO2 snowfall would curtail only 25 percent of these annual increases.8 Such obstacles to carbon sequestration suggest a need for greater emphasis on energy innovation. Current climate policies tend to mandate use of clean energy but sometimes do little to encourage development of the energy technologies needed to meet those goals.
Mitigation strategies for climate change could also be refocused to reward low-carbon energy applications rather than through direct disincentives toward high-carbon approaches. Other mitigation efforts might focus on climate inputs that have residency times in the atmosphere shorter than that of CO2 (i.e., methane, carbon soot, and ozone). For example, the reduction of carbon soot and ozone from the Arctic could mitigate the last 50 years of warming in that region by more than 50 percent, even before addressing reductions of CO2 concentrations.9
Perhaps a greater recognition that climate will change in the future regardless of the causes would allow society to place more emphasis on adaptation strategies that focus on local and/or regional scales rather than attempting “top-down” approaches that rely too heavily on climate models with sometimes questionable accuracy, especially for regional-scales.10 Regional-based approaches would allow planners, local leaders, and society at-large to better focus on climate extremes that will sooner or later occur in a given region. This focus would, in turn, help populations to better plan and prepare for responses to extreme events such as drought, flooding, earthquakes, or other difficulties that extend beyond climate-related problems (such as emergency response). Such an approach would also allow for greater consideration of local and regional weather patterns that influence particular areas and that may not presently be represented well by climate models.
Climate change is a fact of life for planet Earth—but bickering between opposing sides of the climate policy debate need not be. Clear and careful thinking and thoughtful planning are keys to dealing with climate in a way that benefits both the planet and its people.
Dr. Kevin Birdwell
Kevin R. Birdwell received his PhD from the University of Tennessee in 2011 and currently serves as a meteorologist and atmospheric researcher in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.