June 29, 2009

Climate Changes Faster Than Lawmakers

After the American Century

The climate is changing more quickly than lawmakers are. We know that species of fish along the coastlines are moving out from tropical zones into new areas. For example, fish not seen before in the North Sea have arrived because its waters have become milder. We know that summers are getting longer, that hurricanes are becoming stronger and more frequent, that the glaciers covering Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster each year.

Researchers at MIT plug statistics from such developments into a computerized model of the world's weather system. They include projected economic growth rates, and run hundreds of simulations, to see what might happen given different combinations of factors. Their latest findings are dire. Global warming is occurring twice as fast as previously thought, and they project a global temperature rise of 5.4 C by 2100. Their worst case scenario is a change of more than 9 Celsius. Most of southern Europe would likely become desert. The only good and fair thing is that in the US the predominantly Southern politicians would see their constituencies dry up or sink under rising seas.

We have now had quite a few such studies, but they have not led to major efforts to change human behavior. Every year the world has more CO2, more coal-fired power plants, more cars, and more electricity use. And this is true for almost every country. The United States House of Representatives, with only a small majority, has passed a law (that still must be approved in the Senate) which recognizes the problem and begins to take some mild measures toward change. It is not enough, although it is good to see the United States begin to take responsibility for its pollution. Meanwhile, the nations that signed the Kyoto Accords, promising to lower their CO2 levels have little reason to be smug. Most of them have failed to live up to their promises.

It may be that human beings are just not capable of long term planning. Is it possible that the time horizon of the brain remains somewhere between one to five years? However, it will take decades to replace existing housing and transportation systems with energy saving alternatives. The problem of global warming must be confronted immediately, because it will take decades of concerted action just to slow it down. Permanent changes in energy use are needed, but most governments have done far less than they might.

A small case in point. The Danish government put together a stimulus package for the economy, focused on home repairs and improvements. I applied for money to insulate the last remaining part of our house that is not insulated. The application was turned down, emphasizing explicitly that insulation was not covered. Now my little job will get done anyway. But does it make any sense for the Danish state to pay for such things are painting and wallpapering, but not insulation? Such policy mistakes tell Danish citizens that climate change is not really on the government's agenda. (Not that this surprises me. The government created a little independent agency, as a special platform for a prominent denier of global warming who is a statistician, not a scientist.)

Many national economies are shrinking, yet global warming is speeding up. Politicians do not yet realize that the goal can no longer be just to keep economies expanding. The old, high-energy form of expansion is at the core of the global warming problem.

Global warming is not merely a technical matter awaiting some technological fix that will make it go away. It is a problem of changing human behavior, including prohibitions and incentives built into the laws of each nation.