Stop Global Warming

Do you want to really clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions starting now? If so, you have come to the right place. I have some potentially winning political arguments for you, arguments that can cut across party lines and get the ball rolling. That said, the arguments are subtle and at odds with most of what you hear in the eco echo chambers, so get yourself a cup of coffee and settle down for some serious reading.

Conversely, are you a conservative climate skeptic who loathes tofu, tiny cars, compact fluorescent light bulbs and not so compact cap and trade legislation? You too have come to the right place. For I write not to challenge your underlying values, but to fulfill them.

This is Holistic Politics. Preserving nature and the American Way are both important here. The key to finding such win-win solutions is to move the discussion away from whether climate change is a serious problem to how to stop global warming while preserving liberty and modern luxuries.

For all you environmentalists in the audience who find our modern ways decadent and desire to take emergency action now, know this: the compelling scientific argument for radical action does not exist yet. The beginnings of such an argument may exist within the scientific literature, but can The People understand it? I have a (rusty) PhD in theoretical physics and extensive experience with nonlinear sets of partial differential equations, but I still would need an uninterrupted semester or two to bone up on fluid dynamics and a few other subjects I could begin reading the primary literature with some degree of comprehension. Give me a year and I might even run some climate simulations of my own. (NVidia’s CUDA technology makes supercomputing affordable.) But I don’t have that year; I have a toddler and a day job. The average citizen is even more constrained.

Just how should the average citizen to make an intelligent choice? Should they trust the experts? If so, which experts? Which are trustworthy and which are biased?

It takes education, intellect and a great deal of time just to become an expert. For most this requires getting paid for it. In other words few experts are disinterested. Government scientists get more grants and PBS appearances when they dig up scary data and make exciting conjectures. Oil company scientists get hired to sow doubt. Either could do good science but both are tempted to spin and fudge. The only way to be a disinterested expert is to be intelligent and independently wealthy (or have a wealthy patron). Michael Crichton fit the bill -- but that doesn’t mean he was right. Even the economically disinterested can have preconceptions, political or otherwise.

And even the perfect disinterested expert can still be wrong. Climate science is hard. Yes, extra carbon dioxide does cause global warming. This is undergrad knowledge. The quadrillion dollar question is: how much? Carbon dioxide is not the earth’s primary greenhouse gas; water vapor has that honor. But carbon dioxide’s minor contribution can increase water vapor in the air, especially over the poles where the air is currently very dry because cold air holds little moisture. But the extra water vapor might turn into clouds, which reflect sunlight, which cools the planet. And what happens to the air and water currents when less heat escapes on the poles? What happens to plant growth? How much carbon dioxide can the oceans hold? What happens if the permafrost thaws releasing tons of methane? Feedback abounds; small modeling errors can lead to very wrong predictions.

The only true referee we have in this debate is experiment. And the only laboratory we have is Planet Earth. Oops! We won’t truly know if global warming is a real problem until it becomes a serious problem. Conversely, we could spend tens of trillions of dollars to stop global warming and never know if we needed to.

Maybe future scientists may come up with models so powerful and accurate that we can close the debate without doing the experiment. But will they do so before we need to take action? I’m not banking on it. I opt to invoke the Precautionary Principle. If we have a 1% chance of a future $100 trillion disaster by doing nothing, then any insurance plan that cost less than $1trillion is a good buy[1]. If the insurance costs more, it pays to wait and gather more data.

This is the key to bringing more climate skeptics on board. Conservatives invoke the Precautionary Principle frequently -- when it comes to national defense. Many conservatives are personally conservative: they play it safe and buy insurance. Climate change action is insurance. Put aside the tie-die, the earth hugging, the guilt tripping and the neo-paganism and talk the language of insurance, and you can reach out to a new audience. But this is a financially sophisticated audience. They won’t just buy any insurance.

This is where so many environmentalists blow it. They advocate a whole raft of half-baked, expensive, inappropriate, and/or unpleasant greenhouse gas reduction schemes whose total net cost is well above the reasonable insurance cost. And so millions of reasonable people take a wait and see attitude. To motivate these millions into action, said environmentalists must either resort to exaggerating the future cost of inaction or the probability of the pessimistic scenarios. Eventually, the oil company shills look objective by comparison. Environmental action backfires.

And this is why I have the temerity to claim I have a politically viable resolution, despite the much larger efforts of others on both sides. I cheat. Economics is easier than climate science. Whereas I don’t have a degree in the subject, I can still do an order of magnitude better than politicians busy kissing babies and collecting special interest money or hippie activists who flinch in revulsion at talk of money and numbers. With a bit of undergrad economics, creativity, and common sense I can come up with a credible plan to stop global warming which meets the [admittedly simplistic] insurance criterion above—even for skeptics. This is a “how to” vs. a “why to” guide, but it should be more convincing to conservatives to take climate change seriously than any article from a scientific journal. Conversely, conservatives can use the following articles to defend themselves from socialistic environmentalists by providing credible alternatives which preserve traditional American liberties as they preserve the environment.

The True Cost of Climate Action

If you search around the Internet for ways to fight global warming you will stumble across spammy sites with Diggable lists of things you can do such as:

  • Inflate your tires to the correct pressure
  • Accelerate more slowly
  • Turn down your thermostat a few degrees in the winter
  • Buy compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Unplug electronic devices which draw quiescent power when turned off
  • Blah, blah, blah...

If you follow these bits of feel-good action, the results will be...utterly negligible! Several people in China and India will be happily offsetting your actions and then some as they enter the modern world. Nothing less than truly radical action will stop global warming. Scratch that. It will take radical action just to keep the rate of global warming at its current level. (Maybe I should say, maintain the rate of new carbon dioxide at the current level. The response to said CO2 could be nonlinear.)

Let’s run the numbers. At present the U.S. and Canada emit close to 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases, yet have merely 5% the world’s population [IPCC report Topic2 page 2]. Should the rest of the world catch up to Northern American levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the worldwide rate of emissions goes up by a factor of 4!

.05 rA = .2 rW; therefore, rA= (.2/.05)rW = 4rW


rA = Northern American per capita rate of greenhouse gas emission

rW = Current world per capita rate of greenhouse emission

In other words, if we Americans are to play fair and allow the world’s inhabitants equal rights to emit greenhouse gases, the U.S. needs to cut its emissions by 75% just to maintain the current rate of global warming! This would be enormously expensive. To actually stop global warming we need to either ban all fossil fuel use worldwide, or at least sequester carbon at the same rate that fossil fuels are adding carbon to the atmosphere. This is more expensive yet.

With costs this enormous the skeptics are reasonable to ask for more evidence before proceeding, and millions of reasonable people are doing just that. The climate skeptics are not just blinded ideologues or pawns of the oil companies. They are cautious people who hesitate to throw away precious liberties and tens of trillions of dollars on unproven assumptions. Many just want more proof. Others are running the numbers and suggesting that it might be cheaper to move some beach houses a hundred years hence. Ever more strident exaggerations will not sway these people. The recent Climategate scandal has made them dig their heels in deeper.

These cautious skeptical people do buy insurance, however. They happily buy fire insurance even though they do not expect their homes to burn down. They vote for a large military even though the U.S. is currently the dominant superpower. But they are economically sensible people. They don’t buy an extra house in case house the first burns down. They buy insurance which costs far less than the house. These people could be sold climate change insurance as well if we get the price down.

A Realistic Plan for Climate Action Now

Ditch the tie dye; break out the green eyeshades. If you want to get conservatives on board the carbon cutting bandwagon, you need to focus on the numbers: money, prices, trade-offs. Get price of action < future disaster cost * probability of future disaster and you can begin a rational dialog—in theory. In practice the dialog has already been poisoned by both sides. The environmental Left has vilified the good life and proposed expensive, socialistic and self-sacrificing hair shirt solutions. The Right has embraced the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News School of no-nothing buffoonery.

Fortunately, I have remedies for this standoff: partial but significant carbon dioxide cuts which have zero net cost. I’ve not only searched for the cheapest ways to fight global warming, I’ve found solutions which have positive side effects which outweigh the costs. In other words, this guide contains actions worth doing even if global warming proves to be an insignificant problem for the near future. The articles which follow[2]:

  • Eliminate many annoying government regulations
  • Simplify the tax code
  • Improve national security
  • Enhance the quality of life for humans

And in the process we can cut carbon emissions in half or more—before we have consensus on whether global warming is in fact a real problem. Only after we have indisputable proof need we consider the hair shirt solutions, but by that time we may well have some new technology which makes sacrifice unnecessary even then. In fact the plan that follows increases the likelihood of that new technology considerably.

So, let’s get started, with a look at a market based approach to find the cheapest, most pleasant, ways to stop global warming.

[1] Actually, this formula is a bit simplistic. It does not take into account the time value of money. That conceded, I will make the case for a very low discount rate in a future article, which makes this simplistic formula rather close to the truth.

[2] I have quite a few articles in mind on this subject not yet posted. Stay tuned for more than you see now on the sidebar.

[3] Some resources.