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New Priorities for Combatting Global Warming?

June 22, 2009

by Charlie Sprague
New Priorities for Combatting Global Warming?

The green movement seems to be finally well entrenched in the U.S. political system.  For CMC's Environmental Crusaders and like-minded people such as myself , this is undoubtedly a good thing.  On the top of the environmental agenda, of course, is mitigating global warming by reducing carbon emissions in developed countries and slowing the rate of carbon emissions growth in developing countries.  The United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is set to negotiate the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen this December and observers are cautiously optimistic that the summit will produce a treaty that is serious about carbon emissions reductions.

As much as I would like the United States and the world at large to emphasize the reduction of carbon emissions, I fear the political winds are increasingly turning against mitigation efforts.  First, seriously disruptive climate change looks all but inevitable at this point, which is breeding fatalism.  Global carbon emissions have exploded at a faster rate than even the previously most pessimistic forecasts by the United Nations.  Furthermore, global warming is a classic tragedy of the commons problem where every country wants to keep polluting and free ride off other countries costly carbon reduction programs.  In fact, America’s decision to remain outside of the Kyoto Protocol has made many European governments fear that they are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by continuing their carbon reduction programs.

Due to all of these factors, the logic of spending resources on adaptation to climate change (such as relocating coastal communities, genetically engineering drought-resistant crops, etc.) rather than on carbon reduction grows ever more appealing.  Adaptation is particularly appealing for governments because adaptation measures directly help taxpaying and voting citizens, while the rewards of mitigation are diffusely shared by everyone.  Environmentalists support both mitigation and adaptation of course, but in a world of finite economic and political resources to spend on combating climate change, I think we expect an increasing prioritization of adaptation at the expense of mitigation.

Although the idea is still only slowly spreading into mainstream public discussion, I believe geoengineering will pose a serious alternative to carbon reduction in the coming years.  For those unfamiliar, geoengineering describes proposals to deliberately manipulate the Earth’s climate to counteract the effects of global warming.  Here is a fascinating video of the climate scientist David Keith describing an incredibly cheap, effective means to address climate change: inject a huge cloud of ash into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and heat (this also counts as another plug for TED).  As the idea of geoengineering spreads, it will further weaken mitigation efforts by creating a moral hazard problem: as people increasingly believe that a low-cost technological solution to global warming exists, they will feel less pressure to reduce carbon emissions.

Let me be clear: I strongly support carbon reduction efforts in addition to funding adaptation programs now and investigating geoengineering options for the future.  With the future of our planet at stake, I don’t think we can take the risk of not reducing carbon emissions.  However, I fear the relevant actors will increasingly embrace adaptation and geoengineering as alternatives to mitigation.  Adaptation and geoengineering are the relatively cheap, easy, and technical solutions to global warming, while mitigation will require dramatic restructuring of the economy and sustained lifestyle changes.  Guess which type of solution us flawed creatures are likely to prefer?

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