Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Freezing Carbon

Yesterday afternoon, one of my readers alerted me to an interesting development on the climate change front. At a speech in New York on Monday, former Vice President Gore called for the US to freeze its emissions of greenhouse gases. He is promoting the formation of a movement analogous to the Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s, as a way to pressure government to do something immediately, rather than pursuing a gradual and largely voluntary approach to reducing the emissions associated with global warming. After reading the transcript of his earlier comments on his film, "An Inconvenient Truth," I wish Mr. Gore had remained focused on carbon neutrality, which would move us in the same direction, but might be achieved without the kind of economic dislocations an actual freeze would entail.

On the positive side, I'm sympathetic to Mr. Gore's suggestion that incremental responses and far-future targets are unlikely to galvanize the American public sufficiently to create the political will to address this problem. "Carbon Freeze" is a catchy name, even if it sounds like what happened to Han Solo at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back," rather than an environmental policy. Public perception of climate change remains the key hurdle in the US, and something like this might break through a wall of confusion and apathy. At the same time, I'm concerned about the risks this strategy entails, first and foremost to the US economy, but also to our ability to sustain a long-term response to climate change.

With regard to the economy, I realize this has been the principal argument against US participation in the Kyoto Accord and any other emissions-reduction measure with real teeth, up to and including the current proposals for a carbon emissions cap in California and other states. But I'm also cognizant of the relationships between emissions and energy, and between energy and economic output. Freezing emissions means freezing energy usage, and in the short term, that will weaken our economic output, i.e. GDP. In the longer term, substitution of more efficient vehicles, devices, and manufacturing capacity will moderate the impact by further reducing the BTU/$GDP correlation, and possibly even creating energy-free GDP, as advocates claim. Freezing emissions on a crash basis would cost many US jobs--particularly, but not exclusively manufacturing jobs--and we shouldn't delude ourselves about that. If we were truly in a climate crisis, that might be a price we would have to pay.

And therein lies my other concern. Mr. Gore proclaims that we are in a crisis, that we might have only 10 years left in which to reverse the climatic shifts our emissions are inducing, or face terrible, unalterable consequences. Bluntly, while there is indeed a consensus that the climate is warming and that man-made emissions are largely responsible for that warming, there is no such consensus that we face an immediate crisis, at least not in the sense in which most of us would understand that phrase. The world is warming, risks of adverse consequences are increasing, and abrupt climate change of the "disrupted Atlantic conveyor" type remains a possibility. However, we are not in a "runaway greenhouse" and the idea that we entering into irreversible effects is, as far as I can tell, highly controversial. The downside risk of treating this as a crisis, as opposed to a problem to be solved over a couple of decades, is that it puts an enormous burden on the next few years of real climate to deliver unequivocal proof of these claims. Raise the public's concern too high, and a few cooler years could destroy support for the long-term responses that are needed.

Unfortunately, in the political debate that seems likely to follow Mr. Gore's suggestions, we could lose sight of the kernel of good ideas around which he has built this concept. Another decade of the status quo might not kill us, but it would create a much deeper hole to dig out of. And although we can't immediately freeze US carbon emissions, let alone those of the whole world, the tools are emerging for all of us to move towards carbon neutrality. I must sound like a shill for TerraPass, but they have the right idea. Drive the car you have, but offset its emissions by paying for efficiency investments elsewhere. Buy that plasma TV you want, but plant enough trees to compensate for the extra electricity. Run your factory, but pay farmers to capture and burn enough methane to negate your impact on the climate. And while all of that sounds less dramatic than a Carbon Freeze, it can be implemented within the amount of time it will take to recycle all the arguments about whether we should be in Kyoto or not.

No comments: