Friday, November 02, 2007

Expecting Uncharacteristic Patience

The politics of climate change are awful. I'm not referring to the domestic or international politics surrounding the Kyoto Protocol, but to the inherent problem of responding to a complex global phenomenon that spans many election cycles, with a long, indirect feedback loop. Even if there were no remaining controversy over the contribution of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, altering the warming trend will involve deep and permanent cuts in our emissions, with no guarantee of how soon we would see any change in the indicators that worry us. That is a risky proposition for any elected leader to espouse. It relies on an uncharacteristic degree of patience on the part of the electorate. Considering the long-term implications of this problem, we might need some alternative strategies for combating climate change that wouldn't take a decade to implement and another to produce noticeable results.

A necessary component of scenario planning is following implications to their logical conclusions, no matter how controversial. With regard to climate change, we are all now scenario planners. On that basis, climate intervention along the lines contemplated in a recent New York Times op-ed by a Carnegie Institution scientist, begins to look like a nearly inevitable outcome of the current trends and the political framework for addressing them. That doesn't mean we can ignore our growing emissions or wait for technology to transform them painlessly. There's a strong case for working hard to make the problem more manageable, rather than letting it grow out of control until we can put mirrors in orbit or simulate the heat-reflecting effects of a volcanic eruption. As Dr. Caldeira suggests, we will need a reasonable allocation of effort, with the emphasis on reducing emissions.

Reducing emissions rapidly enough to avoid the need for direct climate intervention is going to be hard. Consider the California wildfires that dislocated hundreds of thousands of residents and captured national attention last week. Few reports missed the opportunity to highlight the possible role of climate change in stimulating or amplifying the fires. At the same time, however, the controllable factors contributing to the damage are very clear, particularly to this former Los Angeleno. In the last 20 years, exurban development has encroached much farther into terrain that has always been prone to such fires. In fact, the life-cycle of the indigenous vegetation, the chaparral, has been shaped over millennia by periodic fires. If we can't overcome the obstacles impeding appropriate zoning, building standards and insurance practices to minimize our exposure by limiting development in such areas, how readily will we undertake the costly conversion to a low-emissions energy economy to enjoy the deferred rewards of a more benevolent future climate?

It's hard to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without being confronted with the evidence of an impending global climate crisis. By its nature, climate change is going to be unevenly distributed and mainly discernible from underlying random climate variation by statistical means that lack intuitive appeal. It is in the nature and market dynamics of the media, however, to select the most extreme and telegenic evidence, reinforcing our impression of accelerating climate change--noticeable from year to year, rather than just from decade to decade. In the process, this may inadvertently create a parallel expectation for a quickly discernible impact from any response we undertake. As a friend recently observed to me, we have been conditioned to seek solutions on the timescale of a "CSI" episode. Given the inertia of the systems involved, both natural and industrial, that expectation is likely to result in disappointment, which could either foster cynicism or spur calls for more extreme action.

That's why I think that if the current climate trends persist as we expect, there will be increasing pressure on governments to intervene in the climate directly, at the same time they attempt to remodel the ways in which our civilization produces and consumes energy and makes all those other products we need or crave. Unless we're lucky enough to see the implementation of emissions cuts coincide with a random dip in the temperature trend, our patience will only last so long, particularly if we experience more extreme fires, droughts and hurricanes in the interim.

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