While we have been watching the Great Health Care Debate, the Great Climate Debate has been quietly moving along in the background. As important as the government's trillion dollar program to take over health care is, the trillion dollar program to crush the energy and manufacturing industries will be more burdensome to American prosperity. It begins with global warming, and goes way off track.
With the next international convocation on global warming scheduled for December in Copenhagen, and the House and Senate going forward with bills to place major financial penalties on utilities and manufacturers, the the post-partisan President is calling anybody who argues the facts or has alternative solutions "cynical deniers". With the zealots making it impossible to have a rational discussion about data that doesn't fit their model, American public belief in strong scientific support for global warming has dropped from a 2006 high of 77% to 57%. What gives?
The logic process on global warming should be straightforward: Are temperatures rising?; If so, why?; and, what are the most practical and effective things to do about it? Not in Washington.
Question 1 - Are temperatures rising? Over eons the Earth has seen cyclical Ice Ages with the last major version about 11,500 years ago, interspersed with warm periods (the last with "grapes in Greenland" about 900 to 1300 AD), and smaller cold periods (the last in the 1700s.) Reliable information shows an increase of about .4 degree Centigrade between 1880 and 1970, and an accelerated .17 degree per decade since. The result has been a sea-level rise of about 7 inches over the past century with a projected acceleration of the trend. Like a Rorschach test, statisticians argue about the more recent data which shows the last decade to be somewhat below the high point of 1998.
Question 2 - Why? This is more complex, with many things going on:
- The amount of CO2 (the largest greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere, has increased 30% over the past 150 years as a result of industrialization, exacerbated by deforestation. The evidence is compelling, and few deny that this is a major factor and that it is increasing with China's rise.
- The Sun goes through an 11 year cycle of activity which results in varying levels of sun spots and radiation emissions which have an effect on the Earth's atmosphere. We are at the low end of this predictable cycle. Similarly, the el Nino warming of waters in the south-central Pacific has been at a low point, resulting in lower temperatures over a broad area. If voices can be lowered, these factors may help to explain the more benign data of the past decade.
- There are a number of other causes with relatively minor effects in this time frame: The Earth's orbit and orientation to the Sun vary slightly over long cycles, affecting radiation absorption; there are relatively minor impacts of geothermal activity; animal methane contributes (truly); and radiation from space affects the upper atmosphere. The first is a major factor in the Ice Age cycle.
Question 3 - what should be done? The "Al Gore/Barbara Boxer" answer" is the developing legislation which would call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20% below 2005 levels by 2020, selling permits to industry to emit greenhouse gases, and extending the Environmental Protection Agency to be the "climate cop". The debate is largely about how steep the reduction should be, how much the charge for the permits should be, how they should be distributed, and how much bureaucracy is needed to monitor industry and individuals. The partisan differences are predictable.
Rather than again being the "Party of No", Republicans should focus on some principles:
- Global problems require global solutions. We are right to be major participants in the global discussion - and to have refused to be bound by the Kyoto Protocols which specifically excluded China, India, and (effectively), Russia. Righteous self destruction makes no sense.
- Solutions will require the best technology available. The refusal of the Left to accept nuclear energy is a sign of either fuzzy thinking or bad faith. The recent decision to fund an agency in the Department of Energy to foster research (established under President Bush) is a good step.
- There is a transportation dimension, and a power generation dimension. The first (electric automobiles; quantum greater efficiency) also serves to improve our unsustainable trade deficit. Power generation becomes even more important as cars become electric. (With our power generation being 50% coal, 20% nuclear, 2 % wind/solar, and the rest "other", it is hard to imagine a solution which does not include "clean coal" - although that technology needs some breakthroughs.)
- Politics matter. Senator Boxer's shrug that her bill "averages just $100 per family per year", may work in the Bay Area, but not where incomes are lower, coal is the primary fuel, and massive mining and industrial job losses will follow. (It would also be nice to have the Congressional Budget Office put a cost on the bill before it is voted on.) The international battle will be between the high-emitting developed countries and the emerging economies who want a free pass while they catch up economically. Hopefully President Obama will place America's interests ahead of his international popularity.
There must be an open discussion of how much benefit there will be for how much pain. This is a challenge for the Right as well as the Left. Absent that, the government's flailing will be more dangerous than the Afghanistan dithering.
For those interested in readings from the major advocates and skeptics:
- The most authoritative group of American climate change advocates - The Union of Concerned Scientists.
- The global mechanism for developing policies - the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
- Facts that don't fit the model - Harris-Mann Climatology.
This week's You Tube is a snippet of an interview with General McChrystal in Afghanistan, reflecting a bit of his personality. For perspective, he was the head of special operations in Iraq, runs five miles per day, sleeps three to five hours a night, and eats one meal per day to avoid sluggishness. He's standing by the phone.
bill bowen - 10/30/2009