Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is adaptation to climate change really feasible?

The climate change denial lobby likes to use a variant of the dog bite defense. Perhaps you'll recall the joke about the owner of a dog that bit a passerby. Defending himself in court, the owner says: "My dog doesn't bite. It wasn't my dog. And furthermore, I don't have a dog."

In similar fashion the climate denial lobby tells us: "Climate change is actually good for us. If it does cause problems, they won't be that bad and we should just adapt. And furthermore, there is no climate change."

The final argument has been increasingly difficult for the climate denial lobby to maintain, and many there have given up on it. And, the denialists have pretty much given up on the idea that climate change is good for us. So, they're down to arguing that it won't be that bad and we should just adapt.

In recent months this argument--which the denialists thought might only be tested far into the future--is taking a thumping. It's taking a thumping because climate change is moving so fast and its consequences becoming so devastating that it's hard to see how we are going to adapt to it easily and cheaply or, in some cases, even at all.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is "the environment" now obsolete?

For millennia the presence of humans on planet Earth hardly made a dent in its ecosystems. Humans were at the mercy of their environment as much as any other creature. But with the advent of agriculture, humans began to influence the planet in major ways. Some scientists posit that the clearing of large swaths of land for planting over the past 10,000 years released enough carbon into the atmosphere to delay the next ice age.

Of course, in the past two centuries the pace of those carbon releases has grown exponentially with the industrial revolution through the burning of fossil fuels. These emissions now threaten to flip the planet into a warm state far beyond anything experienced by humans in their relatively brief time on Earth. The question we must now face is whether humans still live in "the environment" or whether they now are "the environment" by virtue of their actions.

The distinction mattered little as long as we didn't live in what economist Herman Daly calls "a full world." The introduction to his piece "Economics in a Full World" which appeared in Scientific American in 2005 states: "The global economy is now so large that society can no longer safely pretend it operates within a limitless ecosystem."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Living in a world we can't understand

What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent.
                         --Friedrich Nietzsche
As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.
                         --Donald Rumsfeld, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense

We live in an age of enlightenment, in the belief that the entire universe is open to our inspection and more than this, that it is theoretically all intelligible to us. If we just apply enough science and enough rationality, nature will reveal all its secrets to us in ordered sets of data that we can then use to control the entire world around us.

That we can wrest a comfortable life from the Earth is, however, nothing special. Plants and animals do this without resorting to colleges, symposia or research laboratories. And, humans used to do it without these things as well. Ancient Greeks--if they survived childhood diseases, war and the occasional plague--regularly managed to live into their 60s and 70s among balmy Mediterranean breezes. It's not that there hasn't been any progress; it's just that we may not have made as much progress as we think.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Wonders yet to come: A sound basis for energy policy?

Last week when I laid out seven misconceptions about energy shared by the public and policymakers, the pushback I received had little to do with the actual data I used to demonstrate my point. This is probably because the data are from official public sources and available to anyone with an Internet connection to inspect and verify. Most of the pushback bore the sentiment, "Well, you are right about the data. But, just you wait. There are big things that are going to happen in the future with (fill in your favorite fossil fuel) because of (fill in your favorite technology and/or name of supposedly large fossil fuel deposit)."

This is what I refer to as the "wonders-yet-to-come argument." It's an argument that ought to be familiar (and tiresome) to most everyone. It's been used frequently since the oil price hit a long-term low of $10.72 a barrel in December 1998. Even as prices rose ten-fold and supplies advanced only at a snail's pace from 2005 onward, we were treated to frequent pronouncements about how the wonders of technology would deliver cheap, abundant oil soon. Though technology has failed to provide cheap oil, the wonders-yet-to-come argument is still being used to great effect on unsuspecting minds.

We've actually had a good test of this argument since 1998 in the oil markets. Around that time it was deepwater drilling that was going to keep the world awash in cheap oil for decades to come. Check out how many times both the International Energy Outlook 2000 produced by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the World Energy Outlook 2000 produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA) mentioned the key role deepwater oil development was expected to play in raising world production and keeping prices low.