Thursday, April 05, 2007

Winners and losers from climate change

This evening, unless our baby decides to be born, I will be taking part in a exchange on The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 about the implications of tomorrow's report from the IPCC's on the impacts of climate change.

It looks as if I will be discussing this with Gregg Easterbrook, who published an article in The Atlantic stressing there will be winners as well as losers from climate change. Here are some points I may touch on if there is time.

Easterbrook is right to say it’s doesn't have to be all gloom in facing up to manmade climate change, and that there’s a lot that can be done which can create benefits, opportunities and profits. This message is an important one. But it’s not enough to say there are winners and losers. We need to look very hard at what that will mean. There are winners and losers in wars too, and the winners are mostly war profiteers and jihadi recruiters. Optimism, if it is to last, has to be well grounded.

Easterbrook also underestimates the nature of the challenges and down sides of climate change. This in itself can be unhelpful if it leads to insufficient action. And on top of that he misrepresents the nature and extent of scientific understanding of climate change.

Taking the last point first, in an interview published along with the article he says:

‘There’s still a huge range of doubt about exactly why climate change is happening. We have no idea what component is natural and what part is artificial and no one has even the slightest clue about exactly what’s going to happen, what the degree of change will be’.

Let’s look at each of those claims in turn.

1. ‘still a huge range of doubt about exactly why climate change is happening’

This is not right. Even back in 1990 at the time of the first IPCC assessment it was only partly true. There were significant uncertainties at that time, but the range of doubt was not 'huge'. Now, after 17 years of massive effort, there are still some uncertainties but the range of doubt is not ‘huge’. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation unless we accepted that the scientific community has a pretty good idea of why climate change is happening.

2. ‘No idea what is natural and what is artificial’

Again, not right. The Fourth assessment report concludes that we can say with very high confidence (more than 90% probability) that the effect of human activities since 1750 has been to warm the planet. It also says that it is very likely (more than 90% probability) that observed temperature increases since the middle of the twentieth century have been caused by the increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

3. 'No one has even the slightest clue about exactly what’s going to happen, what the degree of change will be

It’s of course true that we can’t know exactly what’s going to happen. But the scientific community, through the IPCC and other bodies such as the National Academies of Science of all of the world’s leading nations, have some quite specific things to say about what will happen if we carry on as we are. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report says that for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 the most likely rise is between 2 and 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, with a tails on either side of for rise as low as 1.1 and as high as 6.4°C depending on how much feedback there is in the Earth system.

The scientific evidence also indicates that a rise in global average temperature of more than 2°C is a bad idea. And in order not to exceed 2°C we have to limit atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to substantially less than double of pre-industrial – probably quite some way below 450 parts per million by volume.

This is something very much within the realm of human choice. We can decide what we want to happen – for example by setting targets for emission reductions and meeting them.

This is where Easterbrook's positive message comes in. He says ‘The history of anti-pollution programs is that it is always cheaper to prevent emissions than to reverse any damage they cause’. A good example supporting this case that I don’t think he mentions is the US Clean Air Act of 1970. According the U.S. Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the best estimate of the net human health benefits (benefits minus costs) of the Act was more than $22 trillion (trillion, not billion) over its first 20 years (ref here). That is, more than a trillion dollars a year.

There are some who go even further than Easterbrook. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute says there’s a sign error on the global warming problem. That is, solving it - through smarter design and addressing market failure – will be entirely profitable, a negative cost.

Few go as far as Lovins, but it is clear there are big profits to be made from efficiency gains that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. An analysis published in the McKinsey Quarterly, A cost curve for greenhouse gas abatement, finds that almost a quarter of possible emission reductions would result from measures that carry no net life cycle cost—in effect, they come free of charge. These measures include better insulation in building, increased fuel efficiency in commercial and private vehicles, more efficient lighting, air conditioning and water heating and so on.

One of the problems is that, just as US industry opposed the Clean Air Act and had to be dragged along kicking and screaming into compliance despite the overwhelming benefits the Act delivered to the American people, so vested interests and entrenched market failure prevent realisation of efficiency gains today. We have this problem right now in Europe with car manufacturers who do everything they can to wriggle out of higher fuel efficiency standards (see, for example this from Mark Mardell).

And there is an even bigger problem. Even if it these efficiency gains are realised it is very unlikely this will be enough to be enough to deliver cuts in emissions sufficient stabilise CO2 at less than 450ppmv. A whole range of investments in industrial redesign, new energy technologies and other measures in both the already rich countries and most especially in emerging economies will be necessary. So will better land management and a great reduction in the rate of tropical deforestation which is adding hundreds of millions of tonnnes, at least, of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. Some of these challenges are very hard.

Turning finally to winners and losers, Easterbrook overestimates the number of gains relative to the losses. His key point is that there will be big gains in high latitudes, and this is good news for Russia, Scandinavia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. ‘Examine a Mercator projection and observe how the Earth’s landmasses spread from the equator towards the poles’, he says. Well maybe, but recall first that, unlike the Mercator projection, the Earth is not flat. The Mercator projection grossly distorts land area with respect to latitude. It shows Greenland as three to four times the size of India, for example, whereas in reality it is rather smaller.

There is much less land in the far North than appears from a Mercator projection, and we would be unwise to use it as a route map for a changing world. Remember too the sheer numbers of people who are likely to become environmental refugees from the Global South even under a best case scenario. There are, for example, more than nineteen thousand times as many people in India as there are in Greenland. Even now, Pakistan’s population is more than that of Russia and by mid century it is likely be twice the size. We cannot all "shuffle off to Buffalo" without it all getting rather bumpy.

Easterbook highlights forecasts that a warmer climate may bring a longer growing season and fewer deaths from cold in Russia and other northern climes. This may be so in the short run, although there are also likely to be negative consequences in the short run including forest fires, heat waves. But there’s another danger. He advises us to ‘assume global warming is uniform’, because ‘even though models suggest it will vary widely... all predictions regarding an artificial greenhouse effect are extremely uncertain’.

This is to misrepresent both actual observation to date (see, for example, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment) and the degree of confidence in predictions. The evidence from both points strongly to global warming not being uniform, and high latitudes heating faster. And if, as looks probable, that continues to happen then we could see the acceleration of some potentially dangerous effects.

For example 90% of the upper layer of tundra, or permafrost, may thaw by 2100. These regions contain a lot of carbon – perhaps 1600 billion tonnes. Recent measurements already show a 10 to 15% increase in the area of thaw lakes in northern and western Siberia. In northern Siberia, methane emissions from thaw lakes are estimated to have increased by 60% since the mid 1970s. It remains unclear what rate methane could be released in future, but preliminary estimates indicate that, along with the drying out peatlands this could add another 10 to 25% to current man made emissions (source Friedlingstein et al, Lawrence and Slater, quoted in Stern, page 16)

There's more. Perhaps above all, the rich North is not going to be isolated from big disruptions in the Global South. On a lighter note, do we really like the idea of Starbucks in Nunavut but no polar bears? - but I am out of time.

[P.S. 6 March: the debate can be heard via the listen again feature on the World Tonight's web site (Thursday). It starts at 31 minutes in to the programme]

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