Thursday, December 10, 2009

The great climate debate

Even as the United Nations Climate Change Conference gets underway at Copenhagen, Climate Change Deniers are losing their sleep. Expectedly so. The well-heeled Climate Change Denier Industry – also called Global Warming Skeptics -- has a history of insomnia. One such influential band is the Global Climate Coalition, which represents ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and several big motor manufacturers. In 1995 the GCC’s own panel of scientists turned renegade and stated that ‘the scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.’ Expectedly GCC worked overtime to hush the matter up. They didn’t stop at that and spent millions to convince people that just the opposite was right.

The most credible body tasked by the UN to evaluate the risk of climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The panel elucidates in its last major environment report that ‘it is more than 90% likely that humankind is largely responsible for the modern-day climate change’. Notwithstanding the fact that the Earth's climate has always changed naturally over a period of time the main cause of anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is burning fossil fuels – that produces carbon dioxide (CO2). The carbon dioxide in turn compliments the CO2 already present in the Earth's atmosphere, trapping more of the Sun's energy, thereby warming the Earth's crest. IPCC bases its assessment majorly on peer reviewed and published scientific literature.

Back in Copenhagen, much has been made out of the nearly 1200 limos and 100 private planes used to ferry the delegates. The very premise of this argument is silly. The expenses for transportation for more than 20,000 people coming in from all over the world, if compared to the consumption of a densely packed urban center of 140,000 people -- who aren't traveling -- is simple: 5% of those dignitaries from 120 nations will make use of the limos while 95% of the visiting dignitaries WON’T be riding in limos? And how many cars they use at the Climate Change Conference is going to be absolutely inconsequential in comparison to any final binding agreement they might make. This is painfully obvious.


The ongoing din (suddenly ratcheted up) is a very clever ploy employed by the Deniers to belittle any possible outcome at Copenhagen. They cherry-pick personal e-mails, misrepresent data and cut off graphs before their curves become inconvenient. There are special interest groups at work with marked financial interests who pay to misrepresent the scientific consensus on climate change. And they sound increasingly like the Tobacco lobby. In 2006, The Guardian reported:

‘There are clear similarities between the language used and the approaches adopted by Philip Morris and by the organisations funded by Exxon. The two lobbies use the same terms, which appear to have been invented by Philip Morris's consultants. "Junk science" meant peer-reviewed studies showing that smoking was linked to cancer and other diseases. "Sound science" meant studies sponsored by the tobacco industry suggesting that the link was inconclusive. Both lobbies recognized that their best chance of avoiding regulation was to challenge the scientific consensus. As a memo from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson noted, "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.’

When the evidence doesn’t fit, the skeptics go, the scientists edit the evidence. This is a typical anti-science stance. As a matter of fact scientists correct their results from time to time when new evidence comes to light. The recently hacked emails should be a case in point. With no interest in establishing the truth about global warming, the Deniers insist that one or two odd lines of personal correspondence are just enough to destroy the entire canon of climate science. That is a far cry from truth. The emails in question cannot be de-contextualized and presented as the Final Judgment. Here’s why:

One of the supposedly most damning quotes from the CRU Hack “scandal” is:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Phil Jones

Before the laity is drowned in lengthy denunciation of the ‘rouge’ scientist’ and his gall to HIDE stuff to prove his point, let it be known that every profession evolves a specialized vocabulary. Two medicos exchanging correspondence will understand much more about what is being said and meant than someone else, even if that other person knows all of the vocabulary. Top reason why most scientists are spectacularly unimpressed with the emails’ leak. As a thrown in, Trick here means technique. (For example trick of the trade).


The scientific conclusion behind the climate change debate is very clear: What drives climate change is a variation in the earth’s orbit around the sun over thousands of years. In a normal warming cycle the sun heats the earth, the earth gets hotter. The ocean warms up resulting huge amounts of CO2. This creates a greenhouse effect that makes warming much more intense. That is why humankind’s release of CO2 is so perilous. We are out of step with the natural cycle.

Jeff Severinghaus, Professor of Geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California lucidly explains what the lag of CO2 behind temperature (a charge Deniers often invoke) in ice cores tell us about global warming.

‘At least three careful ice core studies have shown that CO2 starts to rise about 800 years (600-1000 years) after Antarctic temperature during glacial terminations. These terminations are pronounced warming periods that mark the ends of the ice ages that happen every 100,000 years or so. Does this prove that CO2 doesn't cause global warming? The answer is no. The reason has to do with the fact that the warmings take about 5000 years to be complete. The lag is only 800 years. All that the lag shows is that CO2 did not cause the first 800 years of warming, out of the 5000 year trend. The other 4200 years of warming could in fact have been caused by CO2, as far as we can tell from this ice core data. The 4200 years of warming make up about 5/6 of the total warming. So CO2 could have caused the last 5/6 of the warming, but could not have caused the first 1/6 of the warming.’

CO2 does not initiate the warmings, but acts as an amplifier. From model estimates, CO2 (along with other greenhouse gases CH4 and N2O) causes about half of the full glacial-to-interglacial warming. In modern industrial times, there is so much CO2 being independently emitted by human activity that the amplifying effect might simply overwhelm the other factors that otherwise cause the earth's temperature to fluctuate up or down.

There is talk now of imposition of a carbon tax to protect the environment by reducing emissions, helping to mitigate climate change. An alternative policy is a cap on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [Cap-and-trade]. It is an endeavor to cap emission levels of GHGs and issue/auction permits (grandfathering) freely to polluters. Market may be allowed for these emission permits so that polluters can trade some or all of their permits with others. Infact both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes are intended to give polluters a financial incentive to reduce their GHG emissions. The main difference between them is that carbon taxes provide price certainty on emissions, while a cap provides quantity certainty on emissions.

Interestingly there is no evidence till date that the European carbon price affected their trade competitiveness. It has been more than 18 years since the Swedes established a carbon tax on energy consumption. Whenever skeptics claim the tax kills growth, its proponents whip out its track record: since the tax was introduced, Swedish greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by 9%, while the economy has grown by a whopping 48% since then. So this tax doesn’t slow growth in the least. It is not regressive.

The carbon tax has to be made revenue-neutral (for every dollar raised by a tax, an equivalent dollar is returned to consumers) to be effective. To illustrate this, in 2005, America’s richest 20% spent an average of $3,182 on gasoline, or 3.6 times as much as the $882 spent by the poorest 20%. So, although the poorest 20% of Americans spend a greater percentage of their income on carbon, they pay less overall and thus would receive more money back than they paid in carbon taxes. Except for those industries the tax is intended to raise prices for anyway, the effect is relatively small. A revenue-neutral carbon tax minimizes the effect even further because overall tax burdens would not rise. Unaccounted for in these figures are the costs companies would incur to shift away from carbon-intensive inputs. These costs can be passed forward to consumers. Those extra costs, however, will create jobs in new industries aimed at carbon reductions.