The Global Warming Problem

Here is a guest post by LEVI, a regular commenter on this blog.

There’s a lot of rhetoric floating around regarding climate change and the solutions being proposed to address the problem.  I wrote this piece to give readers a starting point from which to consider the problem and the mitigation programs under consideration.

This article is meant to provide a brief discussion of Climate Change and the two major proposals being advanced in the US congress.  It is meant to provide a starting point for those trying to understand the global warming problem and the two proposals under serious consideration as possible solutions.  The intricacies and likely effectiveness of the respective proposals are beyond the scope of this writing

Global warming is a reality and the consensus of every major scientific academy and society in the world is that global warming is being accelerated by human production of Green House Gasses (GHG’s), primarily carbon dioxide.  GHGs are a by-product of fossil fuel combustion (petroleum, coal and natural gas).  These gasses are emitted into the atmosphere and act like a green house for the entire planet, preventing energy from being reflected away from the earth.  This results in rising global temperatures. 

Data models suggest that global temperature may rise as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.  Although this doesn’t sound like much from the perspective of the thermostat in your living room, such a change will result in major economic, meteorological and environmental effects.  The scientific and economic consensus is that these effects will have a detrimental impact on global economies and many species of life on the planet.  Scientists and world leaders agree that we need to do something to curtail global warming or we may face devastating environmental and economic consequences by the end of this century.   

The two solutions that have been discussed in the US Congress are the imposition of a carbon tax or implementation of a cap & trade system.  A carbon tax would tax the source of the GHG’s at some point in the supply chain.  Presumably, the revenues generated by the tax would be used to develop cleaner energy sources or technologies to “clean up” the emissions associated with fossil fuels.  The carbon tax has the advantage of being relatively simple to administrate.  We know how much GHG’s are emitted by burning particular fuels.  As such, the tax could be imposed anywhere between the well-head or mine and the final consumer.  The problem with a flat carbon tax is that it will be passed on to the consumer and therefore tends to be regressive in that it impacts lower income earners more severely.  Further, a tax does not impose any hard cap on emissions.  As such, an tax on green house gasses may not serve to actually reduce emissions.   

A Cap & Trade system by comparison would set a GHG reduction target for major GHG emitters ( such as power plants and large industries like steel, glass and concrete) to be accomplished by a certain date.  This is the CAP portion of cap & trade.  Emitters would then be required to reduce their emissions by a certain percentage over time. The specific reduction target for each emitter would be established by reference to a baseline.  If the EU (European Union) model is followed, at the beginning of the program, large emitters would be granted a number of carbon credits (equivalent to 1 ton of Co2) equivalent to their baseline GHG production.  Emitters could also earn credits by funding approved carbon reduction projects.  Some examples include developing carbon sinks through re-forestation, sequestration projects or development of non-fossil fuel energy sources.  The idea is to establish a carbon credit trading system that allows emitters to buy or sell carbon credits on an exchange.  This is the Trade portion of cap & trade.  To the extent that emitters fail to meet their Cap, they could be faced with having to pay large fines or having to buy carbon credits on the open market sufficient to bring them into compliance.  Cap & Trade is premised on the idea that the market will reward those who develop clean energy technologies or otherwise reduce their GHG output and penalize those who don’t.                     

The proposed solutions above are discussed in their simplest terms and this article is by no means meant to be a comprehensive discussion of the intricacies or merits of either proposal.  That said, the ultimate conclusion is that both will result in higher energy costs to the consumer.     

The problem we face as a country and a planet is the conflict between doing the right thing by reducing global GHG emissions and coming to terms with fact that doing so will result in higher energy prices and tend to reduce our standard of living, at least in the short term.  As we are all painfully aware, higher energy prices impact virtually every aspect of the economy and result in higher costs of production.  These costs are ultimately passed on to the consumer.  These consequences are not likely to be politically popular with industrial concerns or consumers.  Addressing global warming creates a unique problem from a political perspective as the real impact of our current behaviors may not be realized for years.  Furthermore, the impact of reducing emissions in this country may have little or no impact if other major producers don’t follow suit.  As such, the problem really calls out for a global solution.  Unfortunately, barring an imminent catastrophe, it seems probable that the US and other major producers of GHGs lack the political will to change their behavior sufficiently to have a major impact the problem.  It is our duty as citizens of the world to support our political representatives such that they have courage to enact a meaningful GHG reduction program that can be emulated by and participated in by the rest of the world.

The Global Warming Problem

You are either for us or agin us

The global climate change debate has something in common with the evolution “debate”. (As an aside, I’d call the former an actual debate. The latter is only a debate in the minds of the deluded.) The thing in common is that in both cases you have one side arguing against scientific consensus and the other side defending scientific consensus.

Generally people who are arguing against scientific consensus point to past failed hypotheses to indicate that science can be wrong, has been wrong in the past and should not be treated as infallible. They are right about this, of course, but they miss a very, very, very important point: it was science itself that corrected these mistakes. It was not op-ed pieces or vague conjectures by untrained people, it was “big science” that found the correct answer.

So people who defend scientific consensus are not defending a particular conclusion, they are defending the processes that make such conclusions possible at all. Without science we can’t debate global climate change or evolution.

The people who argue against scientific consensus often say, “We’re not anti-science, we are against the squashing of debate perpetrated by ‘big science’. They get a theory and everyone jumps on the bandwagon at the expense of other valid scientific explanations.”

They are wrong about this. Global climate change and evolution, to stick with my two examples, are under constant attack by scientists. There are a million mundane (and perhaps a couple profound) controversies that are debated within the scientific community constantly. Literally, it never ends. That is what science is.

If we assume that we have 10 competent, honest scientists in a room and 8 of them agree with hypothesis A and 2 of them agree with hypothesis B, we call hypothesis A the scientific consensus. It does not mean that A is true and B is false, it means that the arguments of A convince more scientists than the arguments of B.

I’m personally not an expert at climate science or evolution. I can’t really make up my own mind based on the scientific data — I don’t have the training. Chances are, neither do you. My problem with the “anti-science crowd” is that their disagreement with scientific consensus is not based on the science but instead based on other factors such as their political leanings or their religion. Those are piss-poor reasons to take a view radically different from scientific consensus.

The bottom line is, either you trust the scientific process or you don’t. The only people capable of creating more successful theories are scientists. Unless you are personally an expert on the scientific matters at hand, your only rational alternative is to defer to scientific consensus.

You are either for us or agin us

Greenhouse gases


Global warming deniers love to point out that, yes, the earth is warming but it is not related to human activity. They really, really want to believe that we can continue to pump shit into the atmosphere without bound and never suffer any ill effects from it. It is this belief, which is not backed up by any science whatsoever, that leads virtually all Right Wingers to reject the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.

The image at right is taken from A report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It shows the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases over the last 10,000 years. The ancient measurements are from ice cores.

What is crystal clear on this graph is the effect of the industrial revolution on the amount of these gases in the atmosphere. The graph steepens at about 1800 and then gets even steeper around 1960.

The rise in the concentration of global warming gases is correlated to the global average temperature and the global average sea level and is inversely correlated with the northern hemisphere snow cover. (See the link above for the plots.) This report is from an international body of climate scientists.

How can you look at this data and the correlation with global climate change and conclude that anthropogenic climate change is impossible?

You can’t. People that do so are swayed more by political or economic arguments than climate science. They pull out opinions from minority scientific views and claim it backs up their claim. They ignore the data because it is an inconvenient truth.

The facts here are common sense: more greenhouse gases means more greenhouse effect which means higher temperatures, a changing climate and a dangerous situation that may be beyond our ability to solve.

The conservative approach is to be cautious. I wonder why conservatives don’t see it that way?

Greenhouse gases

Rightie Talking Points

I have to point out micadelic pulling out the latest right wing talking points on my post A systematic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change. Coincidently, PZ mentions the same issue and web site that micadelic pulls out. Hanging around too many right wing blogs, dude?

Let me be clear: if we discover that humans are not fucking up the climate, I will be very happy about it. I am not rooting for global climate change. I do have a big fucking problem with people who cherry pick science and news articles to try to convince people of something they have already made up their mind on. micadelic, my dear friend who has no shot in hell of being elected President, said “No, your wrong. Anthropomorphic Global Warming is a myth.”

His mind is made up and no amount of science will change it. Very typical for right wingers. Politics first, reality second.

Rightie Talking Points

A systematic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change

From the NY Times

A House committee released documents Monday that showed hundreds of instances in which a White House official who was previously an oil industry lobbyist edited government climate reports to play up uncertainty of a human role in global warming or play down evidence of such a role.

Before joining the White House, he was the “climate team leader” for the American Petroleum Institute, the main industry lobby.

He was hired by Exxon Mobil after resigning in 2005 following reports on the editing in The New York Times. The White House said his resignation was not related to the disclosures.

Raise your hand if you are cool with an ex- and now current oil industry lobbyists rewriting scientific reports to “play up uncertainty” in global climate change.

Your tax dollars at work.

A systematic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change