The Economics & Emotion of Global Warming

I tried to stay balanced while reading this week’s Supreme Court oral transcripts from Massachusetts vs. EPA, the global warming case, but it’s tough. This feels like instant history, the kind of document that people will look back on in a hundred years and say there was a great example of a missed opportunity, a point where things began to really get away. So much sophistry, so little substance.

You can, of course, understand the temptation to wait for more data, to argue lack of standing, or to argue about the costs and consequences of carbon dioxide curbs. But then … while the global climate is a highly complex system, the science is also more settled than the Appeals Court and the EPA make it sound. Start reading the climate scientists’ amicus brief on page 17 to get a sense of how climate research is being warped to serve a political purpose.

Will we be telling our grandchildren about the days when winter skiing was widespread in North America and Europe? Maybe, because that already seems to be happening in Europe:

The International Ski Federation reports cancelled races in France, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and Italy because of a lack of snow. This month’s men’s downhill and Super G races at Val d’Isère, a French resort favoured by British skiers, have been scrapped. Not since Thomas Cook introduced ski tourism in the 19th century has there been so much dismay about the weather.

This November was the warmest in Austria since meteorological data was first gathered in 1775. At Cortina, the Queen of the Italian Dolomites, it is as if spring has arrived. At 1,224m midday temperatures are 15C — normal for May.

Alpine communities have coped with warm winter weather before, but this year there is a sense that it could be the beginning of the end of the European skiing experience.

If you think that’s a Euro-only phenomenon, read the Aspen Skiing amicus brief for the changes already under way there:

Over the past twenty-five years, Aspen has watched its total precipitation decrease by 6 percent, with snowfall decreasing by 16 percent (17 percent above 10,600 feet). Average temperatures have already increased by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) over the same period and frost-free days have increased approximately 20 days per year.

Go ahead and read the respondent-friendly briefs too, like the AEI’s, but even there you see that the arguments are mostly at the margin, about the amount of change, and about humans’ ability to cope with those changes — higher sealevels, more freakish weather, etc. — than abou actions that might be taken now to mitigate those responses.

Yeesh, I now need to go to bed. I’m apparently having a very, very green moment.


  1. Bottom line is, our system is designed to maximize short-term profits. Nobody gives a ____ about 100 years from now, or at least they don’t care enough to sacrifice anything today. AEI and the rest of the “think” tannks are almost perfect court apologists for a system unable to see further than next quarter…for shame.

  2. The problem is not climate change, which is natural and inevitable, but *rate* of change. All the evidence shows that we humans are speeding up natural global warming, so that species (including us) do not have enough time to adjust.
    You probably wouldn’t have had enough snow to ski at some of those hills in the year 1000 AD, either, before the late-medieval mini-ice-age kicked in — the northern hemisphere has just finished a temporary cold spell that lasted ~600 years. Unfortunately, climate change is not always gradual even without human intervention: global cooling in the 13th century happened very fast, and it was disastrous for Northern Europe, bringing violent storms that wiped out towns (just as Katrina hit New Orleans), along with plagues, famine (due to a shorter growing season), and war (due to hunger and overpopulation). Eventually, the overcrowded Europeans spilled out into North America, looking for more space and resources.

  3. Hi,
    I thought you might be interested in supporting this petition currently running on the 10 Downing Street website. There is a fair amount of support for this here in the UK.

  4. A hundred years from now, school children will be regaled by stories of global warming hysteria from the early 21st century.
    (By the way, the science isn’t settled. From about 1949 to 1979, the earth was cooling. How do we know this isn’t the long term trend and that the warming from 1979 to present isn’t, in fact, an aberation?
    Anyone who responds to my comment by saying we do know, is full of shit. Global warming nuts predicted a terrible hurricane season this year. They weren’t about as wrong as you could get. It is pure hubris to believe you can predict climate a hundred years into the future, let alone six months [let alone two weeks.])

  5. You know, Paul, I love skiing as much as the next guy, in the same way that I love winter in Saskatchewan and the ice floes of the high Arctic, all of which may also be on the endangered list over the long term.
    But you know what? Climate change was happening before we came along, and it will happen after we are gone. The idea that human beings are causing all these changes is 20 per cent fact and 80 per cent hubris. Europe has been through hot and cold periods, and so has North America — why not just adapt to it?
    Yes, the oceans will rise (a little) over time, and certain communities will be disrupted, and certain industries will fail — but others will take their place.

  6. Conservative thinktank scientists = Tobbaco scientists of the 80’s
    Does anyone honestly think these guys are principled? They’ll jump ship in a minute if they can find a decent paying job in the real world.

  7. [quote]By the way, the science isn’t settled..[/quote]
    yeah, just like nicotine is not PROVEN to be addictive. Or smoking is not PROVEN to cause lung cancer.
    Anybody that says ___ is not PROVEN by science didn’t pay enough attention in his/her 8th grade when the science teacher was lecturing on the Scientific Method. You can never prove a hypothesis, you can only disprove one. I haven’t seen anybody disprove global warming.

  8. I haven’t seen anybody disprove global warming.
    That’s because human caused global warming advocates don’t present their arguments using disprovable hypotheses.
    One can, however, disprove many of the claims made by anthropological global warming advocates. For example, the receding glaciation on Mount Kilimanjaro is often cited as proof of global warming. However, this has been going on for over a hundred years and the evidence is very strong that it’s due to deforestation surrounding the mountain, leading the a marked decrease in humidity. (The irony is that this means we actually can do something very concrete about this specific issue and it has nothing to do with decreasing carbon emmissions–of course, it is a dormant volcano and may become active at any time….)
    Another example; all man-made carbon emissions are a small fraction of natural made emissions and an even smaller fraction of natural made greenhouse gasses (GHGs), of which carbon dioxide is a minor component. (Water vapor is THE most important and abundant GHG.)
    Also, high atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide historically follow high temperatures, not precede them. What does this mean? Genuine scientists are still trying to figure that out, but global warming advocates don’t even bother to reconcile this issue.
    As for global warming in and of itself; after a trend of global warming from 1900 to the late 1940s, there was a marked and dramatic global cooling unti the late 1970s. Since then the temperature has increased again. Going back to the medieval climate optimum and subsequent mini-ice age, it appears that what is happening right now is absolutely normal–the climate changes, sometimes drastically. That’s life. Also death.
    (Looking at the million year historical record indicates that we are quite likely to experience another ice age over the next ten thousand years.)

  9. What amazes me about the energy crisis conversation is the lack of mention of fusion. Yes, there are options out there. No, not fission, not cold fusion. And not the conventional deuterium/tritium fusion (which is still radioactive.)
    Boron-hydrogen fusion. This is where it’s at, and if you haven’t heard about this, to borrow a line from Al Gore in “Inconvenient Truth” – clearly I’ve failed.
    Nuclear power without nuclear waste or weapons: It’s closer than you think. Much closer. Massive energy output without greenhouse gases: Closer than you think. You can have your cake and eat it to.
    We’ve got Lerner working on proton-boron fusion with the dense plasma focus. Then there’s Bussard working on proton-boron fusion with the IEC, an electrostatic device – here he is in this google video explaining the device and the superiority of boron-proton fusion. And several others out there. Who will get it working first? Where is this generation’s JFK announcing a fusion race?
    Meanwhile your taxpayer dollars go to fund the ITER program, setting up shop in France, which uses the tokamak and fuses deuterium-tritium – which still benefits nuclear proliferation. (here’s a comparison of conventional approach with focus fusion)
    Boron-proton fusion CAN’T be used for nuclear proliferation. If one of these approaches can get it to work, we’ve got a powerful new weapon against proliferation. Here’s a discussion on it in the focus fusion forums
    Help us spread the word by buying the cool T-shirts and other fusion promotional products. Just in time for the holidays, wishing you all a clean fusion filled future, starting as soon as possible.

  10. Paul Prescod says:

    Imagine a husband and wife on their honeymoon in a beautiful Hawaiian villa. As per the conventions of previous generations, this is their first time sleeping together.
    The wife wakes up in the middle of the night and says: “I think the bed feels wet and warm. Maybe I’m sweaty because its Hawaii. Or maybe the roof is leaking. Or maybe (hah hah) you are peeing in bed.”
    The husband responds: “Well, yes, I am urinating, but as you pointed out, there are a variety of possible causes for your discomfort. When you are absolutely, totally confident that it is my vital bodily fluids that are making you uncomfortable, I’ll stop urinating.”
    The wife exclaims: “Don’t you think that whether or not we are 100% sure that your urine has affected my side of the bed that it would behoove you to cease despoiling our honeymoon bed?”
    Quoth the husband: “Well it would be extradorinarily inconvenient for me to leave this comfortable and warm (increasingly warm) bed to use the toilet. And we still don’t know for sure that my urine is causing you a problem. I can certainly imagine how filling the bed with biological fluids could cause problems but I can also imagine scenarios where the very absorbant bed materials could just soak up the offending pollutant and store it. If that were the case then we could leave the problem for the next guests to deal with.”
    My responses to the “usual arguments”:
    1. “Climate change happens regardless of what we do.” — yes, let’s not accelerate it. In fact, let’s work to counteract even natural climate change!
    2. “It’s ‘just hubris’ to say we’re changing the climate.” It is UNQUESTIONABLY THE CASE that we are changing the atmosphere. Look at this graph:
    Let’s presume for a second that this is miraculously having no impact on the climate. Do the carbo-ostriches plan to do something about it when we reach 500 ppmv? Or 1000 ppmv? Or 5000 ppmv? How wet does the bed have to get before we act? Do you realy propose that we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the air until AFTER we are CONFIDENT that we’ve caused ourselves serious damage? Shouldn’t the default posture be to not pollute our environs (domestic or otherwise)?
    3. “Why not just adapt to it?” — That’s the most disingenous and dangerous argument. The people who are causing the problem are not the ones who will bear the expense of adapting to the changes. I wish Paul had never mentioned North American skiing. What about third world slands submerged? What about agricultural industries destroyed? What about ecosystems irretrievably lost? Westerners DO NOT have the moral right to make this decision for the whole planet, especially considering that the tropical and polar poor will bear the majority of the cost.
    This goes beyond standard environmental calculus. We have a stark moral decision: do we the rich risk the lives of millions of the poor on the THEORY that we can pump unlimited amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere without causing problems.
    For Canadian readers: Stephen Dion was just elected leader of the Liberal party. As you know, Dion has emerged as Canada’s climatic Al Gore. We therefore have in front of us a very clear choice on this issue. It is time to abandon the cynical stance that it doesn’t matter whether you vote for TweedleDee (Liberal) or TweedleDum (Conservative). In this situation, TweedleDum is TOO dumb to confront the problem.

  11. Franklin Stubbs says:

    How about a little probability distribution here.
    On a hypothetical basis, say the odds shake out to 33% chance that global warming is real… and very serious… vs 67% chance it’s a worry-free fluke.
    Basically one in three that we could be heading into a world of hurt. Are those odds worth scoffing at?
    Or, put another way: anyone willing to play Russian roulette with two bullets in the chamber, let alone one?

  12. Paul: I’m fascinated by your ability to use weather to infer climate. Especially since here in the Pacific Northwest, an unusually early snowstorm has just led, among other things, to some of the earliest ski-resort openings on record (Grouse mountain was recording snow measurements earlier this week that would have been an above-average mid-season base).
    Franklin: making up baseless odds is not likely to convince people to take your trip into Precautionary Principle hell.

  13. Global Warming and the Human Mindset: A Time to Start a Rational Analysis
    In scanning through the short arguments presented on this topic, I see very many, very smart people presenting their arguments in hopes that they have resolved the argumentation necessary for this problem. Unfortunately, they haven’t and such argumentation never will. However, even the long drawn out argumentations have also failed, from ancient times up to “Silent Spring”, “A Forest Journey”, and so many others through to the present that have cross-examined so many environmental issues with global warming as just one of them, and, in passing, so many other massive, unsolvable human problems such as the disintegration of the family, the proliferation of criminality by so many in all walks of life, etc. All that argumentation has just exposed many issues, but never yields an agreeable base to take action and rationally solve the problem. Why?
    Did it ever occur to so many that the universe at large or just locally is not so absolute as humans try to make it? That it can only yield probabilistic outcomes in each and every phenomenon examined? And upon this knowledge base one must frequently make absolute decisions and actions often without hesitation and for long periods of time or “lose your ventures”, if the decisions are wrong. Can humans ever rise to this level of understanding? No, of course not, and so the probabilistic outcomes will have the day, maybe not this year or this decade, but maybe next century. Meanwhile, humans, guided by their fantasies, force their absolutisms onto a probabilistic world, and eventually suffer the consequences. It is built into the species and only a few can see the problem. Why?
    The vast majority are enmeshed in absolute systems which ensure that the continual thinking process is one of absolutism. It is even fully propagated generationally. I offer a few of the many obvious examples. Over 5 million landlords are guaranteed by the Smithian econo-ethical system that they shall receive their full, monthly rents exactly to the penny or more and on time, several million banks are assured of getting all their payments exactly to the penny or more and on time, and this list goes on and on into the hundreds of millions with only the names changing. All absolute systems, with no allowances for the probabilistic existences of those burdened to fulfill such absolutes. Is it any wonder that people lose their jobs, cannot pay their bills, families are destroyed, crime proliferates, children, elders, and poor are victimized, etc.? An endless list of the indifferences and outcomes of absolute systems. And the most insufferable absolute system is one that promotes absolute greed and selfishness from its vary economic roots. Why?
    Such a system leaves open all the excuses for victimization of anyone, anything, and everything possible. The greediest and the most selfish get everything and are legally and economically sanctioned to do so, defended to the bitter end of their victims by a billion legal circumlocutions, often called laws, that only come around to the defense of greed and selfishness. Such an absolute system has all the means available in so many legal tools and weapons to define whole populations of undesired social strata, whole classes of human-generated environmental dilemmas, and so many other unacceptables as fantasies to be neglected, then crucified, then forgotten, unless they can still be bilked to continue fulfilling the unquenchability of greed and selfishness. It is always interesting to observe the precise time-dependent, predictable outcomes for such actions.
    This will be the same for the global warming dilemma no matter what the reality is. The mindset is the problem and forever stalls any possibility of a solution. Such absolutist systems also ensure the perpetual existences of so many anthropically suicidal and biologically ecocidal members of the human species.
    May this be a starting point for a much deeper analysis across all disciplines, especially human ethology.

  14. Alexander Marktl says:

    I live in Austria and it’s quite interesting that our climate is of international interest.
    However, same time last year we had over 1 meter snow and it was too much. This year is extreme like it was last year, just other direction.
    Overall we have less snow and it’s warmer, that’s a fact.

  15. Seems to me the opinion matrix for the situation is the result of the following two questions:
    1) Does human activity affect the rate of climate change?
    2) Is the net direction of observed climate change something with an overall beneficial effect?
    You could add some qualifier questions as well, like “Do you think the climate is actually changing?” or “Is it proper to engage in activities that might alter the climate?”, but we’ll keep it simple.
    The results are:
    NN – Climate is changing for the worse and there is nothing we can do about it except adapt.
    NY – Climate is changing for the better and there is nothing we can do except to take advantage of it.
    YN – Climate is changing for the worse and we need to stop exacerbating the problem.
    YY – Climate is changing for the better and we’re helping the process along.
    Note that this is irrespective of the type of climate change. It could just as easily be applied to a situation where we are offsetting global cooling with greenhouse gases.
    It seems most of the argument right now is between the NN’s and the YN’s, and I figure someone else can make another matrix to further qualify them.
    In the end, my opinion is that it is something along the lines of building an asteroid defense system. That is, there is the huge cost of building one, compared to the probability times cost of what happens if we need one and don’t have it. That is, do we burn a few trillion now to make something we won’t need for 500 years, knowing that 500 years from now asteroid defense systems might come in Cracker Jack boxes?
    Similarly, we also have the global cost of mitigating/slowing/stopping a serious episode of global warming versus the global cost of not doing so, and not knowing whether or not the current temperature swing is just a “temporary” phenomenon that will correct itself in a few decades or a century with or without us, in which case much of the effort spent would have been unnecessary.
    Personally, I’m for mitigating greenhouse gases, but I’d also feel really silly if we dismantled the last major source of emissions just about the time the planet decided to swing towards another ice age. “Thanks for turning off the heat, Grandpa…”
    In short, the questions are: “is the cost of the “insurance policy” worth it?”, and the bigger question “who is going to pay the premiums?”
    Greg Porter

  16. Franklin Stubbs says:

    “Franklin: making up baseless odds is not likely to convince people to take your trip into Precautionary Principle hell.”
    Obviously it was a thinking exercise, not a focus on the specific numbers given — which you so charmingly castigate in red herring fashion.
    You sound like a risk manager for Amaranth. Pre blow-up, that is.
    It is further amusing that you dis PK for inferring anything from weather, and then reply with your own weather-themed counter example. Et tu, Brutus?
    Obviously the real evidence, or lack thereof, is more substantial than weather patterns. It involves stuff like, say, polar ice cores that give us an approximation of the average carbon dioxide accumulation rate over hundreds of thousands of years.
    The point is that, while most folks will approach this stuff ideologically with no actual attempt to discern the truth, it really is worthwhile… and possible to at least some useful degree… to attempt putting ideology aside as best one can and assessing what kind of problem we might actually have here.

  17. Franklin Stubbs says:

    “In the end, my opinion is that it is something along the lines of building an asteroid defense system. That is, there is the huge cost of building one, compared to the probability times cost of what happens if we need one and don’t have it.”
    But with this analogy, you implicitly suggest the odds of climate change being serious are on par with an asteroid ending life on earth, i.e. 1 out of millions instead of 1 out of 3, or 5, or some other single-digit number.
    The other problem with your frame is that our use of fossil fuels isn’t just holding steadily, it is ramping up massively. There is and has always been an iron-clad correlation between rapid industrialization (China, India et al) and ramped up energy use, which for now and the foreseeable future means dramatically accelerated use of fossil fuels. 47% of the world’s oil goes into gas tanks; as of now, and probably for the next decade or two, there will be no mass substitute for the internal combustion engine. Not to mention all the other massive energy expenditures that occur when hundreds of millions of people transition from dirt floor huts to lattes at Starbucks. The per capita income of India is less than a tenth that of the United States. What happens when it’s a third, or a quarter? The per capita income of China is an eighth of the US. What happens when it’s half?
    The increase will be flat out stunning–when you consider the sheer numbers of middle class aspirants and the low base they are starting from, we’re talking orders of magnitude increase in energy demand. And we’re ALREADY pushing the margins of sustainability.
    Barbara Freese has characterized fossil fuel as a ‘solar bank account’ of sorts–animal and vegetable sunshine deposits, accumulated over millions of years, with the bulk of those deposits made during a tropical period when plants were as big as buildings and six-foot cockroaches roamed the earth.
    Statistical arguments aside, doesn’t it make sense on some level that, if we release all fossilized energy on a scale never before seen, we at least stand some chance of recreating the conditions in which it was accumulated?
    I can respect the view that global warming… and pollution problems for that matter… aren’t as serious as some make them out to be, that the numbers need to be taken with a big grain of salt.
    But anyone who waves off global warming nonchalantly, Rush Limbaugh style, is a buffoon.
    In my humble opinion.

  18. This issue is unimportant. If humans are indeed causing global warming awareness cannot be raised and industrial development cannot be slowed enough for it to matter. Stop China, stop India, yeah right.
    The hysterical (or prudent) among us will develop a work around before it’s too late. Or maybe not and we’ll all die.
    If there are dire effects it will of course be the fault of the United States but it will be difficult to place the blame entirely on George Bush. You could blame me, that’s OK. I’m apathetic. yadda yadda yadda…

  19. One Way Stox says:

    this issue is more about raising money from the libs, nothing more. Thirty years ago, the tree-huggers were warning us of THE COMING ICE AGE.

  20. I’m somewhat skeptical as to how much impact humans are having on the global climate. The earth is a really big, complex ecosystem with a geologic history millions even billions of years older than humans. I’m not sure science is sophisticated enough to tell us whether we’re having a significant impact on overall climate (especially given that science cannot predict the weather next week with much accuracy).
    However, science is able to tell us that many types of pollution are not good for us and many other creatures. For example, the resident orca’s (killer whales) off the BC and Washington coasts are the most polluted animals on the planet, with toxic levels of PCBs in their systems. High levels of particulates contribute to higher rates of asthma, and tougher conditions for those with asthma.
    Therefore, the climate change debate is really a red herring that allows polluters to dispute the impact of their pollution. If we just focused on the health of humans and animals on the planet, the science behind “cleaning up” and polluting less would be irrefutable.

  21. lower power says:

    Well Mars is going through global warming right now also, I’m sure it is NASA’s fault since they sent the 2 SUV’s to roam around the surface. Right they were electric.
    On the good side of things Greenland had its first wheat successful wheat harvest since the start of the little ice age.
    If one studies the records pre-little ice age was a very good time for human kind as crops could be grown on much more of the planets surface.
    Last thing to note is to study the sunspot cycles, the chinese have recorded them for 3500 years and they corrolate almost exactly with the solar output and the temprature of the earth.
    Do humans have an effect on global surface temprature? Probably. A significant effect? Not likely.

  22. Tom George says:

    Well, I hesitate somewhat to wade into this, but I think we ought to contemplate the topic matter in light of the title of this blog, “Infectious Greed” 😉
    The assumption that if we only had agreement about the science, the growth in energy consumption could be stopped or reversed seems pretty optimistic. New Orleans was devastated by a hurricane the strength and effects of which were predicted using uncontroversial weather models.
    In Canada we flagellate ourselves regularly because our per capita consumption of energy is possibly the highest in the world–a vicious combination of living in a vast, relatively cold, and sparsely populated country with a huge pool of cheap oil in the ground. Having grown up in a city with an average low of -24 (degrees Celsius) in January, I’m not sure what you can tell people who would prefer not to freeze to death so that an abstract disputed outcome will not occur 50 – 100 years from now.
    I’m also struck, as someone with an actual science degree, that the shrillest voices concerning climate change (amongst colleagues and friends) come from people without any education in science. I know I know, that’s a terrible argument, but when you see how sausages (and theories) are made, you’re a little more ambivalent about swallowing.

  23. Trade-Monkey says:

    Interestingly, climate change models predict a cooling of Western Europe, not a warming. The anecdote of less-prevelant skiing in France is evidence against global warming not for it.

  24. Franklin Stubbs says:

    “I’m also struck, as someone with an actual science degree, that the shrillest voices concerning climate change (amongst colleagues and friends) come from people without any education in science.”
    Would you count Edward O. Wilson among those shrill voices? I hear he has a science degree too.

  25. There is much talk about hubris in these comments. I submit that it is also hubris to assume that, even if we humans are expected to adapt to the climate changes while we take the time to determine if we should act upon them, we blithely assume that other life forms will do so as well. This planet is an immensely complex system, far moreso than our tiny minds can yet comprehend. If we are wrong and that mistake leads to catastrophic changes in the existence of other living things, we could be up that creek without a paddle. Do you honestly believe we exist in a vacuum, or that we can preserve whatever life is convenient for our continued existence on this planet? We are very good at creating change quickly, but we only understand its effects slowly. That is a very bad combination for creatures of our power.