Recently I entered a conversation with an organization that is working on a better understanding of how people might respond to global warming and what are the elements that can impact our choices for change.
The subject is enormously complex and multi-disciplinary. In some parts of the world, notably the US, it has also become politically charged. But human caused global warming clearly exists and there will be increasing impacts. That makes it a fantastic problem - perhaps the most important change problem over the next few generations.
I like to think about our response to it in terms of admixtures of choices that come in triplets. The first triplet is how we deal with it. The choices are mitigation, adaptation and suffering. Most analyses show mitigation - reducing the impact of the change by working on decreasing its scale before it becomes severe - to be far and away the most cost effective choice. The costs are still viewed as high relative to other societal costs and most people don’t see the threat as immediate and severe enough to warrant serious efforts.
But even if we could do something dramatic there is something of a flywheel effect from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We will see an increase in average temperature even if we were to cut our emissions to nearly zero and we’ll have to deal with the consequences as nature adapts - after all, many of us and our children will be around for the ride. We can control the amount of adaptation either through mitigation or by simply ignoring mitigation and adaptation.
Doing nothing will result in increased human suffering. The uneven distribution of wealth and resources to people will create pockets of losers and these may be enormous. A few years ago I spent some time in a group thinking about some of these issues and was left deeply troubled - the sort of thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night with awful nightmares. Some of these it is probably taking place now, although currently one can only look at these events statistically.
The average world temperature is increasing and that is beginning to have a measurable impact. Most of us think in terms of sea level and shrinking ice caps, but changing climates are probably a larger issue. The Earth has seen higher and lower temperatures, but these changes generally have occurred over time scales that have allowed evolution to adapt. The current changes we are seeing are taking place at a time scale that is much faster than the capacity of evolution to respond.1
Most of our energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels - essentially carbon that has been stored over millions of years. Traditionally there is a balance in the carbon cycle with the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being more or less regulated at about 275 parts per million (ppm) in recent times. At least until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Now we could burn coal, petroleum, and natural gas. All of these were formed by storing carbon that was fixed in photosynthesis over millions of years in a very short amount of time. Nature is incapable of regulating the increase at the pre-Industrial Revolution level and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to creep up to a bit more than 390 ppm this year. It should pass 400 ppm by 2015 at the current rate of increase and much larger numbers seem almost certain.
If we were getting most of our energy - say more than 90% - from non-carbon sources there would be no global warming issue. We don't, but we have the capacity for change and that brings me to the second triplet.
You can lower the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by using some admixture of conservation, efficiency, and new types of production.
Conservation should be a no-brainer, but convincing people to change their usage patterns can be difficult. Conservation seems to require motivation, a perceived ability to do something and a trigger that prompts action. Putting this together rarely happens automatically.
At a personal level we were able to decrease the amount of gasoline burned in our car from about 650 gallons per year ten years ago to around 200 gallons per year now. A bit over 20% of that was from improved efficiency in my driving technique and tweaks to the car itself, but most of the reduction came from simple conservation - careful trip planning and the elimination of unnecessary driving. The steps are simple, but cars are so convenient that it is difficult getting people to make the efficiency or conservation choice. For many of us efficiency seems to only be considered when a car is traded.
President Carter famously ran into political problems when he suggested people conserve energy at home and even more when a 55 mph speed limit was introduced (although one can argue that is an efficiency step). Since then politicians seem to work under the assumption that the American voter is lazy and incapable of serious sacrifice even if sacrifice now may lead to a better future. They seem to believe we are only capable of responding to the immediate.
Efficiency is interesting as more efficient devices can those that use more energy and the user is not left with the conscious decision that conservation requires. An unsung hero of the efficiency game is Art Rosenfeld of LBL - I strongly recommend a talk he gave a few years ago:
You do have to be a bit careful implementing efficiency. A car that is five percent more efficient than what you have may be appealing and it probably makes sense to move to more efficient cars when you trade, but moving just based on efficiency neglects the energy required to build the car in the first place - a figure that is often the equivalent of a year’s worth of driving. On that basis there may be no energy payback from a small efficiency improvement. On the other hand there may be enormous opportunities that you are overlooking.
Some people suggest that improve efficiency leads to greater energy use and imply that it doesn’t make sense to make our energy using devices more efficient. The Jervons Paradox is usually invoked in their arguments. In 1865 William Jervons published The Coal Question which argued that producing goods with less energy would not result in an energy savings, but rather would encourage so many new goods that ultimately more energy would be used. The paradox is also called rebound and, where increased consumption trumps the savings from efficiency, backfire.
In the December 20, 2010 edition of The New Yorker David Owen published a popular piece on this under the title “The Efficiency Dilemma”. Unfortunately his analysis doesn’t hold up under careful examination. It is the result of careful cherry picking that distorts a larger view of the issues involved.2 The net result of smokescreens like this is there is a lot of pushback on the move to increase efficiency even though dramatic improvements have been made since the OPEC embargoes and we are seeing the potential for even more. There can be an enormous bang for the buck here - but, of course - the payback is not immediate and many organizations are not equipped to perform the analysis required to uncover choices that will help them do more with less.
New sources of energy production are sexy for the engineer as well as the investor and ultimately we have to move much of our energy production to low or no carbon sources.3 As new power plants are required it makes sense to move away from high carbon sources, but costs are the driving issue. Hydrocarbons and the machines that convert their stored energy into more useful forms are very inexpensive - particularly as their economics rarely involve the costs of their carbon emissions. Working at this level, for small and large scale operations, often involves government policy as these plants are expensed over very long periods of time.
Most people tend to concentrate on new sources of energy as that appears to require the least change on their part. You can simply use your stuff and don’t need to change your lifestyle assuming the price changes are sufficiently small. It is a nice way to avoid thinking about the more complex problem.
In summary conservation can be immediate and very inexpensive. Efficiency improvements take more time and generally have a cost associated with them, but often (not always!) have a greater impact than conservation for the average user. Moving to new sources of energy is sexy and tends to be expensive (at least over the short term). It offers the least bang for the buck, but it is centrally important over the long term. All of these can be very inexpensive if applied to mitigation, but people usually neglect the proper analysis of including externalities in their calculations.
Going back to the first triplet, mitigation is probably the best and least expensive approach, but the train has left the station and we will be forced to adapt to some change that is inevitable. How much is an open question and we will have some control over that. Suffering will also occur - mitigation and adaptation can minimize that, but all of this is expensive, political and off the radar of most of us.
The holidays are traditionally a time of hope - after all, the Winter Solstice marks a point where we can now look forward to ever increasing amounts of light. I don’t mean for this to be a bleak and troubling piece, but rather note we are still at a point where we have choices and much can be done. The difference one person can make is not necessarily insignificant - look at what Art managed to do - but even if you only make changes in your own life and that of your family, that is progress. And maybe you will be rewarded with a different perspective for looking at the world.
If you try something that you hope will impact others recognize that it may well fail and learn from it. I spent about a year working with a friend on her plan to promote gardening and biking among children in Southern California. The ride was bumpy and the program ultimately failed, but it wasn't terribly expensive and we learned a lot from the experience. Hopefully enough to make the next effort - or the efforts of others - more positive. And even a failed project is much more rewarding than watching television.
I’m very excited to be working with this small group as they are very serious about trying to move the needle on changing the attitude of people. This is something that is required if we are going to minimize suffering of our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond.4
1 At least one of the six great extinctions - the Permian-Triassic event - may have taken place in under 1000 years, so there may be a precedent for something as swift as what we are now witnessing. It is important to note that the real issue is not the absolute temperature change, but rather the rate of change - dT/dt, where T is temperature. As humans 30 to 100 years seems like a long time and is something we generally don’t plan for, but anything under a few thousand years is a twinkling for natural responses. We have a huge mismatch.
2 It is way beyond the scope of a small posting to get deeply into this, but Owen argues that rebound effects are often in the 10 to 30 percent range and can exceed 100%. In reality they are usually in the small single digits where they exist at all. Most devices have relatively modest energy costs that few people respond to. Responding saved energy costs does lead to indirect energy use, but from 1986 to 2006 only about six to eight percent. Furthermore no saved money can buy more than 100% of the energy in that was originally saved (at least not unless you change to a different type of energy with dramatically different costs). Most people don’t understand the energy costs of their home furnace or air conditioner and don’t use it more because it is cheaper to operate. Future energy savings are diluted by capital costs and generally heavily discounted. Owen improperly neglects other contributing factors to economic growth. His article is intellectually very fuzzy and lacks rigor and proper logic.
3 Production is an inappropriate term that all of us use. We don’t “produce” energy, but rather convert it from one from to another as physics tells us energy can’t be created or destroyed and is always conserved. When we burn coal we are turning energy stored in chemical bonds within the coal into thermal energy and this thermal energy generally produces steam that drives a turbine converting thermal energy into mechanical energy. The turbine spins a generator converting mechanical energy into electrical energy which is a form we can easily distribute and use. We think of coal as a fundamental energy source as we mine it, but it is really stored solar energy that was captured by plants usually millions of years ago.
4 Sukie and I don’t have children. Many of the scientists I know who study the impact of global warming - particularly the effects on the ecosystem - seem to have lower fertility rates. I can understand why as there is a great amount of pessimism that suffering can be avoided. I’m cautiously optimistic, but doubt we’ll do anything close to optimal. I may not have children, but I do have younger friends I love and what they may have to deal with deeply disturbs me.
The drawing is from the extremely skilled pen of Gary Zamchick who created it for Colleen Smith. Gary is a great guy for involving art in the process of innovation. I've worked with him and give him two thumbs up:-)