Anthropogenic global warming: what difference does it make?

Look. I am not a Luddite. I don’t buy into the whole skeptic argument that global warming is phony. I agree with it, in fact. But there are a few things that I think people are going to have to come to terms on.

  1. We are going to use every drop of oil that we can economically extract from the Earth. We are. Oil is now and will continue to be a valuable commodity.

  2. Because we are going to use every drop of oil, it is irrelevant whether you “go green” or not. What difference does it make? Whether it is concentrated damage or diffused over the course of 100 years it will still be done.

  3. When we “run out of oil” more will be produced. The Fischer-Tropsch process is old news, and is already being pushed in this country as a way to free ourselves of economic bondage from the Middle East.

  4. Nuclear power (and other’s like Ted Kennedy’s NIMBY wind farm), while a viable source of energy, is endlessly protested, as if the destruction of the planet is a relevant topic. It is not. It is an inevitable topic, and the results of AGW should be planned for accordingly.

  5. Kyoto is a joke. Even if it had been ratified by the US (which it wasn’t, it was overwhelmingly rejected by both parties) it would be forestalling the inevitable. Anybody who says otherwise is suffering from delusions that humans can effect positive change. They cannot. We are users, nothing more and nothing less. We do not under any circumstances use less, we always use more.

  6. Al Gore made a movie. Toyota released the Prius. We have wind farms. None of this is going to prevent the forthcoming economic and environmental disaster, so what’s the point? “Awareness” doesn’t change reality.

The bottom line is this: holding forth on AGW is all well and good, but Jesus Christ it gets old. It’s equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s smoke and mirrors, and ultimately it’s all for naught. So how about we start talking about how to mitigate the damage instead of trying to fool ourselves into thinking we can stop it.

Because the damage can’t practically be “mitigated” in any meaningful way. Any attempt to do so would be far more expensive than attempts to prevent it, and therefore even harder than trying to stop it has been. And attempts to mitigate the effects is an admission that it exists, which is opposed by the same people who oppose trying to stop it. By the times things get bad enough for people to seriously consider things like building a dike around New York or sealing off the middle of California, the worldwide economic collapse from the disaster will probably make any such attempts unaffordable.

Basically, if we can’t or won’t stop it, we’re all screwed. No, humanity won’t die; civilization probably won’t even collapse; but I expect something on the order of a worldwide Great Depression combined with a worldwide equivalent of the Dust Bowl, in terms of economic/ecological/agricultural collapse. As it’s probably too late, I’m just glad I have no children; I expect that we will be regarded by future generations as utterly evil and selfish.

Awareness does change reality. Our biggest obstacle to doing anything about limiting the environmental damage of global warming to now has been lack of political will. Without political intervention, nothing is going to change. Throwing up our hands and saying it’s too late also guarantees that nothing is going to change. Significantly reducing greenhouse emissions enough to at least slow the warming is a major endeavor, but not an impossible one. The fact that there has been essentially no progress so far is not a sign that it’s impossible, but a sign that we as a society have yet to even begin to try to actually fix the problem. And you’re right, signing on to Kyoto won’t fix the problem, buying Priuses won’t fix the problem, loving/hating Al Gore won’t fix the problem. So what? I don’t know of many people who think those things will fix global warming, but they’re symbolic first steps toward trying.

Just getting political and industry leaders to acknowledge global warming even exists has been hard enough, with progress in only the past few years. We’ve yet to see much if any real effort taken on a large enough scale to matter. The only way it’s going to happen is if there’s enough public pressure to push those leaders into doing something. If that energy is directed in the near-term on things like buying Priuses and planting trees, so what? It’s not going to fix the problem by itself, but it gets people involved and hopefully will build momentum toward larger scale change.

Why’s this in the Pit? Anyway, point by point:

No, that’s not really true, AFAICT. Of course, it ends up being the same total amount of fossilized carbon that will eventually be put back into the atmosphere, because I think you’re right that we probably will use up all the oil eventually.

But how quickly it happens can make a difference. For one thing, the longer we spin out the process of carbon emissions, the more time we allow for new technological developments (such as better carbon sequestration, higher fuel efficiency, etc.) to reduce or delay its effects.

Moreover, by reducing demand as much as possible (which I agree is not going to be anything close to actually giving up oil), we lessen the pressure on supply, which is what ratchets up the price and increases the economic incentives to go after ever more expensive and more environmentally destructive oil sources. Our current fossil-fuel usage is not very good for the planet, but a full-scale extraction race to siphon up every last drop of the stuff would be far more damaging.

But you’re talking about the FT process used to make fuel out of existing cellulosic biomass, right? That’s a different kettle of fish. Waste-biomass-derived fuels are more carbon-neutral than petroleum, because the biomass has done its share of carbon absorption in the very recent past to balance its carbon emissions as fuel. The trouble with petroleum is that it’s huge stockpiles of old carbon, which were formerly snugly sequestered under the earth and not taking part in the modern carbon cycle.

Sorry, you completely lost me here. What on earth are you talking about? I don’t mean I disagree with you, I mean I literally can’t make sense of what you’re trying to say.

Meh. We have made some changes in the past, such as the CFC ban to preserve atmospheric ozone, that actually had a worthwhile effect. I don’t see the point of giving up on efforts to get more carbon-balanced before we’ve even really tried.

As for the Kyoto Protocol, it was never intended or expected to be anything more than a first step toward the process of marketizing anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions. The requirements were in there not because it was believed they would actually produce substantially reduced emissions, but to serve as incentives for developing actual carbon markets. In any case, Kyoto is old news now. The Protocol expires in five years anyway, so I don’t see the point of continuing to bitch about its flaws. It’s time to turn our attention to what kinds of international agreements we should work for post-Kyoto.

A strange comment coming from someone on a messageboard dedicated to fighting ignorance. You seem to think that there’s no possible middle ground between our suddenly making humanity carbon-neutral within the next fifteen years—which I agree is impossible—and our just giving up on the goal of carbon-neutrality altogether. I don’t agree that this is a realistic perspective.

Boy, somebody sounds depressed tonight! Here, have a brownie. Look, it’s not as though we have to choose between trying to reduce our AGW impact and trying to cope with its effects. In fact, I don’t know of any scientist or environmentalist who doesn’t agree that we’re going to have to do some adapting to the effects of global warming, and can’t expect to just forestall or reverse it entirely (at least, not within the next couple centuries at least).

But that doesn’t mean that efforts at emissions reduction are worthless. Even if they only buy us a little extra time, that extra time may turn out to be desperately needed for developing better techniques to cope with AGW effects and slow its increase.

Forget the A in AGW: it’s not really relevant. The world has been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age. Mankind may have some impact, or it may not. Regardless, pollution is bad so we should work to control it. Witness the Clean Air Acts and the improvement in the quality of air in the U.K. Witness the return of salmon to the Thames. Regardless, the world has warmed. People may have to move to higher ground. Some lands will be submerged; some lands will become more fertile. This will be expensive, but it’s happenning so gradually that mankind should be able to cope.

FYI, he’s probably talking about FT w.r.t. coal, FTR. And that’s a lot of acronyms that impact the whole, damn, planet.

Well assuming we get past the public awareness / pressure obstacle, how will we handle the next one?

The ‘environmental movement’ is already as much about anti-globalism and anti-corporations as it is about protecting the planet. The irony of course is that a global approach must be taken or any one country could undo any efforts by a group of others.

How can we stop genuine progress and sensible initiatives being hijacked for political gain by people with nothing for us but half-arsed promises ?

I believe it is a lack of political expediency. Once (and if) green-mindedness affects whether politicians are elected, there will emerge a political “will”.

I forsee the same thing as well, if we keep throwing money and resources at this hysteria.

The time spent wringing hands, and prophesying doom is wasted. The money spent on denial, and political posturing is wasted. The fact is that it is extraordinarily unlikely that human activity is not a part of climate change, both globally, and regionally. Waiting until irrefutable mathematical percentages can be agreed upon is simply saying, “I want the status quo, and don’t care what it costs my descendants.”

Cutting energy use will reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power is a viable alternative, which the French, (damn French) have pretty much proven. The barriers to nuclear power are formidable, if subtle, but not impossible to overcome. But the fact is that energy use is the biggest problem, since we have become so dependent upon it’s flagrant waste that it is enshrined as an essential part of our economy.

But, mostly the poor will suffer, and mostly they won’t be able to do anything but rebel against the countries that aren’t even in the top half of the energy wasters. The developed countries won’t do anything until real estate in the new temperate zones becomes worth fighting wars over.

Besides, AGW is simply step one. Once the permafrost begins to thaw in big percentages, GWGW (Global warming [caused] global warming) kicks in big time as the methane returns to the atmosphere in geological quantities. The energy lobby will use that to prove their claims that human activity is not responsible.

No one will do anything to upset current apple carts to change anything. Where’s the profit in that? No one wants to save the world, unless it is free, and takes only weekends a couple of times a year. The political end of the Anti Global Warming forces can’t see any farther than the next election cycle, and certainly won’t recommend drastic energy use changes before they take office. After that, why bother?


I disagree with your assessment of the environmental movement, but even if you’re right it doesn’t matter. Widespread support for greenhouse reduction means that the mainstream voice will completely drown out the more extreme fringe factions. Any extreme viewpoints you’ve heard from an environmentalist will never be adopted, so there’s no need to resist change on those grounds.

And global cooperation is definitely a challenge, but leading by example will certainly make that an easier barrier to overcome. Sitting back until we have a guarantee that no one will take our place as lead contributer to the problem isn’t going to cut it.

Really, I don’t think the first steps are that complex, although they of course have a cost to bear. I’d argue we should take a two-pronged approach by significantly increasing our research budget for alternative energy and improved energy storage while starting to tighten regulation on greenhouse emissions by the largest producers to incentive innovation from that end. This would be a huge start, and could in fact end up fostering economic growth as new discoveries lead to new industries in which we have a huge technological lead.

I am unpersuaded of this point.

The obstacle is the lack of individual will. “Political will” follows from elected officials reflecting mass opinion. AGW amelioration is dependent upon a high percentage of the worlds’ individuals being willing to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good of everyone else. There is no good historic precedent for this, and it will not happen now.

The prevailing model for public social behaviour is lip service, and not personal sacrifice. Thus do we espouse generous government entitlements even as we hire accountants who make sure the public coffer is not funded from our personal hoard; thus do we heap paeans–a Nobel even!–upon individuals whose personal contribution to AGW is orders of magnitude beyond any reasonable per-capita limit (as long as they say the right thing).

The fault, dear Giraffe, lies not in our politicians but in ourselves, that we are selfish. We must be the change we want to see in the world, and we are all, instead, Mr. Gores.

  1. We are going to use every drop, but if we use it slower and cleaner it will help. Even if we don’t use it for heat and cars, we will use it for fertilizers and plastics. If westerners seriously reduced usage, the developing world will step up and use it instead.

  2. I disagree, lower usage and the increased efficiency will help. Additionally as more money pours into hybrids, electrics, H[sub]2[/sub] and whatever else we come up with, the cheaper these technologies will get. If it gets cheaper, it will be easier for them to be adopted worldwide. I suspect Japan and China will sadly lead the US in these development instead of us taking the lead.

  3. Okay, but maybe by then we will already have been weened of our dependency if we act sooner. I hate the fact that we are paying the bills for Muslim terrorism with our gas tanks.

  4. Nuclear power has a terrible PR mess to dig its way out of and additionally as things stand it is more expensive than coal. Until the government puts hard requirements on coal to clean up, nuclear does not make a lot of sense financially, only in terms of reducing CO[sub]2[/sub] emission. It is sadly obvious that this is an uphill argument.

  5. Yes

  6. Awareness is making a change. Most of the Democratic candidates, the Governator and Many Mayors including Mayor Bloomberg are doing far more than paying lip-service. Gore and many others are beginning to have an effect on public policy. The IPCC is being treated seriously in Europe. It is a start. Maybe it will be in time to minimize the damage and even on the chance the AGW is mistaken and we can do nothing about it, we will still have reduced air pollution and our depend ace on foreign oil. Worthwhile goals that pay a nice dividend even in failure on the main issue.

As to your bottom line, you might be right, I hope you are wrong.

Thanks for starting this discussion, it is a pleasure to talk about this with a person that has honest concerns even if we don’t agree. I think we are already in agreement on several points anyway.


I agree. But I think the awareness raising that Airman was arguing had no effect on global warming itself does have the effect of shaping people’s individual will, which leads to a shift in mass opinion, which then leads to a change in political will.

Assuming I’m reading you correctly, I don’t agree that it hinges purely on individuals voluntarily behaving in a self-sacrificing manner. We already know that doesn’t work – if it did, we wouldn’t need a single environmental, health or safety regulation. Governments are needed to prevent individual self-interest from damaging the group as a whole.

Personally, I find the “be the change you want” / “if Al Gore generates any greenhouse gases he’s a hypocrite and a monster” arguments to be fairly retarded. The former is certainly an admirable sentiment, but it’s mostly symbolic. Voluntary reductions in emissions and consumption are definitely a help, but they absolutely won’t solve the problem any more than individual commitments not to pollute would have had a thousandth the impact of the Clean Air Act.

AGW is fundamentally driven by consumption. It will be interesting to see what percent of folks are willing to consume less, or will support laws that have an effect on consumption. I completely agree that Gandhi’s statement is an admirable but symbolic sentiment.

It is, indeed, retarded to make an argument that if Mr Gore produces any greenhouse gases he’s a hypocrite and a monster. What he is, is the archetype for all of us who consume. Which is why (and I think this is an accurate inference from the OP as well) not much will change.

I agree, and I’m far from optimistic that we’ll enact any truly meaningful change until we’ve caused so much environmental damage to the planet as to make us long for the current state of things.

But this is also why I think we need to approach it from a technology and regulation standpoint, rather than expecting people to collectively change their lifestyles in a non-negligible way. Even if consumption and lifestyle stay the same, better technology can significantly reduce the impact. It’s not ideal, but it’s a lot better than nothing.

I’m sort of in the same place as the OP. In my opinion, people will not change until the things they are doing negatively affect them personally. People do not change for ideas or for people being hurt in a far-off country. By the time you can pry North Americans out of their vastly consumer-driven lifestyles, it will be much too late.

But that’s a moot point, though, because in all the excitement about AGW, we’ve forgotten about problems that I think will cause mass deaths of human beings long before AGW - overpopulation and its attendant pandemics and fresh water shortages.

One thing I’m sure of, and it makes me a lot sadder than billions of deaths of human beings*, is the extinction of just about every other species on the planet caused by human selfishness and short-sightedness. The planet will be just fine without human beings contaminating it with our presence, but it’s too bad all those other species had the bad luck to try to co-exist with humans.

*If we manage to kill billions of human beings, we deserve what we get as a species.

With regards to points 3 and 4, I quote from page 46 of the Hirsh Report:

Even if we wanted to start spending trillions of dollars building new nuclear, coal, and F-T process plants we couldn’t do it. They’re too easy to stop. It won’t happen until Congress does something drastic and takes a machete to the web of regulations. I don’t think it’ll be due to GW though. Then again, I always thought GW was a polite way to talk about Peak Oil.

As for the rest of the OP, yes, you are correct. If we wished to “stop” global warming we should’ve started back in the '60s and '70s at the latest, before things got out of control. At this point even if we somehow brought global CO2 and methane production to zero we’d been in for interesting times ahead. There’s just too much momentum. Think nearly 30 gigatons of CO2 each and every year with no end in sight.

This can be applied to many topics, actually. We have a lot of issues on our plate as a civilization and no one in power seems to really care much except in a couple countries here and there. It’s a difficult time to be an optimist unless you’re getting paid to be one.

It is rather hard to argue to developing countries that they can’t have what we have.

This has, sort of, been my stance on the whole GW "thing’’ since everybody started blah-blah-blahing about it. Fix what you can, prepare for what you know is coming, try to prepare for what you don’t know is coming, and live with the fact that the Earth is in a constant state of change, and nothing we’ve done, nothing we can do, or even THINK of doing, will prevent that change from becoming reality. Is it better not to pollute, ayup. Are we going to it anyway? Youbetcha. What gets under my skin is the constant “state of emergency” the media thinks the planet is in. The earth is millions and millions of years old, how can we possibly know what kind of trend we’re in, when we’ve only had a couple hundred (really, only about 50) years with any sort of accurate data?

Answer: We can’t. The fact is you can take every single bit of data you can get your hands on and draw a conclusion that everyone in your specific community can relate to and agree on, and when it comes time to apply that data, nature says “uh-uh, we’re doing it THIS way” or “nope, THIS is what ACTUALLY happened”

I’m not saying do nothing, that’s a foolish course. The less impact we have, the better stewards of the earth we are ultimately being, but for the love of everything holy, shut the fuck up about it already.