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Sunday, January 3, 2010
Public Policy ...

In my quasi-intellectual meanderings on the global warming issue, I came across a 2009 article in the Journal of Health Science called “Population is a Critical Factor for Global Carbon Dioxide Increase”.

The title almost says it all. But the article is still worth reading, as it is short and full of graphs that are interesting and easy to understand.

The bottom line here is this: the more people there are on the face of the planet, the more carbon dioxide will be in the atmosphere (along with other less potent greenhouse-effect gases like methane). As to the next proposition, that the more CO2 there is, the higher the global temps will be; and the proposition after that, i.e. the higher the global temps, the more famine, war and other calamity the human race will experience in the next 100 to 200 years; well, those propositions I don’t completely agree with at this point. I think that they are interesting theories, and should be taken very seriously given the massive potential consequences. BUT, I don’t think that science has enough evidence at this point to sound the alarm.

Admittedly, the “institution of science” in general disagrees with me. In fact it is sounding the alarm. But scientists and their institutions are still human, and are still subject to pride, ego and herd mentality. Also, they know that they have a lot to gain economically from government and foundation grant funds if the public takes them seriously. Thus, I think they’re being a bit premature. The recent “Climategate” e-mail disclosures provide fairly good evidence that the “mainstream” climate scientists along with their academic and governmental employers are protesting a bit too vehemently against those renegade scientists who beg to differ with them. Sure, those renegades often prostitute themselves to political and economic forces, i.e. the big coal, oil, power and industrial enterprises that stand to lose big $$ as governments take action against carbon buildup in the air. But again, the “mainstream” isn’t so pure in that regard either. It’s hard to know who is right.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have some university training in physics, chemistry and math, and I maintain an interest in scientific issues into my old age. Thus I have taken a look “under the hood” of both the pro- and anti-warming presentations, and my impression is that it’s NOT clear that greenhouse gas build-ups in the atmosphere are going to cause or trigger future global disasters. This is still a possibility, and there is enough evidence to justify a “get ready just in case” position. There may in fact be future climate disasters that will NOT be caused by greenhouse gases; the world would still benefit from “get ready” planning efforts started today. But as to putting significant burdens on the world’s commercial-industrial networks such that economic growth slows down and millions or even billions of people who could have come out of poverty (as is now happening in India and China and Brazil) do not; well, I don’t think we have enough evidence to go that far at this point.

Back to the article and the graph that I adopted from the info used in the article; it seems pretty clear to me that the more people we have on this planet, the more CO2 will be in the air. If CO2 is pushing the world towards climate-induced disasters (which again I don’t fully agree with at this point), and if combustion of carbon-based fuels is inherent to human life itself, then the only real remedy would be to stop or significantly slow down population growth. Under this viewpoint, it almost looks like “Mother Nature” is saying “stop putting so many new members of your greedy species on my turf so quickly, or I will get rid of the excess myself”.

Of course, to adopt this viewpoint, you first need to buy into my second proposition, i.e. that combustion of carbon-based fuels is inherent to living. Can human beings live without combustion? For most of human history, the answer seemed to be NO. Even ancient humans needed to burn wood for light and heat at night (and also during the day, in regions away from the tropics), and also to cook food. Unless you lived on a tropical island where you ate coconuts and raw fish, you needed fire; that fire gave off a fair amount of CO2, and the effect was made worse because in chopping down a tree for firewood, you decreased nature’s CO2 absorption capacity.

As modern humans developed technology and moved to different kinds of carbon fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), we could provide for the basics (heat, light) in a more efficient fashion than ancient tribes could. BUT, we started finding other uses for combustion, mainly as ways to transport ourselves along with our commerce and trade. And then came electricity and refrigeration and air conditioning. As such, technology in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was a 2-edged sword regarding greenhouse gases; it burned cleaner, but found many new ways to usefully burn carbon fuel as to make life better for us.

Technology has developed new ways to generate energy that reduce or even eliminate the need for carbon fuels. These include nuclear power, solar power, wind power, and more use of the old standby, hydroelectric power. And yes, low-carbon fuels derived from solar power, i.e. biofuels. And then there is the move towards more efficient ways of using energy, e.g. hybrid vehicles. This is the hope for today’s “green movement”; that technology and governmental resolve can move humankind away from its dependence upon carbon fuels. It provides hope that these exotic new ways of generating and using power will avoid the quandary of choosing lower living standards and / or lower population growth (or even population contraction) in order to avoid massive climate-based tragedies.

This is the subject for a LONG article, or even a book. I hope someone is working on such a book. Because I think that THIS is one of the KEY QUESTIONS in the current climate debate. Yes, I said that I am not yet convinced that there even is a CO2 problem. But I do think it’s a “definite maybe”, and thus I believe that the “green tech salvation” idea needs to be examined in fine detail. Personally, I do not believe that “green tech” will allow the global population to reach 10 or 12 billion by 2050 with most everyone living at the standards that we are currently accustomed to in the US, Japan and Western Europe, and at the same time keep CO2 concentrations from going up about 50% (i.e., around 590 ppm, versus today’s 390; some scientists think that 450 is roughly the disaster threshold, and 550 would clearly cause calamity).

Green tech is moving forward, but it is still very capital-intense. You need to use a lot of energy to set it up, and most of that energy will need to come from carbon fuel. The most potent form of green energy, i.e. nuclear power, has a lot of nasty side-effects. Another promising avenue, i.e. increased efficiency, seems to have another interesting side-effect. And that is, as we find more efficient ways to use our energy sources, we at the same time find new ways to use the energy that we saved. E.g., hybrid cars – they are much more efficient, but hybrid technology will also keep many people from giving up their heavy SUV’s, as they will be cheaper to run with hybrid engines.

Well, it’s an extremely complex situation, isn’t it. Can a marriage of technology and liberal semi-socialist politics save the day (as President Obama would have us think)? If not, do we use those powerful liberal semi-socialist governments to reduce living standards? Or to stop and even reverse population growth? Or do we let things go and do our best to mitigate the tragedies as they occur (as the free-market / conservative thinkers, the Ayn Rand-ers, might espouse)? And just how sure are we that there will be such tragedies, honestly?

And how do you honestly even wrap your mind around such huge issues? (Sorry for the long spiel here; my next blog will be shorter, I promise).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:08 am      

  1. Jim,
    I can't say I manage to get myself worked up about conditions that may (or may not) occur 100 or 200 years from now.

    First, my indifference may be due to the fact that I likely will not be around in the next 20 years; thus 100 or 200 years in the future is of no consequence to me at this point in my life.

    Second, I do see another consideration. I think back to the early days of my life and the changes that have come within my lifetime.

    In my own lifetime there have been so many changes in how life has been/is lived. Let me name some of the changes that have occurred over my lifetime:
    1) Refrigerators (as opposed to an "ice box" which was literally that–a box with ice in it which was used to keep food cool–and I still tend to call the "fridge" an "ice box"),
    2) Air conditioning being a fact of life for most people.
    3) Electricity. (I remember my grandmother's house having gas jets in the walls to provide light when darkness came.)
    4) Phones–and all the various permutations of them–cell, video, for two. To say nothing of the improvement "single party lines" were over "party lines"; that is, several families would share a line; when one wanted to call, one could pick up the phone and listen to the neighbor's talking. Who would ever have imaged having a phone in one's pocket!
    5) Airplanes and people actually traveling in them as a matter of course. I remember when they were a relatively "new" invention.
    6) Automobiles have come a long way since I was young. I remember when cars were actually made of metal–and there were few of them; so few that the roads that were built actually could handle the traffic perfectly.
    7) Computers simply were not even a glint in the eye of the original inventors when I was young. And look at "us" now with computers and their various permutations. And again, people can now carry a computer in their pockets. Who'd've thunk!

    Sure, all these things have brought us to our current "carbon footprint" problem. Yet, I can't help but think: If these massive changes can come about in say the 60 or 65 years I can actually remember clearly, what will be the inventions of 100 or 200 years from now?

    Somehow I found myself reading all the dire predictions of what will happen if we proceed as we are now and making an analogy to the time before automobiles when horses were the means of transportation and cars were a "fad". I have to admit I find myself thinking, is all this speculation somewhat like the people who thought horses would prevail over cars and who then would have worried about what will be done with all the manure on the streets if everybody in the population had more horses than they "should" have. How to keep the streets clean and sanitary??

    Comment by MCS — January 4, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

  2. (Continued from above)
    I do not mean this question in jest. Perhaps I just don't appreciate the situation and/or the thinking that goes into all this speculation. But then I see the operative word here: "speculation."

    And one may speculate and speculate on this and/or that topic and all that speculation likely has no meaning as something entirely different will come along, change life as it is now lived, and develop in its own time a situation where problems arise that set new generations worrying about what will happen in the next 300 or 400 years, leading to more speculation.

    I fully admit to likely missing something here and perhaps not fully appreciating the situation; yet the more often I think about it, the more I see it just the way I have described it. So, I'd say, OK, change what needs to be changed right now to help the situation; (and I certainly am not a fan of big coal, big oil, big farming, etc).

    Then allow the changes that will inevitably come, that no one can possibly predict, let future generations solve their own problems so that they themselves will be able to grow as the present generations grow through solving the present problems.

    Comment by MCS — January 4, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

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