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The solution to climate change and how much it will cost

It is no secret that climate change is a serious problem than needs to be addressed, and the sooner we do it the easier it will be to make the greenhouse gas emissions cuts that are necessary. The longer we delay the more difficult the required changes will be.

The goal of climate mitigation is to avoid dangerous human-caused impacts, which science suggests would mean limiting total warming to 2 °C above preindustrial temperatures. In turn, this would require keeping atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide below 450 parts per million (p.p.m.) [and if a recent paper by James Hanson of NASA GISS is to be believed we may need to eventually reduce our CO2 from the current level of 385 ppm to 350ppm].

So the question becomes, what do we need to do in order to make the serious cuts to our emissions that the science says are absolutely necessary in order to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change? A recent article in Nature, and a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) have arrived at basically the same conclusions, which coincidentally also agree with some of the IPCC recommendations. When the normally conservative International Energy Agency agrees with both the middle of the road IPCC and more progressive voices like Nature, it should be a clear indication that they are all on to something.

So what did they recommend?

According to Nature we already have all the technology needed to stabilize and then reduce our emissions, and what is needed is a massive deployment of these technologies.

What would then be required merely to keep global emissions frozen through most of the rest of the century? I use the ‘stabilization wedges‘ approach put forward by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala of Princeton University to answer that question qualitatively. As Socolow and Pacala explain, “A wedge represents an activity that reduces emissions to the atmosphere that starts at zero today and increases linearly until it accounts for 1 GtC/year of reduced carbon emissions in 50 years.” So the planet would need 11 wedges to keep emissions flat at 11 GtC per year from 2020 to 2070.

However the Nature article realizes that if we wish to make the cuts necessary to avoid the most dangerous human-caused impacts of climate change then we need an immediate massive deployment effort.

If we are to have confidence in our ability to stabilize carbon dioxide levels below 450 p.p.m. emissions must average less than 5 GtC per year over the century. This means accelerating the deployment of the 11 wedges so they begin to take effect in 2015 and are completely operational in much less time than originally modelled by Socolow and Pacala, say in 25 years. As a result, in 2040 global emissions would be at about 4 GtC per year. We would then have six decades to cut emissions in half again (or by more if the science deems it necessary), which would require an equally impressive effort.

The Nature article is very similar to what the IEA has recommended.

The question now becomes how much such a massive deployment of renewable energy will cost? About $45 trillion globally, which is, thankfully, not nearly as much as it first appears.

The investment required is “an average of some 1.1% of global GDP each year from now until 2050. This expenditure reflects a re-direction of economic activity and employment, and not necessarily a reduction of GDP.” In fact, this investment partly pays for itself in reduced energy costs alone (not even counting the pollution reduction benefits)!

So given the fact that a massive deployment of alternative energy isn’t very expensive and the costs of inaction are absolutely massive, why has it been so difficult to get governments to implement policies to tackle climate change? Simple, far to many politicians (mostly from the right) have decided that they know better than the worlds climate scientists.

It’s a terrifying thought. If the science of the last few years and the painful reality of a changing climate haven’t persuaded the conservative movement of the dire nature of human-caused global warming, I can’t imagine what chain of catastrophes would. We’ve already had record-breaking droughts, heat waves, wildfires, deluges, super storms and flooding at home and abroad — just as climate science predicted. And we’ve had far more loss of ice from Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic Sea than anyone expected…

Conservatives can’t stop the impending catastrophe with anti-government rhetoric. But they can prevent progressives and moderates from stopping it by blocking aggressive climate legislation. Progressives and moderates will need all their political skill and tenacity to overcome the obstructionism of the anti-science, anti-technology conservatives. This is unlike any previous political fight; it is a fight to save the health and well-being of the next 50 generations, a fight to preserve our way of life. Losing is not an option.

It should be obvious to anyone who accepts climate science that we need to act, and we need to act now, if we wish to avoid real catastrophes in the not to distant future. And as the article in Nature and the IEA report show it wont even cost that much… if we act today.

8 Responses to The solution to climate change and how much it will cost

  1. Dan, doesn’t all this sort of make your skin crawl? The problem is obvious and the best remaining responses are obvious. Yet it’s like watching a runaway locomotive with a passed-out engineer. There’s a trainwreck coming and unless there’s a dramatic change soon, it’ll be unavoidable.

    A friend was talking to a leading environmental lawyer recently who, in a moment of tragic candour, said he thought the game was already over.

    I think the only thing that can change mankind’s course now is a quick and comprehensive agreement between the West and the emerging economic powers, notably India, China and Brazil. However, instead of working toward consensus we’re still deadlocked in futile (and self-serving) finger pointing.

    Just be very, very grateful Dan that you live in Canada.

  2. As James Hansen recently said, the only thing that has changed in the past twenty years (since he first warned the US Congress of climate change) is that we have used up any slack we may have had. Action has been virtually non-existent, and if this trend continues we will all pay the price.

    The only positive (for us) is that Canada will fair reasonably well in a warmer climate. The rest of the world wont be nearly as lucky.

  3. “It is no secret that climate change is a serious problem than needs to be addressed” No, I’m afraid that is a secret that only a few seem to be aware of. I think
    A “train wreck” caused by a passed-out Engineer, drama mixed with unavoidable tragic candour leading to any comprehensive agreements should be reconsidered in light of some evidence the North pole was once completely free of ice and “twenty years ago” Dr. David Suzuki was promoting the certainty of “Global Cooling” and NASA recently being suspected of changing climate data to give the appearance of warming in places where there was none.
    I can support clean technology to any degree but you people are dangerous with your lieing fear mongering environmentalism.

  4. No, I’m afraid that is a secret that only a few seem to be aware of.

    What do you mean a few? The IPCC the National Academies of Science from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA, the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of London, the Geological Society of America, the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, thousands of peer-reviewed journals, and even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, have all made public statements about how we need to act to tackle climate change

    And if you don’t trust scientists how about trusting good old corporations like Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar Inc, Duke Energy, DuPont, Environmental Defense, FPL Group, General Electric, Lehman Brothers, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, PG&E Corporation, PNM Resources, World Resources Institute, ConocoPhillips, AIG, Alcan, Boston Scientific, Deere & Company, The Dow Chemical Company, General Motors Corp, Johnson & Johnson, Marsh PepsiCo, Shell, Siemens, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Federation, Chrysler, and the Ford Motor Company.

    Or if that wont convince you, perhaps the fact that the Pentagon and other militaries have also looked at climate change and advocated for action in order to avoid some serious national security issues.

    Only someone who purposely ignores reality would make the claim that only a few people seem to be calling for action on climate change.

    in light of some evidence the North pole was once completely free of ice and “twenty years ago”

    Perhaps you should have read past the headlines. AT least then you wouldn’t have made such an obvious mistake. This is what RealClimate said about those past reports: “In that case, the report was of the presence of some open water at the pole – which as the correction stated, is not that uncommon as ice floes and leads interact. What is being discussed here is large expanses of almost completely ice-free water. That would indeed be unprecedented since we’ve been tracking it.“.

    But wouldn’t the fact that the north pole was ice free 20 years ago indicate that the effects of warming were happening faster than we predicted?

    The fact is, that the presence of ice at the north pole doesn’t really matter that much, what does matter is the alarming rate at which much of the arctic ice caps have been melting.

    NASA recently being suspected of changing climate data to give the appearance of warming in places where there was none.

    You wouldn’t be referring to the statistically insignificant correction that NASA made to the temperature data, would you? Because that would just highlight your ignorance on this issue.

  5. Jeebus Dan, I don’t know how you put up with these cretins. Of course if you go to the aptly named Blank’s page you’ll see Fox News prominently listed. ‘Nuff Said.

    You make an excellent point that the scientific consensus is so strong and so widespread that there’s no longer any excuse for ignorance of it. I think we do everyone a real disservice by letting these types engage in doubt-spreading nonsense. Just delete them. That’s precisely what I’m going to do from now on.

  6. I put up with it to a point, mainly to determine if the are irrational or just misinformed, but as my comment policy clearly states of you repeat fully debunked denier talking points your comments can be deleted at my discretion. I gave Blanks (who at first threatened to sue me for spreading lies) plenty of leeway but unless he actually educates himself on the issue, his future comments will be deleted.

  7. You know, Dan, I’ve come to realize the Gordian Knot to meaningful action on anthropogenic global warming is to find and build on common ground. We all face the same problem, threat. Even Canadians, while perhaps the most ideally located on Earth, will suffer. Therefore we are obliged to take a common, comprehensive approach to solutions.

    Yes, perhaps Harper was right. It does resemble a Socialist plot. It will, after all, affect some transfer of things that, until now, were never finite or exhaustible. We’ve arrived at the global warming conundrum at the same time as we’ve reached the limits of so many other resources – fisheries, forests, arable land, fossil fuels, the list goes on. Dealing with those problems, even in the absence of the climate change threats, would be a Herculean chore. Unfortunately we have no choice but to add in the global warming/climate change dynamic atop everything else.

    I can’t see how this can be solved except by defining a set of core principles by which all nations must abide. Principles such as the survival of mankind and equitable allocation of resources. I’d have to go on for several paragraphs to flesh that out so I’ll leave that for another time.

    If we don’t come to this consensus, to establish and enact a set of core principles, this whole climate change initiative is futile. This will be a huge challenge for us in the West. We are used to the lion’s share and that’s going to have to change. That can’t be done without a seismic attitude adjustment. More later…

  8. Very interesting Mound, but I have to nitpick with one of your points. Harper was not right, this isn’t a socialist plot in anyway. The free market requires that costs be internalized. Our problem with climate change (and most other environmental problems) is because the costs of emissions were externalized. Climate change policies merely attempt to internalize costs that are currently external. There is nothing socialist about that.

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