G8 makes 2° commitment, misses the point

In early July at the Major Economies Forum in L’aquila, Italy, G8 leaders took a big step by publicly announcing a goal of limiting global warming to 2° C. Let us all acknowledge that it is a Big Deal that these countries — the ones who created climate change to begin with — are going to take steps to mitigate this impending crisis.

Now let us bang our heads against our desks in frustration because they missed the point. The 2° C goal is simply not the right metric to use. We no longer talk about “global warming” by itself because we are changing the whole climate, and that includes many other vital parameters than just global average temperature.

Our global climate problem stems from an unprecedented increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are directly traceable to human sources (like coal-fired power plants) and activities (like deforestation). It is greenhouse gases that we must concern ourselves with primarily, and that will, by extension, help to control increases in global average temperature.

I worry about the way this is framed because controlling CO2 and reducing the global temperature are not necessarily one and the same. By focusing on the temperature aspect of climate change, I fear that governments will consider drastic geo-engineering techniques to directly control their climate. Geo-engineering gets a fair amount of press these days, and for good reason: there is good evidence that certain techniques — like solar mirrors or sulfur injections into the stratosphere — can lower the global temperature in a matter of months. It’s the proverbial silver bullet — but for the wrong werewolf.

What is unfortunate about geo-engineering is that it tends to focus on one aspect of the climate system (temperature), and may have adverse effects on other parts of our climate. Several scientists, in a great Perspectives piece in *Science*, warn us that volcano-induced cooling from the explosion of Mt. Pinotubo also decreased global precipitation for the next two years. It turns out that precipitation patterns are more correlated with the amount of radiation coming in from space (which volcanic dusts block) than the temperature of the lower atmosphere (a process dominated by earth’s own heating power and greenhouse gases). In other words, the slight increase in atmospheric temperatures due to anthropogenic warming has less of an effect on precipitation than a decrease in solar insolation. We may lower the temperature of the surface by blocking sunlight just outside the atmosphere, but in exchange there would be far less solar energy to create the clouds necessary for rain.

The authors make an excellent point: most technological solutions to climate change tend to mitigate only one aspect of the climate system, but can exacerbate other, potentially dangerous parameters. As we consider various geo-engineering solutions to our problems, let’s remember that we are not just fighting “global warming,” but attempting to halt “anthropogenic climate change.” Semantics to those in the know, perhaps, but our political leaders must be held to account for the cause of our climate problem, and not the symptoms.

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tim

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  1. Fred Magyar - September 23, 2009

    “We

  2. richard schumacher - September 23, 2009

    World population will peak at about nine billion around 2050. There’s no way to prevent that. The challenge is how best to accommodate them without further significant damage to the world, and we’re not going to work that out by going back to sleep.

  3. Sandeep Jaganath - September 23, 2009

    There is no way to prevent world population rise?
    The problem is that everyone has implicitly accepted that the human population is something that either can not or should not be controlled.
    Such a system is unsustainable. Little do we know about the strains a 9-billion strong human population will put on the planet.
    What we need is a strong campaign to bring the message forward – the message that this is unsustainable. Then we can think of finding a solution.

  4. Anonymous - September 23, 2009

    “World population will peak at about nine billion around 2050. There’s no way to prevent that.”
    Really? First, there are plenty of ways to prevent that, you may not like them but they do exist. See Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy.
    Some of them may be completely beyond our control, Recommended reading, Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan.
    There are also some means that are completely under our control, Oh I don’t know things like Women’s rights, family planning, birth control etc…
    Time to add basic physics and ecological studies to Economics 101.

  5. Fred Magyar - September 23, 2009

    Oh, my apologies post # 4 was me, Fred Magyar, I don’t believe in anonymous posting, If you have something to say, say it.

  6. Anonymous - September 23, 2009

    Fred,
    The easy way out.. “wake me up when..” “I won’t do anything until someone does something first.”
    It all fits together, and if wealthy countries refuse to act until someone else does something we demand of them.. well, I won’t bother to wake up, there won’t be any point in it.

  7. Anonymous - September 23, 2009

    Yo anonymous,
    In case you didn’t catch my drift, I said wake me up when TPTB actually take this issue seriously, because *THAT* would indeed be stunning front page news. Doncha agree?!
    In case your logic and reading comprehension skills be a tad rusty and you possibly didn’t even read my other comment…
    I very clearly made it be known that 1) I think there are many things that can be done and I even stated a few which might be slightly, albeit not very much, more palatable to the public at large, than say pestilence, famine, war, or disease.
    The examples I gave had mostly to do with birth control.
    What pray was it that I said that made you say: “That I wouldn’t do anything until someone else did something first?!
    If nothing else at least I publicly acknowledge and speak out by addressing the issue and propose a concrete path forward by promoting let’s say distribution of condoms for birth control in opposition to say the teachings of certain religious institutions and I sign my real name at the bottom.
    So who are you and what have you brought to the table that isn’t so easy?!

  8. Anonymous - September 23, 2009

    Argh maybe I over reacted :-) as I forgot to add my name, but that was me again
    Cheers,
    Fred Magyar

  9. Anonymous - September 25, 2009

    Hello all and Fred, you both have valid points but the conversation is on a different type of geo-engineering. A friend who is a math instructor told me an interesting problem regarding population and it’s growth. If you take all the square footage of say Africa divide the total current population of the planet into the square footage or meter; each person would get a sizable ‘patch’ of dirt. So, this dialog is not about birth control pills it is about consumerism, isn’t it? Indeed the reduce, reuse, recycle has it’s merits in popoluation growth as well, but just the basic consumption of goods, durable and soft, are off the charts in these countries of the G8 per person, per population group. When put into a pie chart it’s obscene.
    My Dad Red told me a simple thing, ‘look to fix the simple thing first; it’s usually what’s broke 90% of the time’.
    So what do you want these Overlords to do. Stare down the barrel of the “God Given Right” to reproduce which requires centuries in effecting meaningful change, just in the G8 countries. Or just have them implement simple stuff like reduce, reuse, recycle.
    Then tackle what this article discusses; the underlining, the way we make the ‘stuff’ we ‘need’. Stop making it with coal or start buying stock in the companies that sell portable o2 bottles. France is now considering a carbon tax after all, now that they see how cap and trade will not get them to safety and longivity in the prescribed time line. Will Germany and Japan follow? How will the UK fit into this mix? Just this one question of carbon tax on all industry with take how many dollars and euros to do what, extend the time of real comprehensive change? We might not have that time. We needed to ask them simply to engage the simple: reduce, reuse, recycle. Getting them to have a comprehensive global law about this would be real change. Our models are already built, Yovn’s doing it, yet how many are in the 1%. Habituate is doing it yet no one is buying their recycle; so it comes down to dialog of not ‘if’ but a dialog of ‘do'; I’m thinking.
    thxs dlmchale

  10. Fred Magyar - September 25, 2009

    “‘look to fix the simple thing first; it’s usually what’s broke 90% of the time’.”
    You are right, the concept of exponential growth is a simple concept.
    To paraphrase Dr Albert Bartlett, The lack of understanding of this particular simple concept and it’s consequences, is the single greatest shortcoming of the human species.
    Everything else you say is true but completely secondary to the crux of the matter.

  11. Tim - September 25, 2009

    Jeez, I try to write a post about the dangers of geo-engineering and it gets hijacked in the comments by population growth concerns…
    I certainly have opinions on population as a (non-) problem, but this isn’t the post to voice those opinions. My concern above is that governments will attempt technological fixes to complex environmental problems that may, in the end, damage our environment in unforeseen ways due to its inherent complexity.
    In general, I’ve found arguing with people who think that population growth is “The Problem” to be somewhat akin to arguing atheism to fervent religious types: there’s no middle ground possible, so it’s not worth the effort. I like to dwell in the realm of the plausible, and population control methods (beyond access to family planning and increases in earning power) are simply not politically or socially acceptable.
    Injecting thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, on the other hand, is quite plausible – and being actively discussed around the globe. I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on that.

  12. Anonymous - September 25, 2009

    Ok you say: “I like to dwell in the realm of the plausible, and population control methods (beyond access to family planning and increases in earning power) are simply not politically or socially acceptable.”
    I agree 100% that this topic is neither politically nor socially acceptable.
    However that’s a bit like saying that the huge tsumani that is quickly approaching the beach is going to be bad for business at the thatched hut selling drinks to the tourists. So please, let’s not frighten them off by raising the alarm. Guess what, the tsunami is going to wipe the beach clean regardless. It doesn’t care!
    Regarding:”Injecting thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, on the other hand, is quite plausible – and being actively discussed around the globe. I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on that.”
    I’m 100% sure that there are people right now, in positions to actually implement such follies on a grand scale, getting ready to do precisely that. They will try and they will fail.
    If your curious about whether or not I’m personally opposed to such idiocy? Yes I am! I was also opposed to the bailout of the banks, the automobile companies and wall street. I would have let them fail. TPTB had other ideas and weren’t interested in my politically unpalatable views.
    Re:”In general, I’ve found arguing with people who think that population growth is “The Problem” to be somewhat akin to arguing atheism to fervent religious types: there’s no middle ground possible, so it’s not worth the effort.”
    If you think that description characterizes my mind set, you would be wrong, nay, you would be fractally wrong. I’m a very wide boundary thinker and I think you are right that this is not the proper forum to really get into an in depth discussion of this topic.
    If you’d like a taste of that discussion perhaps you could stop by TheOilDrum.com and find where it intersects with say RealClimate.org
    A least a passing interest in disciplines such as Physics, non linear dynamics, ecology, ecoeconomics, chaos theory, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, etc, just to scratch the surface, would probably be helpful.

  13. gatcheson - October 1, 2009

    That surprises me sulfer injections would affect rainfall. With the climate-change deniers we see now, can you image how difficult it will be to get people to pay attention to negative consequences of geo-engineering? Especially since it seems to be the miracle technology people expect will save their current lifestyles.
    On the other hand, I worry baseless fears may derail promising geo-enigneering approaches. “we don’t know what might happen” is true but we do know something has to be done about climate change. Altering our high-consumption lifestyles would be better, since it has no unknown global consequences. But with study we should move ahead with promising geo-engineering even if it has not been tried before.
    Population growth has been predicted to be a giant problem for decades but we are in no danger of insufficient food. Population growth is hardly a static thing, because countries reduce their fertility rate as the become wealthier and there is no reason to think this will not continue. The worst polluters tend to have low fertility rates (China, W europe, US) compared to the non-industrialized world. I think its a non-issue and the alternatives are generally radically immoral.

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