Science

Friction for the Best-Laid Plans

With the holiday season well underway, and a multitude of parties to attend, and movies about sparkly teenage vampires to rank out, and all sorts of distractions to occupy our thoughts, it’s easy to forget that important science-related stuff is still going on.

Ten thousand representatives are in Poznan, Poland this week for the second of three global gatherings organized to hammer out a climate change accord that the delegates hope will improve on the less-than-successful Kyoto accord. Hosted by one of the most coal-intensive economies in the world, the Poznan meeting will focus on an agreement for reducing greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, it seems that other important world events may impact the outcome of the conference, just like all the external events are impacting our attention here on Skepchick. Considering the exploding economy, the U.S. presidential handoff, terrorists, rebels, and pirates in Asia and the Middle East, are such pressing issues, it’s not surprising if the world’s attentions are turned elsewhere.

Not only that, but external world events may impact the logistics of initiating any plans or programs formulated at the conference. It may even be impossible to implement some of the better ideas.

For example, the financial meltdown, which is arguably the most pressing story, could have a profound effect on the Poznan meeting. Says Yvo de Boer, head of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC):

“The financial crisis will have an impact on climate change. You already are seeing around the world a number of wind-energy projects being pushed back.”

Now as you might know, the US, India, and China all failed to adopt the Kyoto accord. None of the top greenhouse gas-producing nations has made any significant strides in climate change policy. (By some measures, China may have already passed the US as the world’s largest greenhouse emitter.) The Bush administration has been widely criticized for its failure to act, and in Poznan, the US has come under fire yet again.

Of course, president-elect Barrack Obama has promised a target of 80 percent greenhouse-gas reductions by mid-century. But that, in large part, assumes a stable economy and a less tumultuous world stage. Can Obama, and successive presidents, deliver on what amounts to a wholesale change in our energy strategy? And will China and India play along?

And even if they are willing, will they be able to make significant change with so many other pressing issues to address?

I suppose we’ll just have to stay tuned to see.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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23 Comments

  1. Well, yes and no.

    As long as the US doesn’t sign onto it, it will be seriously hampered. We can hope that this will change along with the Administration, but that isn’t a given considering the current global economic implosion. Obama may have to settle for avoiding job losses for now, rather than addressing climate change. One can hope that we can create ‘green’ jobs while addressing climate change.

    I could definitely get behind a plan from the US to give home and building owners tax breaks or grants equal to the value of green upgrades or additions to current homes, as well as to builders that can certify that new homes and buildings use green technologies and are highly energy efficient, for example.

    I can think of several things that I’d love to do to my house but can’t afford right now, like installing a water heater timer, replacing older appliances and my furnace with lower-energy use versions, adding some rooftop solar panels for hot water heating to reduce power use, extra attic insulation, retrofitting with better windows, etc. Doing this countrywide with tax breaks and grants would cut our energy use and stimulate the economy, generating jobs.

    For those that are interested in ideas on how to go about this, visit the Apollo Alliance at http://www.apolloalliance.org, for just one example.

  2. Current climate change mitigation proposals are flawed because they fail to take population into account. Over the coming decades the earth’s population is supposed to increase from 6 billion to 9 billion. This means we would have to cut green-house emissions by 34% per person just to break even. To meet Kyoto we’d have to do much better than that. Since the majority of nations in the world have yet to cut the rate at which their green house gas emissions are increasing call me pessimistic.

    I think humans are brilliant in many respects, but most of us lack the ability to plan for the future in any meaningful way. I overheard two people in a coffee shop yesterday complaining over $5 lattes how they are unable to save for retirement. I know where they can save at least $5 on a regular basis.

    Even most of us who are aware of global warming will not take any significant steps to curb our own use. Yes, some of us will recycle more, or turn off a few lights, or maybe ride a bike to work when the weather’s nice once or twice a year, but this climate chump change. I have yet to meet a person who has given up the opportunity of a vacation because of the massive carbon footprint that jetliners take. Seriously. Not one. We all think its great when our friends get to go to the Galapagos and Australia. In reality we should mourn. And even if there were hundreds of thousands of people who were willing to take the necessary steps, this isn’t anywhere close to enough. We need hundreds of millions of people to either get this attitude or have it forced on them.The problem is that a large majority of people will vote the leaders out of office who would attempt to make the necessary changes. Heck if the latte-sippers can’t give up coffee for their own futures how would you expect them to give up their SUV and summers on Maui for much less tangible and more distant reasons?

    Collectively we are screwed. The average human just isn’t smart enough to think about the common good enough to solve our world resource problems of which global warming is the tip of the iceberg. We have evolved into chimps intelligent enough to build a jet, but not intelligent enough survive the industrial age. This is just a theory of course, but I’ve seen no evidence to refute it and plenty to reinforce it.

  3. @davew:

    All good points, davew. I sometimes feel pessimistic about this issue myself. However, I am encouraged that the problem is ever more recognized, and that at least some steps are being taken.

    And I admittedly don’t personally do as much as I should, but I’ll keep on circulating these posts in the market place of ideas, because even if nothing ever comes of it, and even if it seems hypocritical on my part, I think it is worthwhile.

  4. I hope that renewable energy development can be worked into creating jobs, the way the TVA energy development (and other public works projects) was in the 30s. TVA still provides jobs in Tennessee.

    I’m really pessimistic about everything but I’m tired of being in a bad mood. So I’m trying to be optimistic and see if I can pull it off. I mean, my frame of mind won’t make a difference to the actual outcomes, so I may as well be happy?

  5. Oh, and I think we are screwed, too. I think really the main problem — mainly the only big problem — on this planet is overpopulation by humans and there’s no discussion whatsoever about how to fix that. But still, trying to think happy thoughts. I do think the regular people actually are thinking more collectively than the politicians are these days. So what does that mean? Vote for younger candidates or wait for the old farts to die? I don’t know.

  6. @Sam Ogden: “However, I am encouraged that the problem is ever more recognized, and that at least some steps are being taken.”

    Yeah. And I’m doing the steps, and advocating, and cajoling, but with the same sense of futility that I had when I used to pray.

    @writerdd: “I think really the main problem — mainly the only big problem — on this planet is overpopulation by humans”

    Amen to that. Global warming also is just a symptom of this problem.

    How about this for a modest proposal: Free national heath care to all families with one child or fewer. Two children or more and you don’t quality. It sounds draconian, but it’s not too far from Singapore’s system. They tie in education, too. The general attitude in the western world, however, is babies are wonderful and more babies are more wonderful. Even our current tax code is set up with breeding incentives.

  7. True, recognizing the problems is the first step in finding ways to solve them. Unfortunately, it won’t be easy.

    Overpopulation is definitely the main driver to our ecological and energy problems. Humans seem to be driven to extremes when it comes to reproduction, i.e. “the more kids, the better.” This used to work back when we were under heavy predation or when many strong hands and backs were needed to till the land. We’re past that as a civilization, but our cultures haven’t adapted to that change.

    One good example (of many) is the Catholic Church’s refusal to accept contraception. We are way past the point where we need more people on this planet. Opposing contraception is not only shortsighted, but could be dangerous to our long-term survival.

    The only society I know of that has tried to mandate population control on a national level is China, and even today there are many that try to cheat. Many countries also point to their doing this as human rights abuse (including the US, which has many levels of irony and is another discussion altogether).

    Like Sam, I feel pessimistic at times. I fear that if we don’t deal with our problems very soon, nature will do it for us and it won’t be merciful or pretty. I don’t think we are exempt from population pressure’s tendency to set off “safety valves” in the ecology like plagues, wars, etc.

    I have often wondered if our warlike instincts are triggered by the level of one or more pheromones in the atmosphere. Research has indicated that, as much as humans hate to admit it, we are affected by our pheromones. We are not the independent agents we like to think we are.

    It seems to me (a hypothesis) that there are more than enough humans on Earth to have a level of human pheromones constantly circulating in the air. If this exceeds a certain level, could it set off behavioral changes like increased aggression, lowered disease resistance, etc. in an attempt to lower the population (and therefore the level of our pheromones in the air)? I have no way to test this, as I do not have the credentials or the time left in my life to get them and do the research. It’s just a suspicion of mine.

  8. @davew: Not sure if it’s original or not. I read so much science non-fiction and science fiction that it’s entirely possible that it’s been done already or that it is more than a mere hypothesis.

    My mind was hyperlinked long before computers were. I just seem to make unusual associations like that. They seem to arrive out of nowhere and are right just often enough to make me take notice of them.

    One of the biggest breakthroughs for me philosophically (and atheistically) was the realization that humans are just another kind of animal and that we are most likely subject to all the same influences as our simian cousins. This line of thought leads to all kinds of speculation about the human condition, both provable and not.

  9. My 2 cents. I do not want congress to do a single thing about global warming. Not one thing.

    I believe that climate change is real, but I simply have no confidence in the existing leaders or the people who elect them to address it intelligently.

    For starters, pollution is not a technological or social problem, it’s a property rights issue. No one dumps toxic waste in your living room, because your living room is protected by strong property rights. The air you breath isn’t. If you want to breath poisonous air, that’s your choice, but you should not have right the force others to do the same. We can address pollution within the context of freedom and property not social engineering.

    “Overpopulation” is not the problem. To say that overpopulation is the problem is to say that mass homicide is a solution. It’s not. And more importantly, we are not even close to over populated. It appears so only because of how poorly we use the existing system. Much of the corn grown in the US goes to feed cattle, which are then eaten by people. US farming is petro energy intensive, and one calorie in feed does not make one calorie worth of steak. In the end, 97% of the energy that goes into making a steak is lost. Yes, we are over using resources, when we are only getting a 3% return, but no one said we have to eat beef.

    Using good, sustainable gardening and waste composting, and getting protein from small animals instead of large, every family on earth could happily live on a 5,000 square foot farm each. There are 5500 such farms per square mile. 6.5 billion / 5500 = 1.2 billion. We could put every one on earth in Mexico and save the rest of the planet for a park.

    If a killer virus wiped out 50% of the population, those 50% would have twice the supply of energy, and would therefore increase their demand. The pollution problem would stay the same.

    And finally on overpopulation, you know what the most effective birth control on earth is? A college education. The more educated you are, the less kids you have.

    And how is it fair or ethical to punish children because their parents are stupid?

    Tax breaks? Ok, so right now we subsidize people to have kids, and we subsidize them to build resources sucking McMansions (no taxes on mortgage) and we subsidize them the roads for them to drive SUV’s and we subsidize the mining and forestry industries (The most environmentally damaging on earth. They are exempt from most forms of property tax.) to get the oil to burn in those SUVs.

    Here’s a thought. Maybe, just maybe instead of adding a new subsidy (Green) maybe would could make everybody pay their freakin’ way? Maybe instead of signing a treaty we could give people ownership of their air and let THEM decide what they want to sell if for, instead of government policy makers deciding. Maybe instead of making laws to discourage babies we could make laws that encourage higher education?

  10. Whoops, what I meant is that saying that mass homicide is the only or implied solution to overpopulation being a problem is just BS. Overpopulation is a very serious problem, and one that is continuing to get worse and worse and just because we don’t have a good solution (yet), does not mean that killing masses is the only solution. Suggesting that is, frankly, just stupid.

    We need to control the birthrate. And, in addition, as medicine improves and people live longer, we will need to control the birth rate even more. Population can be controlled without murder.

  11. Whoops, what I meant is that saying that mass homicide is the only or implied solution to overpopulation being a problem is just BS.

    Mao Tsetung murdered 70 million Chinese. Today there are 1.3 billion .
    Conclusion? Mass murder doesn’t work. See also Rwanda, Armenia, Israel, and any number of other populations that have been subjected to mass murder.

  12. @truthwalker: “Overpopulation” is not the problem. To say that overpopulation is the problem is to say that mass homicide is a solution.

    I’m not even sure this is close enough to logic to count as a logical fallacy. I’ll take it at face-value nevertheless. Yes. This a solution. It’s not one I’d advocate, but it would be a start. People frequently do take this route. We call them wars. We’ve started them over water, food, land, oil, money, and the list goes on. There are a few going on right now.

    “Using good, sustainable gardening and waste composting, and getting protein from small animals instead of large, every family on earth could happily live on a 5,000 square foot farm each.”

    This doesn’t ring true. I’m happily read any sources you can cite for this figure. I do compost, and garden, and I get the vast majority of my calories for vegetable sources. This isn’t anywhere close to the land I would need to grow enough calories to feed two people for a year. Given a 12 month growing season and optimal harvests I could come closer, but I’d still want to see the research.

    Your next point I don’t like a lot better. Yes, half as many people using twice the resources would be just as bad, but half the people using the same resources would be twice as good. The problems of resource consumption are easier to solve with fewer people. Most people always have and always will consume resources up to the level they can afford, and I don’t see this changing much. The problem is large swaths of the world are now being able to afford more resource use so this going the wrong way for us.

    “And finally on overpopulation, you know what the most effective birth control on earth is? A college education.”

    This I agree with, but the process is way too slow. It certainly could be part of a solution.

  13. I don’t see any possibility of international carbon abatement agreements working. While the theory behind carbon markets or taxes is solid, it won’t work in this context.

    The international community is caught in a classic collective action problem. Everyone benefits if the problem is solved, but each party benefit more if they defect from the agreement and let everyone else pay the cost of solving it. This leads to mass defection and the solution collapses. This is not a problem of intelligence, even perfectly-foresighted hyper-rational homo economicus types fall into traps like this, its kind of like a Greek tragedy.

    The only solution that will work (i.e. that doesn’t require everyone’s consumer preferences to magically change ) is technology. We should be pumping massive amounts of funding into alternative energy research, not because it “creates jobs” (as any economist will tell you, creating jobs would properly be considered a cost, not a benefit) but because it would lower the cost of zero-carbon energy sources, which would sever the link between CO2 and consumption. Then people can have their SUVs and a clean environment.

    A good first step would be further exploration of nuclear fission, France has been using fission power quite successfully for a while now. With reprocessing, the waste is fairly minimal and modern reactors are about as fail proof as a man-made device can be.

  14. I should really not post when I can’t sleep. My point about mass homicide was that everyone knows it’s NOT a solution. And that from the facts of real population reductions in the past we know that less people are correlated with greater intensity of production and more environmental harm.

    But you have to accept that many people, hardline fundies, who vote, hear overpopulation and think “mass murder”. Yes, they’re dumb. That’s why I don’t want a government appointed by them running things.

    An while population can be controlled without murder, quite easily in fact, you will find that a lot of people will respond to mandatory birth control about like they would to murder.
    T
    he source for the 5000 square feet per person comes from the empirical evidence provided by Mel Bratholomew’s Square Foot gardening, saying that 64 square feet of garden will provide all of the vegetable needs for one person.

  15. @davew:

    I write this purely in the interest of giving davew and writerdd an example of something positive, not out of smugness or self-satisfaction.

    I used to very much enjoy some long, intense stationary bike rides at the gym. But it bothered me that I was doing all this cycling without cutting out any driving.

    I’ve thought of myself as environmentally conscious since childhood, so as much as I loved those rides, I felt somewhat hypocritical.

    This year, I’ve ridden to work and home (9 miles each way) well over 100 days. While I’m riding home and there isn’t much traffic, I even take a bag and pick up recyclables. I probably look like a homeless person with a $150 helmet and MP3 player, but I ride home around 4am, so it’s not TOO embarrassing.

    I also fly VERY rarely, but that’s mostly because I don’t like to fly, so I can’t honestly tell davew that I’ve skipped a vacation to lower my environmental impact.

    I know my individual efforts here aren’t making any significant difference in a world of billions of people. Still – remember there are large numbers of people out there willing to make the same or greater efforts.

    I think we’re screwed, too…but I’m not convinced yet.

  16. @Ken Hahn:But it bothered me that I was doing all this cycling without cutting out any driving.

    Hah! I went down a similar though process a few years back. I would drive home and immediately hop on a stationary bike. One day this struck as stupid. A few weeks later I saw an ad for an electric scooter in SkyMall magazine. The two ideas clicked. I sold my car a few months later and haven’t been on a plane since. By my best estimates I’ve cut my carbon footprint by about 30% which is just one reason why I see most proposals towards curbing global warming as too weak to be effective. On the flip side I’m eating better, exercising more, and keeping my weight down with out too much effort.

    Like you I take the energy and anger and try to do something with it. Among other things I help run a website http://visforvoltage.org/ dedicated to electric transportation. I’m not convinced that a conversion to electric transportation would be sustainable either but it’s miles better than internal combustion vehicles.

  17. @truthwalker “you will find that a lot of people will respond to mandatory birth control about like they would to murder”

    Yeah. Although if I were King of America I wouldn’t make birth control mandatory. I would change the law so the incentive would be to not breed rather than breed more. People will still howl of course (“It’s might right to make babies and your obligation to pay for it!”), and we have no idea how to manage an economy with shrinking population, but this is a minor detail. :-) Can you imagine it? Suppose the U.S. was losing population every year. There would not be a home-building industry to speak of. New roads wouldn’t be needed. I would think the economy would probably be in some kind of permanent recession. People still eat during recessions, though. The environmentalist in me loves the prospect, but the economic upheaval would be huge. One of my hopes for the current economic crises is that we plateau at a lower level of spending and a higher level of saving. This means the 40% of my retirement that just got erased would likely stay that way for a long time, but I’m convinced our country would be much better for it in the long run.

    I’ve read Bartholomew’s book and still use some of his ideas. I’m not sure they would scale to the whole planet and I don’t think Mel himself is living on 5000 sq feet of garden produce. Is he?

  18. @davew:

    Very nice! I’ve been seriously considering an electric scooter, but haven’t been in a rush since most of my travel is by bike already.
    Still, in Phoenix, it seems like the way to go. If people tried it, they’d find that A/C isn’t the necessity they think it is, at least for most of the year.

    I agree with you, as I seem to on lots of things, that electric vehicles probably aren’t sustainable either–but are enough of an improvement over internal combustion to make the switch worthwhile.

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