A Skeptics’ Compromise Climate ‘Solution’
by Bill Chameides | December 15th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
Climate skeptic Ross McKitrick has proposed a new scheme to address climate change. Reasonable or a (McKi)trick?
At Copenhagen things are going hot and cold, with negotiators from Africa and other developing nations walking out in protest (and walking back in hours later) while the United States and China exchange barbs on who is holding up progress toward an agreement.
Meanwhile, new ideas on how to deal with climate change are being floated, some from surprising corners.
One such proposal appears in John Tierney’s “Findings” column in the Science section of today’s New York Times. Tierney describes a climate-change proposal from Ross McKitrick — an economist from the University of Guelph in Ontario and an outspoken climate skeptic who made his climate rep by attacking Michael Mann’s now infamous hockey-stick representation of the past millennium’s temperature record. Even more surprising is the apparent reasonableness of his proposal. At least at first blush.
Letting Mother Earth Dictate the Policy
McKitrick’s idea is to let the climate itself set caps or taxes on global carbon emissions rather than legislators or international negotiators.
How? Simple, just tie the cap or tax to the global temperature increase.
If global temperatures continue to rise, as most climate scientists believe they will, lower the cap or raise the tax at some pre-agreed rate. If, on the other hand, temperatures do not rise, do nothing. And if they fall, loosen the cap or lower the tax.
“Either way,” according to McKitrick, “we get a sensible outcome.”
The Mother of All Solutions? Hardly.
My gosh, it is sensible, isn’t it? Actually, not so much. There are some problems. McKitrick’s approach assumes that the climate reacts to greenhouse gases in a simple, linear, and reversible manner. It doesn’t.
- McKitrick’s “let-the-climate-call-the shots” approach assumes that the temperature change at any point in time reflects the effects of the greenhouse gas emissions at that point in time.
That’s just not the case. The climate system has a considerable amount of inertia. For example, the full impacts of today’s carbon dioxide emissions won’t be felt for another 20 or 30 years.
Waiting to see a large temperature change before getting serious about lowering greenhouse gas emissions would be like closing the barn door after the climate horse has escaped.
- McKitrick’s proposal assumes that the climate will change in a slow, orderly manner — a little more emissions, a little higher temperature.
But while that may be the case, it’s also quite possible (some scientists say quite likely) that the climate will change in sudden, abrupt shifts as it reaches various tipping points.
A slow ratcheting down of emissions tied to “wait and see” temperature shifts could allow us to blow right by one or two of those tipping points before global temperature changes told us to act.
- Finally, the proposal falls into the trap of thinking of global warming as a process that only involves a temperature change.
In fact, it’s about a lot more, potentially a complete disruption of the climate — melting glaciers and ice sheets, droughts, ocean acidification.
Tying emission caps or taxes to global temperatures ignores the fact that the signal for action may come from non-temperature disruptions.
Deciding whether or not to act on climate change is about assessing the risk and acting appropriately.
We can limit the risk by starting now to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Much of what we need to do today would involve no-regrets actions like becoming more efficient and investing in new, low-carbon technologies. (This USA Today cartoon makes a good case.)
Or we can choose to do nothing and wait and see what happens (and hope for the best). If, as a society, we decide to do the latter — so be it. But let’s be honest about it and not cloak our decision to ignore the warnings of climate scientists in the guise of some feel-good, wait-and-see climate-mitigation pretender.filed under: climate change, faculty, global warming, policy, temperatures
and: cap and trade, carbon tax, climate skeptics, hockey stick, John Tierney, New York Times, Ross McKitrick