Bjorn Lomborg, the “Skeptical Environmentalist” has his admirers and detractors. Many readers of this blog became familiar with his view that it is useless to expect the world’s governments and industries to rapidly reduce and stop the emission of carbon dioxide from power plants and automobiles so as to avert what some scientists predict as a catastrophic amount of global warming, with ocean levels rising several feet. Lomborg does not necessarily disagree with the possibility of such a dire outcome, though he looks at that as a scenario rather than a provable fact. And so he has, for some time now, said that since the world will, from a practical standpoint, not be able to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, even with trillions of expenditures, by replacing fossil fuel burning with alternate energy sources, it would be wise to use some fraction of such funds to deal with the problem rather than with the possible cause. His major recommendation therefore is to invest money in infrastructure to protect low-lying areas, assuming correctly that the world is already starting to be permanently or periodically (via hurricanes) submerged.
Sandy has shown us that Lomborg’s approach makes sense. We can argue back and forth whether carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for global warming – most scientists think so, in any case. and worry that the amount of this greenhouse has in the atmosphere recently risen to 400 parts per mission(ppm), a level not seem for millions of years. (See my post earlier this year on the time when 1500 ppm were reached). But it makes little sense to speculate on what might happen to the earth 100 or two hundred years from now when we are already confronted with storms that are only predicted to get worse over our lifetime. Sea levels on the US East Coast have been rising at a surprising rate, even though still measured in millimeters per year. And so it’s little wonder that Mayor Bloomberg has proposed spending tens of billions of dollars to protect New York City from future flooding episodes that will be even worse than what happened when it was struck by Sandy. Skeptics can argue that this evidence of steadily worsening climate and melting of glaciers is not necessarily due to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A sane approach is to spend money to protect the citizenry.
So what should we do about greenhouse gas emissions, since we may not be able to stop carbon and other GHGases from continuing to build up to possibly dangerous levels? In the U.S., the Obama administration is taking steps to force power plants to meet low carbon dioxide emission levels under the Clean Air act, a step that goes around our “do-nothing” Congress. And the new CAFE standards for cars will substantially reduce emissions from automobiles. China, the worst polluter, realizes the its population will not long tolerate the unhealthy climate caused by the massive number of coal-burning power plants, and is in the lead on clean coal technology. The EPA will continue to crack down on emission of methane from fracking and other wells, setting standards. And in Alberta, where tar sands mining and conversion is causing large emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, companies are continually improving this technology.
It’s interesting that the Kyoto protocol, a cap-and-trade approach, did little to lower emissions in Europe. Power plant operators mostly took appropriate steps without having to buy carbon credits. Now, Europe is burning more coal as it decides to shut down nuclear capacity. So, world progress on reducing carbon emissions is slow, but few people expected anything very different.