Should science set global warming policy ?

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Science defines global warming so well, and science can tell us how to best mitigate the problem

What is the optimal global warming public policy?

Any sane and sober scientist can tell you what to do about global warming: immediately stop carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.   That’s the optimal choice.   Anything else is sub-optimal.  You may define optimal any way you like.

We need to minimize CO2 emissions - the lowest minimum is zero - or in a better world it is less than zero - where we actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere - to sequester it.  Our policy must act to move CO2 levels down fast.   The fact that it takes about 40 years to begin to see the climate effects from a change in CO2 emissions, gives the problem a special dimension.   So minimize CO2 today and see the levels begin to fall in 40 years.   And tragically, the last 40 years of CO2 emissions have been the heaviest ever.   Even with our best effort, things will be a mess until about 2050.

And the second parameter best describes when we should act: right now is the perfect time.   Any other time is less than perfect.  The further we drift from immediately, the further we move from good.  The longer we wait, the worse the consequences.   So right now is perfectly good, to act later is less so, and much later is catastrophically bad.   It is troubling that we don’t really know much about the interim choices in-between the best time of now and the worst time -of way-off or never.   Those in-between areas are the messy crap-shoot areas, the zones of confusion and bickering.  Delay and procrastination makes things worse.   Except for the doom of total inaction - no one can know the physical consequences of acting at any politically convenient time in the future.   If we spend a lot of time arguing about the best time between now and never to take action, then we are moving farther away from our goal.

So atmospheric sciences calls upon us to act fast, act completely.   Now we just need a science-driven policy designed to respect these rules and optimize our actions.  Of course, because it will be difficult and painful, humans will not like to face the tasks ahead.   So after squirming uncomfortably for a while, you may realize what must happen.

  Atmospheric CO2 was 364 ppm when the Kyoto Protocol was created.

We should immediately minimize, control, and stop carbon dioxide emissions and shut down CO2 sources.  Most CO2 comes from the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels.   That would be coal, oil, gas, alcohol and even the combusion from firewood, trash and wild fires. These are all carbon based fuels that release carbon dioxide.   Because it combusts with oxygen, every pound of carbon fuel will make more carbon dioxide than the beginning carbon fuel before combustion. For instance a pound of gasoline makes almost 3 pounds of CO2. Each fuel is figured differently, but for all the carbon fuels, expect more carbon dioxide - multiply the weight by 2 or 3.   So a trainload of coal, gives us 3 trainloads of carbon dioxide.

Only when we make a huge and complex effort can we stop emitting CO2.   Governments, as they move to protect citizens and secure our posterity, can act with force or with taxation.  They can use taxes to change behavior - like taxing alcohol or taxing tobacco heavily.   Rarely do governments tax so severely as to force a business out of existence.   Or governments can use force to smash and destroy bad things - like busting meth labs, moonshine stills or foreign poppy fields.

That’s one way to handle the CO2 emitters - just blow them all up.   The problem is just about everybody uses them and enjoys the cheap energy of hydrocarbon fuels.  Not just cars, much of our electricity for homes and industry is made from burning coal or oil. The energy is good, the carbon source is not.   We are getting skilled at translating one form of energy into another.   The usual process starts with heat to make steam which drives turbine generators that makes electricity.   Burning coal is a big source of heat for making electricity; nuclear energy makes steam for the same reason but without CO2.   But wind and solar make electricity directly from a solar panel or generator.   There are plenty of clean energy sources.

So we have to act quickly, very quickly - the optimal time is right now - to change rapidly to non-carbon fuel sources - called clean energy: wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, tidal, etc.   We need to make energy without making carbon dioxide.   Most important is that we have to do away with many of the carbon fuels that we use today - oil, gas and coal.   They should all go away - completely, and the sooner the better.

OK.   From a science prospective, public policy - defining what governments should do - all this is pretty straightforward.   If we want to design a process that drives change as soon as possible then governments can use force, or they can tax.   Later they can spend the money from the taxes in smart ways like health insurance and building railroads.

Here is a simple - two part proposal that nicely fits the science requirements:

Make clean energy sources
All carbon based fuels should be tax free when used for the explicit purpose of manufacturing and establishing clean fuel systems… this might include wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, tidal and the supporting industries for them.   Build clean energy as soon as possible.


Eliminate dirty energy sources
ALL other, ANY other carbon fuels usage should be taxed, heavily taxed, and taxed so heavily that it puts carbon fuel companies out of existence in the fastest way possible.   Eliminate CO2 emissions immediately and completely.

That’s it.   All done.

That’s the simple solution.  I know it is hard to enact.   People can do it themselves or can ask governments to help make it happen.

Other solutions such as allowing partial emissions or permitting gradual change over a few decades while gambling with carbon credits - all of those options are wild cards, hard to control, hard to evaluate, require too much time, are easily derailed and have poor chances of success.  We are stepping into areas with no historical precedent.   People will clamor for less-than-optimal change, but anything less is dangerously unknown, unproven and unaccepted by science.

As we wrangle with the colossal changes necessary to adapt and mitigate, the best way to boldly step into the future is armed with optimal solutions.

Governments can know this too.


Richard Pauli
Feb 2009


cross posted to TaxGlobalWarming.org

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