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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Global Warming

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The Global Warming Debate Grows Up
Global Warming

For two decades, the big challenge of global warming was getting people to realize that it existed. “Deniers” were once a force to be reckoned with, but through the hard work of the environmental movement, they’ve now been relegated to the ideological fringe. Even conservatives talk about investing in clean energy and the need to reduce our carbon emissions, with Republican presidential candidate John McCain saying global warming would be one of three key issues of his presidency. We’ve crossed item #1 off the to-do list, and now a new task looms large on the horizon, no less challenging than the first: everyone knows that global warming is real, so what do we do about it?

Environmentalists have long believed that a price for carbon is the obvious answer to this question; “just pop in the economic incentives and watch them work their magic,” as Monica Prasad put it in the New York Times. The idea is that penalizing dirty energy will give clean energy enough of a push to topple the reign of the carbon-emitters. But it’s not that simple. A growing number of environmental thinkers are taking a critical look at the true impacts of Kyoto, the fast pace of international development, and the slow pace of clean energy development and deployment, and they’re asking a question that shakes the foundations of conventional climate policy wisdom: is a carbon price ecologically irrelevant?

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is part of this paradigm shift. In a recent Scientific American op-ed, he wrote:

“A trading system might marginally influence the choices between coal and gas plants or provoke a bit more adoption of solar and wind power, but it will not lead to the necessary fundamental overhaul of energy systems.”

The recent spike in oil prices is evidence that a price for carbon doesn’t deserve to be at the center of climate policy. Though prices have tripled since 9/11 — creating a de facto carbon price — we haven’t converted the American auto fleet to electric. There may have been a slight increase in the number of hybrids, but it’s nothing even close to a wedge.

In order for a carbon price to have an appreciable effect on clean energy technology, it would need to be so high that no politician would dream of supporting it. To make solar competitive with coal, we would need a carbon price $220; Congress is having a hard time passing something in the $7-$12 range. Breakthrough refers to this catch-22 as “the Gordian Knot.”

The second blow to the carbon price way is the realization that the IPCC underestimated both the emissions reductions challenge, and the technology gap between fossil fuels and clean energy. Just how big is that gap? Socolow and Pacala’s famous “stabilization wedges” illustrate the immensity of the chasm. Their list of wedges include ending all deforestation worldwide; doubling our nuclear power capacity (we haven’t built a single new plant in 30 years); and a 700-fold increase in solar power capacity. This is a small sampling of a list that comes out to 18 wedges in total, most of which represent massive engineering challenges. Socolow and Pacala assume 11 of these wedges to be “embedded in the baseline scenario,” meaning that if we continue business as usual, a big portion of the heavy lifting in terms of carbon emissions reductions will occur automatically. Environmentalists are confident that the “remaining” wedges will be easily achieved with a price for carbon, but this is complacency.

A small price incentive isn’t enough; we need a real technology policy. Among those of us who believe climate change is the biggest challenge mankind has ever faced, it’s still unclear how that policy will take shape. Will we disagree? You bet. There is plenty of room for nuance and interpretation. But the climate cold war is finally thawing, and it is time to begin an open, honest discussion about the best policy solutions.

The Global Warming Debate Grows Up

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Mohit Gupta, mohit gupta
Mohit Gupta
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