Sunday, October 9, 2011

Via Climate Change: Would Things Be Different If the Public had Perfect Information on Climate Science and Solutions?

Last week, I wrote about the important Dunlap-McRight paper that found organized climate change denial “Played a Crucial Role in Blocking Domestic Legislation.”

Although this is a pretty obvious conclusion to objective observers, the false-equivalence bunch, led by blogger Andy Revkin, couldn’t bring themselves to report on it without giving the professional disinformers equal time.
John Rennie, the former editor in chief of Scientific American, slammed Revkin’s piece in a must-read post, “Revkin’s False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines.”  Rennie was particularly critical of Revkin’s equating the climate denial machine with a laughable “climate alarmism machine” (whipped up by an Australian disinformer), which equates those who spread outright anti-scientific disinformation (often funded by fossil-fuel interests) with the serious work of climate scientists and governments (and others) who make use of that genuine, scientific work.
But what ultimately caught my eye in Revkin’s post is that he linked to a 2009 Climate Progress post I wrote [in response to a Revkin piece], “What If the Public had Perfect Climate Information?“  Revkin writes:
It’s also important to examine whether a world without such efforts — in which citizens had a clear view of both what is known, and uncertain, about the human factor in shaping climate-related risks — would appreciably change. Some insist the answer is yes [link to CP]. Given the deep-rooted human bias to the near and now and other aspects of our “inconvenient mind,” I’m not nearly so sure (although this doesn’t stop me from working on this challenge, of course).
It continues to boggle the mind that a professional reporter would seriously believe that if the public fully understood the subject — yes, including those things that are highly certain and those that are less so — that they would not support strong, prompt actions to reduce emissions.  But, then, Revkin continues to this day to only endorse his vague R&D-focused “energy quest” and criticize those of us (including the National Academy of Science) who push for strong emissions reductions starting now.  Since Revkin refuses to this day to tell us what level of concentrations he thinks the world should aim for –  even a broad range, say 450 ppm to 550 ppm — Revkin retains the luxury of attacking those who are willing to state what their target is while maintaining a faux high ground that they are being politically unrealistic while he can pretend his essentially do-nothing strategy is scientifically or morally viable, which it ain’t.
Of course, the public already supports far more action now than is tolerated by the anti-science crowd or the political party they have a hammerlock control of — see Mandatory Cuts in Carbon Pollution Favored by Over 70% of Voters and Small Businesses — and Even 49% of Fox Viewers. But  since they don’t fully understand the dire cost of inaction — and the  relatively low cost of action using existing or emerging technologies — their  is no serious political penalty imposed on those who spread lies or counsel delay.
What follows is an update of my 2009 post.  I am  very interested in your answer to the headline question.

Revkin asks me via Dot Earth, “What if The Public had Perfect Climate Information?”  Ahh, the hypothetical question that launches us into an alternative history.  Reminds me of that Saturday Night Live routine, “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”
I’d love your answer.  Here’s mine.
If the entire public had perfect information on all matters related to climate — the science and the solutions — we would certainly be on a path to below 450 ppm  (see, for instance, Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must).
Indeed, I’d argue that having perfect information on the solutions is at least as important as having perfect information on the problem.  Probably the single biggest reason for the lack of deployment of energy-efficient technology is lack of perfect information.
Let’s set aside that there is no definition of what one means by “perfect information.”   The term implies we’re in the hypothetical ideal state here.
Also, the possession of perfect information 30 years ago would completely change the amount of information we have today.  This I think is a very important point.
If the public had perfect information on climate — and by public I am, of course, including the media and politicians — then we would certainly have put a great deal more money into climate science, observations, satellites, and the like starting at least 3 decades ago, when it became clear to the scientific community that the threat of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions was real and serious.
Remember, the National Research Council’s 1979 review of the science (“Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus“:
In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored. The potential for cooling, the threat of aerosols, or the possibility of an ice age shows up nowhere in the report. Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°-4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979).
Obviously, if everybody had even that amount of information in 1979, we would have charted a very different course.  We would have immediately started investing heavily in low-carbon RD&D — a strategy many embrace today based on imperfect information.
Ironically, President Carter did start such heavy alternative energy investment (though not aimed at carbon), but Reagan tragically slashed the budget 70% to 90%, from which it never recovered.
As our understanding of the risks became clearer in the 1980s, we would have ramped up RD&D funding and started making aggressive deployment in technology up the carbon cost curve, starting with the lowest cost strategies — “best buys first” as my old colleague Amory Lovins used to say.  That is especially true because most independent studies done by groups that are funded by the disinformers and their allies find the cost of action to be quite low (see “Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost — one tenth of a penny on the dollar“).
Public policy built around perfect climate information would not merely encounter dramatically fewer market barriers, it would presumably be built around a best estimate of the cost to society of carbon dioxide emissions.  That estimate would take into account our understanding that even a low probability of high-impact negative outcomes implies the need for a much higher CO2 cost than the kind of simple cost-benefit analyses we typically see (see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”).
That also means we would have properly valued ecosystem services, including the tropical rain forests, and they would be oing a heckuva lot better today.
As the world worked together to understand the science and adopt the most cost-effective solutions — while spending money to developed yet more solutions — we would have seen that emissions reduction is inexpensive and straightforward, especially when you take a long time horizon.  That’s in my experience over the past two decades working with businesses to develop and deploy low carbon technologies, as I have documented at great length — see my book Cool Companies: How the best businesses boost profits and productivity by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As everybody saw the multiple benefits of embracing energy efficiency, advanced control systems, variable speed drive motors, daylighting, production processes, and the like in terms of both energy savings and productivity gains, this would quickly have become the norm around the planet.
As for renewables, I can’t even imagine how cheap Concentrated solar thermal power Solar Baseload would be if Luz had not been allowed to die two decades ago!  If you don’t know that story, well, it’s a sad one, but we might have had carbon-free load-following power suitable for use around the planet at under 10 cents a kilowatt hour in the 1990s.
By the 2000s, the world would certainly have been on a path below 550 ppm and as it became increasingly clear that aspects of the climate system were more sensitive than we expected, we would have moved to the 450 ppm path or lower, which would be considerably easier to do since we were on a lower emissions pathway to start with and had so many more clean energy options.
I’m not certain how productive it is to spend a lot of time in the imaginary world of perfect information.  But it is worth spending enough time to realize just how destructive the disinformation campaign and the enabling media coverage has been, which was the point of my original post, “Apparently you can write an entire article on how the public doesn’t get climate science without mentioning the disinformation campaign or the media’s failings.”
UPDATE:  Since this post was written, we have still failed to take action (which is to say that we have failed to overcome the extraconstitutional, anti-democratic, 60-vote “requirement” in the Senate that gives the denial machine so much leverage).
Yet, the science has gotten more dire in its projections of what will likely happen if we keep on  our current path of unrestricted emissions — see An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces.
Humanity’s Choice (via M.I.T.):  Inaction (“No Policy”) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether or not future warming will be catastrophic.  Aggressive emissions reductions dramatically improves humanity’s chances.
At the same time, the cost of the solutions have dropped considerably — see Solar is the “Fastest Growing Industry in America” and Made Record Cost Reductions in 2010.
And, of course, media coverage has gotten measurable worse — see Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010. But that is no doubt just a coincidence.

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