Environment Forum

Essential Earth Science — from your garage

March 24, 2008

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and will be a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. Reuters is not responsible for the content — the views expressed are the author’s alone.

The root cause of all environmental problems-from beer cans floating on a lake to global warming-can be explained using the following two contrasting scenes:

Emissions well out of an exhaust of a car during traffic on a street in downtown Berlin on March 23, 2005. Members of the ruling German Greens party discuss a toll for vehicles entering the centre of major cites such as Berlin, Munich and Duesseldorf to reduce exhaust gas pollution. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz TOB/MADScene 1: We are sitting in an automobile inside a small, closed garage.

You are in the passenger seat and I am at the wheel. We are waiting for a third passenger from inside the building. Suddenly I reach for the ignition and turn the engine on. Alarmed by the thought of being poisoned by the exhaust, your eyes widen in amazement as you say, “What are you doing?” When you reach to turn the ignition off, I block your hands and soon a life-and-death struggle begins for control of the vehicle. You are screaming: “Are you crazy! You’re going to kill us both!”  If we manage to survive the episode you will seek to have me put under psychiatric care. Heck, I might even end up in prison for attempted manslaughter. My days as an ordinary law-abiding citizen are over.

Scene 2: Exact same situation except that now the car is sitting a mere ten feet back on the driveway outside the garage.

I reach for the ignition and turn the car on. You might look over but you say nothing. The engine could idle 15 minutes or more, but we sit calmly in silence. Our passenger arrives and we drive off. I remain a perfectly well-respected citizen. Indeed if you happened to question me the next day about the engine idling, you’re the one who would probably feel strange.

Economists explain the remarkable difference between scene 1 and 2 as “the tragedy of the commons.” When we pollute a seemingly vast reservoir like the atmosphere (a “common space”) the rapid dilution of our pollution makes us oblivious to what we are doing. Since everyone acts the same self-interested way (the “tragedy”), the pollution accumulates, including carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) . If instead, we were forced to inhale all of our own emissions, we would stop this behavior immediately. Since this is never the case, the economic solution is a pollution tax.Vehicles congest the Third Ring Road in China’s capital Beijing, November 12, 2004. Beijing’s normally poor air, choked by car exhaust, factory emissions and construction dust, deteriorates when thousands of coal-burning heating plants and smaller domestic coal stoves are lit in the winter. REUTERS/Simon Lim CC/FA

Throwing a beer can on a lake is the same thing-the can soon floats away so you don’t have to look at it. But if everyone were to toss empty cans into the same lake, it would soon be blanketed in tin. Who would be responsible for cleaning up the lake? Would it be fair to ask all residents to foot the bill, or just the individual polluters? The same question exists with global warming and greenhouse gas emissions: If rich countries alone were forced to absorb all the impacts of their emissions, we’d have seen a lot more action by now. Instead, less developed countries have the dubious privilege of sharing the impacts.

What makes the oblivion brought on by the commons so extreme that, like with an engine idling, the polluting behavior becomes the “norm” and questioning it feels almost “abnormal”? 

For example, how would you feel asking a stranger to turn off his idling car? How would you react if you had to pay for how much pollution your car emitted while you were idling?

Comments
6 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

It is a little upsetting to see that the other side of the globel warming scare / mythe or what ever isn’t reported on that much and there is extensive science to show it, especially when tax payers are expected to fund it.
Not that we shouldn’t try to live clean but getting fanatical about it isn’t smart niether.

But this article in the Australian seemed to do some leveling.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive
 

Good example.

However, the specific idling problem will probably get taken care of, given that Peak Oil is either here already or coming soon. Private autos will inevitably have to go PHEV or BEV over the next few decades, as well as light trucks.

Even for heavy trucks, hybrids are being found useful in eliminating idling fuel use, although they still need real fuel for longer distances, as do ships and airplanes. GE has some real hybrid locomotives [diesel-electric has been around a while, but the new GE locomotives can recapture the braking energy also.]

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the larger CO2 problem. We’ll certainly burn all the oil & gas we can get, as they are just too useful. The real question is how much unsequestered coal we burn.
Charlie Hall’s Balloon Graph is highly recommended to see how far we have to go:

http://scitizen.com/screens/blogPage/vie wBlog/sw_viewBlog.php?idTheme=14&idContr ibution=1305

Posted by John Mashey | Report as abusive
 

Heres the good example

Climate facts to warm to
Christopher Pearson | March 22, 2008
CATASTROPHIC predictions of global warming usually conjure with the notion of a tipping point, a point of no return.
Last Monday – on ABC Radio National, of all places – there was a tipping point of a different kind in the debate on climate change. It was a remarkable interview involving the co-host of Counterpoint, Michael Duffy and Jennifer Marohasy, a biologist and senior fellow of Melbourne-based think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. Anyone in public life who takes a position on the greenhouse gas hypothesis will ignore it at their peril.
Duffy asked Marohasy: “Is the Earth stillwarming?”
She replied: “No, actually, there has been cooling, if you take 1998 as your point of reference. If you take 2002 as your point of reference, then temperatures have plateaued. This is certainly not what you’d expect if carbon dioxide is driving temperature because carbon dioxide levels have been increasing but temperatures have actually been coming down over the last 10 years.”
Duffy: “Is this a matter of any controversy?”
Marohasy: “Actually, no. The head of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has actually acknowledged it. He talks about the apparent plateau in temperatures so far this century. So he recognises that in this century, over the past eight years, temperatures have plateaued … This is not what you’d expect, as I said, because if carbon dioxide is driving temperature then you’d expect that, given carbon dioxide levels have been continuing to increase, temperatures should be going up … So (it’s) very unexpected, not something that’s being discussed. It should be being discussed, though, because it’s very significant.”
Duffy: “It’s not only that it’s not discussed. We never hear it, do we? Whenever there’s any sort of weather event that can be linked into the global warming orthodoxy, it’s put on the front page. But a fact like that, which is that global warming stopped a decade ago, is virtually never reported, which is extraordinary.”
Duffy then turned to the question of how the proponents of the greenhouse gas hypothesis deal with data that doesn’t support their case. “People like Kevin Rudd and Ross Garnaut are speaking as though the Earth is still warming at an alarming rate, but what is the argument from the other side? What would people associated with the IPCC say to explain the (temperature) dip?”
Marohasy: “Well, the head of the IPCC has suggested natural factors are compensating for the increasing carbon dioxide levels and I guess, to some extent, that’s what sceptics have been saying for some time: that, yes, carbon dioxide will give you some warming but there are a whole lot of other factors that may compensate or that may augment the warming from elevated levels of carbon dioxide.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the impact of the sun and that maybe we’re going to go through or are entering a period of less intense solar activity and this could be contributing to the current cooling.”
Duffy: “Can you tell us about NASA’s Aqua satellite, because I understand some of the data we’re now getting is quite important in our understanding of how climate works?”
Marohasy: “That’s right. The satellite was only launched in 2002 and it enabled the collection of data, not just on temperature but also on cloud formation and water vapour. What all the climate models suggest is that, when you’ve got warming from additional carbon dioxide, this will result in increased water vapour, so you’re going to get a positive feedback. That’s what the models have been indicating. What this great data from the NASA Aqua satellite … (is) actually showing is just the opposite, that with a little bit of warming, weather processes are compensating, so they’re actually limiting the greenhouse effect and you’re getting a negative rather than a positive feedback.”
Duffy: “The climate is actually, in one way anyway, more robust than was assumed in the climate models?”
Marohasy: “That’s right … These findings actually aren’t being disputed by the meteorological community. They’re having trouble digesting the findings, they’re acknowledging the findings, they’re acknowledging that the data from NASA’s Aqua satellite is not how the models predict, and I think they’re about to recognise that the models really do need to be overhauled and that when they are overhauled they will probably show greatly reduced future warming projected as a consequence of carbon dioxide.”
Duffy: “From what you’re saying, it sounds like the implications of this could beconsiderable …”
Marohasy: “That’s right, very much so. The policy implications are enormous. The meteorological community at the moment is really just coming to terms with the output from this NASA Aqua satellite and (climate scientist) Roy Spencer’s interpretation of them. His work is published, his work is accepted, but I think people are still in shock at this point.”
If Marohasy is anywhere near right about the impending collapse of the global warming paradigm, life will suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.
A great many founts of authority, from the Royal Society to the UN, most heads of government along with countless captains of industry, learned professors, commentators and journalists will be profoundly embarrassed. Let us hope it is a prolonged and chastening experience.
With catastrophe off the agenda, for most people the fog of millennial gloom will lift, at least until attention turns to the prospect of the next ice age. Among the better educated, the sceptical cast of mind that is the basis of empiricism will once again be back in fashion. The delusion that by recycling and catching public transport we can help save the planet will quickly come to be seen for the childish nonsense it was all along.
The poorest Indians and Chinese will be left in peace to work their way towards prosperity, without being badgered about the size of their carbon footprint, a concept that for most of us will soon be one with Nineveh and Tyre, clean forgotten in six months.
The scores of town planners in Australia building empires out of regulating what can and can’t be built on low-lying shorelines will have to come to terms with the fact inundation no longer impends and find something more plausible to do. The same is true of the bureaucrats planning to accommodate “climate refugees”.
Penny Wong’s climate mega-portfolio will suddenly be as ephemeral as the ministries for the year 2000 that state governments used to entrust to junior ministers. Malcolm Turnbull will have to reinvent himself at vast speed as a climate change sceptic and the Prime Minister will have to kiss goodbye what he likes to call the great moral issue and policy challenge of our times.
It will all be vastly entertaining to watch.
THE Age published an essay with an environmental theme by Ian McEwan on March 8 and its stablemate, The Sydney Morning Herald, also carried a slightly longer version of the same piece.
The Australian’s Cut & Paste column two days later reproduced a telling paragraph from the Herald’s version, which suggested that McEwan was a climate change sceptic and which The Age had excised. He was expanding on the proposition that “we need not only reliable data but their expression in the rigorous use of statistics”.
What The Age decided to spare its readers was the following: “Well-meaning intellectual movements, from communism to post-structuralism, have a poor history of absorbing inconvenient fact or challenges to fundamental precepts. We should not ignore or suppress good indicators on the environment, though they have become extremely rare now. It is tempting to the layman to embrace with enthusiasm the latest bleak scenario because it fits the darkness of our soul, the prevailing cultural pessimism. The imagination, as Wallace Stevens once said, is always at the end of an era. But we should be asking, or expecting others to ask, for the provenance of the data, the assumptions fed into the computer model, the response of the peer review community, and so on. Pessimism is intellectually delicious, even thrilling, but the matter before us is too serious for mere self-pleasuring. It would be self-defeating if the environmental movement degenerated into a religion of gloomy faith. (Faith, ungrounded certainty, is no virtue.)”
The missing sentences do not appear anywhere else in The Age’s version of the essay. The attribution reads: “Copyright Ian McEwan 2008″ and there is no acknowledgment of editing by The Age.
Why did the paper decide to offer its readers McEwan lite? Was he, I wonder, consulted on the matter? And isn’t there a nice irony that The Age chose to delete the line about ideologues not being very good at “absorbing inconvenient fact”?

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive
 

Mike,
For posting that you are my Hero for the day. Cheers

Posted by McShabby | Report as abusive
 

The notion that the earth and the climate are self-regulating systems capable of adapting to changes in temperature or conditions is not new. It is the Gaia theory articulated by James Lovelock in the 1970s. What Lovelock also makes clear in his theory is that there are limits to the capacity of any self regulating system to adapt. His view based on the data (remember he is an ex-NASA scientist) is that anthropogenic inputs into the earth’s self-regulating system is far in excess of its capacity to adapt – in other words that our actions are hurtling us towards a tipping point. If we reach that point then we lose all capacity to control or prevent the breakdown of the system. The problem with the sort of argument about how to respond to climate change is that we can debate the data, its implications and necessary conclusions until we are blue in the face and do nothing, or we can accept that we will never have perfect data or perfect analysis when it comes to understanding such a complex system and actually begin the process of reducing the incredible waste and incredible destruction that we are so unnecessarily inflicting on our only home.
We are making Nero look like a musician.

By the way Marohasey seriously distorts the report from the Goddard Space Centre – they do not say that the positive feedback model is wrong only that the positive feedback is weaker than expected. They also acknowledge that the earth’s surface is warming.

Posted by Jeremy | Report as abusive
 

I am not sure I would say the pollution tax is the economic solution. It is part of the solution. The other parts are removing negative subsidies, adding positive ones, and assisting displaced economic factors.

Posted by A.D. | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •