Is Carbon Lost Cause?

Browsing a Royal Society Phil Trans special issue on geo-engineering and reading a paper by Lane and Montgomery tempts me to ask: is carbon a lost cause?

After twenty years of laborious efforts, the plain truth is that greenhouse gas [GHG] control proposals have so far failed to move the needle on global emissions. Even in Europe, where the social consensus for GHG reduction is supposedly strongest, emissions continue to grow.  Where GHG emissions have fallen, underlying changes in economic structure may have played a bigger role than climate policy. ….

Global emissions must fall to roughly twenty percent of business as usual projections by mid to late century, if the goal is stabilization at 550 ppm CO2 …  Existing GHG-free energy technologies, and incremental improvements to them, cannot accommodate this growth at realistic costs. … Even if … signatories had lived up to their commitments, the [Kyoto Protocol]’s impact on global temperature would have been trivial. …

For America, Kyoto … very likely made compliance a net loss. … The fact that Russia is again refusing to accept even a nominal GHG cap points to that country’s deep lack of enthusiasm for the entire venture of international controls. … Initially advocates of unilateral controls argued that, if the U.S. adopted GHG limits, China and would promptly follow suit. However, during the Clinton Administration, the U.S. offered to adopt GHG limits if China and India did likewise, and China and India spurned the offer. …

[For] the spread of Green ideology … to work with GHG control, the same or equivalent Green world view must take root in the populations of all major emitting nations. … A very long process of social transformation would be required before the hoped for culture shift could possibly become widespread enough to make a difference. …

If progress is defined only as movement toward global cap-and-trade with universal adherence to strict targets and timetable, prospects are bleak. … Some form of muddling through has much better prospects. … agreement on a set of specific actions that each country will take contingent on others doing the same … This pledge and review process is unlikely to produce large and immediate reductions in GHG emissions.

Sure, many feel "something must be done" about carbon emissions, and "something" will be done, perhaps even at substantial cost.  But the world is eager to consume the vast tasty feast that is our oil, coal, and natural gas reserves, and unless a world war installs a world government to police a green ideology inquisition, it seems feast we will.  Politically feasible policies might delay this by a decade or two, but without a drastic revolution it seems all that carbon will go into the air over the next century or two. (Might I be wrong? I’d love to defer to decision markets here.)

Artificial volcanoes or cloud-seeding ships seem so cheap that if allowed they’ll likely stop disastrous warming, though heat redistributions may hurt.  But it seems hard to avoid carbon emissions making oceans more acidic, and so without drastic improvements in carbon sequestering, we’ll likely kill most coral reefs and dependent ecosystems.  These are real losses, but note we could probably more than compensate for lower fish catches via serious property rights in ocean fishing.  And let’s not forget, our descendants should be quite rich overall, in part from that carbon feasting; most could afford a few disruptions. 

Bottom line:
as with rising medical costs, it seems politicians can’t win by solving the problem; they can only deflect blame for failure.  You might think "Maybe prospects are dim, but we have to start somewhere, right?"  No, when a cause is lost it can be better to switch to not-yet-lost causes.

Concern about the distant future is so rare, and that future so important, it seems a shame to waste it on carbon if that cause is lost.  If your concern about global warming wasn’t just symbolic displeasure at tech or materialism, and you really were willing to work today to help folks in a century or two, consider instead saving for them, preparing for our new robot overlords, or making futarchy real.

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