Saturday, September 19, 2009

Climate Change Articles

Foreign Affairs recently published 3 articles on climate change: "Copenhangen's Inconvenient Truth," (Levi) "The Other Climate Changers," (Wallack and Ramanathan) and "The Low-Carbon Diet" (Kurtzman. The fact that the 3 articles were prominently featured in a journal such as Foreign Affairs is a good sign that the issue is being taken seriously by the right people. Unfortunately, the articles themselves expose just how much work there is to do. And how dire the situation is.

Levi writes about plans for Copenhagen negotiations in December with the primary purpose of lowering expectations for the summit. "The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small."

Many difficulties will prevent a worthwhile agreement from being signed. Greatest amongst those difficulties is the gap between the developing and developed world. Economic growth is seen as an important way that nation-states project power; any talk of disrupting that growth will be met with opposition. The developing world (naturally) wants to enjoy the same prosperity as the West - it believes it ought to be able to pollute as much as the West did in order to achieve its prosperity. Unfortunately, without significant reduction in emissions from the developing world (primarily China, India, and Brazil) any agreement amongst the West is worthless. Complicating matters is the fact that developing nations "lack the capacity to robustly monitor their entire economies' emissions." There is no point in setting emissions targets at this point, because they cannot be measured or verified. The final difficulty is that it is doubtful that the West has the political will to lead by example on this issue, especially with the current "crisis."

While a comprehensive global agreement sounds nice, it is unrealistic. Instead, "An approach to dealing with climate change based on hundreds, if not thousands, of individual policies and measures may be messy, but the complexity of the problem requires it." This statement is right on, but its consequences are daunting. Climate change demands a bottom-up approach. Thousands of solutions, both governmental and non-governmental will be needed to change the behavior of billions of individuals. There is no magic treaty to sign.

Thus, expectations for Copenhagen are low. I agree with Levi when he says that the best thing that could come out of Copenhagen "is an agreement on measurement, reporting, and verification" for developing countries. That way, future negotiations could ask for verifications of emission cuts. Other than that, "it may take many years before [Copenhagen] results in a meaningful, legally binding agreement."

Wallack and Ramanathan address emissions of black carbon. The result of incomplete combustion, black carbon significantly contributes to climate change. Unlike carbon dioxide, black carbon leaves the atmosphere quickly: "only days to weeks." Thus, if black carbon was eliminated, there would be an immediate impact on the climate. (It will take decades - centuries for carbon dioxide to be reabsorbed).

The problem is that "65% of black carbon emissions are associated with the burning of biomass." This is exactly the issue that im trying to address (anti-deforestation). IT IS NOT EASY.

Wallack and Ramanathan say that "households tend to shift away from [biomass fuels] as soon as other options become available...the challenge is to make other options available." Gas ovens exist in my town, but people cook and bake with wood because it is free. Getting the developing world to make significant change will take a lot more than investing in technology. Once again, bottom-up tactics will be needed to find appropriate, cost-effective solutions for thousands of different communities.

Every article that mentions black carbon calls it "the low hanging fruit." Months ago I responded to a New York Times article that used this same term to talk about black carbon. The analogy implies that these changes will be easy. They won't. To make the analogy correct, the fruit may be hanging low, but there are thousands upon thousands of unique fields that need to be "harvested." An army of workers will be needed to pick those fields.

Finally, Kurtzman's article is the most hopeful. Kurtzman believes that market forces, if correctly shaped by the government, will change emission habits. And he believes that cap-and-trade is the most effective way of setting-up those market forces.

Cap-and-trade is a very elegant solution, which naturally makes me skeptical. Emissions are capped. Polluters that exceed their cap are heavily fined. Corporations that are under their cap can sell their polluting permits to other corporations. Thus, polluters are punished. Clean companies are rewarded. Money flows to companies and technologies that are successfully reducing emissions.

In the US, 85% of cap-and-trade permits are given away. This is essentially giving away money. If, hypothetically, a company shuts down its factories after receiving permits, it can sell those permits for a profit. How can government allocate all these permits? Given the difficulties that Democrats will have in getting the legislation through, you think that they might have to give away some political favors? For example, might Appalachian Democrats in the pocket of Big Coal sell their votes in exchange for permits for their constituents?

Another problem is offsets. If, for example, a polluter gives money to Brazil for reforestation, they can can pollute more without paying a fine. They get credit for reducing emissions in another part of the world while polluting as much as they always did. Most emission proposals want to see the developing world reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. If they can just buy offsets in other countries, emissions won't come down. Furthermore, how will the US government verify that emissions are reduced in the Amazon (to continue the example)? They have a hard enough time keeping track of emissions in America.

But the real problem is that everyone thinks cap-and-trade will be easy. Sure, big industry will agree to cap-and-trade when the goals for reducing emissions are negligible and permits are given away. In order to meet the goal of 80% reduction by 2050 (80% of 2005 levels, not 80% of 1990 levels, like needed) stringent caps will have to be imposed. Why delay those cuts? Because it is currently politically impossible to make real cuts. Why will it be any different 5 years from now? At some point, this legislation will demand sacrifices from people and industry to be effective. I can't see our Congress passing any sort of deal given the mess they are currently making of health care.

So, all this adds up to a grim situation. Since the publishing of these articles, things have only gotten worse. US Copenhagen negotiators were hooping that cap-and-trade legislation would have passed through Congress before December so they could point to concrete steps taken by the US. But Obama and Congress are currently grappling with health care - it seems unlikely that they will find time fore cap-and-trade.

Even if the fanciful cap-and-trade targets were met and the low-hanging fruit was plucked, the climate would still get warmer. It takes hundreds of years for CO2 to be removed from atmosphere. We have started positive feedback loops that may spiral out of control. Thus, adaptation must be considered. Disease patterns will change. Agriculture will be affected, particuraly in the poorest parts of the world. Rising sea levels will displace millions of people. In addition to humanitarian concerns, climate change will destabilize the global political situation. Action plans need to be made now.

My computer is out of commission. Hopefully I will be able to fix it. But until I do so, the quality of my posts might drop. I wrote this one by hand in my house and hurridly typed it at the cyber.

Ramadan is over Sunday or Monday. I had break fast at my doctor's house the other day and it might have been the best food ive eaten in Morocco. There was: pizza, custard pie with apples, apple and pear juice, homemade Moroccan pastry, delicious soup, dates, and tea. Wow. Makes me wish I spent more time with city Moroccans, eating their food.

I went to the health clinic the other day and the door to the exam room was shut. I waited for like 15 minutes before people came out. A woman had half of her head bandaged and it was obvious there had been a lot of blood. She had gotten into a fight with another woman and been struck with the tool that they use to harvest grass and wheat. It looks a lot like a scythe.

Yesterday I was talking with some young men outside. They started telling me that the European economy was better than the American economy - their proof was that the Euro is stronger than the dollar. I didn't know how to say in Tam, "The numerical value of a currency is arbitrary. It says nothing about the purchasing power of that currency or the state of the economy." But I explained that if a Moroccan went to America, he/she would get much more for his/her dirham than someone exchanging yen. But the Japanese economy is much bigger than the Moroccan one. It was the most complicated concept that I have ever explained in Tamazight. Success.

All is well. The maternal and child health workshop that I've been planning for months now has a date: October 7th, 8th, and 9th. I won't be writing a grant to ask for money on the PC website, but if you have interest in donating, your money will be well spent and appreciated.

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