Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Virtue In False Promises?

One of the things that strikes me repeatedly watching the global warming debate (especially in the lead-up to and in the wake of the Copenhagen conference) is the incredible amount of excitement people have about trying to get countries to make commitments in regards to CO2 emissions which they obviously are not going to keep.

For instance, in discussing their hopes for Copenhagen, a number of environmentalists expressed hope that there would not be another "do nothing" commitment such as the Kyoto Accord -- despite the fact that even those countries which did agree to Kyoto had not managed to keep those very modest commitments. The goals that environmentalists did very much want to see committed to (generally a 80-90% global drop in CO2 emissions within somewhere between 10 and 40 years) are far more aggressive, and thus far more unrealistic.

This struck me in particular when I stumbled across this advocacy piece, in which the author expresses hope that leaders of nations will commit to decreasing CO2 emissions by 80% in ten years (by 2020) and as a first step urges people to take the radical step of decreasing their "carbon footprints" by 25%. If committed environmentalists are only finding ways to decrease their household CO2 emissions by 25%, how in the world do they expect a whole country to drop its emissions by 80%?

Environmentalists have widely branded the Copenhagen summit as a failure because it didn't produce a firm commitment to massive CO2 emission reductions within a couple decades. Even beloved left-of-center leaders such as President Obama have been branded by their own base as "irresponsible" for not making strong commitments at Copenhagen. But if there simply does not seem to be a way to achieve such reductions, if even activists willing to significantly change their lifestyles in order to reduce their personal "carbon footprints" are not able to reliably achieve such drastic reductions in the short term, I fail to understand how it was "irresponsible" of Obama, Sarkozy, etc. to refuse to commit to doing something they frankly have no idea of how to do.

Wouldn't it be irresponsible to make a commitment you have no idea how to keep?


Anonymous said...

"Wouldn't it be irresponsible to make a commitment you have no idea how to keep?"


I continue to shake my head at climatologists and political activists who are quite good at recognizing scientific realities, but utterly hapless at recognizing political realities. On the one hand, they are correct in noting that global warming is real, is being caused by human activities, and will get far worse in the future if current rates of fossil-fuel consumption are sustained.

On the other hand, they fail completely to recognize the political reality: developed countries will continue to consume fossil fuels as long as they are available. Coal is cheap, it's plentiful, and the technologies for utilizing it are well-developed. There's no way the US or China is going to turn their backs on such an economical energy source. The fact that this will alter the Earth in ways that will require us over the next couple centuries to relocate many of our major coastal cities is a problem for future generations to figure out. Seriously. That's how people think. It's human nature.

Why can't environmentalists understand this?


Anonymous said...

I should probably clarify: in my posting above I am not being snarky or ironic. I'm completely serious about what I wrote. Global warming is inevitable because of a) the easy availibility of fossil fuels; and b) the human inability to turn away from a profitable activity when the consequences, however dire, are far in the future.


Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

But, if fossile fuels are depleting, as was discussed recently, how can "global warming" continue to be an issue some 20/50 years from now?

Darwin said...


I pretty much completely agree with your analysis, with the exception that I think there's a certain amount of question as to how climate change will actually play out over the coming decades. Our models are, at best, pretty aproximate, and it's hardly a stretch to say that we don't know if there may be a lot of factors which either cancel out the effects of CO2 emmission on climate, or increase them.

Bottom line, though, is that like it or not its basically not possible to get people to take very expensive (in human and monetary terms) actions to mitigate a situation they're not experiencing yet.


Well, if fossil fuels deplete all the way, obviously CO2 emmissions would plummet. I don't think most people seriously expect that in the next 100 years, though.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

I had heard it was just a case of 20 - 50 years a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

Petroleum will be pretty much gone in 50 years, but that's a small fraction of the CO2 problem. The real bugger is coal, and that's going to last another 300 years or more.


Paul Zummo said...

Petroleum will be pretty much gone in 50 years, but that's a small fraction of the CO2 problem.

Not sure about the gone in 50 years claim, but you're quite wrong about it being a small fraction of the CO2 problem. Here's the latest EIA report on emissions. You'll want to refer to page 10 for a breakdown by fuel, but clearly petroleum-based emissions are higher than coal-based emissions.

Now if you're talking solely about the electricity sector, that's a different story, and you'd be right about that.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I wasn't just talking about the US. I stand by what I wrote.


Paul Zummo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Zummo said...


It still isn't accurate, even if you apply it to the world. Though it is true that coal-based emissions constitute a plurality of the planet's emissions, it's not most, and it certainly indicates that petroleum is "more than a fraction."