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climate economics

Tuesday 22 June, 2010

I caught this presentation offered by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs CLIMATE, ECONOMICS, AND THE FUTURE featuring Bill McKibben, of Middlebury College & 350.org, who was 1 of the 1st to write about climate change 21 years ago.  We didn’t know then how quickly the problem would accelerate & now the scale of the problem may be too great.  Hydrological cycles of droughts & floods are being disrupted.  A thin layer of acid is spreading over the oceans like an oil slick as we speak.

Water is the 1st to be threatened.  Water tables are dropping in China & they’re diverting 3 rivers to compensate for that drop.  Rising temperatures are leading to more evaporation, which means we need more water for crops.  The rise of global sea levels is resulting in the Pearl River delta becoming a flood plain.  The Tigress, Euphrates, & Jordan rivers are all dropping.

Growth occludes the problem.    A book which came out of MIT which focused on the limits of growth was scoffed at when it was published, but now we are running into those limits.  Unfortunately the Chinese see part of the solution, for now at least, as burning cheap coal to fuel their economic growth.  China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, (although not on a per capita basis) & tar sands are the most inefficient way to extract oil.

The Midwestern U.S. is in hock to the big industries, subsidized industrial farms, & vested interests that made it money in the past.  Midwestern politicians have a bipartisan record of doing nothing for the last 20 years.  Ethanol is the best solution they could come up with to date.

In analyzing the problem of climate change, “too big to fail” simply means these firms have become too big, which applies to energy companies too.  Agriculture only works now with large infusions of oil, but for the 1st time in 150 years, the # of farms is rising, which is an indicator of locally grown produce & a good sign.  We need to move from our centralized model of energy distribution to a more distributed model where people can generate their own energy & return some to the grid from their solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal pumps, or whatever.  America thrived on national projects years ago, but now these issues must be solved locally.  350.org started with 7 students (1 student/continent) & blossomed into an organization that organized 5200 demonstrations in 181 countries.

Setting the price of energy is a fundamental political act, so Washington D.C. holds the key.  No other country will sign an international treaty until the U.S. does.

Q&A

don’t take the energy chapter in the SuperFreakonomics book seriously.  Technology will lead to more dispersed energy, but there are no silver bullets, only buckshot.  Oil, gas, & coal are cheap & relatively easy to get, so they’re not going away soon.  Western Europeans use 1/2 as much energy & are more happy.

World population will grow to 9B by 2050 & then decline, so our best hope is better education & lowering the cost of energy, but that will be a huge political battle unlike any other.  There is no clash of values, only humans vs. physics & chemistry, & the sciences are take-it-or-leave-it negotiators.  The problem is Barak Obama is too patient:  we don’t have 50-75 years to solve the problem.

Cap & trade is the wrong terminology, but a bipartisan Senate proposal is touting a cap & dividend rebate.

NIMBY-(not in my back yard) works against energy dispersion-1/3 of communities are prohibited from using clothes lines to save energy by drying clothes in the sunshine.

This is similar to the slow food movement-you need to invest close to home & expect slow & stable returns rather than quick hits.

my $.02-the rest of the world taxes gasoline @ the pump multiples more than the U.S. government does.  The U.S. should increase taxes to discourage gasoline use & raise revenues to fund other alternative sources of energy.  I also wish McKibben would have mentioned success stories from other countries so that we can learn from others-we don’t have a corner on ideas on how to solve these problems.

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