The Best Path Forward on Coal?

This week the Wall Street Journal is running the latest set of answers from their “Experts Panel.” Four questions were posed to the energy panel, and I chose to answer three of them. (The 4th was about solutions to the drought in the Western US — which I don’t feel qualified to answer). The first question I answered was “What’s the best way to move forward on coal?” – and my answer was published yesterday: The Case Against Burning Coal. That was followed up with a podcast “debate” between former Shell President John Hofmeister and myself on coal’s future: Time to Stop Burning Coal? WSJ Experts Debate.

I suppose the topic of climate change will always be polarizing. One side believes that fossil fuel consumption threatens our very existence while the other sees climate change as a huge scam that threatens to destroy economic progress. Of course there are many shades of gray between these extremes, but those with the most extremist views are generally the loudest voices.

Today I hope to engage some of those loud voices with a rational, fact-based discussion.

In a nutshell, my answer to the question (with a illustrative graphic) is that the potential impact on climate from global coal consumption is so great that we have to figure out a way not to burn it. But right away there were comments of the “there is no human-caused climate change” variety — a couple of which I address below.

My Position on Climate Change

My own position is one that I have repeated many times. I am not a climate scientist, but it is clear that the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is increasing. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the mechanism by which it can increase the earth’s temperature is well-understood.

What isn’t as well-understood is the precise temperature impact, because the earth is a very complex system with forcings and feedbacks that aren’t always thoroughly understood. Thus, climate models are created to estimate the impacts of the increases in carbon dioxide concentration. But given that they are models, some will argue that the impact is understated while some will go so far as to argue that there will be no impact at all.

My position is that I hope those on the side of “little impact” are correct, but we need to plan and prepare to the greatest extent possible for the possibility that they are not. One of the things I do professionally is risk assessment and mitigation. In fact, we all do it to some extent. For example, we may believe that the probability that our homes will burn down is low, but the consequences are so severe in the event that it happens that we pay for homeowner’s insurance. So for low risk but high consequence events, we have insurance.

Even if you don’t believe future climate model projections, would you concede that there is a chance you are wrong? Do you think there is a 1 percent chance you are wrong? Do we have planetary insurance in the event you are wrong? If you don’t trust the models, do you accept that more data can help improve the reliability of the models? If you concede that you might be wrong, you might also consider the implications of being wrong.

Is That Your Final Answer?

The first person to respond with an article comment was someone who sought to cast doubt. However, he did so with information that is factually incorrect. After commenting that climate models are useless and counterproductive, he wrote:

Further, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is hundredths of what it once was so the current variation, if we assume that it is being measured accurately, is barely meaningful. Moreover, natural contributions to CO2 levels dramatically outweigh man’s contributions. Further, CO2 is essential to life. And so on.

People who argue that carbon dioxide concentrations have been higher in the past generally won’t mention how long ago that was.

co2Graph11-cropped

This graph is based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, of atmospheric CO2. (Source: NOAA). Needless to say, there is nothing in human experience for comparison, so we are left to estimate the impact of ever increasing atmospheric CO2 on the present living population of earth. I don’t know about you, but that graphic concerns me a lot — especially because it shows no sign of slowing down.

Regarding his second claim that “natural contributions to CO2 levels dramatically outweigh man’s contributions” — I understand that Rush Limbaugh once made this claim. Let me quote from my book Power Plays on that very topic:

Some arguments against global warming are simply based on misinformation. An example of this is the oft-repeated claim that volcanoes contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than do humans. This claim is false. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, volcanoes emit approximately 130 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. In contrast, the burning of fossil fuels contributed 33.2 billion metric tons CO2 to the atmosphere in 2010—255 times the estimated level contributed by volcanoes.

Neither of these are credible arguments, and in fact someone suggested to me that several commenters, including this one were probably “highly paid experts trained in disinformation.” In any case, these are the kind of people who are helping to drive the skeptical side. They are at a minimum grossly misinformed, and potentially being paid to promote falsehoods that threaten to minimize the sense that we need to mitigate this risk.

Conclusions

Whether you believe that the climate is changing as a result of the rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, I would hope that you would allow for the possibility that at least the trajectory of emissions poses a potential problem. Further, I would hope you would agree that arguments from either side should be factual and unbiased. I concede that there is a good deal of hyperbole when every unusual weather event is blamed on climate change. But look again at the response I addressed above, and know that hyperbole isn’t limited to one side. Skepticism in science is a good thing, but not skepticism driven my misinformation.

Link to Original Article: Hoping for a Rational Climate Change Discussion