Posted 2 years ago on April 14, 2012, 2:58 p.m. EST by flip
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The battle over climate change has recently become more heated, at least in scientific circles. Just when those arguing for global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences seemed to be getting the upper hand, several scientists joined forces and presented what look like strong rebuttals.
This coterie of scientists, led by Princeton physics professor William Happer, published an Op-Ed piece in The Wall Street Journal (admittedly not known for its pro-warming stances) on January 27th titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” And it did contain at least one piece of new and putatively strong factual information, viz., over the past 10 plus years global temperatures have not risen, but leveled off. While a hiatus of a few years might be consistent with prevailing global warming models, when you get into periods of a decade or longer those current models of warming and the concomitant effect of CO2 become stressed.
One of the strongest advocates of global warming and the pernicious effects of burning hydrocarbons is Yale scientist William Nordhaus. He attempted to refute Happer, et al’s arguments with a rebuttal in The New York Review of Books (a periodical not known for its conservative leanings or anti-warming stance) in a March 22nd article titled “Why the Global Warming Skeptics are Wrong.” Nordhaus’ reply to his critics amounts to an assertion that the longer-term changes in temperatures are still definitely higher, though he does not directly deal with the past decade.
Who is right? In effect they both are. While it’s true that the past decade has not seen a statistically meaningful rise in temperatures, it’s also true that the magic number for most climate models is closer to 15 years than to 10 years. The bottom line is that if the next two to three years do not show additional warming, then the climate skeptics will have gained a serious upper hand.
Or will they? Keep in mind the economic crux of the battle as usually framed is the question of whether it is safe to go on burning hydrocarbons, or should we make economic sacrifices that will limit growth and limit the release of CO2 into the environment.
But we view this current debate as a seriously distracting sidetrack to the real and most critically important issue: how do we live in a world without adequate amounts of energy? If anything, the debate over global warming gives people the impression that we have unlimited time to decide about energy – and we do not!
Ironically, in the next issue of The New York Review of Books (April 26th), which continues the global warming debate with a counter-rebuttal from Happer and two colleagues plus Nordhaus’ reply, there was a book review touching on the subject by Joel E. Cohen, one of the world’s most respected demographers. Cohen reviewed two books on “the energy crisis,” The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin and Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, by David J.C. MacKay. Both authors – and Cohen – assume a carbon-based economy for at least the next 20 years or so. And they all assume that climate change will motivate changes in our energy sources.
But neither of those books nor Cohen deals with the critical problem of the interrelationships among resources, and how much hydrocarbon-based energy it will take to build a new and at least partially renewable infrastructure – though MacKay comes relatively close when he states that Britain will have to spend over a trillion dollars to effect a meaningful change. The trouble is he does not convert that number into the specific resources and quantities that will be required.
The trouble with all of these arguments is that they focus on climate change, which may be many years away or may never even come – while the real issue is the scarcity of resources and how to apply them in making a new world with new energies.
For the moment we can only hope the U.S. wakes up in time. There are incipient reasons for hope. During the past six months, two major periodicals that previously approached energy from a climate perspective have hinted at changing their stripes. The British periodical Nature acknowledged the notion of peak oil and gainsaid the idea that fracked gas and oil or the tar sands could save the day. And they prioritized resource scarcity as a more critical threat than climate change. Then in a recent commentary in Science, the American counterpart to Nature, the case was made for the concept of peak metals, including gold and copper.
Even more recently, a group of MIT researchers prepared a report for the Club of Rome, whom you may remember having forecasted back in 1970 that the world was on a collision course between population growth and resource limitations. The update of the original Malthusian perspective received quite a bit of press but still has to overcome the scorn the original received because of the prosperity of the latter half of the 1980s and then the 1990s, The Club of Rome is still seen by many as “just another one of those doomsayers.”
To us, criticism is more appropriately directed toward the West in its continuing shortsightedness. The recent study from MIT has not yet been released in its entirety, but a summary has been issued, and not only does it suggest that the earlier, original study was more or less on track, but if anything, it was optimistic. Specifically, it points to sometime in the year 2030 as the likely day of reckoning, in which food shortages, energy shortages etc. will pose an almost insurmountable threat to human civilization.
Neither the original study nor, we suspect, this new one as well, takes into account the interrelationships among resources. We’ve made this point before, but it’s worth restating: scarcities of any critical resource (and we’re talking about profound scarcities) can short-circuit the entire system.
One thing we take from these various studies on resource scarcity is that we are finally focusing (or at least, the scientific community is finally focusing) on a more immediate threat than climate change. And that’s at least a critically necessary, though not sufficient, condition to get the attention of America and the West.
Again, for now it seems clear that China is the only country that really gets it. No surprise here. Remember Deng Xiaoping’s comments from the 1970s in which he compared China’s grip on rare earths to the Middle East’s grip on oil? This is not a culture that thinks about or defines its progress in nanoseconds… or days, months or even decades. Long term, they get it. And they’ve been preparing for probably more than a generation or so.