It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Working Backwards

The idea of planning is this. If you have to achieve something by a certain time, start with that time and work backwards to see what was necessary to achieve the goal.

Some goals are impossible, to be sure. The goal of maintaining the status quo is impossible, at least insofar as energy infrastructure is concerned. It cannot be done, whether that pleases you or not. That which is unsustainable will not be sustained.

But people don't like change. So the optimum path to the future is the one which causes the least change. For instance, on the carbon front, we cannot keep emitting substantial net amounts of carbon into the air. In fact, we run plenty of risks at the trillion ton total. So planning is looking at stopping at a trillionth ton, and identifying what has to happen between today and that future. Of the possibilities raised, we have to somehow settle on the least implausible one; which has to be among those which threaten people the least.

I understand most people are worried about the politics of it: how to convince people that change is necessary.

But I think we are being hopelessly unclear about what change that is.

Let's be clear about this much. What needs to happen for us to not go past the trillionth ton, so we can peak below 500 ppmv and revert eventually to the neighborhood of 350 ppmv with a reasonable effort?

Clearly, an international agreement needs to happen. But an agreement to do what? By when? We need to be specific. So far, we are proposing nothing at all. The advocates of the status quo are ahead of us. Their suggestion is unworkable, but it's easy to imagine.


7 comments:

Layzej said...

Ross McKitrick actually had a good idea. Price carbon based on global temperature. If temps go up, so should the price of carbon. If they go down, so should the price of carbon - perhaps even to a point where we are subsidizing carbon if the temperatures plunge below climatology.

He was a little confused with respect to the science. He suggested using the temperature at the equator as the barometer. It seems like this would give a good measure of heat caused by increased solar output but would be a very poor measure of heat caused by GHG.

The premise seems sound though. You could tweak it to use arctic temperatures as the barometer. Price carbon so that it becomes too expensive well before we hit the breaking point.

ScruffyDan said...

The biggest issue with that proposal is that it lacks price certainty. A better solution would be to price carbon at x, and increase that price at some known rate which is informed by both climate science and economics.

Andy S said...

An additional climate-linked policy could be getting rich countries to agree to to take in x million climate refugees for every y millimeters of sea level rise. Countries would be obliged to accept a number of refugees, from Bangladesh or Egypt, say, in proportion to their historical carbon emissions. How could Watts or Monckton object to this, since they are sure that sea levels will never rise significantly.

This is facetious, of course, but I suspect that McKitrick's proposal is, too.

John said...

Excuse the nit picking but it is NOT "the optimum path to the future" that "is the one which causes the least change" but it is only the most politically feasible one.

This, of course, upon the background of an intensely insane political landscape.

John Puma

The Evil Reductionist said...

I think that what we need to focus on is simply reducing emissions via carbon pricing mechanisms, arguing for higher and higher prices and fewer and fewer industry support packages as the years go by.

And as the years go by, things will become politically easier as the climate becomes increasingly more difficult. (And as younger people, who in general seem to get climate change, become a more powerful voting block).

This, to me, seems more practical than talking about the trillionth tonne. That trillionth tonne is a fair way off at the moment. Each tonne of carbon that we do not emit pushes the date of the trillionth tonne back by a fraction. So: let us start reducing the tonnes of carbon that we emit.

Layzej said...

How far off is the trillionth ton? How far can I get on 65 tons?

Grypo said...

I disagree with using McKitrick temperature taxes. Even averaged over several years it wouldn't produce a great indicator of climate, or of the other problems caused by the extra CO2. If we use any indicator, it should be at the source. Like using the energy imbalance. Since we know that energy will need to show itself eventually, in some way, it makes since to price it before it does.