Sunday, March 11, 2007

What to do about global warming

I am an agnostic on the issue of man's effect on global warming. I do not deny that the earth is getting warmer, maybe even alarmingly so. I feel comfortable saying that man's activities are at least a partial cause of this warming, whether from greenhouse gases, deforestation, paving paradise, or simply pumping heat into the atmosphere.

I also suspect there are other natural factors at work. Changing orbits, long-term cycles, etc. I am concerned that a big piece of the data is being misrepresented. I am hearing more and more that this correlation and perceived causal relationship between CO2 levels and temperature may be incorrect, that in fact CO2 lags temperature increase by about 800 years typically. This bothers me.

All this is probably not relevant in the short and medium term. The linked article is an opinion piece from the San Francisco Chronicle on March 11, 2007, written by Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University.

Is reduction of greenhouse gases to be a penance for our past sins? It certainly is not a solution in any reasonable time frame. It would stifle economic growth and cause many hardships long before it would fix anything.

Bjorn Lomborg gave a talk at the TED Conference in 2006. He prioritized the world's problems, using input from economists, health experts, etc. Actually, as he points out in his talk, he doesn't prioritize the problems, but rather, prioritizes solutions to the world's solutions. The frame is if you had US$50Billion to spend over the next 4 years, given that you can't solve everything, how should it be spent?

They narrowed the world’s problems to 10 major issues: Civil conflicts, Climate change, Communicable diseases, Education, Financial stability, Governance, Hunger and malnutrition, Migration, Trade reform, Water and sanitation. They did it in 2004, then again in 2006.

The 2006 results are as follow:
1. Communicable Diseases - Scaled-up basic health services
2. Sanitation and Water - Community-managed water supply and sanitation
3. Education - Physical expansion
4. Malnutrition and Hunger - Improving infant and child nutrition
5. Malnutrition and Hunger - Investment in technology in developing country agriculture
6. Communicable Diseases - Control of HIV/AIDS
7. Communicable Diseases - Control of malaria
8. Malnutrition and Hunger - Reducing micro nutrient deficiencies
9. Subsidies and Trade Barriers - Optimistic Doha: 50% liberalization
10. Education - Improve quality / Systemic reforms
11. Sanitation and Water - Small-scale water technology for livelihoods
12. Education - Expand demand for schooling
13. Malnutrition and Hunger - Reducing Low Birth Weight for high risk pregnancies
14. Education - Reductions in the cost of schooling to increase demand
15. Sanitation and Water - Research to increase water productivity in food production
16. Migration - Migration for development
17. Corruption - Procurement reform
18. Conflicts - Aid post-conflict to reduce the risk of repeat conflict
19. Sanitation and Water - Re-using waste water for agriculture
20. Migration - Guest worker policies
21. Sanitation and Water - Sustainable food and fish production in wetlands
22. Corruption - Grassroots monitoring and service delivery
23. Corruption - Technical assistance to develop monitoring and transparency initiatives
24. Migration - Active immigration policies
25. Subsidies and Trade Barriers - Pessimistic Doha: 25% liberalization
26. Corruption - Reduction in the state-imposed costs of business/government relations
27. Climate Change - The Kyoto Protocol
28. Conflicts - Aid as conflict prevention
29. Corruption - Reform of revenue collection
30. Financial Instability - International solution to the currency-mismatch problem
31. Conflicts - Transparency in natural resource rents as conflict prevention
32. Conflicts - Military spending post-conflict to reduce the risk of repeat conflict
33. Financial Instability - Re-regulate domestic financial markets
34. Conflicts - Shortening conflicts: Natural resource tracking
35. Financial Instability - Reimpose capital controls
36. Financial Instability - Adopt a common currency
37. Subsidies and Trade Barriers - Full reform: 100% liberalization
38. Climate Change - Optimal carbon tax
39. Climate Change - Value-at-risk carbon tax
40. Climate Change - A carbon tax starting at $2 and ending at $20

I'm amazed to see that Climate Change doesn't even make it in the top 25. Kyoto protocol comes in at 27. I am pretty confident that if you compare this list to media coverage you would find an enormous disconnect.

I'm not saying that Lomborg is right necessarily, but I do believe that this approach beats the hell out of our current approach which is something like an "alleged squeaky wheel gets the grease" approach. It's just not a good way to run the world.

So to answer the question posed in the blog title, it seems that we should focus our resources on other higher priority efforts. Conserving is good overall in any case, and frankly, I think oil prices will continue to go up and force conservation. New energy plants should be held to strict standards on pollution of any kind. This is good stuff to keep in mind as we go into the 2008 election year.

From the TED website:
Economist Bjorn Lomborg makes a persuasive case for prioritizing the world's biggest problems, asking "If we had $50 billion to spend over the next four years to do good in the world, where should we spend it?" His recommendations - based on the findings of the 2004 "Copenhagen Consensus" - controversially place global warming at the bottom of the list (and AIDS prevention at the top). Lomborg was named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine after the publication of his controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist which challenged widely-held beliefs that the environment is getting worse. Now the Danish economist is taking on the world's biggest problems with his Copenhagen Consensus. (Recorded February 2005 in Monterey, CA. Duration: 17:27)