Planet Gore

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

A colleague of mine who attended the Virginia Governor’s Climate Commission meeting yesterday at George Mason University writes the following, noting that an argument that we’ve all heard before nonetheless can set political heads nodding:

A guy from [Environmental Defense] made the argument that, simplified, cites as the most costly option “inaction,” and the next most costly as delay. [He] analogized to saving for retirement or your kid’s college fund. The longer you put it off, the more costly it becomes to retire or put your kid through college. The earlier you start, the sooner compound interest starts working for you. If we start to now, we only have to reduce emissions by 2.4% per year to keep GHG concentrations from hitting some magic number (450 ppm?). But if we wait until 2010, then it goes up to 3.6%, 2015, 6.8%, 2030, 16%, etc. (or numbers like that).

Apparently, this tomfoolery persuades people who know little to nothing about the specifics of this (I admit, often complex) issue. But in light of the perennial political temptation to “do something” – even if it doesn’t improve the situation you’re trying to “do something” about, and may even cause harm after you’re out of office — I must concede that it is an artful, if fallacious, rationalization.


The analogy to compound interest is false because of the strangely ignored logarithmic effect of CO2 (scil., each succeeding molecule has half the greenhouse warming potential of the one preceding it – warming under the theory would not be exponential.) JunkScience has a logarithmic-effect calculator here.


As Aussie scientist David Archibald wrote in The West Australian on May 8, in a piece called “Loud and Proud in Praise of Carbon”: even if you accept the premise that the first 20 ppm achieves 1.5 degrees of heating, it takes more than another 400 ppm to extend the temperature increase by the same amount. “By the time we get to the current level of 384 ppm, carbon dioxide is tuckered out as a greenhouse gas. From here, every 100 ppm extra may be worth 0.1 of a degree.” 


What “do something” pols and pundits are demanding with calls for immediate emission reductions are the most expensive, least meaningful reductions. And success in accomplishing these reductions also happens to still elude everyone –where in the world has CO2 been reduced? Is the entire world just too cheap and lazy? (Ask this question globally and you’ll see how quickly that argument loses its currency — when not applied solely to the U.S.)


It remains true that the best course is a series of “no regrets” policies, as Jonathan Adler has written.

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