We, the people inhabiting this planet, have 4,000 days left to avert a climate disaster. This bit of easy math was done for you by the Washington Examiner in an article attempting to be helpful at sifting through climate change. The news is based on a UN IPCC report from 2018 that said we need to get to carbon neutral by 2030.
Trouble is that while we have finally reached a point where even a right-wing outpost like the Examiner can agree that there is a problem, there’s still no consensus about what to do. I look for this situation to get worse as we stumble up to the precipice.
Hypothesis: If there really was a climate problem, we’d have launched a Manhattan Project already to solve it, but we haven’t. That’s not to say there is no problem, it’s just that there are lots of available solutions that, for a variety of reasons money, we haven’t tried implementing. Here are a couple worth highlighting.
The Examiner article quotes former seven term congressman andCEO of the American Chemistry Council,Cal Dooley offering some useful insights on a carbon tax, the Green New Deal and the non-energy uses of hydrocarbons. Dooley’s points are interesting but, as does the left on this issue, he pads his opinions.
“Most don’t realize, every wind turbine, on average, has about 10 tons of polymers.” Those polymers go into making things like wind turbine blades which is important because the planet is running out of hydrocarbons and not all of them get burned to produce energy. We aren’t talking about what happens if carbon-based material sources dry up. But we really should.
Drying up is not much of a concern because the industry is mum about reserves left in the ground. They understand running out but they also understand selling a commodity in a tight market where supply is limited and demand is only increasing, is a recipe for making money.
If anything, though, a declining supply ought to spur investigation into finding alternatives. Substitutes are available and they extend well beyond solar and wind but from a financial perspective we don’t need them yet or so the logic goes. But you have to wonder what we’ll use to make turbine blades if we burn all of the hydrocarbon now.
A carbon tax
Long the darling of the right a carbon tax is a tax in name only and so is useless in combating any part of climate change. Dooley succinctly summarizes carbon tax politics this way,
“A lot of my Democratic friends in Congress would say, ‘we ought to use a carbon tax, not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to generate additional revenues that we can spend on a whole host of projects,” he said. “Republicans, certainly, aren’t going to accept that.”
Dooley and the Council believe that if we place a price on carbon, it ought to be “rebated” in some way to the general public, a position in line with James A. Baker and George Schultz, GHW Bush administration veterans, have proposed with their Climate Leadership Council (CLC).
But if the tax is rebated, how is it a tax? We have a very streamlined society with few rules and regulations, and we steer it through the power of the purse. A tax on carbon is a market-based incentive for directing individual behaviors that are good for the whole society. It’s not illogical to say that any carbon tax spent on the betterment of society would be thus returned to the taxpayers but that doesn’t seem to fly in some circles.
The CLC has proposed to tax a gallon of gas, for example one month and return the money the following month. But how does this influence the behavior of a driver who could easily hang onto a car for a decade? It doesn’t.
Dooley frets that the monies collected might go to funding some of the goals of the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal
Proponents of the Green New Deal have ambitious plans and they think that the best way to a solution is to pile all of their ideas into a single bill. They want social and economic justice for the working and middle classes, laudable goals. They also speak of healthcare and other things but in this they fail to apprehend that some of these wants can be supplied by an economy that employs those classes to build and manage a huge new infrastructure that generates, transports and consumes renewable energy in sometimes novel ways.
But in this they misunderstand the original New Deal from which they draw inspiration. FDR described his approach as “bold, persistent experimentation” which he embodied in the National Recovery Act (NRA) and later the NLRA. His administration became an amalgam of agencies with three letter abbreviations like the WPA or Works Progress Administration or the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This Alphabet Soup of agencies and administrations were designed to focus on individual classes of need throughout the economy. If one proved ineffective, it could be replaced or simply removed without endangering the entire edifice.
The Green New Deal moves opposite its namesake and in doing so it presents a ripe target for conservatives. Piling so many demands into one package gives everyone something to dislike and makes the GND an easy target for defeat.
But more importantly, there are many things that the markets could supply without government interference. For instance, there’s no substitute for an upward revision to the minimum wage, but a labor market that pays the minimum for baristas will have to pay much more to people who work outdoors building infrastructure. Those workers may largely be affiliated with unions as well further enhancing the earning power of blue-collar workers.
Ditto for healthcare. We might need a consistent and affordable national policy such as the Affordable Care Act which has been partially dismantled, but the way of getting it is through direct legislation and not through an omnibus bill.
Our focus remains on emissions and cutting them despite the evidence that there is already too much carbon in the environment and that reducing emissions will only slow additions to the problem. Reducing emissions is not a solution, by itself, to taming climate change but reducing the absolute amount of carbon pollution is and should be the goal.
Humanity adds about 40 billion tons of carbon to the air each year and some of it dissolves in the oceans acidifying them and killing marine organisms like coral that could form a basis for a solution. Microscopic plants living in the oceans can absorb vast amounts of carbon and some sink when they die while others join a food chain that feeds large fish and even mammals like baleen whales.
A reduction program would involve any combination of reducing burning fossil fuels and absorbing existing carbon dioxide. If the two add up to less than 40 billion tons of carbon, we’ve reduced emissions but still added to the problem. If we actually capture more than 40 billion tons we will have achieved a reduction.
My two bits
Solving climate change isn’t hard. The difficult thing right now is that we’re doing nothing. A solution requires more than getting to carbon neutral because, while we’re at it, we’ll need a new energy paradigm that gets us away from fossil fuels, which will run out in the next 50 years.
We also have to deal with a planet that’s warming and making it harder to farm right at the point when we can expect global population to reach 10 billion by mid-century. How will we feed all those people?
In other words, we have several problems that need to be solved simultaneously. A carbon tax isn’t going to get us there, but neither will an economic stimulus plan envisioned in the Green New Deal. Too often we prescribe solutions without understanding problems and this is one of those times. Opinions are nice but it’s time to back them up with science else we’ll just continue dithering at a time when concerted action can make a big difference.