Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Global Action to Address Climate Change - What Would It Require?

For the last few years, environmentalists in the U.S. have been calling for direct action to "solve the climate crisis". This message was basically falling on deaf ears until the Keystone XL Pipeline controversy came along. However, regardless of whether this serves to energize the climate change movement or not, it is basically a sideshow. Until the Republicans in the House of Representatives, the leaders of the Chinese Politburo, the Indian Parliament, and other world leaders decide to enact policies for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, local efforts to fight fossil fuel extraction will only be important if they end up playing a role in stirring up a populist movement.

Serious efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions will not happen until there is overwhelming popular  support for international treaties.  An example of a national leader responding with a populist agenda is demonstrated by Richard Nixon's strong environmental legacy, which may in fact only be due to his pandering to the public rather than any personal commitment to environmentalism.  

Unilateral action to limit the extraction of fossil fuels within the U.S. will not have much impact on a global basis. The U.S. is no longer the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. COemissions from the U.S. and the other economically developed OECD countries now account for only one third of global emissions – the same share as that of China and India, where emissions increased by 9% and 6%, respectively, in 2011 according to the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

The efforts of European nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions shows the futility of any one nation or even a region attempting to unilaterally reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their minimal reductions, which are largely due to a lessening of economic activity, have been completely negated by the increases in emissions from Asia. And the European efforts have been completely self defeating if the claims are correct that their policies are leading to energy intensive manufacturing being shipped off to Asia with no net reduction in emissions. 

The efforts to-date to develop international treaties to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions have been fruitless. The Kyoto accord had no teeth, and was never signed by the U.S, China, or India. Only a treaty that is backed by all the leading emitters of greenhouse gases has much likelihood of making a difference. As long as the public in North America and Asia remains indifferent to the signing of climate accords, little will be accomplished by the annual UN climate conferences. 

Meaningful policies to reduce greenhouse gas emission mitigation would require actions that would be hard to stomach. Treaties that require actions such as: 1) a carbon tax; 2) more expensive, reduced polluting gasoline and diesel; 3) , reduced burning of cheap coal, and 4) reduced highway speed limits, will not gain public favor in the near future. 

So, what would be required before the public pushes government leaders to impose policies that  mitigate greenhouse gas emissions?
  1. Readily observable changes in the weather - As long as the earth's surface temperature remains steady, as it has for the past decade, climate change skeptics opinions are unlikely to budge. And those that accept that climate change is occurring are unlikely to agree to lifestyle altering restrictions until or unless climate change negatively impacts their weather and lives
  2. Catastrophic extreme weather would have to become more commonplace -- Even with extreme weather events such as the drought in the Southwest and Superstorm Sandy, there is little call for dramatic action within the U.S.. And the increase in catastrophic extreme weather would have to occur on a worldwide basis . 
  3. There would have to be serious hits to the pocketbook due to factors such as:
    a) worldwide food shortages causing higher food prices (and starvation in nations across the globe)
    b) Dramatically higher property and casualty insurance
Little action is likely unless the dramatic scenario outlined above occurs. Even if climate change accords are eventually reached, it will take months or years of bickering before the industrialized nations, BRIC nations, and developing nations can agree to an accord that is perceived to fairly treat each group, and actually has  teeth to it.. 

Thus, it seems almost certain the annual pumping of 30+ billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere  will continue unabated for a number of years. For those that judge that this makes climate change inevitable, then the best strategy is to be prepared for the adaptations that will be required. From an economic security standpoint, preparing for global climate change will open up a huge new set of risks and opportunities.

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