Thursday, December 10, 2009

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference:

What is the Real Issue?

Recent revelations about the alleged fabrication of data on global warming have raised high-profile objections to US participation in the Copenhagen climate change conference.

This would be an unfortunate reaction on many levels.

Of course, the recent discoveries of possible fraud are disappointing and we need to understand what the facts really are. However, the discussions do not need to stop while the incident is being probed. While the initial trigger for the Copenhagen conference was the growing concern worldwide about global warming, global warming is only one reason that we should be engaged in an international dialogue on energy and environment.

Therefore, the US position should be driven by the bigger picture rather than by this news. Here are some of the key reasons:

1. Global warming can't be ruled out

I'm not a climatologist. Then again, neither are most of the people who are denying the reality of global warming. So we're on equal ground. While I can't claim I fully understand all the climate models, I understand that the global environment is incredibly complex. It is therefore difficult to extrapolate long-term global trends from a few years of data or data from a small part of the globe. What is compelling to me is not any single study or model or set of data, but the fact that, in recent years, I have seen a lot of different kinds of data that suggest that there are already effects warming trends occurring--Arctic ice melting, changes in insect and animal populations, etc.

Are there other interpretations of the data I have seen? Possibly, but global warming can't be ruled out as one possibility. Do the changes prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the changes are the result of anthropomorphic carbon emissions? Probably not, but anthropomorphic effects are a plausible contributor. If the changes are natural, will reducing man-made carbon emissions make any difference at all? It can't be proven, but since we do know that carbon dioxide has an atmospheric warming effect, it is possible that it might help.

2. Carbon emissions today may be only the tip of the iceberg

The stark reality is that, whether you are measuring carbon emissions or energy use, the largest contribution today comes from a small portion of the world's population. This has been the situation for a number of years because the countries that lacked energy largely lacked money as well, and therefore, couldn't buy or produce more energy.

However, this situation is on the verge of changing rapidly. Two very populous countries, China and India, are becoming economic powerhouses and are now beginning to increase their energy use. China has already surpassed the United States as the world's biggest carbon emitter. Yet, they still use only a fraction of the energy per capita that we do. Therefore, their energy use--and carbon emissions--are likely to increase a lot more. A large fraction of India's population still has no access at all to electricity. Therefore, the potential increase in energy use in India is staggering. There is still further potential for increased demand from other parts of the world, particularly Africa. These may develop more slowly, because most other less-developed countries do not yet have the economic clout that China and India now have, but the potential is surely there.

Therefore, I have to wonder: Even if we believe that current levels of carbon emissions have little or no effect, are we sure that several times the current levels of emissions will still have no effect?

3. Costs are going to increase anyway

One of the main objections to taking measures to reduce global warming is that such measures will increase the cost of energy and that the increased cost will have an effect on our economy. I again risk straying into a field outside my own--this time, economics--but it seems very clear that the increased demand in China, India and perhaps elsewhere is already beginning to create pressures on the supply of energy (and other) resources.

Couple to this the fact that much of the world's oil comes from a politically unstable part of the world, and that countries controlling scarce resources have been known to use threats to the supply as a weapon. The increased demand for these resources, and the expectation of dwindling supplies of oil and gas, could make it easier for such countries to invoke threats of embargoes in the future.

What does this mean for Copenhagen?

In my view, all of this means that the Copenhagen conference is about much more than stemming global warming. It is at least as much about finding ways to address the growing demand for energy around the world. It is about the recognition that our energy use has consequences, and that a coordinated international plan can help meet the needs and manage the consequences.

Does this mean that we may have to make commitments at Copenhagen that will increase the costs of energy for us in the future? Possibly, but the increase in cost may, in the long run, be less than the price we will pay for business as usual.

Therefore, I think it behooves us to engage in this discussion thinking not only of the global warming issue, but also of the issue of how the world is going to be fueled in the decades ahead, and the role of the developed countries in shaping the energy future. Global warming should be one consideration in the decision process, but so should adequacy and diversity of supply, sustainability, and a variety of other considerations. All options should be on the table, including carbon sequestration and new transportation fuels, renewables and nuclear energy, conservation and efficiency. All countries should participate, each according to its history, its economy and its current energy use.

Footnote: This post was originally published earlier in the Copenhagen conference. I edited it slightly a day or two later and mistakenly, did not republish it. Unfortunately, it may be a little dated now, but I hope it is still useful. I apologize for any inconvenience.


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