As I was driving into work this morning, I was listening to Cyrus Chestnut's "Dark Before the Dawn" -- one of my favorite piano trio CDs.
Stood on its head, that title seemed to sum up my mood after reading the latest special report from the WBGU (which stands for either "German Advisory Council on Climate Change" or "Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveraenderungen", depending on whom you ask).
The report, titled (English only, from this point on) "Solving the climate dilemma: The budget approach" makes a number of very smart suggestions. And while those suggestions seem likely to work well in combination, they're logically independent of one another. As a result, I'll deal with them one at a time.
The idea at the heart of the report (as reflected in its subtitle -- why is it that subtitles are generally more informative than the titles that precede them -- isn't that kind of backwards?) is that we need to stop conversing in terms of percentage GHG reduction and start speaking in terms of the decreasing amount of GHG per capita we can afford to emit.
In a strictly mathematical sense, of course, it makes no difference at all. But, in a way, it reminds me of the problem-solving protocol suggested by a former co-worker. My ex-comrade-in-wage-slavery used to say that the first thing to do when presented with a problem is to see if the wording can be changed such that the problem goes away. Of course, he wasn't really talking only about verbiage, he was talking about perspective, point of view, the way the issue was being framed.
So long as the GHG emissions issue is framed in terms of percent reduction, it's going to remain a hard sell to a large portion of the American public. Looked at in percentage reduction terms, the US of A has to cut a lot more and a lot faster than virtually any other country. Of course, that's because we've been the biggest contributor to the problem.
Yes, China now emits a bit more than we do -- they passed us in 2008. But this year's increase in greenhouse effect, and next year's, and many years' after that, are the result of gases emitted years ago when the Chinese economy wasn't yet growing like Topsy. CO2 has a long latency period, as a greenhouse gas.
Still, the fact that China is now the number one GHG emitter, combined with the fact that most US citizens (to the extent that they allow themselves to believe in climate change at all) have a kind of "instant on, instant off" mental model of the process, means that selling the idea that we need to stop doing what we've been doing is pretty tough. In the minds of short-sighted exceptionalists (is there any other kind?), it just doesn't seem fair. And if it isn't fair, they're not going to do it.
What the WBGU report does -- and does brilliantly -- is to present what needs to happen in terms that are explicitly fair. Not necessarily pleasant (we'll get to that later), but glaringly and unequivocally equitable to all the people in the world.
In effect, the report calculates the amount of carbon dioxide (we'll talk about the other GHGs later) the world can afford to emit over the coming decades and allocates them equitably across national populations based on population at a fixed point in time. Every man, woman and child gets the same amount of CO2 emissions for free; if you want to emit more than that, you need to acquire the rights of someone who isn't going to use their full allotment. (Of course, the transaction wouldn't take place at an individual level -- national governments or economies or other collective entities would do the business involved.)
Does it make the need to reduce our GHG emissions go away? Not at all. We (North Americans) need to reduce our output of CO2 as much under this approach as under any other. What it makes go away is the tenability of the "not fair" argument. It decreases the noise level in the conversation, and leaves more room for logic and cooperation. Which are what will be needed in Copenhagen in a couple of months. Which upcoming event was the trigger for preparing and releasing this report.
More to come.
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Chemical, Paper and Biomedical Engineering: Assistant or Associate Professor in Biomedical/Bioengineering