Archives for the Month of March 2008 on Ramblings of a Geologist

How to unscrew a planet?

How many world leaders does it take to unscrew a light bulb? How about to unscrew a planet?

This week, Columbia University is hosting the fifth "State of the Planet" conference. Participants included UN visionaries like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as well as voices from the World Bank, corporations, and academia. I arrived early, fortified with coffee, and managed to sit near the front to witness both the clash and collaboration that sparked between these giants.

I was both inspired and frustrated by the discussions. Crucial issues were addressed: Poverty, Conflict, Health, Resource Management in the face of Climate Change. Big Problems met with Big Ideas. (I don't know how to convey the absolutely charged atmosphere, and emphasis on the importance of every word, except to capitalize.) Examples were given of both soaring successes and abysmal failures in aid to poor regions, especially Africa. The overall consensus seemed to be that definite progress is being made to improve health and sustainable growth, but that current efforts are not nearly enough. John McArthur of Columbia's Earth Institute, among others, repeatedly called for conversion of empty commitments to actions. McArthur further emphasized the massive difference that can be made by basic aid -- putting simple, fundamental tools "in the hands of those who need them." Food hand-outs were dismissed as temporary solutions, and the goal of jump-starting real growth from inside communities and within national infrastructures echoed throughout the day.

Many moments, I found myself absolutely on fire with hope. International conversations like these -- held under the conference's banner of "Real People, Real Places, Real Solutions" -- make possible truly international action. Also, the work of Jeff Sachs and other passionate advocates for positive change renewed my faith in the powers of reason and compassion, and reminded me that power itself does not necessarily eradicate those qualities from the hearts of those with influence. However. I was disturbed by The Economist's evening debate, weighing arguments for and against the proposition that "The United States will solve the climate change problem." (If you guffawed at the statement, you are not alone. 70% of the audience raised their hands firmly in the "Con" camp before the debate even began, myself included).

My concern is not with the statement, but with the climate problem misconceptions held by the debaters themselves!

FIRST: In this debate, the solution to "the climate change problem" was defined (implicitly) as simply creating cheap energy sources and decreasing the rate of atmospheric CO2 rise. Period, end of story. I had to tie my hands up in my scarf and take very deep and methodical breaths to keep from screaming "WHAT ABOUT EVERYTHING ELSE???" Don't get me wrong, I agree that carbon-budgeting, emissions reductions, and sustainable energy are absolutely crucial. Fundamental, in fact, to environmental health and the future of humanity. BUT. Their blatant disregard of issues such as deforestation and population was extremely short-sighted. Even in the 1980s, deforestation accounted for almost 20% of carbon emissions, and has been a growing problem. Ignorance of the TOTAL inputs and outputs of atmospheric CO2, and blindness towards the science behind our understanding of these fluxes, is fatal. Just as the net CO2-reduction from using many crop-based biofuels is now being slashed by research that finally takes into account the Big Picture (specifically, deforestation due to development of crop-fuels in tropical regions), these plans and "fixes" for this problem are doomed without a solid understanding of the WHOLE carbon cycle. Not to mention other greenhouse gases like methane. Policy and technology absolutely cannot ignore the complexity of the problem if we want to have any prayer at creating an effective response. ALSO -- the panel's complete neglect of the need to deal with IMPACTS of climate change as part of the solution was flat-out offensive. After all the insightful and urgent discussion during the day, I was taken aback. If the "climate change problem" is defined simply as an atmosphere and energy book-balancing problem, we are in big, big trouble. The potential benefits of lifestyle change (addressing the CONSUMPTION side of the carbon coin) were not mentioned either. Surely if the US is one of the greatest emitters, the Great Wasters of Resource, we have the largest capacity to make a difference by cutting back.

SECOND: Using the word "solution" can be dangerous. It implies and end-point, a finish-line. Concrete, quantifiable goals are crucial -- of course! -- and setting limits on "carbon-costs" and CO2 ceilings is a necessary first step. BUT THIS IS A DYNAMIC PROBLEM, AND REQUIRES A DYNAMIC SOLUTION. Even if we reduce emissions, even if we manage to level off, we have ALREADY pushed the system far from equilibrium. I dedicate most of the hours in my day to understanding the climate system, and work with some of the sharpest minds in Earth Science. Despite heroic and olympian efforts across the globe, the scientific community can not predict the future with absolute certainty. However, we DO know that the system can change, and change FAST in response to the kinds of pressures civilization is exerting on the Earth. I am positive that if a solution to climate change is to be successful, it must be fully equipped to deal with rapid change -- appropriate adjustment of prices, infrastructure, and emissions standards at extremely short notice, coupled with a willingness to enforce completely new strategies should the need arise. We need a well-prepared group, perhaps a sort of mitigation militia, that has both the structure and the influence to deal with changes and problems as they arise -- creation of such a means of response needs to enter the conversation. This is not something we can fix with a wave of a magic technological device such as those hypothesized by Vinod Khosla, but is a problem we may have to parry for centuries.