Friday, April 03, 2009

"Our Efforts to Control Climate Change"

President Obama, on April 2nd discussed his recent meeting with the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. Responding to a young female Indian reporter's question on whether the U.S. was coordinating anti-terror strategies with the Indian state, the president instead took the opportunity to go on-and-on, teasing and wincingly patronizing the young reporter before getting around to the serious business of avoiding her question. Instead of combating real threats, high on the list of priorities he shared with the prime minister in his best Chicago-style spirit of mutuality, was, and I quote: "our efforts to control climate change". As an architect, I am keenly aware of the concept of climate control. Of course, when I think of "climate control" I am referring to mere interior climate control, a highly complex and often times convoluted set of engineering and user-feedback challenges that can take a year or even more to get right in a newly commissioned building. This president, on the other hand, envisions simpler causes and more direct effects on a far broader physical and political climate. A man who has been heard equating his own election to the presidency with coming return of the supposed man-caused swollen seas to their rightful shores, Mr. Obama intends to have his way at controlling the planetary climate, and his first step will be to control us, and all of our energy producing and consuming activities. One might go so far as to say he's got global ambitions.

So, I ask myself. How many kilowatts of energy are delivered to the earth's atmosphere, oceans and surface over the period of a year from the following sources: The sun. The earth's own mantle and core. The activities of humankind. What are the respective percentages? If the climate runs on energy, and it does, then to control the climate we must in some respect control the energy inputs into the climate system and the flux of that energy to such an extent that the effects are not just measurable and meaningful, but also beneficial. Without beneficial effects, the energy expended is wasted because control has not been achieved. If the percentage contributed by human activities is small to begin with, and I would think the order of magnitude is less than one percent, then we might be able to reduce the energy inputs into the climate by some fraction thereof. It might be said, however, that the problem is not the amount of energy that we are putting into the atmosphere but rather that we are changing the proportions of the gases in the atmosphere. By so doing, we are thereby causing more of the natural energy inputs into the climate system to be retained in the atmosphere and oceans over a longer period of time than would otherwise be the case, hideously distorting its otherwise ineffably and sublimely perfect and natural state. An arguable point in a world free from "acts of God".

Imagine for a moment, just for the heck of it, that all of the windmills in all the world, and all of the windmills yet to come, are operating in reverse, blowing like fans, so that instead of drawing energy from the atmosphere, as they now do, they are instead imparting energy into the moving air. What might the net effect be on the global climate? Would it be large and obvious over time? Or would it be miniscule, and difficult to observe the changes, let alone measure them? How much electrical energy would it take to accomplish such an enormous task? How much carbon? What an outlandish example, you say. President Obama, after all intends to control the energy in the climate not just by direct means by burning less fuel, but by indirect means. And the results will be measured indirectly, as well, such as by how many new government-subsidized "green" jobs he can claim his policies have produced. Direct measurements, such as temperatures over historical time and atmospheric and temperature data provided by paleoclimatology, not to mention sunspot energy and orbital cycles cannot be made sufficiently persuasive. Not if your purposes are control and "sustainability".

The provision of food, clothing and shelter for the human population, on an annual per capita basis, means that for each of us a certain amount of energy must be expended, and ejected into the climate system, in the form of heat, cooling, light, transport and utilities. Two of the by-products of this energy production are increased water vapor and carbon dioxide. Some of us on the planet cause more of this energy to be expended than others, of course. First World leisure economies come to mind. Stored carbon (oil, coal, wood) energy buried in the ground is a part of the earth and came from living things that lived and died in the past. Removing and releasing some of it from out of the earth and into the air is one of the costs of maintaining life. Remove and release a little more and you can buy safety and security, a little more yet and you can buy liberty and the luxury of virtue. Perhaps one might even find a direct correlation between increasing energy comsumption and one's ascent up the pyramid of Abraham Maslow's heirachy of needs. How many non-self-actualizeds working in the factories and stores, and on construction sites and farms does it take to produce the surplus that buys for our society the good offices of those with glorious visions?

Globalization is a process that began slowly and spontaneously many thousands of years ago through the course of human migrations, beginning in earnest only with the mastery of the Atlantic crossing by the Renaissance Europeans and the start of smokestack industries, mass production and mass communications in the 19th and twentieth centuries. In other words, modern globalization is carbon-based. Globalization occurs from the top down. The less carbon you release, the less global and more local you are likely to be. As a corollary, you are also more likely to be poorer. Wealth begets globalization. Poverty does not. For those for whom endless cultural striving for improvements in the human condition has produced wealth, security and comfort, globalization is a natural urge.

If carbon is taxed, then like all other taxes, a carbon tax will be levied unevenly, and capriciously. If your intent is the control of economic activity and hence the climate, then taxes are effective at making otherwise uneconomical activities "sustainable", as well as previously economical activities unsustainable. Might they then be a useful tool in order to dial-in and manage the various rates of globalization across the various regions? Maybe its time then for the developed (and taxable) regions of the world to let the Obamas of the world tie one hand behind their backs and knock them a peg or two down on Maslow's heirarchy. Then the game would be fairer.

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