Climate shorts

I’m on a sporadic publishing schedule this month since finals decided to start arriving earlier, but there’s been a lot of noteworthy things happening on the global warming front:

1. I’d earlier mentioned that a tax swap proposal was actually warmly received by Republicans in at least one poll. A September (pre-Sandy!) update to said poll showed even stronger support:

A majority of Americans say they would vote for a candidate who supports a revenue neutral carbon tax if it created more American jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries (61% would support such a candidate), decreased pollution by encouraging companies to find less polluting alternatives (58%), or was used to pay down the national debt (52%). A large majority of Americans (88%) say the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.

And, in Mitt Romney (!), there was a candidate who at one point (you never know with that guy) put pen to paper and seemed to like the idea (from his book “No Apologies”):

a tax swap… would encourage energy efficiency across the full array of American businesses and citizens. It would provide industries of all kinds with a predictable outlook for energy costs, allowing them to confidently invest in growth. And profit incentives–rather than government subsidies–would stimulate the development of oil substitutes and carbon-reducing technologies… a tax swap may be the best among the four alternatives currently under consideration…

And Al Gore agrees: “It will be difficult for sure but we can back away from the fiscal cliff and the climate cliff at the same time,” [Gore] said. “One way is with a carbon tax.”

That said, David Roberts discounts the possibility of a carbon tax swap, as does the White House. Oh well.

2. Even if there isn’t a carbon tax in our near future, and even if global warming was hardly mentioned at all during the entire Presidential campaign, Joe Mendelson at NWF notes two more promising takeaways from 2012: Big Fossil’s huge “I’m an Energy Voter” campaign flopped in a huge way, and the year’s numerous weather disasters have perhaps reminded Americans that adapting to climate change will be neither easy nor cheap.

3. Sure, the right-wing spin machine’s anti-empiricism (or, as Noam Scheiber calls it, “intellectual nihilism”) got its just desserts with their embarrassingly wrong election forecasts. However, I doubt that this will have a lasting impact on other important policy topics, notably the climate.

What I worry about is:
(a) the time scale differential between an election prediction (results are splashed across every newspaper within weeks, and a new cycle begins the day after) and a global warming prediction (when the result slowly reveals itself over decades, and is irreversible by then) is like the difference between a cornstalk and a sequoia. With humans’ short attention spans, by the time the former is over and done with, we can still maintain plausible deniability about whether the latter has changed at all.

(b) that the Right has shown little interest in empiricism before — when they’ve been objectively proven wrong, they instead retreat even further into their bubble. We’ve seen it before on, say, supply side economics, where the top marginal rate has fallen by half since 1980 but where (to hear Romney say it) the already-dubious Laffer curve theory is apparently stronger than ever — even though few academic economists agree.
That said, I am really excited about a future in which Nate Silver-esque analytics can help to more broadly inform decision-making from the individual to the national level. All the buzz about “smart cities” is just the beginning.

[Adapted from a comment posted to Grist]

4. A nice quote about said anti-empiricism, by Mark Potok of the SPLC:

“It just seems that on issue after issue after issue we are no longer having disagreements about a certain set of facts. Instead we have two sides presenting absolute alternative realities. And the bottom line, I think, is that from the political right, or the far right, that we are seeing almost nothing but a string of conspiracy theories that have virtually nothing to do with reality. So we cannot even have a rational debate about things that we admittedly disagree about. Instead, we spend our time fending off utterly baseless, fear-mongering conspiracy theories that prevent us moving forward in any way as a society.

“At the turn of the 21st century we are facing very major problems. We are at a time of great social and environmental change and we need to seriously address them — not poison ourselves with the conspiracy theories and baseless fear-mongering that we see today.

5. As if to confirm 3(a) above, I was recently frightened by the documentary “Chasing Ice” (very similar clips are viewable for free at National Geographic). Even though the documentary covers land glaciers, the most dramatic story over the past year has been the collapsing sea ice cap in the Arctic Ocean: ‘experts say that recent data on plummeting ice extent and volume show that the Arctic has entered a “new normal” in which ice decline seems irreversible.’ Over my lifetime, 15,000 cubic kilometers of ice has disappeared from the Arctic Ocean. That’s enough to fill 6,003,910,273 Olympic swimming pools with molten ice!

This kind of change doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Reshaping the face of the earth on this scale seriously matters. It will permanently shift weather patterns, particularly the jet stream that sets medium-range weather for the Northern Hemisphere, and could be to blame for the very long cold/hot/wet/dry patterns that many of us have seen lately.

6. Curiously, right after I attended the “Do The Math” tour program, none other than the IEA confirmed McKibben’s arithmetic: “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal.”

The world can’t wait for Peak Oil. (I never really liked that too-tidy eschatological scenario, anyhow.) We can’t wait for the fossil age to end by running out of fossil fuels. We will have to will its end, or it will end our age.