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Lovelock & Lomberg on climate change

I have just read James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning.  It surprised me that Lovelock is so hopelessly pessimistic about the abilities of climate science to forecast climate but still remains a strong proponent of the view that AGW will profoundly alter the way the human race can survive on this planet.  Lovelock believes that cumulative emissions are too great and that the potential for decisive action to address climate change by mitigation too weak.  Hence he believes that much of the earth is doomed. Adaptation policies will help but renewable energy technologies are largely a waste of effort and really just ‘green romanticism’ – too little too late. The humanity that does survive on earth according to Lovelock will need to live on small islands – he mentions the UK, Tasmania and New Zealand and in the far north of the northern hemisphere.For Lovelock the only slim hope for broader human survival lies in an overall switch toward nuclear fuels and in geo-engineering solutions which cool the Earth by using space mirrors, clouds of particulates, pumping chilly waters from the bottom of the sea, burying agricultural waste in the form of charcoal and stimulating algal growth in the oceans to absorb CO2.   Apart from that we must adaptively prepare for mass migrations towards the few places on earth where life will be livable.

This kind of pessimism leads to an emphasis on adaptation policies which remind me of some of the early arguments by the idiotic end of climate change scepticism at groups such as the CATO Institute.  Such groups couldn’t deny the reality of climate change but saw it as a purely natural phenomenon which could not be moderated at reasonable cost by restricting greenhouse gas emissions.  Hence they promoted adaptation policies.

The endorsement of technological solutions to address climate change is further endorsed by sceptics such as Lomborg who believes in the potential damages of climate change but who sees widespread global mitigation efforts as a pipedream.  This short article articulates the main concerns of Lomberg’s ‘Cool It’.

I think there is a point to many of these disparate arguments.  I don’t believe that Lovelock is – as he is often portrayed – a ‘new age’ dreamer at all. He is a very creative thinker.  I think we should take seriously the prospect that we face – perhaps with a small probability – the prospects of really immense disaster as a consequence of climate change. We should have contingency plans to address this possibility given the huge costs that are associated with such extreme events. 

I also think agree that the emphasis on renewable technologies such as wind energy is unlikely to be very helpful though solar thermal power and geothermal may be useful.  I also strongly believe that we should eliminate the use of carbon-based fuels as quickly as possible and switch to non-polluting, safe nuclear technologies as soon as possible.  Australia can act as a major source for the world’s supplies of nuclear fuels while geologically stable outback areas could be used to store the trivial quantities of nuclear wastes that such technologies would generate.

Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade carbon emission controls while useful are not the only answer. Lomborg’s suggestion to invest one twentieth of 1% of each country’s GDP into carbon saving energy technologies.   The intention is to make greener sources of energy more commercially viable.  This seems sound. Lomberg’s motive differs from mine – he is sceptical of climate science and believes mitigation policies will fail.  As a practical matter I also think they might fail though I believe it is worth pushing hard for them to succeed but to develop new technologies and to promote adaptation partly so such even should such efforts change we are protected against climate change.  Of course too developing alternatives to liquid fuels protects society against the implied depletion of such fuels.

6 comments to Lovelock & Lomberg on climate change

  • John Mashey

    1) Is your negative comment on wind a general one, or specifically for Australia?
    papers by Stanford folks are worth considering.

    2) Regarding, Lomborg, one must always be careful, as what he says and what he seems to be trying to do sometimes are not necessarily the same. He is in some ways a slicker reincarnation of Julian Simon.

  • HC and JM: Lomborg is a believer in global warming, and skeptical only of claims that it will always be bad for all and that benefits of mitigating it far outweigh the costs, when those costs otherwise invested would yield far higher returns for all humanity. Neither Stern nor Garnaut ever assessed the opportunity costs (ie benefits from alternative uses of the resources to be devoted to ETS CCS etc) of their proposals for ETS CCS etc. Try reading his (ed.) Global Crises Global Solutions before next maligning Lomborg.

  • hc

    Tim, As I say above I think Lomberg has some good points. I agree that apart from trying to mitigate emissions we should subsidise non-carbon-based energy technologies. Read what I wrote – I did not malign him.

  • hc

    John, the archer-Jacobson paper is interesting though mainly concerned with interconnecting wrong farms to smmothe out the delivery of electricity. I’ll read carefully when I get a chance. Thanks for the valuable link. Lovelock is emphatic in rejecting wind.

  • John Mashey

    Sorry, I should have been more explicit on the wind.
    Part of the issue is the dispersion/grid CS intermittency.
    But the other part, and more relevant for this, was the set of global maps on wind resource.
    I.e. What you think about wind depends at least somewhat on where you are located, and the compatibility of turbines with other uses.

    For example, US Midwest has good wind, and farmers are happy to allocate 3% of their acreage to turbines if the price is right.

    I am concerned about the UK, of course, as wind us not so easy, and sunlight isn’t up to Oz or California stds.
    As their North Sea resources diminish, it surely seems nuclear will come back.

  • John Mashey

    1) I’ve gotten Lovelock’s book and at least looked at the wind mentions. He says there are places (US, Canada, and he doesn’t say it, but Australia, for similar reasons)where it might make sense, but is skeptical of its value to the UK.
    That makes some sense, given those global wind maps I mentioned. The UK has intense winds, but they’re mostly offshore, and geographically more concentrated than the Archer/Jacobson studies in US Midwest.

    The UK would have to tie into a much bigger grid, and as I noted, nuclear will coem back, hopefully 4thGen.

    2) However, somewhat disappointingly, Lovelock doesn’t consider demand-response programs like PG&E or EnerNOC, and otehrs have done for industries for years, and are certainly coming to homes as well. Maybe V2G will work some day.

    Anyway, next to #1 efficiency, demand-shifting and customer assistance is a really big help …
    and economists should love all the interesting problems!

    (Places dependent primarily on coal or nuclear power don’t seem to think about this quite so much, but people with a mix that includes hydro, solar, wind, and gasa peakers think about it often.)

    3) Lomborg seems to have had a consistent underlying view for a long time, no matter what else he writes: no government regulation of anything, especially CO2. See further comments @ Deltoid. Saying “governments should invest in green tech” sounds good (and I’m in CA, and *we* do, and we actually mean it), but I still think it’s clever misdirection on his part, and it fools many people. CA does better at energy efficiency and green innovation than most parts of the US, and it’s from:

    a) Relentless raising of CA government standards, via powerful entities like California Energy Commission and California Air Resources Board. Given the unique role that CA plays in setting emissions standards in the US, and the other effects on efficiencdy standards, it is thoroughly loathed by CATO, Wall Street Journal OpEd, etc.

    In practice, the right sorts or rules (and CA gets it wrong, too) encourage innovation that people didn’t believe was possible, like more efficient fridges and much-lower-emission cars. Utility-rate decoupling is awesomely effective in unleashing creativity … and fossil fuel provides hate it, of course.

    b) The government sometimes directly invests in encouraging greentech.

    Lomborg wants b), but does not at all seem to want a), although a) is at least as important. Lomborg is perfectly happy if governments give more money to companies for greentech, as long as governments make no regulations…

    I don’t think it’s an accident that The Skeptical Environmentalist leads off with a key quote from Julian Simon, or that Lomborg does the rubber-chicken circuit for certain US thinktanks.