Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Economist on Climate Change

Global warming is real, it's caused by humans, and there is much we can do about it. That's the position convincingly argued in a special "Survey of climate change" in the Economist 9/9/2006. Here are some interesting facts I took away:

  • What causes CO2 emissions?
    • Not cars. Put them together with planes and ships and you still only get 13.% of the total.
    • The biggest contributor is power generation (24.5%), of which coal is the biggest contributor. Going nuclear would bring more benefits than if you switched every car to a Prius
  • The industrial revolution started us on a warming trend that was interrupted in the mid-20th century by heavy sulfur emissions that blocked sunlight and cooled the earth again. That's why there were false alarms like the 1975 Newsweek cover predicting a cooler earth. Anti-smog and other policies started reducing sulfur by the late 1900s and now we're back to warming again.
  • The biggest CO2 emitter will be China by 2015, mostly thanks to coal-fired power generation. The energy elasticity of GDP rose from 0.5 (2000) to 1.5 (2004), demonstrating that China is becoming more, not less, energy dependent.
  • This is not just Al Gore's issue. Besides tree huggers, the alliance includes ethanol-loving farmers, cheap hawks who hate dependence on foreign oil, and evangelicals, according to Jim Woolsey, former head of the CIA and a supporter of fuel-efficiency and more.
  • Gradual mitigation through gradual turnover to more efficient alternatives is the best solution economically, but imprecise knowledge about climate makes it hard to see if that's possible. Some serious models predict a small but non-zero probability of utter disaster unless we make big changes now, but do you want to take the chance?
  • Hurricanes are becoming more common. A minority of scientists question the degree to which man-made causes are responsible, but there is one thing humans can do: fix the perverse incentives created by current insurance regulations. Government subsidies make it financially possible to build on Florida beach fronts that will not last. With correct price signals, Florida would look more like Grand Bahama, a desirable area where nobody builds because there is no insurance.

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