Should you care about global warming?

It’s obvious global warming is happening. Just a few months ago we sailed through the 400ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration. This was last seen around 10 million years ago when ice didn’t exist.

But the question is, should you care? If you’re reading this blog, you probably live in a western democracy and don’t show any obvious signs of caring. You probably own a car and fly to places. Even if you don’t do these things, live in a cave and use a bicycle, it’s unlikely to matter for the medium term global temperatures. It might make you feel better, but that’s about it.

Up and to the right...

Up and to the right…

Remember Al Gore’s dramatic CO2 graph from his movie? The one with the gigantic increase in atmospheric carbon? The implication is not that we need to go carbon-neutral. Even if tomorrow that happened, the climate is still completely fucked. Like “there will be no ice” fucked.

No, we need to be dramatically carbon-negative to have any impact. We need to suck all that CO2 back out of the atmosphere and do something clever with it. Yesterday. This doesn’t appear to be happening, and you don’t appear to particularly care about it.

This looks relatively rational. The result of our carbon dumping will most likely be felt by far away poor people and, maybe, your grandchildren. Therefore, it’s not really going to impact you. Your grandchildren likely will live in a rich democracy and as such have access to various mitigation options like moving inland, insurance to spread the costs and so on.

It’s not entirely clear the medium-term economic impacts will be negative either. The opening of the North Pole will mean various interesting and cheaper shipping routes become available, negating the usefulness of the Panama Canal for example.

We can make up some scenarios where global warming and climate instability will cause mass migration, wars and so on that would be painful. But, we can make up those scenarios without climate change too. Just look at large sections of the Middle East today. Similarly we can talk about mass crop failure under global warming. But, we can paint the same scenario pretty easily by plotting the natural gas inputs to fertilizer and extrapolating for when natural gas goes away, taking fertilizer with it, on a similar timescale as it happens to global warming. Two problems for the price of one.

Given that you don’t appear to care about it, and that it looks roughly rational to not care, we’re left with figuring out what we should care about, and what our grandchildren will be able to do about it. Making sure your grandchildren get to deal with your problems isn’t new or isolated to CO2, it’s as recent as the financial bailouts and as old as garbage dumps (which have existed for thousands of years).

It looks clear that you should care more about AIDs, Polio and other things (pick five: traffic accidents, cancer, heart disease…) which kill lots of people today vs. global warming which appears to kill many more people in the much more distant theoretical future. Indeed, that’s where the money appears to be going. We can’t be sure of the tools that will be available to fix climate CO2 in 60-100 years or so, but it’s conceivable they will be much better than the tools we have today. It’s also likely they will have to be, since it looks like the weather will be much worse by then.

It looks like oil production is at or just passed its peak and we can place an upper bound on the amount of CO2 we have left to dump in to the atmosphere, since there’s roughly half left. Probably another doubling to 800ppm is achievable, even a tripling to 1,200ppm depending on what we do with the natural gas we find. The rising costs of petroleum products may help negate this and push for a shift to electronic transportation. There are many additional benefits of shifting to electric, the cars are simpler, easier to maintain, more efficient, have less parts and don’t require 15 types of oil to keep going.

In any case, there aren’t any nice scenarios we can imagine right now. It feels like individuals acting in their best interests are leading to a globally bad situation, very much like prisoners dilemma.

Lastly, an anecdote. I heard you can’t get insurance for commercial skyscrapers in Manhattan which have critical infrastructure below the fourth floor, because that’s the expected flood level over the lifetime of these buildings. They’re putting air conditioning, pumps, electrical, everything on the 4th floor and above. If anyone knows what’s coming, it’s the actuaries sitting in insurance companies (above the 4th floor presumably).

You probably can’t seriously imagine 30 ft. flood waters on Wall Street but they can. It likely only takes a few feet of sea level increase, a storm surge and the moon in the right place.

2 Responses to Should you care about global warming?

  1. Chris MacWhorter July 26, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Interesting post, I hope you get so traction. Many different perspectives on solutions, for example:

    But in America, unfortunately science/data analytics is usually out the door in landscape ecology/natural resource management (let alone climate change and pure geography). That why this is the new america policy; just do it or don’t do it and let’s let the lawyers/lobbyists fight it out for literally generations. Check out the BLM’s NWFP or USFS’s NSO modeling plans. The data/science is older than most MapBox employees…

    Might be why sports is so popular in America, because it is unfiltered raw statistics that can still be argue over beer civilly… Also, could be a reason why OSM was/is a game changer, quality data was the goal!

  2. Tom August 14, 2013 at 4:24 am #

    Just two little factual notes…

    Most studies of the economic impact of climate change agree it will have a very serious negative impact on the world economy. For example, the Stern Review suggested it would be something like 20 per cent of GDP, and he has since said he was too optimistic.

    Second, it won’t just affect your grandchildren, it is already affecting people now and will begin to have more severe impacts within your lifetime.

    The reasons for inaction are similar to the reasons for complacency about our chemical-fuelled green revolution, the growing severe pressures on potable water, disruptions in the nitrogen cycle and many other systemic environmental problems – that the solutions require either some as-yet unknown technological breakthrough that is highly unlikely to come in time to prevent serious damage, or a radical change in our lifestyles and our economic model that few leaders in politics and business want to seriously contemplate.

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