Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Unsettling Carbon Conundrum

Last week I had a back and forth about Climategate, and where exactly I, and everyone else, should stand on carbon emissions.

While I made my point clear that it seems like humanity is doing a great job of wrecking the Earth at dangerous rate, and while I don't see much reason to doubt anthropogenic climate change, the recent slowdown in Earth's temperature rise, combined with the dubious and often unintelligible results from climate studies has made me, and many others, ponder what exactly to do about all this carbon dioxide.

As the thoughts ran through my head, and as I spent a long weekend thinking about little else, I've been struck by how much I dislike capping carbon emissions. This seems, even to me, illogical and against my better nature; I am a treehugging liberal and vehemently oppose most of the things the humans on this planet do. Our species is unique in that it is upward swinging population explosion a predator achieves when the prey population far exceeds the predator population. Predator-prey populations typically flow in sinusoidal curves slightly out of phase with one another: as the prey population rises, after a delay, the predator population rises. When the prey population peaks (at the ecological limit) the predator population eventually catches up, and the prey population begins to decline. This decline in prey then slowly causes a decline in predator population, until a point when the prey are sufficiently sparse that they can no longer be negatively predated. Then the predator population finishes its dip and starts to recover when the prey population starts its climb once again...
Humans, on the other hand, are the first species on this planet (at least since the Cambrian Extinction) to be a predator species to have a wide berth of prey. Typical superpredators are carnivorous, but humanity is omnivorous, and that has given us the rare gift of being able to eat the prey, as well as the prey's food!
In any case, our population, for all intents and purposes, is a predator climbing a runaway population curve, only the prey curve is the total biomass of the entire planet.

So the question faced by all these scientists who are dithering in Copenhagen (when not riding around in limos) shouldn't be whether we need to reduce carbon emissions, but rather what will be the effects if we don't. If they really want to convince us that we need to change our behavior (I'm not convinced on carbon emissions), then they need to give us believeable, peer-reviewed data and outlays describing what it will cost us. They need to explain exactly where the CO2 is going, and how much more exactly the atmosphere can tolerate.
Telling us to cap emissions really does nothing because we are not at a point where the effects of CO2 are readily noticeable. Telling us to quit hunting bluefin tuna makes sense; the scarcity of tuna in the Mediterranean and southern Pacific Ocean is very noticeable. It's not like if everyone stopped emitting CO2 for a week the sky would turn hyperblue and be filled with California Condors!

However, as I mentioned last week, I don't think I am a fan of reducing carbon emissions. Not just because I enjoy my posh lifestyle in my warm, Midwestern apartment, and not just because I drive a gas-guzzling pickup truck, and not just because it would hurt the U.S. economy.
It is patently clear to anyone with a good search engine that the developing nations of the world are driving their economic and social development with coal. In China, coal planets open weekly, and in India a similar situation is occurring.
Indeed, in many developing nations, smoggy streets filled with junky cars is the norm, and the alternative is not exactly idyllic. Who am I to look down from my high horse of comfort and ease and tell people who barely get by that they need to do better, for my children's sake?

However, the treehugger liberal in me is screaming that we can't keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, it isn't natural. CO2 levels are nearing an all-time high for recorded history (going back billions of years), and show no sign of slowing.

So perhaps I am right, perhaps the solution is not to cap carbon, but to utilize it! A while back I suggested that we need a new Space Race, but we need to stop having space races that actually are concerned with space. I further that suggestion with this: we need a Carbon Race.

I propose the government devote significant resources to developing methods to sequester and harvest CO2 that is artificially produced. The goal of the methods would be to completely eliminate CO2 produced by a power plant, or a farm, or a manufacturing facility.
A whole new market could emerge, and a whole new breed of innovator/scientist, radically developing ways to decrease artificial CO2.

In case I get any flak for this let me suggest a parallel: seatbelts. Faced with a planet rapidly filling with high-velocity steel projectiles that had the propensity to crash into one another and kill people, the government made a smart move: instead of banning auto-mobiles, they instead mandated the seatbelt, then the airbag. Car fatalities plunged, and are at an all-time low. While driving, on the other hand, is at a peak.
Couldn't we do the same with CO2? Why cap the growth of industries that emit foul gasses when instead we could create new foul gas markets and jobs in a whole new foul gas industry?


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1 comment:

evilrocks said...

You mean for the government to provide financial incentives to developing carbon capture technology?

Branson and Gore put $25*10^6 on the table as a sort of X-Prize for carbon capture technology. I'm more comfortable with prizes for technological innovation than grants for technical development. One can even structure a set of prizes so as to push technological development in a specific direction according to our whims.

Furthermore, offering prizes for functional CCT demos puts the pressure on individual countries to buy the products (hopefully designed in America) instead of creating an artificial demand for technology at the beginning of its development curve.

What's your funding model of choice, AE?