Policy Change and Public Opinion
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Thank you for your response, it was much appreciated. Please let me continue a little bit further on the political, economic and social aspects of reaching some emissions goals. What differentiates this issue from the issues faced in the old functional world, such as the ozone hole that you mentioned or acid rain or certain pesticides or food additives, is that limiting CO2 really strikes at the heart of the life blood of the economy, whereas limiting halocarbons, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, lead, arsenic etc. are very sector specific and have often acceptable (or good) readily available substitutes. What makes matters worse is that the costs of countering AGW is an exponential function. Therefore, my honest opinion is that the best strategy is to try to somehow limit emissions in roundabout economically relatively painless ways, while trying to use some technologies that might slow down the warming process (even if they couldn't resolve the ocean acidification etc. other AGW related issues) such as shades orbiting the earth or geoengineering to counter arctic methane release etc.
One important thing in achieving political change is the public opinion (I barely touched this topic in my last reply) and I suppose that the aim with scientific discussion on a publicly available forum such as this one is to do just that. The problem with this strategy is that its mode of persuasion is focused on ethos (increasingly irrelevant in our societies) and logos. Unfortunately the logos-side mostly paints a problem that is difficult to comprehend, not immediate enough, and impossible for the single person to solve. I had, for example, almost completely forgotten about AGW for five years (I only read economics/gadgets news and don't own a TV/Radio) until Irene gave a visit. Sadly, the climate scientists' pathos arguments that carry the heavy weight in most debates are on the shakiest grounds: why should this first world generation reduce their per capita energy usage just because so many prior generations had the right to increase theirs, or why should this third world generation sustain from fossil fuels that first worlders used to achieve unimaginable high living standards? The fact that the current path will make things far worse in 20 years and unimaginably worse in 50, falls to deaf years in societies where the largest generally used planning period is roughly seven years (or so they say). To make matters even gloomier, under our social democratic governments (which effectively also include the US), the so called time preference keeps rising generation after generation, shortening the average planning period to one year or even less! As an economic concept, a higher time preference simply means that the present is preferred over the future, and this is why I made the clime a while back on this thread that people (from their subjective point of view) prefer to spend the CO2 now even if it would bring a massive future disaster. Time preference is also why places like Sam's, Costco or BJ's charge membership fees. It's not to make profit, it's simply to keep away the people with the highest time preference, who are most likely – to put it politely – to cause loss prevention issues for these stores.
I do feel your pain in the preaching vs. practicing context. Using the double Pareto principle (80/20 rule applied twice) probably about 4% of all people are responsible for 64% of all CO2 emissions (this claim is not based on any evidence, it's just my assumption). Since one of my biggest concern is on the peak resources front, I've been advising others to shift their consumption and supply chains away from oil, while in the meantime flying about 20,000 miles/year. On other fronts I've been able to decrease my fossil energy usage by living in a small, energy efficient, mainly wood-heated house; driving an older car; and focusing on the necessities. Despite all of this and the fact that I work almost exclusively from home, I know that my oil consumption is by far higher than the average due to those air miles and the additional 20,000 miles I drive annually. The moral question that rises from here is how can you or I expect others to reduce their fossil fuel consumptions to a lot lower levels than we ourselves are able to do? Similarly, rhetorically, isn't the work that I do – to help individuals, corporations and various organizations to plan better (to be more efficient) – something that should offset the additional fossil energy consumption that is necessary for this benefit to take place? I remember Chris stating in one of his Off-the-Cuffs that (in the US) the largest tax burden is laid on the shoulders of professionals, who make too much to avoid income taxes, but too little to use the loopholes. Fossil fuel usage seems to fall in the same category: we use to much (can't cut enough) in our work, but are still too small to significantly affect outcomes by using less or affect policies by successful lobbying.
On a general level I always thought that Chris was slightly too pessimistic when it came to unconventional oil fields, since they seem to be abundant everywhere. I reasoned that despite miserable eroei ratios, these fields could mostly carry us over from our current state to a future run by nuclear and renewables. After reading your and Stan's long exchanges, I've came to the conclusion that even if this would be the case, it's best to leave the tar sand, oil shale, tight oil, lignite, peat, methane clathrate etc. be, since the eroei ratios are usually very low (between 1:5 and 1:2), and their usage would virtually guarantee us frying the planet – at least in the long run. Oh, and speaking of peat – this will make your blood boil – one Nordic country decided in early 2000's to redefine peat from a fossil fuel to a slowly renewable and sustainable energy source. According to that flawed logic, every energy source on earth, aside from uranium, could be considered slowly renewable and sustainable.