Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's Just Good Engineering....

It's rather interesting that on the heels of the Climategate email controversy the World Meteorological Organization publishes a report stating that the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest on record. No, I don't think that this was intended to deflect the public's attention from the controversy although it may seem that way to some. It is, however, seriously disappointing to learn that some climate scientists apparently suspended their belief in true scientific discourse in favor of manipulating data that conflicted with their advocacy.

One of the most cogent arguments that I have seen in favor of dealing with climate change was recently published in a New York Times op-ed column by Thomas Friedman entitled Going Cheney on Climate. Frankly, he could have made the point about the need to plan for low probability, high impact events quite well sans the Cheney analogy, but I suppose it made for a good headline. Aside from the fact that it is simply prudent to plan for such events, he notes that there are several benefits that society would realize from transitioning to clean energy, not the least of which would be greater innovation and energy independence.

But, beyond that, I look at it another way. My engineering training tells me that it is simply good engineering to make the most efficient use of the inputs to production. Why exhaust depletable resources for energy production when there are nondepletable alternatives available? What I'm suggesting here is that there may be a higher economic use of petroleum than setting fire to it (such as creating plastics and other high tech materials). This all comes back to the multiple reasons for promoting renewables and energy efficiency that seem to have been lost in the global warming debate: technological advance, economic development, conservation of scarce resources (including water), etc. This is not just about CO2, or shouldn't be.

In my last column, I noted that climate change was not the only serious issue facing society, and that is still true. But, it doesn't mean that we don't begin to work toward dealing with it, and whether or not there will be a catastrophe in 2050 or whenever is beside the point. We should be good stewards of the only planet we have to live on. That is just good engineering. But, in terms of the contradictory evidence, it is far from clear to me that there are not other natural events beyond our control that may suddenly raise or lower the temperature of the earth more than our actions. For instance, it has been theorized since the mid-1960s that sudden small changes in the orbit and tilt of the earth were the principal cause of successive periods of glacial advance and retreat. If true, all of our mechanations to strictly maintain the temperature of the earth at the levels known in the short time span of recorded history may be for naught. Perhaps adaptation would be a better strategy. Nonetheless, logic and good engineering should tell us that we cannot significantly alter the composition of the atmosphere without some impact. And, while it seems clear that human activities have resulted in a dramatic increase in CO2 within a relatively short time span, the presumed correlation between CO2 and temperature and the notion that it is irreversible is less clear. The fact that one of Kevin Trenberth's emails in the climate controversy noted that it is a "travesty that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment" illustrates that point.

I have written previously about the religious fervor that permeates the debate on global warming, renewable energy development, and related issues. What I expect from scientists is that they will pursue new knowledge regardless of the direction it leads them. When scientific skepticism and inquiry is replaced by advocacy in pursuit of a largely political agenda, that is when scientists lose credibility. And, we cannot afford that because there are more than enough advocates of one agenda or another espousing their beliefs and publishing studies in support of their position.

One final thought about the continuing discussion of cap and trade and the supposed incentive that it provides as a mechanism to reduce greenhouse gases. This approach merely promises to enrich those that trade in allowances and offsets and the inevitable derivatives that some smart guys will devise to take advantage of the opportunities. In another op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled Cap and Fade, James Hansen identifies the problem well:
"Because cap and trade is enforced through the selling and trading of permits, it actually perpetuates the pollution it is supposed to eliminate. If every polluter's emissions fell below the incrementally lowered cap, then the price of pollution credits would collapse and the economic rationale to keep reducing pollution would disappear."
Let's come back to the basics of regulation. If greenhouse gases are to be considered a criteria pollutant, simply tax or restrict their emissions. Period. And, if you think that offsets are a helpful component of cap and trade schemes, you may be interested in a somewhat tongue and cheek website on this topic called Cheat Neutral.

So, in summary, the science is not settled and the proposed market based solutions are a wrong-headed approach to dealing with the issue. It comes down to just doing the right thing, and that is just good engineering.

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