# Response to mailing list posts about climate change action

[Update: Aryeh has asked me to change instances of his well-known full name to his Wikipedia handle “Simetrical”, to reduce the impact on Google.]

Simetrical has taken up an opposing position to my foundation-l post, which was copied to this blog under the title Should Wikimedia buy RECs. In the interests of avoiding offence to denizens of foundation-l, I am attempting to move that rather heated debate to here.

Simetrical attacks my views on multiple fronts, arguing (in my own words):

• That Wikimedia should not spend money on causes unrelated to its mission;
• That Wikimedia has no moral responsibility to take action on climate change, since it does not directly or voluntarily contribute to it;
• That anthropogenic global warming (AGW) won’t have any significant effects for decades yet;
• That AGW won’t directly cause human deaths, rather mere economic harm;
• That future research may well make any present efforts redundant and, in hindsight, wasteful;
• That action now may prove to be pointless since the impact of AGW may be catastrophic whatever we do;
• That climate scientists do not understand the economics of mitigation and that serious economists, such as those behind the so-called Copenhagen Consensus, advocate alternative technologies such as albedo modification over mainstream approaches such as abatement and reforestation.

Quite a barrage. I’ve been taking these on point-by-point. Here are the archive links where you can read the full text of this debate:

I’ll post my latest response as a comment below. Let’s see if I can coax WordPress into presenting a comment interface that’s usable for this purpose.

1. <blockquote> seems to work well enough as a substitute for email-style quoting.

Simetrical wrote:

On Mon, Dec 14, 2009 at 8:13 PM, Tim Starling wrote:

It’s a big deal already, and by the time it becomes an even bigger deal, it will be too late to act. The global climate takes decades to respond to changes in forcing factors. Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions now, the earth would continue to warm for decades because the heat capacity of the ocean slows down the lower atmosphere’s response to increased radiation.

Then we agree that cutting greenhouse gases is not a very effective solution?

Stabilising at a CO2 concentration of 450ppm should be a reasonably effective solution. Sure, the climate will still warm slightly, but not nearly as much as in the business as usual case. The numbers are in the references I’ve already given.

The World Health Organisation disagrees:

I said “directly”. Militaries kill people directly. Global warming
kills people indirectly.

It’s hard to get more direct than heatstroke. You deny even that, you say it “won’t directly kill anyone in any event”.

And cause famine due to a reduction in tropical rainfall?

Sure, maybe. Maybe not. Everything has costs and benefits. Blocking sunlight is a scheme that can be deployed very quickly and cheaply, and could not just completely stop future warming, but reverse warming that’s already occurred before deployment.

I thought it sounded like a great idea too, until I read that paper I linked to above. It might be quick and cheap, but it’s dangerous and damaging too. I was forced to admit that the author’s conclusion seems reasonable:

“Assessment of this option and its consideration as a sort of emergency brake in case climate change becomes too dangerous must not distract the scientific mainstream from searching for sustainable approaches to diminishing economic dependence on fossil fuels. There is a long way to go, but this is the only way to avoid the high risks of dangerous anthropogenic climate change in the future.”

Cutting CO2 is immensely more expensive, slower, and less effective.

You seem torn between calling this $20k p.a. action I’m proposing too cheap to bother with, or too expensive to consider. Maybe you’ve been misled about the scale of the costs. You were just telling me how cutting carbon will never stop warming, and many people will die to famine if warming doesn’t stop. Doesn’t that imply people will die of famine either way? No, I was saying that many people will die from famine in the no-mitigation case. In the 450ppm case the impact on agriculture will be much lower. I’m surprised that this is the level of argument I’m having with you. I’m pretty sure you’re intelligent enough to read and understand the scientific and economic papers. I had expected a more rational debate. Are you aware of any groups of experts that have done a systematic cost-benefit analysis on the various options, and reached opposite conclusions to the Copenhagen Consensus? “Experts” here means, say, economists, not climatologists. (And preferably not political appointees either.) Climatologists are experts at predicting climate outcomes, not evaluating the quality-of-life effects of those outcomes. They have no expertise in that. Economics is the discipline concerned with welfare assessment. As it happens, the Garnaut Review, which I keep talking about, did indeed perform a cost-benefit analysis, was indeed carried out by economists and other relevant experts, and did indeed reach a different conclusion. The author, Ross Garnaut, is a professor of economics, and various other economists are credited as team members in the acknowledgements section, including the modelling department of the Queensland Treasury. They estimate that the gross costs of abatement for Australia are, roughly, a 0.1% reduction in GNP growth rate for the 550ppm case out to 2050. At around 2050, the benefits of abatement to GNP growth begin to outweigh the costs. It may be that the Garnaut Review falls down on your requirement that they “review the various options”. They focused mainly on abatement and sequestration. They didn’t pick up every crazy idea for climate change mitigation that anyone has ever suggested, and propose that research on said idea should be done before actually implementing anything. It seems to me that the Copenhagen panel is mostly focused on stalling. They don’t suggest doing anything in the near term, they only propose research. This is despite the fact that research on global warming has been ongoing for 50 years. That research has concluded that we don’t have the luxury of a few more decades to wait and see. By the way, you didn’t actually address the point of my last post. If involuntarily releasing greenhouse gases creates a moral obligation to undo the harm caused by that, why doesn’t involuntarily paying taxes create the same moral obligation? This is independent of whether cutting GHGs is actually effective (which isn’t something I meant to get into, but oh well). Well yes, it’s a reasonable argument that paying taxes creates moral responsibility, an argument which has often been made in philosophy and social science. You can find proponents of the view for example at http://www.nwtrcc.org. However, tax resistance can impair your ability to function in other ways. It’s hard to save the planet when you’re in jail. I don’t see anything involuntary about consuming electricity from a fossil fuel source. It’s something that you can stop doing at any time. Nobody is coercing you into doing it by threats of force, and stopping wouldn’t even affect your lifestyle significantly. I addressed your views on climate science and economics first, because I think they colour your thinking on the ethical issue. You overestimate the costs of mitigation, and underestimate the benefits. This makes a socially irresponsible ethical framework seem more attractive. • It’s hard to get more direct than heatstroke. You deny even that, you say it “won’t directly kill anyone in any event”. In the original context, I was contrasting the directness and immediacy of harm caused by releasing CO2 to the directness and immediacy of harm caused by paying taxes, not trying to make an absolute claim about global warming. To clarify, I agree that global warming will kill some people directly, but less so than a war. I thought it sounded like a great idea too, until I read that paper I linked to above. It might be quick and cheap, but it’s dangerous and damaging too. I was forced to admit that the author’s conclusion seems reasonable: “Assessment of this option and its consideration as a sort of emergency brake in case climate change becomes too dangerous must not distract the scientific mainstream from searching for sustainable approaches to diminishing economic dependence on fossil fuels. There is a long way to go, but this is the only way to avoid the high risks of dangerous anthropogenic climate change in the future.” The overall conclusion of the Copenhagen Consensus is that we should spend our money right now on three things. Quote: * Researching solar radiation management technology; * A technology-led policy response to global warming that is designed to develop green technology faster; * Researching carbon storage technology. Your paper only says “Assessment of this option and its consideration as a sort of emergency brake in case climate change becomes too dangerous must not distract the scientific mainstream from searching for sustainable approaches to diminishing economic dependence on fossil fuels”. I read this as saying “We should look at climate engineering because it could be useful, but we’d better look at other methods too”, which is entirely compatible with what the Copenhagen Consensus says. The more mainstream reports (like the Garnaut Review) ignore climate engineering entirely, and take a very particular approach to diminishing dependence on fossil fuels (cut them as fast as possible). You seem torn between calling this$20k p.a. action I’m proposing too cheap to bother with, or too expensive to consider.

Where did I ever say that cutting CO2 levels enough to be effective would be cheap for the world economy, or that \$20,000 per year is cheap for Wikimedia?

No, I was saying that many people will die from famine in the no-mitigation case. In the 450ppm case the impact on agriculture will be much lower.

I pointed out climate engineering was a possible solution, and your rebuttal to that consisted solely of pointing out that it would have negative side effects. The point I was trying to make is that cutting carbon also has negative side effects compared to alternatives. If you want to discard climate engineering as an option, you can’t just cite a study saying that climate engineering (one particular climate engineering plan, actually, and not the one the Copenhagen Consensus found most effective) will cause harm, you have to show that it causes more harm than the alternatives. A full cost-benefit analysis is needed, including all options. That is the point I’ve been trying to make.

I’m surprised that this is the level of argument I’m having with you. I’m pretty sure you’re intelligent enough to read and understand the scientific and economic papers. I had expected a more rational debate.

On the other hand, you’ve made repeated ad hominem attacks such as this one, and picked individual sentences from my posts to quibble over rather than addressing my overall argument. Who is debating more rationally is an exercise for the reader.

As it happens, the Garnaut Review, which I keep talking about, did indeed perform a cost-benefit analysis, was indeed carried out by economists and other relevant experts, and did indeed reach a different conclusion. The author, Ross Garnaut, is a professor of economics, and various other economists are credited as team members in the acknowledgements section, including the modelling department of the Queensland Treasury.

They estimate that the gross costs of abatement for Australia are, roughly, a 0.1% reduction in GNP growth rate for the 550ppm case out to 2050. At around 2050, the benefits of abatement to GNP growth begin to outweigh the costs.

It may be that the Garnaut Review falls down on your requirement that they “review the various options”. They focused mainly on abatement and sequestration. They didn’t pick up every crazy idea for climate change mitigation that anyone has ever suggested, and propose that research on said idea should be done before actually implementing anything.

The Terms of Reference for the Garnaut Review explicitly state

This Review should take into account the following core factors: . . . The weight of scientific opinion that developed countries need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2050 against 2000 emission levels, if global greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are to be stabilised to between 450 and 550ppm by mid century.

So no, that doesn’t look like it made any genuine attempt to consider options other than cutting carbon as fast as possible. Its mandate was only to decide how exactly to cut carbon. As far as I can tell (correct me if I’m wrong), it didn’t even explicitly consider climate engineering, so it can’t really be cited as preferring carbon cutting alone to longer-term research including climate engineering. Chapter 11 seems to discuss the effects of various CO2 levels without taking any other possible mitigations into consideration.

I don’t think it’s accurate to lump all mitigations to climate change other than immediate carbon-cutting as “every crazy idea for climate change mitigation that anyone has ever suggested”. Climate engineering has received plenty of study from many quarters, although I’m not sure anyone thinks it’s a good solution by itself.

The viability of short-term climate engineering has a tremendous impact on how quickly we need to act. If we have no way to counteract climate change other than reducing GHG levels, then we have to do so quickly, because it’s cheaper to reduce emissions than to pull the stuff out of the air. If we know that, in a pinch, we can reverse global warming within five years and keep it reversed for a few years or decades while we cut carbon emissions more slowly and affordably, that argues strongly for waiting to cut carbon until it becomes cheaper.

(The Garnaut Review does also come to different conclusions from the Copenhagen Consensus on whether carbon cutting alone will be cost-effective. I don’t see any good reason right now to believe one over the other.)

It seems to me that the Copenhagen panel is mostly focused on stalling. They don’t suggest doing anything in the near term, they only propose research. This is despite the fact that research on global warming has been ongoing for 50 years. That research has concluded that we don’t have the luxury of a few more decades to wait and see.

The Copenhagen panel concluded, based on existing research, that the best solution is more research. Other groups have reached different conclusions. I remain interested to know whether any other group has systematically evaluated various carbon-cutting schemes along with other measures like climate engineering.

• and picked individual sentences from my posts to quibble over rather than addressing my overall argument.

Although to be fair, my style of argument probably invites that. I should be more careful to make it clear what each sentence contributes to my overall point. Some of the comparisons I made seem to have been particularly confusing, where I thought it was obvious that I was making a point indirectly but apparently it wasn’t.

I should try harder to be clear, I guess, but I’m not up to more arguing today.

• The viability of short-term climate engineering has a tremendous impact on how quickly we need to act. If we have no way to counteract climate change other than reducing GHG levels, then we have to do so quickly, because it’s cheaper to reduce emissions than to pull the stuff out of the air. If we know that, in a pinch, we can reverse global warming within five years and keep it reversed for a few years or decades while we cut carbon emissions more slowly and affordably, that argues strongly for waiting to cut carbon until it becomes cheaper.

According to the Brovkin paper, the screening would have to be continued not for a few years or decades, but for thousands of years. The slow natural rate of removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is discussed in papers such as this one.

Reducing the rate at which we emit carbon will not reduce the temperature significantly. Instead we have to reduce it to zero, and then commit to artificial capture of CO2 and sequestration on massive scale, comparable to the scale at which we currently emit it, and then continue this sequestration for decades until the concentration of CO2 falls to an acceptable level.

Since no method has been proposed to artificially capture atmospheric carbon on such a huge scale (at least not with a cost on the same order of magnitude as early abatement), you can see why the mainstream viewpoint considers an abatement strategy to be prudent. Short-term climate engineering is only possible if you can also make the anthropogenic rate of change of CO2 concentration massively negative.

The natural rate of CO2 removal is so low that it’s meaningful to talk about a “budget” for cumulative emission, which we must stay under to achieve a given temperature goal. This review, for instance, says that to limit warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we can only emit a further 500 billion tonnes of carbon, and that if we continue business as usual, that budget will be exhausted in around 40 years.

The Copenhagen panel concluded, based on existing research, that the best solution is more research.

Strange that the researchers themselves, and the scientists tasked with reviewing that research, and various other groups of economists and policy-makers didn’t come to the same decision.

I don’t think anyone is proposing that climate research is unimportant and should be stopped. Rather, the consensus seems to be that no silver bullet is on the horizon, that the climate change problem is urgent, and that making a start on a concrete and well-understood solution should not be delayed while we wait for particular research outcomes which may never eventuate.

Well yes, it’s a reasonable argument that paying taxes creates moral responsibility, an argument which has often been made in philosophy and social science. You can find proponents of the view for example at http://www.nwtrcc.org.

Do you agree with them?

However, tax resistance can impair your ability to function in other ways. It’s hard to save the planet when you’re in jail.

I don’t see anything involuntary about consuming electricity from a fossil fuel source. It’s something that you can stop doing at any time. Nobody is coercing you into doing it by threats of force, and stopping wouldn’t even affect your lifestyle significantly.

How exactly would you propose that anyone stop consuming electricity from fossil fuels, particularly without affecting their lifestyle significantly? For instance, by using any goods that have been transported by truck, ship, or plane, you’re causing people to burn fossil fuels (to buy the next shipment or such). You also would have to avoid using the electricity grid, which is possible but pretty difficult, especially if you don’t work from home.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to avoid paying taxes to a government that wages war. You could move to a more pacifist country, for instance, or just cheat on your taxes. Plenty of people do the latter without needing altruistic motivations, even.

Both cases seem about the same: it’s possible to avoid causing the harm, but not reasonably so.

Note that I’m distinguishing between not burning fossil fuels, and burning them but then making some kind of compensation. Likewise, I distinguish between not paying taxes, and paying them but then making some kind of compensation. In both cases, the former is not practical, and so I argue that the latter is not necessary either. You are not personally responsible to make recompense for doing something that you couldn’t reasonably avoid doing, any more than you’re personally responsible to make recompense for any other terrible thing that’s not your fault.

I addressed your views on climate science and economics first, because I think they colour your thinking on the ethical issue. You overestimate the costs of mitigation, and underestimate the benefits. This makes a socially irresponsible ethical framework seem more attractive.

I don’t think this is accurate. I don’t believe the Wikimedia Foundation should be spending a significant portion of its budget on anything that doesn’t directly advance its mission, period. I don’t think I treat subsidization of renewable energy the slightest bit different from anything else, even things I enthusiastically support.

• Well yes, it’s a reasonable argument that paying taxes creates moral responsibility, an argument which has often been made in philosophy and social science. You can find proponents of the view for example at http://www.nwtrcc.org.

Do you agree with them?

I am uncomfortable with my contribution to funding military acts of aggression and would prefer it if there was a way to opt out without fear of retribution.

How exactly would you propose that anyone stop consuming electricity from fossil fuels, particularly without affecting their lifestyle significantly?

By “consuming”, I meant directly paying for electricity and thus being in a position to monitor its usage and to buy RECs. Whenever electricity is purchased, there is an individual or group who can choose its source, by choosing whether or not to buy RECs.

I’m proposing that Wikimedia should buy RECs, not that every single person who views our website should buy a tiny fraction of a REC in order to cover the server electricity usage from that page view. I would make a similar distinction when it comes to goods and services. It should be the manufacturer’s responsibility to choose their electricity source, then pass on any additional costs in their prices.

For instance, by using any goods that have been transported by truck, ship, or plane, you’re causing people to burn fossil fuels (to buy the next shipment or such).

Solutions for transport will come in time, but renewable electricity is cheap and available right now, which is why I chose it as an example.

You also would have to avoid using the electricity grid, which is possible but pretty difficult, especially if you don’t work from home.

Are you disputing the effectiveness of buying RECs as a means for reducing CO2 emissions? Because we can talk about that if you like. If you just mean that you can’t buy RECs for electricity that you use at work, I think I covered that above: the people you work for should buy them.

You are not personally responsible to make recompense for doing something that you couldn’t reasonably avoid doing, any more than you’re personally responsible to make recompense for any other terrible thing that’s not your fault.

It might be difficult to cut 100% of your greenhouse gas emissions, which is why I’m not proposing it. I’m proposing that we make a start.

2. I wrote:

It seems to me that the Copenhagen panel is mostly focused on stalling. They don’t suggest doing anything in the near term, they only propose research. This is despite the fact that research on global warming has been ongoing for 50 years. That research has concluded that we don’t have the luxury of a few more decades to wait and see.

May I additionally note, this science-oriented stance is ironic given that Aryeh cited them as an example of a group that understands economics more than science. They are a panel of 5 economists trying to play the role of an advisory board to scientific funding bodies. It shouldn’t be surprising that they are somewhat out of their depth.