It’s the dynamics, stupid!

Here’s one of the key problems in the debate about energy and global warming. Many, if not most, of the commentators are ignoring the dynamics of global change. The fundamental issue is that global climate change and global energy use are massive, huge, enormous–whatever ultimate adjectives you can think of. And what is a prime characteristic of massive, huge, enormous things?

It is very hard to change their courses. They have enormous inertia. As Isaac Newton said in the 17th century about the dynamics of motion (Newton’s First Law):  Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. In the case of global warming the human race has steadily been forcing the atmosphere to change since the Industrial Revolution. The warming force is the heat retained as a result of the CO2 and methane we have been pouring into the air all those years. As we are beginning to notice, the atmosphere is now moving right along, heatwise. Atmospheric change now has substantial momentum, according to most knowledgeable environmental scientists, although they differ on the extent of human influence.

As Paul Krugman put in in his New York Times column on 1 August 2008:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Now here’s the dilemma: if we want to reverse the global warming trend we first have to stop it. It took a couple of hundred years of business-as-usual gas emissions to get us into the fix we’re in now. Global warming appears to be accelerating. Thus even if we suddenly stopped burning any coal, oil and other carbon sources the atmosphere might coast along in its present state or even keep warming for decades. And if we did completely stop burning those carbon sources now the global economy would shatter.

So a complete stoppage is out of the question. But it seems clear that we should reduce global production of carbon gases as fast as possible, even if it hurts the economy for a while. After all, a little pain for a while is generally thought to be better than death. We have to wean ourselves from coal, gas and oil as fast as we practically can. That means paying serious attention to energy conservation of all sorts while we spend much more on finding and developing non-warming alternative energy sources. Because of the dynamics of the situation we also can’t spend a lot of time arguing about what’s the optimum solution. We have to start today.

Now here’s another slant at the problem. Because of the widespread hue and cry about gasoline prices a variety of politicians are supporting opening up drilling restrictions for offshore–and Arctic Refuge–sites. Never mind the fact that it would take a decade under “normal circumstances” for any new oil to appear. Now comes a July 30th article in the Financial Times to the effect that there aren’t enough skilled engineers to develop new oil fields. It takes 10 years to train an engineer to work on a deep ocean oil rug, according the the FT. Right now we don’t have normal circumstances. So forget the idea that opening up offshore drilling will produce significant amounts of oil before, say, 2020. We may have the drill rigs but not the people to run them.

Whatever it is that we do over the next few years, it may take decades before the effects are noticeable. Except if we do nothing now warming will continue until the price of reversal may be enormous, even fatal.

It’s the dynamics, stupid! And it’s the only planet we have.

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