28 July 2011

The Simple Math and Logic Underpinning Climate Pragmatism

Here is an open invitation to Joe Romm, David Roberts, Michael Tobis and any other self-proclaimed "climate hawks" to explain what is wrong with the math and logic presented below. This is the math and logic that underpins the arguments of "climate pragmatism" -- such as espoused in the report released yesterday by that name, The Hartwell Paper and The Climate Fix.

The "climate hawks" have usually been pretty loathe to engage in open intellectual debate, preferring instead to lob ad homs and mischaracterizations.  (Maybe they should be called "climate chickens" -- that is a joke;-)  So here I make it easy for them.

Below, I have broken out an argument into 10 points to make it easy for critics to identify where they disagree and provide evidence to the contrary. So here is a chance -- an open invitation even -- for them to point out errors in the logic and math behind climate pragmatism.

1. Decarbonization refers to a decrease in the rate of carbon dioxide emissions divided by GDP.

2. Stabilization of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere (at any low level, but let's say 350 ppm to 550 ppm for those who want a number) requires a rate of decarbonization of >5% per year.

3. The world has been decarbonizing for at least 100 years, and the rate of this decarbonization was about 1.5% from 1980 to 2000.

4. In order to get from a rate of 1.5% (or smaller) to higher rates, such as >5%, requires that decarbonization be accelerated.

5. However, the world has in recent years seen rates of decarbonization decelerate and in the most recent few years may have even been re-carbonizing, that is, the ration of CO2/GDP has been increasing.

6. In 2010 the United States re-carbonized as well.

7. Efforts to secure a global treaty or comprehensive national legislation in the US have not led to an acceleration in rates of decarbonization.

8. In fact, no country or group of countries in the world, despite their statements or policies, has ever achieved sustained rates of decarbonization exceeding 5% per year.

9. Contracting the global economy is not a viable tool for accelerating rates of decarbonization.

10. Actions that lead to an increase in rates of decarbonization are desirable, even if they are justified for reasons beyond climate change.

Two quick points before leaving it to the discussion in the comments . . .

First, I recognize that not everyone starts with an acceptance of the assumptions behind statement #2 above -- that is OK, this post is focused on the arguments of the "climate hawks" who obviously do accept the assumptions behind that statement. Please don't clutter the comments taking issue with the premise there (in fact, for those who do, just start with statement #10;-). 

Second, statement #10 above leaves unaddressed the answer to the question, "what actions will lead to an accelerated decarbonization of the global economy?" The honest answer is that no one actually knows how to accelerate decarbonization to >5% per year for a period of decades. Climate pragmatism says that we should look around and see what actions are actually moving in the right direction and to build upon those. In contrast, climate idealism holds that a comprehensive solution implemented all at once is the only acceptable course of action, and absent the ideal, even moving in the wrong direction is preferable.

Pragmatism is about taking the first steps on a long journey and not a comprehensive plan for how the last steps will be taken. That is how we fight disease, manage the economy and win wars.  Climate change will be no different.

There is more to argue of course, but let's start here and see where the critics find fault -- or if they engage at all.