Reframing the Problem of Climate Change

by Bryan Walker on February 7, 2012

There’s no reason why facing up to the challenge of climate change should not result in wide benefits to human society, including economic benefits. That’s the argument of the multiple authors of Reframing the Problem of Climate Change: From Zero Sum Game to Win-Win Solutions. The book is based on papers presented at a 2010 international conference in Barcelona. They cover a wide range of topics and disciplines but centre around the proposition that it is a mistake to think of action on climate change as though gains can only be made at the expense of losses.

This zero sum mentality the editors see as an understandable consequence of the complexity of the challenge posed by climate change, a complexity not only of the climate system but also of its effects on society and the economy.  But it is a mentality which needs to be overcome. We need not be trapped in a tragedy of the commons.  Renewable energy is unlimited and the book argues that the transformation to such energy can not only solve the climate problem but also alleviate many other global problems.

In reporting the current status of climate science the book points to the fact that uncertainty is inherent in climate change predictions. Both natural variability and the incompleteness of scientific understanding contribute to this uncertainty. We know that the temperature will warm, that sea level will rise, that global food security and human health will be threatened, but it is not possible to accurately quantify these. It is important that the public understand that uncertainty is integral to the projections, but far from lessening the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions this uncertainty makes it all the more imperative that we do so.

When climate action is framed as a cost, with debate centred on who will pay, surveys indicate that the public become divided and consensus is made difficult. However support for action increases if the economic benefits of a re-tooled low-carbon economy are communicated. Win-win gathers more public support than win-lose.

The question then is whether a green growth economy is feasible. At the centre of the book is a chapter examining, as an example, the European proposal to increase the 2020 emissions reduction target from 20% to 30%. Conventional assessment considers this would jeopardise economic growth. The writers consider that such assessment fails to take into sufficient account factors which, on the contrary, point to economic growth as a result of raising the target. The factors they highlight in particular are investment and learning-by-doing. The European economy needs a substantial increase in investment if it is to be revitalised. An ambitious climate policy can stimulate that. Green technology can be part of a surge of new investment which is not just a reallocation of existing investment.  Once under way new investment accelerates learning-by-doing and therefore increases labour productivity and decreases unit production costs. More investment follows in a virtuous cycle.  The economy grows along a new green path. The win-win outcome provides emissions reduction, economic growth and additional jobs.

Further chapters of the book pursue the theme into some of the complexities involved. One talks of the actor-driven dynamics of decarbonisation and after a long technical discussion of various models emerges with a list of obvious win-win options which depend strongly on actor initiatives, either on governmental, business, civil society or individual levels. Heading the list is a general increase in employment associated with the introduction of renewable energy technologies. Particular examples include investment in concentrated solar power in low-latitude desert areas, smart grids to enhance international cooperation and interdependence in renewable energy production, and the development of energy storage technologies. The writers point to how the transfer of technological knowhow and capital from developed to developing countries will help the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals. They acknowledge that the communication of knowledge is paramount in all of this and call on science not to shy away from active participation in media campaigns, aggressively delivering findings in unambiguous ways that can be easily understood by the public.  Public support prods governments to commit to long-term climate policy which in turn makes firms willing to invest in renewable energy.

Another chapter emphasises the role of government. It recognises that left to themselves markets may make a gradual transformation to low-carbon energy infrastructure, but this is unlikely to be rapid enough to match the extent and urgency of the climate problem. Governments must play a critical role in setting policies that will spur the attraction of private investment.

An interesting chapter centres on reforestation in the Mediterranean region as an example of a win-win strategy that has captured the imagination of environmentalists and investors.  It explains the role of forests in the region as a hydrological buffer that greatly alleviates the problems arising from the combination of droughts and floods expected from climate change. Forests also mitigate climate change by capturing carbon and open up biofuel possibilities on land where they don’t compete with food production.

The book comes at its theme from a variety of directions – climate science, economics, politics, sociology, ecology – of which I’ve touched on only a few. The editors describe it as written by scientists, but not for scientists. They aim to address businesses, policy makers and the general public. That doesn’t mean it is an easy read. Its chapters often require sustained attention. But they also reward it. They are a serious approach to a very serious question.  Is the necessary decarbonisation of our present fossil-based economy a costly burden?  Their answer is no. Quite the contrary. It is an opportunity to greatly benefit human society if we will take it. It’s not as if the technologies to make the transition are not available.  They need only to be taken up. There are complexities to be managed in moving investment in that direction, and the book doesn’t minimise those. Entrenched economic patterns are not easily replaced. But, in the words of one of the book’s section headings, “it can be done”.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

samv February 7, 2012 at 7:59 am

“Renewable Energy is Unlimited”—pfft, this is so untrue. If we keep growing our energy needs at 2.3% p.a., we’ll have to have the entire planet covered in 100% efficient solar panels by 2400 AD, and be well on our way to building a Dyson’s sphere, though that will only help until about the year 3400AD.

Bryan Walker February 7, 2012 at 8:33 am

Yes, I wondered about their use of the word, but presumed they were speaking relatively. The general tone of the book is not gung-ho.

andyS February 7, 2012 at 9:25 am

What I suspect they mean by “renewable energy is unlimited” is that sunlight and wind will not run out.

The point they miss is that, as Sam correctly points out, both energy types require a large amount of real estate, and secondly, there are quite a lot of materials that go into the manufacture of each of these renewable energy sources, which need to be replenished when the plant reach the end of their useful like.

Personally, I am interested in Thorium power, which has the promise of provided virtually limitless energy with little of the problems that Uranium reactors have.

andyS February 7, 2012 at 9:29 am

I was going to edit that comment, but I am getting some PHP errors in the comment editor.

I was going to add that Tom Fuller has started a blog called 3000 Quads that is dealing with the question of how to provide energy to the world over the next century.

http://3000quads.com/

Thomas February 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Good article on 3000Quads on Solar.

BTW grid parity is here in NZ today already. Certainly at the consumer price point. Grid tie systems available retail in NZ produce PV power at cost at par with or better than the NZ$0.25 / kWh or so you pay for your power today from the retailer.

Warren Buffet invested $US Billion or so into industrial scale PV electricity generation lately. A sure sign that grid parity is there and that with growing cost of fossil fuel generation (once we factor environmental cost into it for real and take the dropping EROEI of fossils into account…) PV looks like a great investment indeed.

In countries where power is more expensive (Europe around NZ$0.50 / kWh) consumer end grid parity has been achieved a while ago.

We owe a lot of the cost reductions of PV solar to the foresight of investment into the field triggered by European Feed In tariff regulations which jump started the development.
This is an excellent example where long term investment thinking best accomplished by strategic political and ecological decisions achieve positive change and development and the generation of opportunities.

Thomas February 7, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I guess its unlimited in time. The sun won’t stop, while Energy mining (aka digging combustible stuff up) is extremely limited, both in the capacity to dig and the in the capacity to deal to the combustion products….
To become sustainable we need to transform society from an Energy Mining to an Energy Harvesting paradigm, whereby Harvesting refers to taking a sustainable component of “time unlimited” energy streams.
The basic streams we have are: Solar (incl. indirect solar such as wind), Tidal (Earth rotational energy) and Geo-Thermal (Earth heat content).

The later two are time unlimited when considering the scale of both in relationship to expected maximum life span of any intelligent habitation on Earth…..

andyS February 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Digging stuff up is limited, but we need to do that anyway to supply us the concrete and steel for wind turbines, the rare earths etc for solar, the neodymium for turbine magnets etc.

We have virtually unlimited supplies of Thorium energy. This can provide us with potentially thousands of years of energy that is reliable and safe.

Thomas February 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Thorium has its merits. You will need to come laden with the finest selection of tinned salmon and begin difficult negotiations with Bills cat to embark on a nuclear future…. I will let Bill to the explaining of that one….. ;-)

Thomas February 7, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Oh and on digging stuff up: Some elements are very abundant and digging the up as required seems sustainable. Others can be recycled. Old metal is a richer ore than any natural ore…
Wind mills can very well be made without rare earth magnets, in fact some manufacturers prefer the generated fields due to better electronic control over permanent magnet fields.
But denying the move to sustainable energy such as wind and solar with reference to the remaining fossil fuel deposits is just criminal in my mind.
Thorium, as said earlier has definitely merits…. as a Physicist I appreciate those for sure. But mind Bills cat, she is not happy whenever somebody utters the nuclear word as I gather…. ;-)

andyS February 7, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Kirk Sorenson’s talk at TedX on Thorium is well worth watching, and perhaps addresses your concerns over sustainability and safety

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2vzotsvvkw

Thomas February 7, 2012 at 7:24 pm

But back to the topic: It seems obvious that the huge task of recreating our civilization as a sustainable enterprise will generate a massive amount of new and intelligent business opportunities. Decentralization and democratization of the Energy infrastructure, smart grids, local generation, smart use,…. are all good news for a more equitable and sustainable, resilient infrastructure. Of cause much to the dismay of the current energy barons who have the world over the barrel figuratively speaking and are not keen part with their power…. hence their massive marketing effort aka Heartland Institute, Climate Science Coalition and the plethora of commercial doubt generators in the USA, NZ, AU and elsewhere, the tactics of which originated from the sorry and dark days of the tobacco wars, where some of the big names of the denier circus sharpened the tips of their forked tongues and sold their scientific soul and their professional reputation in their Faustian pact with money and power…..

Gosman February 9, 2012 at 7:48 am

This is what the campaign for action on climate change needs more of. Stop flogging the whole ‘We are all doomed unless we radically reorientate our society!’ message and start spinning the outcome in more positive terms within the existing societal paradigm.

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