06 January 2008

Fight Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Global climate disruption requires a global response on the scale of World War II

The generation that was in its 20s and 30s in the 1940s made a supreme effort to resist and roll back German and Japanese aggression. We call that effort "World War II", "the Second World War", "the 1939-1945 war", or "the Great Patriotic War" (Великая Отечественная война). Millions were willing to risk death in combat. Many millions did die in combat, or as civilians in the perils of war. Their leaders were not perfect, but they were (eventually) able to arouse their people to undertake this great task. The generation that fought that fight is known today, at least in America, as "The Greatest Generation".
Query: If the U.S. hadn't sent its youth off to war, and turned its economy to war production, what language would the elite now be speaking in Paris--German or Russian? (There are some scenarios, I know, where they would still be speaking French.)

What does this have to do with global warming?

The dangers posed by global climate disruption are as great as those that generation faced, though admittedly different in character. The danger is less direct and obvious. And it is harder to point to the "bad guys". (But remember that the United States was able to tolerate most of Europe being conquered by Germany, and Manchuria by Japan. There was no political consensus to make big sacrifices until the Pearl Harbor attack. It is interesting to think what might have happened if the Japanese had not attacked Hawaii or the Philippines.)

There will probably be no events comparable to the invasion of Poland, the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the invasion of the Soviet Union to precipitate an all-out response to the threats of climate change. How can we get people to mobilize to take the steps necessary to roll back greenhouse gas emissions and (possibly) avoid some of those dire consequences?
Hurricane Katrina caused the loss of 1,835 lives. At Pearl Harbor 2,333 military personnel and 35 civilians died. The population of the U.S. in 1941 was about 134 million. Today it is about 301 million, more than twice as large. So are we waiting for a disaster that will kill 5,000 before we take action? Or would even that be accepted, discounted or debated to death?

This time it will take money and life-style adjustments, not lives (we hope)

How much money will it take? Several trillion dollars per year. Most of this will have to be supplied by the developed world, even for changes in the developing world.
  • People in the developed world have the most to lose, in terms of reduced consumption.
  • The developed world has the money.
  • The greenhouse gases currently causing the problem were put there by the developed world.
  • That’s only a few thousand dollars per capita if paid for by the 20% of the world’s population living in the developed countries.
  • (To sequester a ton of CO2 could cost hundreds of dollars. The world currently emits about 37 billion tons a year. Say it cost $100 per ton to sequester some and prevent some other emissions, say a total of half of that 37 billion tons. That would cost about $2 trillion. That’s about $1,600 for each person in the most developed countries.)
For comparison, just for the U.S.A.:
  • We have spent more than $400 billion on the war in Iraq. It will probably end up costing close to a trillion dollars before it is all over.
  • We spent about $3 trillion to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II (in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars) and hundreds of thousands of American lives. (Source here.)
  • We were willing to spend 38% of GDP on fighting World War II.
However, that money will have to be spent effectively. For example:
  • Over the past 20 years the U.S. government has spent tens of billions of dollars to subsidize the production of ethanol from corn, as a substitute for petroleum fuels.
  • That money has gone into the pockets of corn farmers and ethanol producers.
  • Today, after all that spending, the amount of petroleum fuel being substituted by bioethanol is almost zero. Nor has the use of bioethanol reduced our emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • Face it, politicians don’t know how to address this problem. It is up to us.
So here are our choices:
  1. Either get depressed, squabble, prevaricate, and do nothing (or take only token action), or
  2. Get serious, take on this challenge, bear this burden, and be known as a great generation.
If we aren't willing to make changes and spend money, then people in the future may look back and say, "They could have been one of the great generations, but instead they were the ________ generation." (I would be interested in what epithet you might suggest.)

Yes I know the illustration is a WW I poster. I just thought it was apropos.

No offense meant to Germans or Japanese. It's just that the geopolitical situation brought about by their governments in the 1930s and 1940s called forth the effort mentioned above.

For suggestions for action, see the Understanding Carbon Choices blog.

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