Thursday, August 23, 2012

Let's say there's no global warming...

Here's a short list of a few of the things, some big, some small, that we could look to to address climate change:

Smart Grid/Smart Meters

Rail Choke Points


Public transportation

Power plant upgrade

Increased gas tax

Plug-in hybrids and electrics

Ground source heat pumps


This isn't a complete list by any means. I could have put nuclear, wind, centralized solar, passive solar, biofuel (with some strong caveats) and any number of other technologies. I picked these because they were well established and easy to argue from a cost-benefit standpoint (and because, frankly, I didn't have time to read up on the cutting edge stuff).

There's nothing speculative here and, with the possible exception of the tax (which is just too freaking obvious to leave out), there's nothing controversial either. These are proven approaches with well understood behavior, the kind of approaches that lend themselves to quick, back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analyses.

Let's say for sake of argument that there's no global warming and, while we're at it, no acidification of the oceans. Even if we take all the controversial stuff off the table and just look at things like balance of trade, protecting the economy from supply shocks, improving quality of life (and therefore property values), reducing recognized, non-climate related health threats, (in the case of choke points) improving highway safety and just saving money, most if not all of these proposals have benefits that outweigh their costs.

Setting a smart grid and upgrading our rail system would be the most expensive but given the pay-offs and the fact that it's almost impossible to be modern industrial power with outdated and unreliable energy and transportation infrastructure make it hard to argue against these improvements, particularly if we limited ourselves to high priority rail projects like choke points.

For the rest of the list, the cost is lower and the payoffs, though smaller, are more immediate. Ground source heat pumps are arguably at the break even point even ignoring externalities and might be held back more by a lack of public awareness than anything else. Still, a few moderate steps (tax breaks, targeted government backed loans, building codes, retrofitting public buildings) can go a long way to reducing our national heating and cooling bill. On top of that, ground source based cooling cuts back on energy consumption at the very time that the system tends to be be overloaded, thus having an added infrastructure benefit.

Even reflectivity and shade initiatives can be justified in a non-warming globe. The economic benefits to Phoenix of absorbing less heat still apply regardless of the temperature of the rest of the planet.

I won't list the benefits of the rest (you probably know them better than I do). Each is sensible and based on proven technology and associated with substantial positive externalities that probably outweigh the cost of implementation even when you leave out climate and oceans completely out of the analysis.

We are often told that it would be nice to do something about global warming but the cost is just too great. Someone explain this to me. We have to fix our energy and transportation infrastructure anyway. It's cheap to paint roofs and hang awnings. Ground source heat pumps actually pay for themselves. Where exactly is the threat to the republic?

I can imagine various objections, starting with the inevitable "it doesn't solve the whole problem" (otherwise known as Zeno's paradox of public policy), but these steps would go a long way to solving our part of the problem and, more importantly, this is nowhere near a complete list.

Just so we're clear, this is a largely unresearched blog post written by someone who knows nothing about the subject so weight this accordingly, but if the climate models turn out to be true, events like we've seen recently are going to become more common. Add up all of the primary and secondary costs of just this summer's weather (wildfires, crops devastated, ranchers forced to sell off breeding stock, cities dealing with record-breaking heat) and you find yourself talking in terms of some stunningly large numbers.

Loads of caveats here (and if there's an expert in the house, please join in), but to the untrained eye, if you assign a better than even chance that the scientists who studied this sare right (and that's generally a pretty good bet), the cost of inaction looks far greater than the costs of doing something.

Particularly when it's something we should be doing anyway.

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