What Should We Really Be Doing About Global Warming? A Freakonomics Quorum

We have blogged occasionally about different pieces of the global-warming puzzle (see here, here, and here), and we touched on the subject briefly in a New York Times Magazine column. It is an extraordinarily interesting issue, to say nothing of its importance and complexity, in part because there are so many foundational economic principles at play: not just supply and demand, but the presence of externalities, unintended consequences, etc. We will address a couple of those issues in our next Magazine column, which comes out this weekend. (BTW, all of our earlier Times columns are now available for free here.)

In the meantime, we thought it would be a good idea to host a Freakonomics Quorum in which we asked a few smart people a very straightforward two-part question: What should the U.S. government be doing about global warming, and what should individuals be doing? Here are their answers; many thanks for their time and thoughtfulness.

Ben Ho, an assistant professor of economics at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management and former energy and transportation economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers:

Two crucial points are regularly overlooked in the debate about climate change:

1. Not all responses are equally cost effective.

2. Only a global response has any chance of stabilizing carbon in the atmosphere.

It should be obvious that for any problem, some solutions are more effective than others. Despite what some fearmongers may have you believe, it is not the case that anything we do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is worth the cost. We could, for example, ban all oil and coal use worldwide. That would halt emissions, but few would believe the resulting economic fallout in terms of poverty and starvation to be justified. Economists have estimated that any policy intervention that costs more than about one penny per pound of carbon dioxide saved is probably not cost effective. (As a point of comparison, burning a gallon of gasoline emits about 20 lbs. of carbon dioxide.) If saving a gallon of gasoline will cost you more than 20 cents in time or effort, there are better uses of your time that would do more to combat global warming. Policy makers should heed the same guideline.

Another crucial point on which most experts will agree is that the U.S. will account for only a tiny fraction of emissions in 2050. Chinese greenhouse gas emissions have already surpassed those of the U.S. Recent E.P.A. estimates suggest that in order for global carbon dioxide emissions to stabilize, three quarters of future reductions would have to come from developing countries like China and India. Many advocates argue that a carbon tax or carbon cap in the U.S. would lend the U.S. the moral authority to persuade the rest of the world to follow. However, history has shown that moral authority alone is insufficient to cause countries like China to act against their own interests.

One policy that is potentially both cost-effective and global in its impact is the advancement of technology. Nearly all emissions of greenhouse gas come from either oil for transportation or coal and natural gas for heat and electricity. As an energy economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers, I was exposed to hundreds of magical inventions for harnessing renewable energy. One firm has developed algae that can transform carbon dioxide from smoke stacks into ethanol for your car. Another produces electric cars that get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon but drive like sports cars. More exotically, inventors have imagined generators that harness electricity from the aurora borealis or from tropical storms. Some are already in limited production, but none are yet cost-competitive for global deployment.

While none of these technologies are projected to significantly replace fossil fuels any time soon, forecasters are notoriously myopic when it comes to revolutionary shifts. While hoping for innovation may be an improbable dream, it is no more improbable than hoping that diplomats will be able to convince other countries to slow their development by voluntarily curtailing emissions. On the other hand, further innovations could make renewable power so cheap that China, India, and the rest of the world would find renewable fuels more attractive than fossil.

While my exposure in government to the multitude of energy innovations has heartened me, the same experience has also taught me that politicians and bureaucrats are not suited to judge which technology among the hundreds is best. The proper role of government is not to pick technologies, but to create the right market environment for innovation to flourish. Thus far, the U.S. has fostered innovation impressively. Going forward, the U.S. has to maintain the right mix of research centers, smart regulation, education, targeted taxes, and targeted subsidies to make sure our engine of innovation does not falter.

Colin Camerer, professor of business economics at Caltech and a leading light in behavioral economics and neuroeconomics:

Government? Climate warming is certainly the mother of all externalities, both global and intergenerational. It is also a perfect storm of behavioral economics phenomena: the culprit has no face. (Perhaps a feverish, angry Mother Nature on Oprah would help.) Loss aversion and habit formation? Nobody wants to give up anything. The change, if it’s occurring, is slow and invisible. (Think frogs dying in slowly boiling water, except it’s us ribbitting.) Judgments of reasonable sacrifice are instinctively self-serving: rich people have earned their Hummers; poor countries grasping the bottom rung want their one-channel MTV.

One argument which I have found surprisingly absent is the apocalyptic version of Pascal’s wager: if there is a genuine strong change, we should move swiftly to combat it, and if there isn’t, swift movement to cut carbons would not be so bad (it could spur innovation, etc.). If you think the evidence is unclear, that’s not an argument to do nothing unless the evidence will become clearer soon — which it won’t. As such, your view is still an argument for doing something nowm because the cost of a false alarm is small and the cost of a missed threat is large. Big reforms are like an insurance policy: you pay insurance for peace of mind, but you also hope your money is wasted, and there is a small irreversibility from having sacrificed up front.

Voluntary demand-side reduction at a large international scale won’t work. Besides the problem of free-riding, people (and countries) who are helpfully cutting back get annoyed when others aren’t. You see this clearly in lab experiments on contribution to public goods in “commons dilemmas” — people help out at first, then get mad that others aren’t helping, and express their anger by not helping. One useful tool is a serious carbon tax (choose your favorite number, double it, hope for something in between, and find a politically popular way to earmark some of the revenue to R&D that won’t be supplied privately).

Even better is an international permit trading system (and yes, it should be international, since local systems won’t equalize the cost across countries). Get past the moral indignation of issuing licenses to pollute. Firms and governments that will pollute will do so whether you like it or not, but at least a trading system rewards the good guys. Trade-able permits also put a sharp price on the value of reducing carbon, which is a good way to monetize the valuation of carbon-reducing technology, and hence to make the value of innovation clear and encourage it.

Individuals? If you feel great about reducing your own carbon footprint, please do. But unless you are a symbolic individual whose behavior influences others through a newsy social process — thanks, Brad Pitt — yours is a small contribution. Do that, but also read the news, educate your neighbors, crusade, organize, and vote.

Adam Grosser, a general partner at the venture capital firm Foundation Capital:

The U.S. government has the opportunity and challenge to dramatically recast its role in the energy consumption life cycle. Two major roles for leadership are quite obvious — one short-term, and one long-term. (Sadly, as we all are painfully aware, motivating legislators to commit to a national goal longer than a single election term is ferociously difficult.)

In the near-term, the government needs to mandate conservation targets, and then assist the population in successfully reaching them. For example, according to the Department of Energy, up to 30 percent of America’s additional electricity needs for the next decade can be met through advanced conservation techniques such as Automatic Metering Infrastructure or Demand Response Programs. More progressive countries such as Canada have legislated that these available technologies be deployed in less than two years.

More importantly, the government has a moral responsibility to dramatically increase the funding of basic research that will lead, over some period of decades or centuries, to fundamental changes in primary energy generation. Private industry can only afford to innovate at a scale or time frame that will lead to incremental change — unless someone is hugely lucky or un-statistically insightful. It is the purview of the Federal government to exert leverage against monumental and seemingly intractable challenges.

At the individual level, the most important activity is to be critical and observant. Ask a lot of questions: Do I need to drive to the store for a lemon? Do I need to have all the lights on in rooms where I’m not? Can the kids ride their bike to soccer? Become educated: Is your primary dwelling as efficient as it can be? Am I driving a vehicle that demonstrates my commitment to efficiency? Is solar an option? Can I better understand my family’s personal energy profile? Educate your kids. It’s a seemingly intractable problem, and it will take several generations to fix this mess. It’s really important that your three-year-old is energy conscious and aware. We’ve been profligate — and can only repent so much. It will be up to youth to innovate and atone for our consumption.

Jason Pontin, editor and publisher of the M.I.T.-owned Technology Review:

I don’t have very much to say about what individuals can do about climate change; indeed, I am skeptical that individuals can do very much by themselves.

Carbon dioxide emissions, which are responsible for anthropogenic climate change, are what economists call a negative externality — that is, a harm done when the parties to some transaction do not bear its full costs, and a socially undesirable good is overproduced.

Put more simply: until carbon dioxide has a cost, it will always be cheaper for coal companies to emit it than to capture it.

What can we do? Negative externalities can be addressed only by governments, through policies and international agreements. But what policies would best support a long-term energy strategy is a topic much debated by environmental economists. Limits on carbon dioxide emissions have disadvantages, even if supplemented with a system for trading emission credits. Such regulations are inflexible and often technologically ill-conceived, and they offer energy producers little incentive to reduce emissions below the levels allowed. So far, they have not worked very well in Europe.

An attractive alternative is a Pigovian tax, in which policymakers impose a price on a negative externality. Such a tax would create a cost for carbon dioxide where none existed, and so provide energy producers with an incentive to reduce emissions. Pigovian taxes have been used to reduce pollutants and discourage “sinful” behaviors like smoking, but they have one obvious disadvantage: because there is no exact mechanism for valuing a negative externality, it is possible to tax an undesirable good so much that levels fall below what is socially optimal. (After all, we will need carbon dioxide-emitting energy sources for the foreseeable future.) Still, Pigovian taxes on carbon dioxide emissions would have signal advantages over any alternatives: they would respond to changes in the production costs or price of energy, and they would generate government revenues.

The details of an international energy strategy are all still to be determined. But we have the means to save our civilization. As for what individuals can do to forestall climate change, the answer is simple: they should demand that their governments put some price on carbon dioxide. Oh, and they should consume less stuff.

Graham Hill, founder and CEO of Treehugger.com, and his TreeHugger team:

TreeHugger would propose that the government not look for a silver bullet, but rather silver buckshot. A successful ecosystem is one in which flora and fauna evolve with millions of different strategies to pass their genes onwards, achieving healthy competition and an overall balance.

We need to take a similar approach with global warming, and work against the human tendency for large, one-size-fits-all, Hail Mary approaches. Rather, we need to create the right conditions for a wide variety of locally adapted solutions to emerge, even if we can’t know in advance what the most successful ones will be.

People often talk about saving the planet. But really, the planet will be just fine without us, and the issue is more whether our species will be smart enough to survive the climactic and biological changes we are wreaking on ecosystems. A successful virus needs a host to be able to replicate its genes. Humanity is risking killing the golden goose, and therefore risking its chances for long-term survival.

At TreeHugger, we do not claim to have a perfect understanding of the political and financial systems that govern our world, but we suggest that the following rules of the road would help us get ourselves out of this predicament.

In short, incentivize the good, disincentivize the bad, and make the important metrics extremely visible. This will align people’s self-interests with those of nature, and instead of constantly asking people to pay more and sacrifice to do the right thing, even those who don’t care will make the right choices because that will be what is less expensive and more convenient.

1. Carrot.

Create Opportunity for the Good: the government needs to help jumpstart various industries by making it appealing for them to do so. We need to incentivize R&D in many areas such as renewable energy and transportation, high efficiency buildings, less impactful agriculture, energy conservation technologies, and many more. This would only be fair since the government has helped the fossil fuel industry at its beginning.

Make the Good Cool: social mores are critical in changing behavior. In the 1970s, it was considered acceptable to litter; now it isn’t. Why? Fines, great public service announcements, and the fact that people could see and/or were educated about the declining state of the environment. Programs that help to highlight heroes in this area and promote respect for people that live greener than others should be supported. We might even propose an Apollo-type program to rally people around an inspiring common goal.

2. Stick.

Make the Bad Cost More: one of the problems with our current system is that the true costs to humanity are not built into the pricing of things like gasoline. We need to “internalize” those costs back into the market system to disincentivize consumers and corporations from consuming and investing in environmentally degrading technologies, fuels and habits. In the short term, the bare minimum is to stop subsidizing harmful practices.

Make the Bad Uncool: the government should support efforts to cause more and more environmentally negative actions to be looked down upon. In the same way that someone who litters on the street or in a park is looked down upon or confronted, we need things like private jets, gas-guzzling cars, monster homes, wasteful companies etc., to be shunned.

3. Metrics.

We’d also propose that metrics are very important. In management they say, “what gets measured, gets done,” and we support this idea. We believe that putting a major focus on metrics such as carbon emission levels and who is helping and who is hurting could help galvanize the movement. Imagine if all media would regularly report on our recent carbon emissions and how we are doing according to a master plan, as well as recent successes and failures.

What should individuals be doing? This is a more difficult question, as it depends a lot on your specific situation. In the same vein as above, here are some suggested rules for the road:

Understand the Landscape: take the time to use a carbon calculator and understand where your big impacts are such that you can be strategic about where you place your efforts. Turning that business trip into a few conference calls may make a bigger difference than recycling for a year.

Send a Message to Business and Government: vote with your dollars by researching the best environmental option for as many purchases of products or services as you make (after concluding that you actually need to make the purchase). Look for sustainable organic food and other consumer items that at least are trying to have a smaller carbon footprint and are moving the needle in the right direction. Use your consumer voice to let businesses know that you want environmental products and services.

Small is Sexy: as a general rule, going small will be good for the environment and likely your pocketbook. Think small cars, small houses, products and packaging made with less materials.

Know your Real Needs: too many of us rarely stop to think about what we really need, and we end up making wasteful choices that are also more costly. If you haul heavy loads once or twice a year, why drive a big truck the remaining 364 days? Why not rent or borrow when you need it? The beauty is that once you cut the things you don’t need out of your life, you realize that maybe you don’t need such a big house, and you have more money left over to spend on organic food, high efficiency appliances, solar panels, etc.

Keep Resources in Closed Loops: many projections show the future Earth’s population stabilizing at around 10 billion people. With that many of us, we can’t afford to single-use resources. We need to recycle materials and compost biological matter. As individuals, we need to reduce as much as possible what we send to the landfill, and as a society we need to move toward designing everything with disassembly and recycling in mind.

Create Community, Share Information: everybody likes clean air, clean water, clean soil and a stable climate. When people are informed about the issues and know that solutions exist, they are likely to take positive action. Always keep learning, share what you know with friends, and consider joining local organizations, national movements or online communities. Climate change can’t be solved with a top-down approach only, so the more people join in, the closer we get to the green tipping point.


Allen

Great posting guys -- and even more interesting comments. Is it me, or does this carbon trading sub-economy seem like yet another way for businesses to make money off of something? And, just for all of the Doomsdayers -- there has never been a concrete link to human beings causing global warming. Regardless of what you've read, seen or heard. The fact that the Earth is warming cannot be debated -- but the fact humans are causing it, and can in any way stop it, is unfounded. You can blame the melting of the polar ice caps on the shifting of the Earth's magnetic poles as much as you can on CO2. But isn't it logical that we, as a civilization, should stop this attitude of endless and careless consumption?

Alex

Even if the global warming panic is incorrect, people can still take note of ways to improve the environment and their way of life.

Reduce, reuse, recycle is probably the best motto out there. Drive less, don't grab fifty napkins at mcdonalds, hmm and maybe dont eat so high up on the food chain. You'll be healthier both physically and mentally, and prolong the survival of the human race. What a deal!

tmitsss

First, people should disregard the first two comment posts. They most likely were financed by Richard Scialfe or the American Enterprise Institute.

Of, course no rational person could doubt AGW unless they were being paid and Ad homs are a useful argument. Well, where is my d*** check? The debate on AGW is a great spectator sport. I am absolutely fascinated by what going on at climateaudit.org and surfacestations.org . Enough to spend my time and treasure to survey some of USHCN stations. I have yet to see the extraordinary evidence the extraordinary claim of significant AGW requires.

Ross McKitrick has a interesting proposal

http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/financialpost/comment/story.html?id=d84e4100-44e4-4b96-940a-c7861a7e19ad&p=1

Chance

I rarely comment, but I have to express my exasperation at the notion that people and groups concerned about global warming are just trying to make a buck with "certain groups stand to profit enormously from global warming hysteria" as Wil puts it. Going by this very same logic, don't oil companies have a huge incentive to downplay global warming? All I know is that sources I trust like Scientific American, Discover, and the even the EPA under a Republican administration say it is real and that human activity is a major factor. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/stateofknowledge.html . So pardon me if I take their word for it over a youtube posting.

ferrets bueller

What the government should do:

1. Reduce the tarrif that I understand to be in place on sugar cane based ethanol. Corn based ethanol costs more to produce than it saves.

2. Tax gasoline at European levels, increasing gradually. Use the funds for public transportation.

3. Create incentives for energy efficiency in homes and business. This is fraught with peril, however, in that some tax incentives in the past went to programs that created "synfuels" that were nothing of the sort.

Individually:

Find ways to reduce the household energy expenditure without sacrificing quality of life. Solar power. Thermal storm windows. Heat pumps. Hybrid cars. Recyling on a rigorous scale. Combining and planning routine trips. Local food produce. Panting trees. Things that can be done without turning the family into stereotypes from Mother Jones. And....
Save Ferrets.

Bjorn

Wow, Stan (Comment #2). Global Warming is human-caused and is saving humanity from the next ice age? Now that's planning ahead! Thanks Big Oil, for your foresight on this matter. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-
grandchildren will be eternally grateful.

pablo

If environmentalists want to combat global warming, the most effective things they can do personally:

1) Stop having kids

2) Stop eating meat

Stan Preston

Re: "global warming will bring on the next ice age"

Sure. Could happen. That was the "Day After Tomorrow" scenario. It seems to me that if our climate predictions are so imprecise as to allow this possibility, however, trying to control the climate is senseless. We might as well let it run itself.

Re: "my great-great-^28 grandchildren will be grateful"

Umm...isn't that the point of all of this global warming alarmism? Or maybe you're saying we should favor our great-great-great grandchildren over our great-great-^28 grandchildren? In which case, you should consider the decade-scale Pleistocene climate fluctuations; the rapid onset of the Younger Dryas, and the duration of the "Little Ice Age".

My point is that the "costs" of global warming discussed above are completely ignoring any *benefits* of the current warming projections. Why should we stop global warming when (a) it might stave off even worse disasters, and (b) it might objectively increase the productivity of the biosphere?

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Davey

Whew, this is a target-rich environment, for sure! When I saw the topic, I e-mailed everybody I know so that they could jump in. Let the free-for-all begin.

The Doomsayers begin with 2 beliefs that completely undermine any further argument on their part.

1) That the climate never changes.
2) That any climate change is bad.

The climate is always changing and it doesn't matter whether Man is causing it or not. They had to change the label of their cause from "Global Warming" to "Climate Change". How silly.

I've asked several "greens" what they are trying to save us from. I never get the same answer twice.

"We're killing off entire species." New ones will take their place.

"Man can't survive if we keep going the way we are." So? Why are we entitled to permanent residency here? No other species is.

"We have to preserve our resources." This is one of my favorites, because when a green says this, they are saying that we have to preserve OIL! Besides, is it a resource if you don't use it?

I don't understand the antipathy shown by the green movement towards Hummers and big houses and other fossil-fuel burning devices. They will berate someone for using these things, then hop in their Prius, go home and turn on their fluorescent lights and sleep in their air-conditioned houses. They are using the same resources as the Hummer owner and as said by more than one member of the quorum, individual efforts are at best symbolic. The only environmentalist to walk the walk was Ted Kaszynski (sp?). He could've done it without the bombs, though.

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cephyn

Shows how sad this country has become, now that science has become political. The science says what it says. Anyone who disagrees with the scientific consensus on global warming, probably isn't a scientist or climatologist.

Since the biggest problems are power plants and cars, that's where the most gains can be made. Plugin hybrids, or just plugin electric vehicles is the first prong - the second prong is nuclear power plants. Stop the CO2 from the cars and the plants and you've fixed the biggest problems.

Davey

@cephyn--so, what is the scientific consensus on global warming? Can it be found here?: http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/story.html?id=22003a0d-37cc-4399-8bcc-39cd20bed2f6&k=0

David R.

Nuclear fusion potentially provides enough low cost energy to supply the planet without emitting greenhouse gases or radioactivity. One scientist recently told me it was 200 years away. Nonetheless, the ITER project in Europe is underway. As unfashionable as it is to say, maybe the answer is big science. Is this problem really harder than getting to the moon was in 1960?

Brian

Since only scientists really understand the science and since within science there is an as-near-as-dammit peer-reviewed consensus that human-caused climate change is occurring, then climate change deniers need to address the meta-issue of why such an amazingly efficient scientific conspiracy is taking place and how climate scientists are managing to pull it off. Only once they've come up with a reasonable answer to that - preferably without sounding really angry, crazed and/or bitter - should they start proposing alternative theories that have yet to appear in peer-reviewed climate-scientific research.

JP

I'll refer you to a paraphrase I was given by a scientist out of Los Alamos, "Yes, global climate change always happened with heat first then CO2 increased; but, that is not the case this time!"

CO2 is our litmus paper. We are heating up.

CO2 is about 0.03% of the atmosphere (ok, let's say it really increased to 0.04%). CO2 (green house gasses) is involved in the night time release of heat via infrared radiation -- infrared light carries heat into outer space. If the green house gasses increase too much, the infrared light is blocked, heat stays on the planet. Or if too much heat is produced, the planetary heat output can not keep up to pace.

Looking at it from a significant digit and numerical kind of view -- that, and I was in my computer room one day and got hot. I realize that we are producing a few billion cubic feet of heated air per day (at least). Consider that it would likely take 1 car about 1 minute to heat up 1000 cubic feet (10 by 10 by 10 garage) by 1 degree. Now multiply that by 100 million (I last did the math when the number of "new" cars sold was only 70 million for the year; and figuring there are at least 30 million of that 70 million still out there... 100 million is a nice easy number to use).

100 million cars (100,000,000), raising 1000 cubic feet of air by 1 degree per minute. That becomes 100 billion cubic feet of air by 1 degree per minute. That includes the insignificant 0.03% of air that is carbon dioxide.

Where does the heat go? If it is blocked from leaving during night time, it goes somewhere -- land, oceans, air.

The heat can not leave during day time due to temperatures in the upper atmosphere reaching temperatures over 1000 (~1500C). Fortunately, the green house gasses also block the extreme amount of solar radiation heat we would get from the sun during the day.

Thus, the real target should be heat and ways to reduce heat output. Not the 0.03% of CO2, as that helps to reduce heat input from the sun.

I know I keep looking for methods that will convert heat into energy. There are two that I know of that should work - stirling engines and "reversed" peltier chips. As California electric companies are investing majorly in a stirling engine start up company, this heat theory might just be known by others. I can't exactly take credit for it, Ringworld, by Larry Niven (physicist/author), had a theoretical planet that was kept warm due to being extremely overpopulated.

I am not saying global warming is false, global warming is true. I am saying that previous studies of ice core samples indicate that the heat comes before the CO2 -- thus heat causes an increase in CO2.

Decrease the heat we produce and we decrease global warming at its source.

Decrease the CO2, and who knows what will happen. There might be an even more extreme case of global warming due to the decrease in the protective benefit that green house gasses provide.

Bodies produce heat, electronics, automobiles, livestock, pets, and rotting vegetation (from the crops that are no longer tilled under the fields). Everything we are, do and use produces heat. When targetting just CO2 makes it seem like an easy way out.

I'm waiting for results from recent ionosphere satellites to be published publicly to further validate the theory. The last ionosphere readings I had indicated that the theory is likely to be true, though.

The ionosphere is the layer of atmosphere above the green house gas level, if it is getting significantly cooler at night than it has previously, we are blocking too much heat output -- if the ionosphere is maintaining a set temperature range, then our heat output is a constant. If our heat output on the planet is a constant (at night), even with the increased CO2 levels, then CO2 is not the culprit.

The last ionosphere readings I had, when I originally started researching this, indicated that the ionosphere was getting warmer -- meaning CO2 has nothing to do with it, we're truly overloading the planetary heat output mechanism.

Also, if the ionosphere readings indicate that the ionosphere is significantly cooler -- then we truly are blocking our heat output.

By targetting CO2, though, we do target the most obvious by product of large heat producers. Changing what is used for fuel may not translate into changing the amount of heat output, though.

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matt

I agree with some of the experts. Sure, we can start to clean up our act.. just because it's a good idea anyway. Yes, better technologies, less pollution, etc. But the levels we can reasonably reduce our emissions to just aren't going to make a big difference. Even cutting off all fossil fuel burning tomorrow will not help. CO2 levels are the highest they've ever been in Earth's history. The earth is warming, will continue to stay warm, and we must deal with that fact. The ice sheets will melt, seas will rise, storms will intensify, and desertification will increase across the US.

For that reason, I believe that most of our efforts should be directed towards dealing with the inevitable.. for instance:
- develop drought-resistant crops
- improve hurricane-resistant construction methods
- figure out ways to sustain our major coastal urban centers when they should be 20 ft under water.

We can do it in a 100 years.

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Cliff

Theres one simple thing you can do that even those who are deluded into thinking climate change is some kind of conspiracy could get behuind:

Stop wasting energy.

Once you change form incandescents to energy efficient lightbulbs you wonder why people waste THEIR money on replacing low-efficiency bulbs using 5 times the power. Why do people sit in traffic doing 5mph in cars that can do 0-60 in 4 seconds (do you EVER need to do that?).
Why do people leave PC monitors and hard drives and even office lighting on overnight?
There is denying climate change, and then there is just being stupid with money.
Americans waste WAY too much energy. Its inefficient, dumb and counterproductive.

Aaron

Regarding post 29:

“Man can't survive if we keep going the way we are.” So? Why are we entitled to permanent residency here? No other species is.

That's the crux of it, isn't it? We aren't saving the planet, we are saving ourselves. This isn't about a spotted frog, or a fuzzy owl. This is about the fact that the climate is at a fairly unstable equilibrium, with a number of positive feedback loops that can drive it towards an ice age, or towards a hotter planet.

It isn't even the case that humans cannot survive in an ice age or hotter planet. However, we have built our civilization in the current climate, and the adjustments necessary to adapt to a new climate are enormous and tragic. Enormous and tragic in that they include millions of displaced people moving from flooded regions, due to rising sea level. Enormous and tragic in that they involved millions (billions?) of people starving because agricultural production will likely be unable to support a 10b-person population. Enormous and tragic because the economic losses to the global economy will devastate people's standard of living.

Some of the above posters have argued two contradictory points that support the status-quo. The first is that predicting the effects of a changing climate is inexact, so we shouldn't bother doing anything. The second is that global warming is going to save us all from a horrible ice-age and that we're really just planning ahead. I disagree that predicting the magnitude of climate change is inexact - it's very compelling that at least 2 degrees C of change is locked in, and that after 4 degrees C of change we will be in a runaway feedback loop. However, I agree that predicting the full consequences of that warming is difficult, so surely the safest route is to maintain the climate that we evolved into, rather than being blindly confident that we can comfortably adapt to a new one.

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John

The political spin is strange here-the only acceptable way to combat global warming is to "consume less". How about atomic energy or geoengineering: the Kyoto treaty talk effectively wasted a decade that could have been spent researching other things.
Bjorn Lonborg pointed out that the very limited gains in Kyoto had a very high cost, and that clean water could be provided for everyone at the same cost and be much more cost-effective in preventing human suffering.

Seth

It's nice to try to attack a topic as important as global warming, but unfortunately the problem is so big, and so diverse, that people end up suggesting big visionary changes ("impose a carbon tax", "consume less") without bothering with the specifics. To me, it's just idle philosophy to list the solutions without getting into the mechanics of the problem. While it is nice to know that any failures won't be for lack of philsophers, I'm not sure that's the where we need to invest our resources.

I believe, along with many of the posters, that we need to reduce the amount of energy we consume. I also believe that the most potent force for change in all of human history has been capitalism.

I would ask the Freakonomics community to consider this question instead: how do we use market forces to get people to consume less?

While things like a carbon tax do provide price signals to help people change their behavior, these signals are indirect (to the goal of conservation), and often misunderstood, improperly discounted, or simply ignored because we are too busy to carefully consider how to react to them. An economist might think that changing prices is enough, but anyone in business knows that it is not enough to just create the product: you have to market it if you want behaviors to change.

Thus: Can our government make it possible for businesses to earn money by convincing others not to spend? How do we enable people to become rich by marketing conservation?

The thing that astonishes me about capitalism is that the world is full of people who have never met me, yet who are working feverishly to figure out what it is that I want. Our challenge is that all our incentives are stacked to make us consume, not conserve. If we can apply the same entrepenurial fervor that marketed the Showtime Rotisserie Grill to marketing energy efficiency, we would address global warming with a speed an effectiveness that surprises us all.

But, as I hinted above, the interesting question is how. I'd love to read a future forum on this topic, and I'd love to hear from other posts as well.

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GM

Hey, hey people. Don't you really get it? Let's just say we take it for granted the deniers' claim
that "climate change" is not bad after all, they
are still missing the point that carbon emission as
pollutants are causing ill effects on health of
humans. That alone is one grave issue to fight
climate change, let alone the doomsayers scenarios
many environmentalists are talking about.

Second, posting your reaction to blogs like this is one way of spreading environmental awareness but you have to understand that your voice is only a drop in the sea of global scientific consensus and world politics. If one scientist's view or a group of scientists' view doesn't really hold that much water in the sea of politics, what more can we, mere mortal beings, do to sway the political landscape? In a way, our opinion doesn't really matter. Your voice are like little waves that haven't prevented the Iraq war for example.

Fortunately, the top levels of world bodies like the UN and APEC are tackling the climate change problem. By employing the scientific and expert communities, world bodies will craft policies, laws, rules and regulations that will affect the entire global community since global warming (or the politically correct term "climate change") is a global issue. Since it's a global issue, it needs a global response. And the world bodies are tackling it using the top-down approach.

For our part which is the bottom-up approach, don't belittle the power of "little things". Since climate change is an extraordinary problem, we need extraordinary solutions. If we can all help in as many ways as possible, so be it. Colin, aren't you aware of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" which is about the power of little things?

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