Friday, January 20, 2012

Climate:  Climate Proposal Puts Practicality Ahead of Sacrifice

The current issue of the journal Science contains a proposal to slow global warming that is extraordinary for a couple of reasons:

1. In theory, it would help people living in poor countries now, instead of mainly benefiting their descendants.

2. In practice, it might actually work.

This proposal comes from an international team of researchers — in climate modeling, atmospheric chemistry, economics, agriculture and public health — who started off with a question that borders on heresy in some green circles: Could something be done about global warming besides forcing everyone around the world to use less fossil fuel?

Ever since the Kyoto Protocol imposed restrictions in industrial countries, the first priority of environmentalists has been to further limit the emission of carbon dioxide. Burning fewer fossil fuels is the most obvious way to counteract the greenhouse effect, and the notion has always had a wonderfully virtuous political appeal — as long as it's being done by someone else.

But as soon as people are asked to do it themselves, they follow a principle identified by Roger Pielke Jr. in his book The Climate Fix. Dr. Pielke, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, calls it iron law of climate policy: When there's a conflict between policies promoting economic growth and policies restricting carbon dioxide, economic growth wins every time.

After looking at hundreds of ways to control these pollutants, the researchers determined the 14 most effective measures for reducing climate change, like encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves, building more efficient kilns and coke ovens, capturing methane at landfills and oil wells, and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.

If these strategies became widespread, the researchers calculate, the amount of global warming in 2050 would be reduced by about one degree Fahrenheit, roughly a third of the warming projected if nothing is done. This impact on temperatures in 2050 would be significantly larger than the projected impact of the commonly proposed measures for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Not incidentally, the researchers calculate, these reductions in low-level ozone and black carbon would yield lots of benefits long before 2050. Because people would be breathing cleaner air, 700,000 to 4.7 million premature deaths would be avoided each year. Thanks to improved crop yields, farmers would produce at least 30 million more metric tons of food annually.

The beauty of these pollution-control measures is that over five to 10 years they pay for themselves in the developing world, says Drew Shindell, the lead author of the proposal, who is a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and at Columbia University. They slow global warming, but there are local benefits, too. If you make black carbon reductions in China or India, you get most of the benefits in China or India.

For more, see Climate Proposal Puts Practicality Ahead of Sacrifice by John Tierney, January 16, 2012 at NYTimes.com.

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