By Donella Meadows
–February 22, 1990–
We don’t want to side with extremists on either side, says George Bush in defense of his wimpy stand on the greenhouse effect.
He is, of course, doing just that. He is siding with the extremists who believe there may not BE a greenhouse effect; that if there is one, we have plenty of time to act; and that the cost of acting will be staggering. The policy that follows from this set of beliefs is Do Nothing — the current Bush position.
The Do Nothing school is made up of about six physical scientists, many economists, most oil, coal, and automobile company executives and above all Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu. On the Do Something side are environmentalists, most climatologists, ecologists, and earth scientists, energy analysts, agricultural experts, and the heads of many nations. (International agreements are being blocked by just three countries — the USA, the USSR, and Japan).
The Do Nothing argument is based on three points: 1) we haven’t yet measured a definitive global warming; 2) the climate models that predict the warming are flawed; and 3) anti-greenhouse policies will stop industrial progress in its tracks. The Do Something advocates reply: POINT 1. Measurements of air and ocean temperatures worldwide are “noisy,” because weather is an up-and-down, here-and-gone, variable phenomenon. The climate signal is buried in weather noise. What’s worse, because of the huge, moderating ocean, climate change happens only after a long delay. The climate we measure now was set into motion decades ago. By the time we detect a clear global warming, it will be too late to stop it.
The measurements we have are consistent with an oncoming greenhouse effect, but they do not prove it. The average temperatures of the atmosphere and ocean are up by a fraction of a degree. The 1980s saw the four hottest years in a century. But what really worries the Do Something people is the easily measured, undeniable, rapid increase in greenhouse gas pollutants in the atmosphere.
POINT 2. There are five global climate models considered “world class” — four in the United States, one in England. It’s hard for us ordinary mortals to appreciate how complex these models are. They simulate the sun’s energy as it warms the earth, evaporates water, stirs up air and sea currents, bounces back and forth from land to clouds, and finally radiates out into space. They calculate the weather at each point on a planet-wide grid usually 250 kilometers on a side (that makes 8160 points) — under a variety of assumptions about future greenhouse gases.
A 250-kilometer grid is pretty crude. The models make simplified assumptions about such things as ocean mixing and cloud formation. They differ in the exact rate of warming they predict, in which parts of the world are expected to become drier or wetter, and in the extent of sea-level rise. But they all agree that if greenhouse gases go on increasing as they are now doing, there will be a vast change in the climate. The makers of these models are among the most vocal of the Do Something Fast extremists.
The Do Nothing extremists point out, rightly, that the models leave out mechanisms by which the greenhouse effect could correct itself. (For example, maybe a warmer earth will evaporate more water, which will make more clouds, which will cool the earth again.)
The Do Something people reply that the models also leave out processes that could make the greenhouse reinforce itself. (For example, a warmer earth could melt the Arctic tundra, releasing vast amounts of trapped methane, a greenhouse gas, which would warm the earth still more.) Another ten years of study will not resolve these uncertainties. Complicated as the models become, they will never be as complicated as Planet Earth. Unless we do the experiment with the actual planet, all we will ever know about the greenhouse effect will come from simplified models — the models in the computers, or in the heads of people like John Sununu, who may be a bit fuzzy on the geophysics but who are very sophisticated about the sources of campaign contributions.
POINT 3. If anti-greenhouse action really would be terribly expensive, given our scientific uncertainty we should have a go-slow policy. But they won’t be expensive. In fact every policy that cuts greenhouse pollutants is worth doing even if there is no greenhouse effect.
Using energy more efficiently, switching to solar energy, stopping deforestation, controlling population growth, rethinking the purposes of economic growth — these measures will ameliorate problems ranging from air pollution to species extinction to Third World poverty to the negative U.S. balance of payments. Many of them will will actually save money. They will, however, greatly inconvenience the owners of oil and coal deposits, who may have to leave their assets underground forever.
Therefore the Do-Something crowd would advocate negotiating — the sooner the better — a fair compensation scheme to distribute the minimal costs and the enormous benefits of avoiding a wasteful, polluted, crowded, unforested, overheated world.
It will be a long, tough negotiation. What we need to lead it is a Do-Something President.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990