The Intersection

Sincere Climate Pessimism

Some wit once said something like, “My pessimism extends so far as to suspect the sincerity of the pessimists.” As we witness a flurry of activity concerning global warming on Capitol Hill–and with the IPCC report just days from emerging–that’s the outlook I’d like to apply to the climate issue.

Just because there’s a surge of attention doesn’t mean that surge will translate into lasting action. I’m still convinced such action is going to have to wait until after the 2008 election. There’s a revealing passage about this in an L.A. Times story today:

“There’s going to be a lot of sound and fury,” said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming program, “but unless something changes pretty radically, it’s really hard to see how an important bill passes this Congress — and is signed by this president.”

That’s why many environmentalists are looking ahead to the 2008 elections. The League of Conservation Voters Education Fund has launched an initiative, called “The Heat is On,” to ensure global warming is at the center of debate. The organization is tracking what candidates say and hopes to pressure them through town hall meetings and ballot initiatives.

“We will make sure there is an expectation they will outline clear solutions,” said Navin Nayak, director of the project.

Like ethanol in Iowa, global warming could become a litmus-test issue for candidates in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary. More than 100 Granite State towns plan votes on a resolution calling for federal action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Ted Leach, a Republican and former state lawmaker from New Hampshire, is co-chairman of the Carbon Coalition, which persuaded the towns to weigh in. He has issued a warning to presidential contenders: “If we don’t hear out of you what we want to hear, you’re probably not going to get our votes.”

That’s what really matters–putting this new crop of candidates on the record about this issue now, while it’s hot….before everyone gets distracted again.


  1. #1 Fred Bortz
    January 31, 2007

    Chris writes: “I’m still convinced such action is going to have to wait until after the 2008 election.”

    I disagree strongly. The real political action takes place at the “grass roots,” and we should make sure there is plenty of such activity now and every day before we vote in 2008.

    We can act in our communities and in our professional lives to educate. The current political climate is, at last, making people more receptive to understanding the facts. As an author of science for kids, I have been having discussions about a possible middle-grade book. I think I have a good angle, but it takes time to put the pieces together so I’ll say no more about that for now.

    In our community, I am working with others on our (Reform Jewish) congregation’s religious action committee to have a showing of An Inconvenient Truth, followed by a discussion of the science, the role of Jewish values (Tikkun Olam, healing the world, in partucular), and practical actions.

    If that works well, we may well repeat it for interfaith organizations in our suburb.

    I encourage all of you who care about this issue to consider similar actions in your own congregations or communities.

  2. #2 Dark Tent
    January 31, 2007

    I share Fred’s view, but things are already happening at the grassroots, whether the policians recognize it or not. Indeed, they never stopped happening. After all, organizations like UCS are grasroots organizations and, whether politicians and others admit it or not, it is the efforts of such groups over the past few years that have kept the flame lit in the dark cavern.

    People in Washington like to think they are on the leading edge with regard to future policy, but when it comes right down to it, most of them are stuck firmly in the past. In fact, most politicans are way behind the curve (on Iraq and everything else) and those who don’t eventually catch up will simply become a part of the history with which they are so enamored.

  3. #3 bigTom
    January 31, 2007

    And things are happening at (some) local and state levels. I read today California is considering outlawing incandescent bulbs by 2012. Clearly the state has to start making some major changes if it to have any chance to meet the ambition carbon reductions it has promised.

  4. #4 Mark Bahner
    January 31, 2007

    “And things are happening at (some) local and state levels. I read today California is considering outlawing incandescent bulbs by 2012.”

    Boy! That’s swell!

    Let’s see…according to this site, if everyone in the U.S. replaced all the incandescents in their houses with CFLs, it would save 125 billion pounds of CO2 emissions.

    That’s if everyone in the U.S. did that. Let’s say California represents 15 percent of U.S. energy use. That’s 19 billion pounds, or 9 million tons.

    World CO2 emissions are about 28 billion tons. So this one measure will eliminate 0.03 percent of worldwide emissions! Super!

  5. #5 Dark tent
    February 1, 2007


    I’d check your numbers.

    The 125 billion pounds is in carbon equivalents, so the number that you use for total emissions should be as well (and it was not).

    That’s easy to see. US carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector were about 2.4 billion metric ton (of carbon dioxide) in 2005, which in carbon equivalents is 1440 billion pounds.

    The article you linked to said “Lighting accounts for about 20% of all electricity use in the country” and that “If every household replaced its most commonly used incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, electricity use for lighting could be cut in half.”

    Taking 20% of 1440 billion pounds yields 288 billion pounds and half again of that yields 144 billion pounds.

    Note: The 144 billion pounds that I get here is slightly bigger than the 125 billion pounds given in the article, but it is certainly in the same ballpark, which it would not be if one assumed [as you apparently did] that the 125 billion pounds given in the article was not in carbon equivalents.

    I will use the slightly smaller 125 number below in my calculations.

    I’m not sure where you got the 28 billion tons number for total CO2 emissions from (perhaps you are including natural emissions ?), but wikipedia gives the total (excluding natural CO2 emissions) as 24,126,416 thousand metric tons OR about 24 billion metric ton.

    More important than the difference between 28 and 24 is the fact this number must be multipled by 12/44 to give the total world CO2 emissions in carbon equivalents: 6.58 billion metric tons (which equates to 14,476 billion pounds).

    Thus, as a fraction of the total world emissions, the amount of CO2 emissions that could be eliminated through the bulb change throughout the US* is

    125/14,476 = .009

    or roughly 1% of total world emissions.

    As a fraction of total US emissions (1.64 billion metric ton = 3608 billion pounds in carbon equivalents
    ), the reduction in CO2 emissions due to the bulb change is

    125/3608 = .035

    In other words, nearly 4% of total US CO2 emissions could be wiped out simply by swapping out incandescent light bulbs and replacing them with high efficiency fluorescent bulbs throughout the country.

    You may not think 4% is much, but one has to start somewhere and other efficiency improvements (vehicle mileage improvments, for example) could have much more dramatic effects.

    Amory Lovins et al at Rocky Mountain Institute have a lot to say on this subject.

    *If you want to adjust the above percentages for California alone, you have to multiply by the fraction of the US electricity that is used by California, bu the the idea here is to get every state on board. Efficiency improvments make good economic sense (they save money!) and there is really no reason why we should not do them.

  6. #6 bigTom
    February 1, 2007

    CFL bulb replacements, are of course only a starting point. But it makes sense to start with the least expensive changes first, and CFL replacement is Negative cost (saves money by doing) to the consumer.
    Even with energy costs not accounting for climate change, there are still substantial efficiency improvements that save money, it only makes sense to target these first as they aren’t likely to be controversial.
    And 4% is two to three years of energy demand growth at current rates, the real goal should be say 2-5% emmisions reduction/year, that requires roughly the equivalent of the bulb change per year. I think we can summon up the cleverness to accomplish it.

  7. #7 Michael Ejercito
    February 3, 2007

    So what is the rate of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions with natural carbon dioxide emissions? 70:30? 60:40? 50:50?

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