Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Today, tomorrow, and the long haul

Lots of environmental news today.

Top of the list is Obama's decision directing the EPA to allow California and other states to mandate tougher-than-national emissions standards. The NYT's "Room for Debate" section has a number of experts commenting on the decision, including this interesting point from William K. Reilly:
Only California has the right to seek such waivers to set stricter standards than what federal laws require. It has to demonstrate, however, that it has seriously studied an issue before it seeks such waivers, and indeed California has been the most pioneering and imaginative state in seeking ways to reduce air pollution. In fact, it has more people than E.P.A. does working on clean air issues — not only in Sacramento but in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the state.

This news comes on the same day that a paper dispells hopes that global warming would be reversible, even if we cut CO2 emissions immediately.

Because of the way carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere and in the oceans, and the way the atmosphere and the oceans interact, patterns that are established at peak levels will produce problems like “inexorable sea level rise” and Dust-Bowl-like droughts for at least a thousand years, the researchers are reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

... The researchers describe what will happen if the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide — the principal heat-trapping gas emission — reaches 450 to 600 parts per million, up from about 385 p.p.m. today. Most climate researchers consider 450 p.p.m. virtually inevitable and 600 p.p.m. difficult to avoid by midcentury if the use of fossil fuels continues at anything like its present rate.
So drought is on its way, as are rising ocean levels. Questions about resilience, and proposals for adaptation, are going to be arriving on policy-makers desks in fairly short order, requiring whole new orders of expertise, democratic tact and political skills. Arguments about relevant scale--local, regional, national, hemispheric--are in the offing, and will need to be in every planners toolbox.

But it's the time-frame that raises the most interesting challenge: scientists may be able to extrapolate "for at least a thousand years," but it's hard to see how that can be a humanly relevant time-scale. Theorists of sustainability have made a good case that the welfare of "future generations" should be a factor in decision-making, against the utilitarian assumption that only living individuals can have preferences. But how many generations? Is it plausible to stretch policy decisions out on the rack of centuries? Tribal societies could embody social memory in a council of elders, who could act as intermediaries between the ancestors and the unborn: longevity as a measure of the horizon of relevance. Science breaks with this human measure, however, and opens unimaginable perspectives: a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred-thousand years out (or back) are easily programmable.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck is, to my knowledge, one of the few people to have thought about this challenge, under the label "risk society." The basis of policy, Beck argues, is no longer knowledge but probability: all significant decisions rely on models and extrapolations, based on contestable assumptions and variable parameters. There are trade-offs--not between goods, but between unknown and perhaps incommensurable sorts of risks. This has to change our practice of deliberation.

From time to space: meanwhile, back in today's news, the NYT reports a rift within Congressional Democrats about how fast to move on climate-change legislation.

There’s a bias in our Congress and government against manufacturing, or at least indifference to us, especially on the coasts,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. “It’s up to those of us in the Midwest to show how important manufacturing is. If we pass a climate bill the wrong way, it will hurt American jobs and the American economy, as more and more production jobs go to places like China, where it’s cheaper.”

This brown state-green state clash is likely to encumber any effort to set a mandatory ceiling on the carbon dioxide emissions blamed as the biggest contributor to global warming, something Mr. Obama has declared to be one of his highest priorities. Mr. Obama has said he intends to press ahead on such an initiative, despite opposition within his own party in Congress and divisions among some of his advisers over the timing, scope and cost of legislation to curb carbon emissions.

Once again, it's the coasts against the heartland: California (Barbara Boxer, Henry Waxman) and the East Coast pushing for stronger regulations, coal- and manufacture-dependent Midwest states proposing a go-slow approach. Already, Detroit is complaining that they'll have to cut back on their largest, most profitable models in order to meet the new standards--the same line they've offered for the past quarter-century.

No comments:

Post a Comment