The Climate Code Red Bombshell

The month of February saw the publication of a slender book entitled "Climate Code Red", available free online as a pdf file. Emanating from Australia's CarbonEquity consultancy, it is at once a review of recent literature on climate change and a clarion call to action. Here we somewhat belatedly report upon it.

It is definitely recommended reading for anyone in the carbon mitigation or alternative energy businesses and for anyone with public policy responsibilities, for that matter, and the findings are so startling that it merits a lengthy consideration.

The thesis of the book is that supposedly mainstream documents on global warming such as the recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change are based upon old research that has been largely invalidated by more recent scientific investigations, and, further, that carbon policies based upon the older research and enshrined in international agreements are therefore misguided.

Most of the key findings in Climate Code Red are taken from recent work at NASA supervised by James Hansen, a renowned and reviled climatologist who has repeatedly accused the Bush Administration of suppressing information on climate change. Hansen believes that a two degree Centrigrade increase in global temperatures is virtually locked into the climate system, and that secondary feedback mechanisms in the environment have already been invoked. The planet is therefore poised for further runaway increases in temperature whose severity will ultimately depend upon how much greater the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere becomes in the years to come.

Drawing on Hansen's work and that of other climatologists, the authors of the report postulate that even the most aggressive carbon reduction goals in the 80% range will be inadequate, and that global carbon neutrality must be achieved within a few years to avert catastrophic changes in the earth's weather systems. They go on to propose that a global state of emergency be declared analogous to a state of war, and that the entire global economy should then set about restructuring itself to rely exclusively upon renewable energy sources. The authors rather tellingly add that many are apt to regard them as cranks for adopting such an alarmist viewpoint.

In this light it is interesting that the National Geographic Association recently released a video entitled "Six Degrees" which came to substantially similar conclusions on the extent of the danger, though without making specific recommendations on carbon reductions.

Some Possible Outcomes

So what's it all mean?

Let's put the new findings in context. The IPCC and other climate moderates project sea level rises of perhaps a meter over the course of the century and two meters worst case. Hansen and his ilk predict several meters. Hundreds of millions of humans reside in coastal communities which would essentially be obliterated by even a three meter rise in sea level, barring the construction of vast hydraulic systems such as those deployed in the Lowlands today. Obviously, the economics of replicating the Dutch system across the globe are not encouraging.

Hansen et al also predict desertification in what are now key food producing regions, most notably in the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada, the breadbasket of the world. They also predict transformations in the world's oceans that are apt to reduce fish harvests and to damage or destroy keystone ecosystems such as tropical coral reefs. Other dire outcomes are predicted as well, but we needn't go into them but need merely state the summary judgment of these scientists, namely, that profoundly disruptive changes are in store for the natural environment and that the normal palliatives will not avert them.

I am not a climatologist and I am in no position to evaluate James Hansen's work and that of his coevals. I can only say that it is part of pattern of downward revisions of official estimates on the climactic health of the globe among the larger community of climate scientists. Most are increasingly pessimistic, and the extremely rapid and unanticipated disappearance of glaciers, particularly in the arctic regions, is frequently cited as the most compelling evidence of cataclysmic changes in the offing.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, bad news does not travel fast, and I do not predict an extensive readership for "Climate Red Alert". As an old boss of mine used to say when confronted with disturbing intelligence, "I cannot allow myself to believe this." I'm sure he's in good company.

But let's put aside for a moment the theory that the ostrich is best equipped to survive global warming. Instead let's perform a thought exercise. Let's suppose that these projections are substantially true. This will advance us to the second major topic in the report, the notion that by declaring a state of emergency we can effect a rapid transformation to a renewable energy electrical grid and a carbon neutral industrial sector. And here I must say I am something of an expert and here I find fault with the report.

Why the Past is No Guide

The authors of the report reveal themselves as admirable amateur experts on climatology but as less than well versed on renewable energy and on industrial development.

First of all, their assumption that an entire electrical system could be based upon wind is untrue. Wind is an intermittent source of energy even when wind resources are averaged over a large area, and thus wind cannot provide baseline power for industry. See my articles on the renewable grid in the Primers section of this publication. Solar heated generators can provide baseline power but only for part of the day. Hydroelectric power is better, but hydroelectric resources are limited and largely tapped out. That leaves carbon neutral biofuel fired generators, which are questionable entities for large scale power generation due to the cost and limited extent of the resource, and hydrogen fueled turbines and fuel cells which are not remotely cost effective today. A renewable power grid built with current technology would be exceedingly difficult to manage, extremely expensive to construct relative to fossil fuel fired generator plants, and, as it began to displace fossil fuels, those costs would only increase since expensive renewable energy would be used more and more in manufacturing. A world operating on diffuse renewable resources such as wind and solar would be a world of austerity assuming that a smooth transition could be made from our energy rich realm to such a resource constrained world.

The authors of the report draw comfort from the example of the combatants during World War II when a large percentage of the industrial capacity of the Great Powers was quickly turned to wartime production, and this, they say, is indicative of the speed with which a transition to renewable resources could be made. But is that true?

Incredible feats of production and re-engineering were indeed performed in the nineteen forties, but it is well to remember that only the United States was successful. The wartime economy of Japan was ineffective even when Japan was prevailing militarily, and, according to Albert Speer who ran the German industrial war machine, the industrial output of Nazi Germany was less than that achieved during the First World War. The other "winners", England and Russia, were reduced to desperate states, and only prevailed thanks to massive infusions of aid from the United States. For most countries the wartime economy was the road to ruin including noncombatants like Sweden which were crippled by blockades and deprived of vital energy sources.

Why was the U.S. alone successful and why shouldn't that success encourage us to believe that a carbon neutral economy can be ushered in with ease?

The U.S. war economy was essentially a diversion of productive resources, not a complete restructuring of the industrial base. Most factories continued to produce familiar products but now they produced more of them and sold them in government markets. And no one was asking U.S. industry to get along with less energy as was the case in Germany and Japan. The U.S. alone among major combatants was energy self sufficient.

Then too, the American financial system easily accommodated the change, which might not be the case with any carbon neutral re-industrialization effort. The Federal government raised taxes, curtailed the production of consumer goods and even domestic food, which encouraged savings. Furthermore, the Government managed to convince the citizenry at large to invest huge sums in low interest government bonds. Can you picture the U.S. government financing a renewable revolution by similar means?

The fact is that the U.S. Government has already declared one state of emergency, the War on Terrorism. Can our psyches deal with two states of emergency at once? Incidentally, the debt financed War on Terrorism has been accompanied by all manner of fiscal shifts and dodges which have allowed equally debt financed consumer spending to continue at a giddy pace and which are now sending shock waves through financial markets not only here but abroad. Is the U.S. capable of further rounds of debt financing? Who will buy the bonds now that the dollar has been depreciated and the previous investors deprived of a just rate of return? Will the distressed private capital markets step into the breech? And obviously no one would dare to raise taxes in an already down market or suggest to the retailers that consumer spending ought to be curtailed, as the authors of "Climate Red Alert" advise.

"Climate Red Alert" is, I must say, forthrightly in favor of a command economy for accomplishing the authors' stated objectives. The government will tell the citizenry what kind of vehicles to buy, what kind of homes to live in, and what kind of lifestyle to adopt, and will oversee and micromanage the necessary industrial transition. One could perhaps see such a strategy enjoying some success in Europe where electorates are notoriously docile and tolerant of confiscatory tax policies and intrusive government mandates, but here in the U.S.?

But pure market mechanisms won't work, the authors insist, and perhaps they're right. Markets aren't good at dealing with assaults on the environment because the environment is a commons shared by all where despoliation can be at once individually profitable and generally catastrophic. But when one looks at planned economies one cannot escape misgivings. Planned economies almost never produce new technology, they borrow from freewheeling entrepreneurial economies because planning by its very nature involves the tried and true. True, they can produce impressive results within narrow spheres. Stalin took Russia from being a third rate power to being a superpower by successfully emphasizing the expansion of heavy industry through top-down five year plans, but the resulting statist society was essentially distopian. It's scarcely a model one would want to emulate.

In contrast nobody planned the vibrant U.S. consumer culture of the twentieth century. It assembled itself, so to speak.

The other problem with the basic concept of a tightly structured conversion project of this nature is that it diverges so sharply from past successes in government directed enterprises. If we look at past triumphs such as World War II industrial production, the Manhattan Project, the Interstate Highway System, and the Apollo Project, we find that they had quite narrow objectives. Produce enough materiel to support military objectives, construct an atomic bomb, construct a nationwide network of high speed roads, and land a man on the moon. They were also of short duration with clearly defined exit points. And finally, except for the first, none was vital to the survival of the nation. What the "Climate Code Red" folks are suggesting is more like the economic policies of Pol Pot where the existing economy was essentially scrapped and everyone was forced marched out into the countryside to begin anew.

So if a command economy is unlikely to work, and a market economy is unlikely to prove adequate either, what is the answer?

In my view any new energy source that is to succeed has to be cheaper not just cleaner. The government can play a role in fostering it, but it has to invoke strong market forces. Is that possible? I'll consider that in later piece.