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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Americans Are Losing Sight of Global Warming as an Important Issue

Summary.   Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times on Oct. 15, 2011 has documented the decreased attention that the issue of global warming is receiving in the U. S., in contrast to the rest of the world.  The portion of Americans who believe the earth is warming fell from 79% in 2006 to 59% in 2010.  This issue breaks out along lines that follow differences between the Democratic (liberal) and Republican (conservative) parties.  This reduction in importance is so even though the U. S. is a major world emitter of greenhouse gases.  According to the article, many aspects of individual and corporate attitudes reinforce America’s reluctance to embrace global warming as an important issue.  In contrast, nations of the remainder of the world, including Europe, China, and other developing countries, accept that global warming is an important issue facing the world, and are implementing policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Climate scientists from all over the world have set a goal of limiting overall warming of the planet to 2ºC (3.6ºF) above the temperature prevailing in pre-industrial times.  This important objective requires limiting the accumulated amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not simply reducing the annual rate that greenhouse gases are emitted.  One motivation to stimulate the U. S. to implement suitable policies could be the recognition that economic and societal harms brought about by extreme weather events are balanced by the economic and societal benefits arising from new investments in mitigation projects.

Introduction.  Climate scientists the world over, as a result of efforts going back several decades, have concluded overwhelmingly that our planet is undergoing a warming trend  due to the greenhouse effect arising from man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere.  Our ever-increasing use of fossil fuels for mankind’s expanding needs for energy creates CO2 in large quantities as the direct product of burning the fuels.  Other gases added by man to the atmosphere also add to the greenhouse effect.  The warming of the planet has resulted in several effects, many of which are detrimental to life on earth, and in extreme weather events that inflict severe harms to humans in their paths.

In spite of this situation, the public in the U. S. has grown less concerned about the dangers posed by global warming, as described by Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times on Oct. 15, 2011.  This post addresses topics raised in Ms. Rosenthal’s article.

U. S. public support to address global warming is waning.  Ms. Rosenthal reports that the portion of Americans who believe the earth is warming has fallen from 79% in 2006 to 59% in 2010 (citing the Pew Research Group).

Political denial and backtracking on global warming.  Perhaps reflecting this changing attitude, at least one Republican presidential hopeful, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has stated “the science is not settled” concerning man-made global warming.  On Aug. 17, 2011 (accessed Oct. 19, 2011) he stated "a substantial number of [climate] scientists … have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects…..We're seeing weekly, or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what's causing the climate to change".

Further in seeming recognition of this changing sentiment among the public as well as in Congress, Ms. Rosenthal reports that President Obama is promoting the administration’s “green” energy project proposals in economic terms, omitting any mention of beneficial effect such projects would have in combating greenhouse emissions.  The administration appears to support final approval for construction of the TransCanada Keystone XL oil pipeline carrying oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico (see the recent post on this subject).  It is also seeking an exception from Europe’s planned landing fee for air travel to the continent based on CO2 emissions.

Nevertheless, the U. S. emits about 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases as of 2009, even though it has only 4.6% of the world’s population.  Until recently the U. S. was the nation with the highest annual emissions rate of all.  It was overtaken by the emissions originating from China.  Ms. Rosenthal identifies aspects of American culture, such as its preference for larger cars and homes, and the skepticism among many of its people toward the role of science and government policies in their daily lives, as factors that contribute to skepticism toward or rejection of global warming.

In addition, the article states American industries such as coal mining and oil and gas production oppose constraints on fossil fuels, since their financial well-being depends on continued production, if not expanded production.  The current protracted recession also makes it more difficult to accept higher costs for fossil fuels, or energy in general, that could accompany policies supporting renewable energy.

The rest of the world is moving to constrain greenhouse gas emissions.  As noted in Ms. Rosenthal’s article, a report on global energy by the London bank HSBC finds that the U. S. is the sole nation not implementing a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Other important emitters are actively pursuing such efforts.

Europe. The nations of the European Union have the significant goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, including an interim objective of a 25% reduction by 2020 (see this post).  According to the New York Times article, Europe is currently on track to achieve this interim goal. John Ashton, Britain’s special representative for climate change, points out that even in the face of economic hardship brought on by the global financial crisis, European countries view moving toward a “green” economy favorably, as an economic opportunity, not negatively due to the imposition of greater costs. “In the E. U. … despite the economic and financial crisis, the momentum on climate change has … continued”, Mr. Ashton states.

Developing countries.  China’s current 12th Five Year Plan covering 2011-2015 projects continued major expansions of electric power generation based on coal (see this post).  Its energy consumption is scheduled to increase about 5% per year in this period.  Nevertheless, it is greatly expanding its small renewable energy sources.  China emphasizes energy intensity rather than overall emissions.  It plans to reduce its emissions intensity per unit of economic output by 17% by 2015, and by 40-45% with respect to the 2005 level by 2020.  India is also pursuing aggressive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Times article.

Extreme weather events.  As noted in the Times article, climate scientists predict that with increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases accumulating in the future, the resulting increased global temperatures will produce more, and more intense, episodes of extreme weather events.  These include, in different regions on the earth’s surface, excessive heat with drought, increased rainfall with severe flooding and intense storms, loss of ice cover and higher sea levels.  These occurrences inflict sudden and severe harms to populations and societies.  This blog has developed several posts dealing with this issue in recent months, summarized here.  Ms. Rosenthal points out that developing countries are less well equipped to deal with these events than are developed countries.  They therefore embrace worldwide efforts to implement mitigating strategies.  The article cites a 2010 Pew survey finding that 70% of people in China, India and South Korea were prepared to pay more for energy in order to mitigate the effects of global warming.


The United States is alone among the major emitters of greenhouse gases not to have a national policy directed toward reducing the rate of emissions.  Without such a policy, annual emissions from the U. S. will increase at an accelerating pace, as economic development and its population continue to grow.  If anything, fiscal incentives from the federal government for promoting mitigation efforts in the private realm have been increased and reduced in fits and starts, hindering the ability of new enterprises to make long-term plans for development. 

In the absence of a single national policy, various state and regional greenhouse gas accords have been implemented (reported in this blog in the following posts: California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, The Western Climate Initiative, Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, and The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of the New England and Mid-Atlantic States).  These programs establish disparate emission reduction goals over the coming decades.  Most encourage or rely on a market driven cap-and-trade regime to bring about emissions reductions.

Changes in climate patterns, including increases in sea level and reduced glaciation that are predicted to worsen because of global warming, depend not on the annual rate of global greenhouse gas emissions, but rather on the absolute amount of greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, which originates from mankind’s burning of fossil fuels for energy, remains stable in the atmosphere for at least one century, once emitted into the air (remaining after absorption into the oceans and reincorporation into growing green plants).  Thus it is important to reduce emissions as drastically as possible as soon as possible, in order to keep the accumulated level of atmospheric carbon dioxide as low as possible.

The atmospheric CO2 concentration can be conceived of as an atmospheric bathtub of CO2.  Burning fossil fuels contributes more CO2 through the “faucet”, but there is minimal “draining” of CO2 from the bathtub because there are few natural mechanisms for removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  Worldwide, mankind has to reach agreement on ways to turn the CO2 faucet off as fast as possible.

Currently the global average CO2 concentration is 392 parts per million (ppm, volumes of CO2 per million volumes of the atmosphere).  It has been increasing, and increasing at an ever-accelerating pace, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when the concentration was about 280 ppm.  The climate scientists of the world, at their meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed to seek the objective of limiting the overall increase in the global average temperature above the temperature that prevailed prior to the industrial revolution to 2ºC (3.6ºF), estimated to require that the global average atmospheric CO2 concentration be constrained to about 450 ppm.

In a series of recent posts this blog has shown that, on the one hand, economic and societal harms brought about by extreme weather events are balanced, on the other hand, by the economic and societal benefits arising from new investments in mitigation projects such as renewable energy programs and energy efficiency projects (summarized here, which contains further links to the remaining posts giving details of the analysis).  To the extent that U. S. investment in mitigation measures reduces the damages inflicted by extreme weather events, those investment costs are returned because the need to remedy disasters is reduced.  We conclude that the U. S. should implement a long-term national policy of developing mitigation measures intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately to near zero.  In this way the U. S. will join much of the planet in a world-wide strategy to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at the lowest possible level.

© 2011 Henry Auer

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