I warn my readers to be wary, not of my discipline of political science, but of the misuse of science for political, and usually alarmist, purposes. Over time, this repetitive misuse falls into the trap of “the little boy who cried wolf,” thereby endangering the acceptance of all scientific studies, even one as serious as global warming.
It all started with the nascent environmental movement issuing dire warnings from the 1950s that America had only a 10-year supply of fossil fuels left. Despite these warnings over many years, no wolf showed up; and the United States, 70 years later, is a net exporter of fossil fuels.
Nevertheless, in 1972, the Club of Rome, a group of environmentalists, published a study that proclaimed “The Limits to Growth.” It contended that exponential economic growth was exceeding the “carrying capacity” of planetary resources, and called for the world to halt economic growth, slow population increases, and reduce pollution. If acted on by 1975, the planet would experience “overshoot,” but not “catastrophe.” If nothing were done by 2000, however, it would be too late to avoid “catastrophe.”
By the 1990s, none of these steps were undertaken, yet catastrophe nowhere loomed. So, the group published a second study, “Beyond the Limits to Growth,” in 1993. It conceded that the earlier study had underestimated technological improvements in cleaner production and pollution abatement, but insisted that the validity of the earlier report remained, only this time it put off the catastrophe until the 2050s. Achieving the necessary limits to growth would require structural changes in government. The study then reached the gratuitous conclusion that capitalism could not function without growth, whereas socialism could. I say gratuitous because there was no political analysis offered to support this conclusion.
Into this history, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) inserted itself with a series of scientific studies (in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2014) measuring global temperature, greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, and sea levels. The base line of these studies is that from 1880 to 2005 there was a 1.1-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures that contributed to an eight-inch rise in global sea levels. The IPCC fear is that a further temperature rise in this century of 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius might trigger rapid deglaciation (melting of all glaciers) with sea level increases in the tens of feet.
To prevent this, the Paris Climate Accords of 2015 committed signatories to cut their CO2 emissions by 25% in 2025 and to zero in 2075. If these goals were met, the global temperature could be lowered to a safely rising 1 degree Celsius. In tracking progress towards this goal, the operative measure is the parts per million (PPM) of CO2 in the atmosphere. The trigger point for deglaciation at the end of the last Ice Age about 20,000 years ago was, precisely, 788 PPM. The current CO2 level is 415 PPM, a level that is increasing at a rate of 2.6 PPM per year. On the fair assumption that this 700-plus PPM will again trigger deglaciation, this does gives us sufficient time to solve our predicament.
The biggest barrier to reasonable problem-solving on this issue is the political myth that the United States is the chief culprit of global warming. The “inconvenient truth” is that America is no longer the big problem. From 2005-17, the U.S. reduced its CO2 emissions by 14%, and is on track to meet the 26% reduction by 2025 promised by President Obama in 2015, despite President Trump’s formal withdrawal from the accords. Meanwhile, many signatory countries continue to increase, rather than decrease, their emissions. For example, in 2006, China passed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of CO2. By 2017, China’s CO2 emissions morphed to more than the U.S. and the European Union combined. And China’s levels continue to rise. For the accords, China, in fact, only committed to leveling its CO2 emissions in 2030. This glaring exception is why Trump left the agreement.
The key to America’s reduction in CO2 emissions was the switch in electric power from coal to natural gas. In 1990, coal accounted for half this production, and natural gas for 13%. Today, the share is a third each. In sharp contrast, China burned coal for 75% of its electric power in 1990. Today it is still 70%.
To reach the IPCC goals, the U.S. does not need Bernie Sanders’ $16 trillion Green New Deal socialist extravaganza. It just needs uniform global compliance with the IPCC goals. And, if all countries switch to cleaner power, shift to electric cars and commit to fusion power down the road, that will about do it. We need to stop politically hyperventilating, roll up our sleeves and get down to work.