Joe Nocera doesn’t understand climate change
March 16, 2013, 2:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Not that he is alone in this, but he did make it rather glaringly obvious in his NYT column this morning.

The column is on CCS, and in particular the new Summit energy plant outside Odessa, the Texas Clean Energy Project. Like Mr Nocera, I quite like the TCEP. Unlike Mr Nocera, I don’t think that in and of itself it provides a reason for thinking that CCS is going to be a big part of emissions reduction.

That, though, was not the part of the article which stood out. The part which stood out was:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

For some people the naffness of that “dare I say it” will be the unacceptable part of that sentence, and for others it will indeed be the slight on the importance of the issue that a great many American greens seem to have decided is the most important battle to be fighting. To me, though, the problem is that Mr Nocera seems to believe that reducing emissions would mean reversing climate change. It wouldn’t. Emissions increase the carbon dioxide level. Higher carbon dioxide levels lead to more warming (people of good will, and others, can disagree about how much more). Reduce emissions appreciably and you slow the rise in the carbon dioxide level, which should reduce the rate of warming. But to reverse climate change you have to either bring the carbon dioxide level down or cut the amount of sunlight warming the earth in the first place. If you don’t understand the difference between reducing and reversing I don’t think you should be writing about this subject. Or for that matter driving a car.

The main point of Mr Nocera’s column seems to be to pick a fight with Bill McKibben. Fair enough. I have wanted to do so, on different grounds, many times. Who knows — maybe one day I will. But when I do I will try and show a slightly better grasp of the basics.

3 Comments so far
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Nocera is not alone. MOST people “seem to believe that reducing emissions would mean reversing climate change”. Once you realize this, our dysfunction on this matter becomes easier to understand.

We have succeeded in conveying to the public that there is evidence of a climate problem but we have not succeeded in conveying that it is cumulative.

This has been a known problem in climate communication for a decade:

Click to access StermanSweeney.pdf

but we’ve made little progress on it.

Comment by mtobis (@mtobis)

Based on your blog comments, I’m wondering if YOU understand climate change. You state that “reducing emissions” would not “revers[e] climate change.” You, sir, seem to be making the exact error of confusing “reducing” versus “reversing” that you accuse Mr. Nocera of making. (Though, I have not read the Nocera column.) The key lies in clearly distinguishing between slowing future increases and actually reversing current levels.

To put it simply, using California and its AB 32 legislation (the Global Warming Reduction Act of 2006) as an example, in order to “reverse” global climate change, TWO things must happen:

1. Additional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, of whick carbon dioxide is the principal anthropogenic one, must be prevented. (Unchecked, the state predicts GHG emissions would further increase by another 15% over current levels).

2. Existing levels of GHG emissions must also be loweredas well. Back to 1990 levels, or 15% below today’s values, according to AB 32).

Lastly, California’s plan to hit the necessary reduction levels DOES take into account future growth in the state. So, to return to the main point, reducing future emissions BEYOND those needed to keep emissions at “current” levels would, in fact, start to “reverse” the GHG levels. Of course, the major premise of California’s plan hinges upon whether or not reducing GHG emissions will, in fact, reduce global temperatures in a meaningful way…. That is a whole other debate! :-)

Comment by about2rockCat

To respond to mtobis’ comment (excellent link, btw), based on the info in the link, clearly California’s plan will only slow the rate of increase. Not exactly a “solution”, but at least a step in the right direction. And, honestly, probably a necessary one to at least START the pardigm shift needed for governments to start believing that the problem can be tackled at the human level. That is, first getting everyone to accept that change is essential, then later focusing in on the actual amount of change needed.

Comment by about2rockCat

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