State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


We Can’t Solve the Problem–But We Can Make It Less Bad

This is the fourteenth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

stevecohenThis week, the spotlight of the 24-7, web-based global media on steroids has shifted some of its attention from Tiger Woods to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. That is good news for Tiger, and for the rest of the world. The basic science of global climate change is now generally accepted as fact. There is a broad consensus about the need for reductions in the emissions that cause global warming. Copenhagen is providing the entire world a crash course in climate science and policy. Over the past decade, the politics of national and global climate policy has shifted from the fringes of the public policy agenda to the center. The real story of Copenhagen is the maturation of this key issue.

This consensus has prevailed despite the shameful e-mails of some deceptive climate scientists who really should know better. The fact of climate change is obvious. However, despite some advocacy that is masked as analysis, we do not know the precise impact that climate change will have, and we do not yet have the technology in place or the capital needed to shift our economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Fortunately, we do not need to know the precise impact, and we do not need to have all the answers in order to start reducing greenhouse gases. There are nearly 7 billion people on this planet, compared to about 3 billion in 1960, and a little more than one and a half billion in 1900. Does anyone seriously think that this incredible rate of growth has had no impact on this planet? While there are plenty of fossil fuels left to burn, they will not last forever, and they are getting harder to dig out of the ground. Climate change is just the first global environmental problem we have come to understand. At Copenhagen we are barely discussing the other global environmental issues, such as species extinction, the destruction of the oceans and the degradation of fresh water supplies. But we could.

We don’t need to know the entire picture, because as we put solutions in place we will learn more about the problem and about the remedies that work. All public policy works this way. Except during crises, public policy is remedial, partial and incremental. We take small steps, learn what works and then take some more small steps. When we are in a crisis, we accelerate this process and try to learn as quickly as we can. However, in the end, we make problems less bad; we don’t actually solve them. We are not going to end global warming. Moreover, it will take us generations to make the transition away from fossil fuels. While we will not be able to finish the job, we’d better get started on it. The sooner we start the transition away from fossil fuels, the more gradual it will be. A sudden transition could destroy our economy. A gradual transition might actually help improve it, and make it more efficient.

The fact that public policy makes problems less bad rather than solving them is one of the reasons that some environmental scientists have trouble understanding politics and public policy. The scientific method tests hypotheses, solves problems and establishes findings and facts. Science tries to produce answers. Public policy is much more ambiguous, and even when we “solve” problems, they don’t really go away. What do I mean? Let’s consider the example of crime in New York City. New York in 2009 is far safer than it was in 1992. In 1992 we had more than 2,000 homicides. This year we will have fewer than 500. The problem is less bad today than it used to be. However, if you are the parent or child of one of the 473 New Yorkers murdered during Fiscal Year 2009, the problem has not been solved.

What is the incremental progress we can expect out of Copenhagen? Some if it has already taken place. In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has started the process of regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. China, India and the United States have all announced national emissions reduction targets. But more is still to come. When the conference ends on Dec. 18, more than 100 heads of state will be present in Copenhagen. Their expected presence, along with an enormous herd of journalists, creates intense political pressure to make sure something definitive takes place.
While the real action will remain at the national and local level, the political danger of failure at Copenhagen is great. In 2008, Barack Obama received the votes of 69% of those voting for the first time. Those voters are the president’s political base, and his base expects action on climate change. He is not the only leader that needs to produce results next week. The other hundred heads of state travelling to Copenhagen certainly didn’t go there for the weather.

A version of this piece previously appeared in the Huffington Post.

Steve Cohen

Steve Cohen is executive director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University.

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