The Wrong Question: Global Warming?

Denying the vast opportunities today in reducing our emissions and becoming much more energy efficient, independent and secure, is much like saying in 1980 that the internet is just not going to change much. Believing that we can afford to ignore the challenges and potential for growth in modernizing our infrastructure is a great plan for business irrelevance. 

The strange weather of late, including snow in Atlanta and serious drought in California, has brought the Climate Change/Global Warming conversation to the fore.  There are lots of wrong questions about what is happening, which are distracting and, much more important, stopping us from seeing the opportunities.

Global Warming

Technically correct, global warming is confusing.

The term refers to green house gasses creating a kind of dome that reflects heat in the atmosphere, trapping it and warming the upper atmosphere.  Green house gases – carbon based elements such as carbon dioxide and methane – are so called because of warmth in the green houses that nurture plants that produce more carbon dioxide than they absorb oxegen. As a result, the phrase has lead to the belief that the earth should behave like a greenhouse, and get slowly warmer everywhere. 

However, on earth, warming in the upper atmosphere creates disturbances in weather patterns. Pretty much all such events have an historical analog: Sandy was prefaced by a storm in the early 1800ds that did as much damage. Louisiana has been pummeled by hurricanes for decades. Droughts are common, as are floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and so forth.  What has changed is not the events themselves, but the frequency, intensity and randomness.  One year Europe has deaths from heat, in another Texas seems to be on fire and California is running out of water.  This year, a totally unprepared South got snowstorms that stranded some people for days and left others without power. These events are real, and they can be traced to changes in the upper levels of the atmosphere, brought about by increased levels of green house gases which, in turn, is melting ice caps and warming oceans.

So while global warming is scientifically correct, it leads to misunderstandings. The very unpredictability of our climate means that we can’t actually know what will happen and when. We can predict, however, that climate change has become an inescapable fact that has touched most of us at some point, and will affect all of us as pressures mount on water and other scarce natural resources.

Results of one year drought on California
Feb. 2013 Feb. 2014
Source: Nasa  Source: Nasa
Thanks to SPOID Nasa Images enhanced by heightening contrast and sizing so images compare.

Who is responsible for climate change?

This seems like a really stupid question. Who cares? The right question is, “What are we going to do about it?” 

Carbon Reduction

In reality (a fun place to hang out from time to time) whether we – or trees – are responsible for elevated levels of carbon in our atmosphere (those green house gases that are trapping heat in the upper atmosphere) something needs to be done or our children will live on a very challenged planet. We can – and many countries around the world have decided that they should – develop plans to reduce our carbon output. The goal is to reduce the green house gas effect, not eliminate it, as the process has gone far enough so that it is unlikely at this time that we will be able to reduce carbon levels to pre-1900 levels. 

Carbon reduction is, in fact, the great opportunity of the 21st century:

  • Carbon reduction is energy efficient
    The higher the carbon used to provide energy, the less efficient the energy. Just imagine heating New York City with wood, for example.
  • Carbon pollutes
    As China is finding out, using high carbon sources for energy can make a city nearly unlivable, and the inhabitants potentially angry. 
  • Methane -- a very potent green house gas -- is a valuable resource
    Methane, which is 21 times more potent as a green house gas, is being captured from landfills and agricultural waste, and turned into fuel for cars. Some technologies are ‘drop-in’ fuels, which means from their plant to your car, with no further refining or mixing.

While countries like Germany and Brazil are making carbon reduction a major source of revenue, companies like DuPont are moving away from petroleum based chemicals to bio chemicals when possible. 

But in the United States, there is a permanent fear that accepting the reality of climate change will hurt business, in spite of the many precedents that have come before.

  • The ozone layer has stopped deteriorating, and yet business has survived the end of Freon in spray cans and refrigerants.
  • Cars are now more fuel efficient, meeting the higher café standards that were supposed to ruin Detroit.  In fact, the newer cars have brought about a renaissance in US cars. 
  • Cities have survived the end of tobacco in restaurants, and will survive more stringent emission and idling rules.
  • California, with the 12th largest economy in the world, is engaging in carbon trading for companies with over .25 tonnes of carbon emissions.

None of these events stopped business in it's tracks, although some have lead to shifts in the winners and losers. Buggy whip makers really lost out to automobiles! The inevitability of reducing and adapting is critically important to the next generation of business leaders.

Adaptation

Adaptation has a ring of defeat to it.  We can’t win, so we give up. But failing to adapt is like saying, “I hate snow so I won’t buy boots or gloves. That should fix it.”  It’s a kind of magical thinking that leads to frost bite. But adaptation is all about mitigating the effects of climate change -- water shortages and floods, increased weather turbulence like tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes and snow, and rising coastal waters. Many organizations have adaptation strategies in place for a variety of reasons.

  • Insurance
    The large re-insurers, those that insure your personal insurance company, have to have some way of assessing their risk from weather changes or they will be out of business in short order. They have become very realistic about climate change, but often keep their most dire predictions to themselves.
  • Corporate Climate Change Risk Analysis
    Public companies must characterize their climate risk to comply with SEC accounting practices, which means analyzing and accounting for potential for water shortages, facility damages along coastal areas, transportation disruptions, crop failures leading to raw material shortages and political instability. For some, food and beverage companies for example, implementing strategies that reduce water use and conserve energy are key not just for competitiveness, but for survival.
  • Regulatory Analysis
    As companies asses strategies for the future, corporations must take guesses on the kinds of regulatory changes that could impact their cost of doing business. Companies in newly drought stressed areas are going to find themselves paying more for water and the energy that consumes over 40% of our water supply.  Some areas are looking at rationing. Water shortages may well become a ‘quality of life’ choice for potentially highly trained employees.

So the right questions are:

  • What are the kinds of technologies that will provide the most benefit for the least cost?
  • How do we support innovation in the areas that can be most productive?
  • If there will be winners and losers -- as there always are -- how do we mitigate the results of change on the losers?
  • What are the most efficient public policies, incentives and grants to spur private investment in reducting carbon?

This is the optimist view: that carbon reduction is terrific opportunity that we cease or deny at our peril. The pessimist view, “There’s nothing we can do, it’s out of our hands,” seems like a very un-American way to deal with a crisis that is so ripe with opportunities.

A. Tana Kantor, Publisher, TGEink