Global Warming

This page provides supplementary background notes to guide the students' reading of Chapter 3, Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas. I cannot feasibly comment on every section, but can hit highlights and provide context. For example, the section entitled Reservoirs in the Sky appears straightforward, so I will refrain from comments. References in parantheses refer to Brown pagination.

Introduction to Rising Temperatures

Brown explains the issue of global warming, discusses some of the impacts, and hints at some policy remedies. Brown avoids the temptation to inject an acrid tone, even though his reserved mood offends many environmentalists. He sticks to recent science, closely referencing his case without resorting to hyperbole. Note that of the thousands of scientific, peer-reviewed papers on this controversial subject, none claims that the earth's temperature is not rising and that anthropogenic (human) sources contribute significantly. Brown begins with a brief summary of the field of the 55 million years of revealed climate history, but note that this field changes rapidly, such as in a New York Times report dated 11/7/2006 on new developments in the fossil record on climate change. And it's official, 2006 was the warmest year on record, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A brief introduction and fuller discussion of climate change can be found at the respected Pew Center for Climate Change. See also the entry in Wikipedia on global warming. By the way, the nomenclature should not confuse you: climate change and global warming mean the same thing. Climate change may appear more neutral, but the climate is always changing. Global warming does not preclude some regions getting cooler, such as would occur with a shift in ocean currents like the Gulf Stream. Indeed, the attention and the controversy over global warming has vastly increased the stock of knowledge on global and regional climate, certainly a good thing. The policy response should focus the debate, less so the underlying science, as we approach the issue for our course.

Note that Brown has placed the chapters on water and energy ahead of global warming as he lays out his book. Others regard global warming as the quintessential global crisis. In contrast to Brown's reserved treatment, others are far more vehement. In particular Ross Gelpspan not only sounds the alarm, but points to the obfuscation and denial that economic partisans stir up to defend their vested interests in his popular book, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis--And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster (New York: Basic Books, 2004). The controversy beyond the science extends to the politics and the economics, hence the policy debate on global warming. The Bush administration sticks closely to the party line of the oil and coal industry; little has been done at the national level. Very recently, the new Democratic Congressional leadership has put global warming on their agenda. Even Blue-chip corporations are now lobbying the Bush administration for the reduction of carbon emissions:

The group, called the US Climate Action Partnership, will unveil the details of its plan on the eve of President Bush's State of the Union speech on Tuesday. The companies involved include some of the old-fashioned pollution-generating industries normally associated with anti-environmental policies and politicians - the chemical giant DuPont, the bulldozer company Caterpillar, the aluminium producer Alcoa and the US subsidiary of BP.

The scientific consensus merges with common sense. Note the timing of key variables that have surged since 1960: the sharp rise of average global temperature and of CO2 emissions. Consider some of the palpable anecdotes:

Effects on Grain Harvests

Brown, an agronomist, remains sensitive to changes in food and agriculture. Crop yields will suffer as global warming intensifies, posing a threat to surges in hunger and malnutrition. He focuses on two staple grains, corn and rice. Corn, a major US export, is very sensitive to relatively minor increases in temperature, threatening the US Corn Belt. Rice, a staple for much of the poor tropical regions, is also vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Notice as you read Brown how the perverse trends reinforce each other in these poor tropical areas.

Global warming threatens the global food supply. Meanwhile, world population increases. Brown seems to warn us that the intersection of global trends magnifies the potential devastation which might be less apparent if each trend was viewed in isolation--a disturbing thought. He concludes this section with a frightening scenario of sharp declines in wheat harvest in India while its population growth presents 500 million more mouths to feed.

More Destructive Storms

The destructive Hurricane Katrina cost the insurance industry about $200 billion. Munich Re, a powerful re-insurance company, has taken notice: They ultimately insure insurers, so they take a financial hit after storms hit land. They look toward the long-term and has become alarmed about the future of disasters. I recall that Munich Re hired Greenpeace Europe to assist in assessing the sustainability plans submitted by their clients. Like many corporations, they will take strong action to build limited sustainability in their operations.

Consider this. The St. Louis metro area Belleville News Democrat reported in an article, Insurance companies restrict coverage in more coastal areas, on October 1, 2006:

During 2004 and 2005, a record $75 billion in insured losses was reported, including $45 billion from Hurricane Katrina, according to a study by Ceres, a national coalition of investors, environmental groups, and public-interest organizations.
Not only that, but insurance companies, faced with unprecedented payouts because of devastating back-to-back hurricane seasons, are restricting coverage in a growing number of areas, especially along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from Texas to Maine. ..As a result, in Louisiana and Florida, more than 600,000 homeowners' property policies have been canceled or not renewed in the last year, the study says. And in Massachusetts and New York, private insurers have canceled coverage for more than 80,000 coastal homeowners the last two years, even though it has been decades since the last major hurricane hit the region.
Marsh and AIG have launched carbon-emissions credit guarantees and other renewable-energy-related insurance products that are allowing more companies to participate in carbon-offset projects and growing carbon-emissions trading markets. The carbon-trading market in the European Union alone is expected to hit $30 billion by the end of 2006.

As you contemplate all this, recognize that Brown does not simplify global dynamics, but we must be alert readers to piece together the complexity that he presents. In this section, he looks at the insurance industry. Next up, the oil and gas industry.

Subsidizing Climate Change

Brown generally refrains from commenting on policy remedies as he sets the agenda in the first section of the book, but he reveals an essential dilemma here. Yes, global warming is actually subsidized by public policy, although the public has little realization of this. That is, the government pays corporations, or forgives taxes and royalties, to do what clearly appears to be the unsuitable behavior. The fossil fuel industry (oil and gas, again) are provided $210 billion worldwide--even as their product contributes to global warming. Entrenched special interests ensure government support such as relaxed environmental regulation and tax breaks. Meanwhile, renewable energy, such as wind and solar, get practically no subsidies or policy direction.

The oil and gas corporations donated (invested?) $181 million in campaign contributions in the U.S. from 1990-2004. Consider the implications of what Brown says:

That such profitable investments are possible is a measure of the U.S. political system, particularly the capacity of those with money to shape the economy to their advantage.

The automobile industry gets, according to Brown's sources, $257 billion per year, about $2,000 per taxpayer. Yet the automobile culture appears unsustainable: The true costs are unaccounted directly, rather externalized as social costs, such a pollution, land use, and public health issues. Brown concluded:

One of the bright spots about this subsidization of fossil fuels is that it provides a reservoir of tax deductions that can be diverted to climate-benign, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, and geothermal sources of energy.

Brown does not indicate how this political overhaul can take place but his prescription appears intriguing. What do you think?

Throughout the book, Brown will point to how such perverse subsidies have formed what I call an obsolete and unsustainable industrial policy, even though the proponents of free markets eschew industrial policy in favor of open markets. Such distortions in economic and environmental policy are revealed throughout Plan B 3.0. Be alert to them.

Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | Initialized: 11/7/2006 | Last Update: 5/29/2008