Meet a maligned friend of the earth

1 April 2007

My defence of carbon continues unabated but let me switch attention for a moment from that precious element to one of its compounds, namely the one with which it is so often confused by demonisers. I refer of course to CO2.

Carbon dioxide, the pop publicist’s favourite greenhouse gas, is being over-hated. Let me cite that authoritative international business newspaper, The Financial Times, to which I so often turn for support on such occasions. One of The FT’s commentators (and a television economist), Tim Harford, contributed to the paper a generally delightful article, titled ‘Green taxes and posturing politicians’, in which occurred this arresting passage. ‘If we really cared about the planet we would recognise that CO2 is CO2. It does not matter where it comes from: it is all harmful.’

You and I probably share a conviction, conveyed by our scientific advisers, that the greenhouse effect serves a literally vital purpose. We believe that our earth’s surface is warmed by the absorption of solar radiation but that the surface temperature would stay well below freezing point if there were no greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Those gases, fortunately, absorb infrared from the radiation emitted by the sun-heated earth, so warmth is trapped in the atmosphere and does not escape from our planet. Life is possible on earth because the greenhouse gases make it so.

Not all CO2 is harmful, Mr Harford. There may be an optimal range of atmospheric CO2, but the best figure for CO2 content is not simply, unqualifiedly, zero. Friends of carbon dioxide – as well as of carbon – should leap to its defence.

Draw on all resources to save what’s left

I am perplexed by critics who think simplistic my musings on the alleged overdosing of the atmosphere with CO2. To me, the problem consensually supposed to be facing our species is twofold: how far should we try to reduce that overdosing and how much should we try to adapt ourselves to its consequences? In practice, and perhaps perforce, we shall probably have to stumble along, suffering some consequences, before attempting to deal determinedly with their causes.

Whatever we do we shall have to meet the costs, and I do not underestimate the economic aspects of the problem. However, in my horny-handed hard-hatted way, I do tend to dwell on the profusion of, at times, unforeseen, practical things that could have to be done as events unfold. Of course their costs would demand consideration, but we cannot hope to cure the overdosing anywhere near optimally (if at all) by poring over the finances first and then tackling focused science-plus-technology afterwards.

So it seems to me. But apparently there are people who believe that humanity’s uppermost echelons can attack the whole problem by setting financial scenes: in these, reliance is placed on fiscal fixes and other top-down positive or negative incentives to warn the public in general but to stimulate its creative activists in particular. Thus some administrations would airily ‘delegate’ precise practical action to industry and markets.†

An example is the institution of the European CO2 emissions trading market (cf MPS, Dec 2006, p55; Jun 2006, pp3, 8 and 48). Another, at least potential, example has appeared in an article in a well known politico-economic organ under the indicative heading climate change. The article itself was titled ‘A fixed-income solution to global warming’. I suspect that the authors were not truly or wholly responsible for the breathtaking claim implicit in that wording.

Their proposal was apparently intended to help developing countries that face changed-climate threats to food production, water access, energy supplies and health. The writers suggested that a new entity be set up to issue bonds that would be ‘collateralised’ by grants from developed countries. Central banks, religious groups, pension funds, charities and corporate social responsibility funds would, they believed, be among the investors keen to take up the bonds. As a financial aid mechanism such bond issues might for all I know be worthy and effective. But ‘a solution to global warming’ they are not.

Finding some of the money is only part of finding the solution to a civilisation-sized problem.

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