The Problem of Extrapolating into the Future
It has become the general consensus among most scientists that man has played some significant role in the changing of the climate. My purpose in this article is not to tackle the scientific aspects of climate change or to dispute the role of fossil fuels produced by man. For the purpose of this argument, I will accept the proposition that man has caused at least a significant role in altering the global climate. By extrapolating current trends of CO2 emissions, one can quickly fall into the trap that the only hope for the survival of the human race are heavy government regulations on fossil fuels. This interweaving of the government with the energy industry may appear necessary to avoid certain calamities. On further investigation, there are already market pressures and technological advances in the works that are likely to completely alter the course of climate change in the future. A simple extrapolation of emissions cannot be taken as truth without considering the significant impacts that technological improvements in the energy industry are likely to have on emissions in future decades. The sky may be starting to fall on climate change, but our improvements to solar, wind and other burgeoning energy technologies will change the future outcome of this problem. We do not live in a technologically stagnate world. Extrapolating our current rates of CO2 emissions into the future is laden with fallacy and assumes that there will be no change in the CO2 producing industries. The changes and improvements in the past decade alone have staggering implications for the future.
The Climate Problems we could Face
The continued burning of fossil fuels by power plants and automobiles produce gasses which act as an insulator for heat in the environment of earth. This contribution of gasses is responsible for an estimated 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in the planet’s average temperature over the past century. The five hottest years on record have occurred since 1997, and the rate of rise in temperatures is projected to increase significantly by the end of the 21st century.1 The primary threat faced from rising temperatures is a continued rise in the sea level of the oceans. If all of the ice currently held at the North and South poles was transformed into liquid, major coastal cities globally would be inundated with sea water. Although this would be a very gradual rise in sea level, the end result doesn’t look promising, particularly for large cities near or slightly below sea level (New Orleans).
Another potential consequence from climate change could be an increase in the strength of storms such as hurricanes. Tropical cyclones at their point of origination start out as a broad cluster of enhanced thunderstorms over the ocean. If conditions in the tropical region are primed, over time this cluster will acquire rotation and develop a center of circulation. Once winds reach 74 mph, the storm is officially designated a hurricane by the National Hurricane Center. Hurricanes are rated based on their maximum sustained wind speed, which is correlated with damage to land and structures once the storm reaches land. At the upper end of the scale, these effects are said to result in “catastrophic” damage. Ocean heat content is a major contributing factor influencing how strong a cyclone can become. It is the fuel that sustains a storm. If it’s not adequate and to an appreciable depth, the storm will not increase beyond a certain point due to energy limitations. Ocean heat produces the energy that a storm thrives off of, so an overall increase in temperatures will likely lead to increased heat energy available to these storms. One area that I’m not aware of much research being done in, is the effects of climate change on the wind shear (changing of winds with height) in the environment. High wind shear tends to inhibit developing tropical cyclones by preventing them from extending their structure into the higher levels of the atmosphere. To my knowledge, it has not been adequately studied what effects climate change could have on wind shear. Stronger cyclones are a potential result, but all the data is not yet in on this.
Why Government should not be looked to as a Savior
An overlooked aspect of this debate is that government involvement in the enhancing of industrial pollution has a long history. American courts in the early 19th century began lessening the ability of property owners to sue nearby polluting factories for damage to their fields and land. These rulings went against the previous common law tradition of allowing land owners to sue for violation of their property rights due to pollution. Instead of allowing land owners to sue companies for damage to their property caused by pollution, courts systemically ruled against these suits in the mid-late 19th century. The pollution was protected from lawsuits unless it was unusually high compared to other factories. The argument put forth by the courts went as follows:
Sorry. We know that industrial smoke (i.e., air pollution) invades and interferes with your property rights. But there is something more important than mere property rights: and that is public policy, the ‘common good.’ And the common good decrees that industry is a good thing, industrial progress is a good thing, and therefore your mere private property rights must be overridden on behalf of the general welfare.2
Thus, the precedent became set that would allow industrial factories to pollute with near impunity in the US for many decades to come. This early decision by the courts has undoubtedly had an effect on the current problem of climate change caused by CO2 emissions. No one would have been able to foresee this effect in the 19th century, and this is only one example of why it is counterproductive to interfere with the private property rights of individuals.
Another problem of looking to government for these solutions is that even if the American Government is able to levy regulations against carbon emissions in the US, the negligible effect that this will have on global emissions. The problem caused by climate change is, by definition, a global phenomenon. If we look at the estimated rates of CO2 emissions by country, we see that China is far above any other nation, due mainly to their increased industrialization in recent years and a very large population. In fact, Chinese emissions account for 28.6% of total global emissions of CO2 gasses in 2012. The US is a much lower second with 15.0% contribution.3 Other, poorer nations in the world will undoubtedly be increasing their level of contribution to emissions as their economies develop. Therefore, only controlling US emissions will not be sufficient to control the long term effects produced by climate change.
Some proponents of regulation will be quick to argue that, based on these facts, we need some type of global enforcement of emissions standards. This would be unwise, inefficient and a bureaucratic nightmare to achieve. Giving a single organization global regulatory power is not a desirable outcome and not conducive for the advancement of individual liberty nor privacy. Governments that have tried to manage on a large scale suffer from the inefficiencies of bureaucracy. One needs only to look at the failures of governmental management in the 20th and 21st centuries and the disastrous results large programs have achieved.
One of the primary responsibilities of government is to protect their citizens from threats, foreign and domestic. This responsibility was cast aside as the 20th century saw mass murder and the destruction of economic capital on an unparalleled scale. Resources were funneled into this destruction that could have been used in productive ways by the market. Markets were diverted to producing the goods of war (ammo, weapons, tanks etc.) that for the most part ended up being destroyed or having no other legitimate use once the wars were finished. Our trust should not be placed in government officials to manage a global system of emissions regulation. History has shown that large governments can’t be trusted to reliably cooperate with each other.
On the domestic front, the repeated failure of governments to manage their economies argues against their success in controlling the climate change problem. Considering all of the recent chaos in the economies around the world following the 2008 crisis in the US and the widespread recognition that central economic planning is a failure, can we seriously consider the possibility that governments can successfully avert the problem of climate change? No. Politicians are largely inept, government regulators ineffective and interventions are damaging to the market economy. Don’t fall into yet another trap in believing that the government can help get us out of the mess.
The Advancement of the Energy Industry
There are literally hundreds of advancements going on in technology currently that will affect the energy industry in the near future. I will focus on just a couple of these to make the case that these advances will likely be so revolutionary that, in a few decades, the threats posed by global climate change may be relegated to a mere footnote in the history books. Indeed, there are already strong societal and market pressures to shift away from traditional fossil fuels as a primary energy source for humanity. Established interests may be able to hold off the shift for a while, but what happens when solar energy becomes the most cost effective means to power a home or business?
Enough solar energy hits the earth on a daily basis to fulfill all of our energy consumption needs for an entire year. Solar as an energy source has remained largely inefficient and costly over the past decades, but recent advances are looking to increase efficiency and reduce the cost of panels. One top solar researcher working on the problem is Martin Green of the University of New South Wales in Australia. Green is working on the prospect of using a new material to help resolve the problem of costly solar. The material is composed of perovskites, a calcium based mineral that has a long history but only recently was implemented in solar panels. Perovskites are incredibly cheap and their use has the opportunity to revolutionize the solar industry by creating panels that are around one-seventh the cost of conventional silicon based panels. To emphasize the improvement that the use of these materials represents, silicon based panels require a 180 micrometer thickness while the new cell uses less than one micrometer to capture the same amount of sunlight. Their efficiency has risen to 15%, which is far higher than other cheaply made solar cells.4 Improvements will be made to these cells in future years, and their efficiency is likely to rise much higher. More breakthrough technological advances in solar will be coming in the next few years.
Another development involves batteries and the problem of storing energy from wind at night, when usage needs drop. Up to this point, there has not been a battery that can retain large amounts of energy for longer than a few minutes. It would be a great advance if a battery were developed that could retain the energy produced by wind farms at night. Harvard University researchers have developed such a battery. The technology is based on an organic molecule known as quinone. Quinone, derived from plants like rhubarb, is much cheaper than the metal ions currently used in battery storage. The work at Harvard represents the first demonstration of a high performance flow battery that uses organic molecules. Flow batteries store their energy in large, liquid filled tanks and have been too expensive in the past using conventional metal ions. The cost of storing the energy needs to be around $100/kW hour for long duration storage to be economically feasible, and researchers are closing in on this target.5
We have seen that government, when tasked to act as a savior, often oversteps it’s bounds. The climate problems facing the world will not be solved or significantly altered by US regulations. An increased regulatory burden on businesses in the US will have unintended consequences and slow the progress of the changes that need to take place in order for the market to shift from more pollution favoring industry to a sustainable energy solution. If technology advances in solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy are not allowed to have their full impact on the markets, this transition could be delayed. The free market is the single best force for driving innovation and technological revolutions in the past and present. Don’t look to government bureaucrats and regulators for answers to the problems we face.
1. Climate Change Impacts. http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/urgentissues/global-warming-climate-change/threats-impacts/higher-temperatures.xml
2. The Libertarian Manifesto on Pollution, Murray N. Rothbard. http://mises.org/daily/5978/The-Libertarian-Manifesto-on-Pollution
3. Trends in Global CO2 Emissions, http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/news_docs/pbl-2013-trends-in-global-co2-emissions-2013-report-1148.pdf
4. A Material That Could Make Solar Power “Dirt Cheap”. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/517811/a-material-that-could-make-solar-power-dirt-cheap/
5. New Battery Material Could Help Wind and Solar Power Go Big. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/523251/new-battery-material-could-help-wind-and-solar-power-go-big/