Sunday, February 25, 2007

Why not wait to deal with warming?

Suppose you could press a button and magically make the CO2 level of the planet anything you wanted it to be, at zero cost, knowing it would stay at that level from then on. What would you set it to? Would you change it from what it is right now? I suspect most people wouldn't. We have a strong status quo bias. The prospect of change scares us, but we quickly get used to each new situation after change happens. So we are likely to think the current level of CO2 is fine.

Intuition tells me that even if the IPCC is right about everything, that will still be the case 10, 25 or 50 years hence. It may be warmer than now, but people will feel like they have adapted and are fine with it. They may still be scared about future warming, but won't feel compelled to "fix" that which has already occurred and become familiar.

If I'm right, the perceived magnitude of the problem - this notion that temperature now is okay but temperature in the future might be a problem - won't really have changed in 50 years. The benchmark level will have changed, is all. It won't be necessary to undo the change between now and then.

In 50 years, people will be much wealthier and will have much better technology available to them and will have much better understanding of the science and a longer, better observation record than now.

The "problem" of anthropogenic global warming is getting a bit worse over time (mainly due to population growth), but our ability to address it is getting better over time at a faster rate (due to population, economic, technologic, and scientific growth). Given that dynamic, the longer we wait, the easier the problem will be to solve. As it gets cheaper, it's likely the problem will eventually solve itself without anyone really noticing, just in response to changing social tastes and newer, less wasteful technologies naturally replacing older, more expensive ones.

Thus, my prediction. In 1900, there was an unstoppable "horse manure" problem; by 1950, there wasn't. Similarly: in 2000, there was a "global warming" problem; by 2050 there won't be.

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