Why the Debate Over Global Warming is Academic

Steeling Myself For Inevitable Controversy

I am currently in the middle of writing a chapter on global warming for my book. This actually marks the deepest I have ever delved into the science of global warming. My approach is to explain the science behind global warming; explain which parts of the science are definitely settled, but then also explain why some people have doubts.

Of course this debate is so bitter on both sides that merely explaining why some people have doubts is bound to be characterized negatively by some who insist that there can be no doubts. But I can’t overly concern myself about that. I realize that my position is bound to be misrepresented by some. All I can try to do is clarify it as well as I can. My goal is to present information, not try to argue whether global warming is a clear and present danger or an overblown myth.

As I wrote the chapter, I created my own graphics. Some of them are quite eye-opening, and I want to share one of those here. The graphic below shows why I characterize the debate as academic.

Percentage of Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the U.S., EU, and the Asia Pacific Region

Developing World Will Dictate Global CO2 Emissions

The U.S. and EU have reduced their global share of carbon emissions as well as their overall amount of carbon emissions over the past decade. There are several reasons for that, but the demand drop due to rising oil prices played a big role. However, the reductions have been totally swamped by increases in the Asia Pacific region. That same trend holds true for Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America (and I have created a graphic that details the carbon dioxide emission growth for each region). The Western world can debate and discuss all we want, but carbon dioxide emissions are going to be dictated by the developing world. In fact, all carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. and EU could go to zero, and it would only take us back to where emissions were in 1994 — and they would still be rapidly increasing.

Carbon emissions are declining across the developed world, but most of the world’s population resides in the developing world. Overall carbon dioxide emissions in developing countries are already higher than in the developed world, but per capita energy usage is very low. Thus, it is extremely hard to imagine any scenario other than carbon dioxide emissions that continue to increase at least until fossil fuels simply become scarce/unaffordable. This will largely be driven by countries like China and India that have huge populations who crave better living standards. Try to convince India that they have to reduce their carbon emissions when the average Indian consumes a fraction of the energy of the average Westerner, and they will probably laugh at you.

The Goal Of My Book: A Real-World Assessment

What I am doing with the book is trying to explain why things are the way they are, and predict where I think things are going. This is very different than presenting an idealistic version of how things could be in the future (there are plenty of books that do that), or speculating on far-reaching protocols or renewable energy breakthroughs that reverse the increases in the developing world. The latter is the approach many authors take, and yet for all the idealism not only are carbon dioxide emissions increasing, they are accelerating. My goal is to accurately predict the future. Whether that future is desirable is another matter entirely.

By characterizing the debate as academic, I don’t mean to suggest that the situation is in any way unimportant. I certainly think it’s possible that there will be devastating consequences as global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. But the reason I think it’s academic is that regardless of how much we debate it, global carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise for reasons I lay out in the book, and that are evident in the graphic above. I view the debate over carbon emissions as akin to debating how to stop the arrival of an impending hurricane. We won’t in fact stop that hurricane because that is beyond our control, so what we really have to do is plan on how to ride it out and deal with the aftermath. I would argue that global carbon emissions are also beyond our control because they are being driven by individuals who use very little energy (although they collectively use a lot), but who will use a lot more if given the opportunity. That is the reason those emissions will continue to rise.

Note: This week I am attending the 2011 Gasification Technologies Conference in San Francisco. Next week I will be presenting at a conference in Brasilia, Brazil, and the first week of November I will be speaking at the 2011 ASPO-USA Conference in Washington, D.C. If any readers happen to be attending these conferences, please look me up.